On Being Cynical

Niccolò Machiavelli

Stefano Bianchetti / Getty Images

Is it acceptable, or just, or good for a human to be cynical? It's an interesting question to be entertained.

Ancient Greek Cynics 

Being cynical is an attitude that shall not be confused with subscribing to the philosophies of the Ancient Greek cynics. These comprised a school of thinking rooted in the disregard for any social convention in the name of self-sufficiency and freedom of opinion and of agency. While the term cynical derived from the cynics of Ancient Greek philosophy, this is by and large to mock those who displayed a cynical attitude. Yet there were also some analogies between the two, arguably. Cynicism is mix of disillusion and pessimism towards any affair involving humans; this often entails regarding human conventions as either doomed to fail or as existing not for the betterment of the human condition but to sustaining the interests of specific individuals. On the other hand, while Ancient Greek cynics may have been said to aim at attaining a good life, the cynical person may have no such goal; most often than not, she lives by the day and adopts a practical perspective on human affairs.

Cynicism and Machiavellism

One of the foremost cynical philosophers of modern times is Niccolò Machiavelli. In the chapters of the Prince examining the virtues that are proper to a prince, Machiavelli reminds us that many – i.e. Plato, Aristotle, and their followers – have imagined states and kingdoms that never existed, prescribing rulers to maintain behaviors that would be more proper to those living in heaven than to those who live on earth. To Machiavelli, moral norms are most often than not filled with hypocrisy and the prince is not advised to follow them if he wants to preserve power. Machiavelli’s morality is definitely filled with disillusion regarding human affairs; he had witnessed first-hand how rulers had been killed or overthrown for lack of a realistic approach to their endeavors.

Is Cynicism Bad?

Machiavelli’s example can help us to a great extent, I believe, to sort out the controversial aspects of cynicism. Declaring oneself a cynic is often regarded as a bold statement, almost a challenge to the most basic tenets that hold societies together. Is this really the goal of cynical people, to challenge the status quo and to possibly challenge any attempt to form and sustain a society?

Granted, sometimes cynicism may be directed towards a specific constitution; thus, if you believe that the present government – but not any government – shall be interpreted as acting for some interests that differ from the ones that are officially stated and that it is doomed to ruin, then those in government may regard you as their antagonist, if not an enemy.

A cynical attitude, nonetheless, may also be non-subversive in its intents. For instance, a person may adopt a cynical attitude as a mechanism of self-defense, that is, as a means to go by daily affairs without being hurt or negatively affected (from an economic or socio-political point of view, for instance). Under this version of the attitude, a cynical person need not have a grand scheme of how a government, or any government, works; nor does she need to have a grand scheme of how people operate; it seems simply more prudent to assume that people act out of self-interest, often overestimating their conditions or ending up being affected by bad luck. It is in this sense, I maintain, that being cynical may be justified, or even at times recommended.

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Borghini, Andrea. "On Being Cynical." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/on-being-cynical-2670600. Borghini, Andrea. (2020, August 27). On Being Cynical. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/on-being-cynical-2670600 Borghini, Andrea. "On Being Cynical." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/on-being-cynical-2670600 (accessed June 4, 2023).