Becoming a cynic is not an indication of a failure of character, or an anomalous individual event in today’s culture, for it is actually symptomatic of modern culture. Cynicism is essentially the result of the Enlightenment, which spelled the end of Christian dogma by destroying its ideals, absolutes, truths. As the Enlightenment progressed in its demystification of ideals, nihilism emerged form its wake. But one ideal was spared: the subject, which grounded all critiques and including positive ideas like Kantian ethics.
Prior to the Enlightenment, Christian metaphysics was true (i.e., the bible holds truths, the word of God, etc.). But the Enlightenment brought to the end to all that with critiques that decimated these aforementioned absolute truths. However, where the enlightenment has been a “melancholy science” (pace Adorno) it only exacerbates melancholy. We need something that doesn’t depress us and sinks us into cynical reasoning. We need a new critique that’s also a gay science, as opposed to the sad sciences of the enlightenment that took away all the ideals we used to believe in. Sure, this critique is also an attack, but it holds an attitude against making people miserable or depressed.
We have become cynics – people who are part of institutions or groups but we no longer see their existence/values as absolute or necessary, and we’re miserable due to the enlightenment because we maintain principles we don’t hold. All we’re left with is our trust in reason. But this can never give us the solid ground for action. Thus misery abounds.
The next part of my analysis applies to many of us, particularly me and my best friend. My best friend was a happy, optimist whose ideals in liberalism knew no peer, that is, until he went to college and found out all the clay in the feet of his idols. He’s now a staunch cynic. Our very education ensures that we end up as cynics. This has to do with the contradictory role we’re taught at school/university. We learn about a wide variety of lifestyles and moreover, that they’re based on a metaphysic or religion, yet at the same time we learn that none of these metaphysics or religions are justified. In other words, we get the opportunity to lead different lifestyles, but not one that’s truly justified. Therefore, we’re left with the option to act without convictions.
The more education one gets, the more variety there is to be had, and the less certain one becomes in his life. That explains why cynicism is prevalent among the upper and middle classes today. Cynics are also people in position of authority, and they don’t even believe in their position. They’re priests, atheists, metaphysical philosophers, Marxists, scientists, anyone who subscribes to some abstract ideology. They all have the same problem: their ideologies have been already destroyed by the critiques of Enlightenment. Thus, none of the representatives of such ideologies believe in what they’re doing anymore. Yet, they continue to behave and talk as if they were utterly convinced of their positions and that ensures misery. Our daily engagement results in nothing but pessimism, depression or indifference. None of us have any passion for a miserable life of futility.
What could be the solution to such pervasive cynicism?
The natural objection is to insist upon the upside of the Enlightenment, such as social welfare, human rights, and medical technology. Indeed, they have brought a great deal of relief and good to our lives. Nonetheless – we still no longer have anything that gives meaning to life, and there’s no authentic worldview to justify our lives. Only a meaning of life or a worldview provides fulfillment to life, no matter how much technology progresses. Hence, cynicism reigns everywhere.
In his classic, Critique of Cynical Reason, (CCR) Peter Sloterdijk proposed an alternative to cynicism – for cynicism is but a contingent response to the nihilism of our times. Being aware of the critiques of Enlightenment isn’t the problem. It’s the response itself. In other words, cynicism is not necessary. The alternative is kynicism (Greek for cheekiness).
The ancient Greeks had a type of argumentation that confounded dignified thinking, such as crude actions like picking your nose while Socrates spoke about the divine soul. Or vulgar actions like farting, which was Diogenes’ response when he first heard of the Platonic theory of ideas. Diogenes meant something when he masturbated in public to answer Plato’s theory of eros.
This sort of cheekiness is found in all kynics action, and distinguishes the attitude of kynics from the cynics. They both are similar in having an enlightened consciousness. But Sloterdijk claims the enlightened consciousness of the cynics is false, because their consciousness brings misery. And on the other hand, he claims the enlightened consciousness of the kynic is correct because of they are cheerful, life-affirming, and cheeky as well.
Sloterdijk notes that there are two positions to cheekiness: predominant power and dissentient power. In ancient Greece, kynicism expressed “naked arguments” from the dissentient power with bodily functions. The kynic had no compunctions about farting or shitting or pissing or whacking off in public. He demonstrated complete and utter disdain for fame, as he ridiculed sacred places, insulted respectable people, parodied legendary stories, ate improper food, and though nothing of frolicking in disreputable company. The infamous Diogenes told Alexander the Great to get out of HIS sun.
Such actions (farting, pissing, and picking one’s nose) are supposed to be private and taboo. If these conventions are broken it’s considered cheeky. The problem is that nowadays, cheekiness has become negative. Sloterdjik claims that “cheeky” has gained a negative connotation only in the last few centuries. In Old High German, cheeky actually meant a “productive aggressivity” i.e., “brave, bold, lively, plucky, untamed, ardent” (CCR, p. 102 – 103).
Life-affirmation, as in laughter & celebration, is related to Kynicism. These actions contain implicit reflection that isn’t expressed verbally but with bodily arguments. It’s interesting to note that, as Sloterdjik points out, both Socrates and Plato had trouble relating with Diogenes. So Plato ended up slandering him as “Socrates gone mad.” Despite his intent, that was actually the greatest praise. A famous anecdote has Alexander the Great saying that he would like to be Diogenes were he not Alexander.
Only the kynical attitude can effectively foil idealism because of three reasons: it contains the wisdom of ancient philosophy and the realism of materialism and the composure of farcical fidelity.
Much like cynicism, kynicism is a realist position that rejects idealism and its absolute truths. But unlike cynicism, which renders people unhappy because they are still members of the institutions they themselves no longer believe, the kynics are happy, cheerful, and cheeky. Neither do they belong to hierarchically ordered systems or social institutions.
You may be objecting that defending kynicism is a callow and spurious idea, because these kynics seem not to do anything practical. We’re supposed to earn money to buy the food to eat, drink, and have a place to sleep. In order to make money, we have no choice but to join a social system, and they’re always organized hierarchically. So being a kynic and live is not possible today. Sloterdijk has answers at the ready: there were three institutions that practiced kynical cheekiness: the carnival , the universities and the bohemian lifestyle. “All three function as safety valves through which needs that otherwise are not given their due in social life can achieve a limited release. Here, cheekiness has had a space in which it has been tolerated, even if the tolerance has lasted only a short time & can be rescinded.” (p. 117)
These neo-kynical institutions, according to Sloterdjik, no longer perform their roles today. Society has mutated to a level of seriousness that its outlets for “lived enlightenment” have become clogged. (p. 118) So, by reintroducing cheekiness and kynical lifestyle elements into society, we’ll make our lives more colorful, cheerful and cheeky. It may be a superior reaction to what the enlightenment has left us with than cynicism.
So, should we start farting in front of our bosses at the next company meeting?
No, that scornful remark is still a species of cynicism. If you are comfortable with being a cynic, then you will continue to feign interest, follow along and obey what you don’t believe in. One should resort to impudent or insolence in a comic manner, such as irony and sarcasm. Particularly when a typical politician is espousing the virtues of sacrifice while he’s lining his pockets with taxpayers’ money.