Genealogy of Cynicism

American Cynicism, acrylic on canvas 24 x 36
“American Cynicism”, acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 36″


This blog will illustrate a nonlinear trajectory of the “cynic” from antiquity to the present that relies on the historiographer Mark Phillips‘ conception of “reframing,” a master metaphor for historical change that demonstrated cultural transmission as a technique of using and making. This is a less abstract, idealized or linear version of the historical path of ideas. Instead of an individualistic model of collective intellectual activities, this “reframing” has more to do with the institutional processes of collective discoveries and debates and accommodations. Thus, Phillips describes this path of intellectual discussion & discovery as reframing that stresses the re-use and reconfiguration & redirection of existing material instead of the original invention of new concepts and arguments. By turning this into a linguistic dimension of knowledge production in politics/history/literature, then innovation is mostly about tactical devices that reframe, recapture and redirect existing language and concept for personal use. Thus, our notions of modern and degraded cynicism inherits and practices this linguistic reframing as a moral redescription that changes value of a situation by redscribing it more or less acceptable to the reader.

Hellenistic Greece

The cynicism founder, Diogenes of Sinope is survived by a collection of anecdotes others recorded of him, instead of his writings. They describe rather colorfully the scandalous qualities practiced by the Cynic’s philosophy of life: shamelessness, mendicancy, parodic philosophizing, and fearless speech. The Diogenes of the anecdotes was a philosophical hero whose entire life exemplified the superiority of Cynic philosophy of virtue. Diogenes defaced every currency of conventional values of the day, whether it was for crowds listening to his speeches, or in the luxurious courts of the elites, or in the doctrines of philosophical rivals. As a philosopher, Diogenes practiced a harmony with his doctrines, allowing him to speak the truth as a parrhesiast, he who speaks truth to power, no matter the risk.

Roman Empire 

In Lucian’s satires of Cynics, a succession of anemic philosophical phonies competed with the truth-telling philosophical hero as the dominant image of the Cynic philosopher. In Lucian’s satirical portrait of the effeminate semi-Christian crowd pleasing Peregrinus Proteus, the modern cynic’s attributes turn up for the first time: fraudulence, intellectual opportunism, using elevated philosophical discourse to rationalize his behavior. His suicide shows what happens to the Cynic’s shamelessness when it’s no longer allied with integrity, self-sufficiency, or blends words and actions. No longer lived philosophy, it degrades into verbal philosophy, best used for haranguing crowds and leaping to death by fire.

Early Modern Period

The vernacularization of Cynicism, where the Diogenes anecdotes & Lucianic dialogues composed the rhetorical curriculum in English grammar schools. Only rhetorical forms and frames showed how the Cynic represented a salt-of-earth speech with tactical wit that was foreign to the imperatives of aristocratic lifestyle, civility and power. Anecdotes were repeated to represent the rhetorically trained counselor to address and improve his audience: the sovereign. Humanist fantasies portrayed the Cynic philosopher within a system of power and persuasion, the flattering paradiastole: the positive moral redescription. Also, this period had the displaced vernacular cynics & misanthropes who rejected rhetoric’s association of persuasion with power. Some were forced away from the court, others represented the collapse of the entire model of rhetorical power and agency. For instance, Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens demonstrated the irrelevance of both intellectual reflection and heroic action because persuasion had failed in Athens. This anticipated the modern disillusioned cynicism that lost all hope of solving social problems with reasonable political answers.

Collapse of Rhetoric 

The general collapse of inherited authorities during the Civil Wars led to the collapse of rhetoric. Thus emerged the burlesque cynic who saw himself above & beyond the conventional values of the post-Restoration era like modernity, progress, politeness, commerce & improvement. Freed from depending on the sovereign, the Cynic remained enemies of the indeterminate public (William Davenant’s puritanical Diogenes in First Day’s Entertainment). In Lord Lyttleton’s Dialogue of the Dead, Diogenes becomes a demagogue and leads a mob, and debated Plato to a Mexican standoff on the problem whether philosophers owe more obligation to the people or the ruler. The biggest factor of the transformation of the Cynic between the early modern and the Enlightenment period was the collapse of rhetorical humanism’s stratified face to face interaction and the replacement of the new post-rhetorical configuration of power and publicity demanded by a vernacular print culture.


By mid-18th century, Rousseau was a factor in the composition of cynicism in English, because he was equally accused of being a Cynic in both the premodern and the modern sense of the term. In the early Diogenical phase of his career, his radical critique of the luxury and effeminate qualities of culture led his contemporaries to link him to the rudeness, shamelessness or misanthropy of ancient Cynics. In his later period, Rousseau’s popularity as a writer of sentimental fiction and his public break with the philosophes generated a more exaggerated image: Rousseau the sentimental truth teller or Rousseau the liar and hypocrite. By the end of his life, his autobiographical writings, both parrhesiastic and temporizing, left all shocked and silent. Rousseau alienated his defenders by creating a self-image that challenged their sentimental and heroic idealizations of him. Detractors used his writing material to portray Rousseau as the modern cynic: atheistic disbelief, habitual distrust of others, shameless indifference to conventional morality and hypocritical gap between word and deed.

Defining modern cynicism 

Rousseau’s controversial life led to D’Israeli’s innovative use of the word ‘cynicism’ in the Quarrels of Authors. Disraeli created a psychological portrait of Thomas Hobbes, based on Rousseau’s criticisms of his fellow philosophes. Hobbes is a cynic not because he is rudely independent but rather a misanthropic enemy of the entire race who lucked into a position of tremendous power. Moreover, Hobbes was way too content with the powerful and too politically flexible to reach true philosophic genius. Thus D’Israeli’s portrait of the modern cynic isn’t just an impolite, but a selfish conformist who refuses to sacrifice anything for his ideals. Hobbes was a ‘polished cynic’ in the mold of La Rochefoucauld, Machiavelli, Chesterfield. They were all writers who successfully redescribed their societies in unflattering light. For D’Israeli, cynicism is not synonymous with philosophy or virtue but with petty and conformist self-serving behavior rationalized in elevated language. This cynicism no longer contains independent philosophic reflection or critique or even satirical abuse, but merely accommodation, self-serving and servile publicity to whoever was in power.

Cynical Dandies

The polished cynics and cynical dandies of the mid 19th century in regency Britain to the final modern 20th century cynical man. By the early 20th century the ensemble by Keenan has fallen into place: master cynics, cynical insiders and the cynical public. The dandies who based themselves on Beau Brummell introduced a new dimension to cynicism: a cool indifference to conventional codes of masculinity that was indistinguishable from polite accommodation. Oscar Wilde exploited this parodic and scandalous dandyism in his fiction and life, and that resulted in being called a bad cynic or a disbeliever and a dangerous example to the nation’s youth. After his prosecution and exile, the last reflective and aphorists disappeared in Anglophone writing, and cynicism became a regular feature in mass culture, entering the market of opinions as another disillusioned and disillusioning voice in Ambrose Bierce and H. L. Mencken. After 1913, when Webster’s Dictionary formally related cynicism to a universal self-serving or self-interest, the semantic development of the concept has arrived at its current status. Cynicism, no longer the exclusive possession of the philosopher, is now but the unreflective media expert. The talking head as cynical media insider is the perverse legacy of Diogenes’ heroic philosophy and Rousseau’s failed quest for autonomy. 

Published by


...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.

Leave a Reply