Beyond Cynicism and Idealism

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

What is the meaning of cynicism? In the case of artists, either a totalizing form of ineffable despair or a fully ironic attitude devoid of any meaning or true regard; in the case of philosophers and scholars, a paralyzing skepticism that allows no claims of truth or of good and sinks the skeptic into doubt; in the case of the student, one more reason to remove one’s self from society, a touch of ressentiment against any true believers that becomes an attitude, a fashion, a posture; in the case of those unwilling to adopt a stance of full engagement with life’s complexities (the majority of mortals), an attempt to see themselves as unable to enter into the world, to manage its travails or to effect any change, a bulwark against the soul-sucking potential of existence; in the case of pundits, that attitude which must be tossed over in favor of idealism, should someone with an apparent glimmer of conviction come along, and their modus operandi, their justification as interpreters and experts; in the case of the idealists themselves, that thing against which they stand and decry against, and in so doing assume that all others are base, which is to say, that thing which they too possess, their ultimate fear and their primary motivation.

That cynicism has meant so many things to man, however, is an expression of the modern will, its retreat from meaning or conviction: it rejects a goal, and so will rather abandon willing at all than to risk willing. Are we understood?…Have we been understood?…”Not at all, my dear sirs!” – Then let us start again, from the beginning.

What is the meaning of cynicism? Who cares? Our point exactly! In our world and on our campus, people hold dear political opinions that range from the dark brooding cynic to the raving naïve. Cynicism truly is a shelter; where those among who find themselves to be “jaded” because of their being “alienated” by the political process or the government at large run to hide. It’s entirely understandable why we should seek a shelter, to be sure, no matter what that shelter may be. A cursory glance at what we might call the Age of Cynicism, the twentieth century, reveals belief as something to be shattered in the First World War, something to give ideological fuel to the Second World War and the Cold War, and ultimately the source of the conflicts we college students have known in our years of political awareness. To have conviction is to engage in the culture wars, and to be without it is to be disgusted. There’s still poverty and pollution, there’s still war and terror, there’s still graft and corruption– there are clear enough motivations for retreat and for the stance to have a belief is to invite disappointment.

The problem with cynicism is not that it is a retreat or that is has a touch of cowardice in it, but that it disallows any civically virtuous action. One cannot have an effect on the polity when one decides to remove oneself from it because of some hurt feeling or some infantile sentiments of rejection. Cynicism is analogous and closely related to a logic of defeatism, something not befitting the productive and active citizen. It’s a little like Pascal’s Wager, but instead of taking a gamble on the existence of God because then you might get to Heaven, it’s putting the chips down on your own ability to be an effective actor in concert with your fellow citizens because if you believe you can effect positive change, you just might.

Let us be moderates, however; let us not ignore the vices of the other extreme. On the opposite end of the spectrum, unbridled belief in authority or ideology, a lack of self-examination, and a lost sense of reality, something experienced all too often both on this campus and elsewhere (though the ideology or authority may differ greatly). This is also a foolish track; optimism is wonderful when correct, but crippling and harmful when undue. And optimism can be wrong, like when faith is put in places undeserving of trust. All that glitters probably really is gold to the idealist, when to the cynic gold can only exist for the fool. The cynic looks upon the sincere as either naïve or merely faking it for personal gain, while the believer scorns the disbelief and ill will of the cynic. It truly is an unbridgeable gap.

Sometimes you’ve got to take a leap of faith, but that doesn’t mean you go jumping off of every cliff you find. And that decision, the decision as to which chasms are possibly traversed, is made by a capacity of humans that Aristotle called practical wisdom (phronesis) and that Thomas Aquinas called prudence (prudentia). It’s the ability, given time and experience, to identify – not based on any formula or universal rule – when it is proper to trust and when it is proper to be wary. Really, in many cases, you ought to take action with a bit of each in mind, while also allowing a bit of a room for humor – earnestness need not mean humorlessness.

So don’t tell us that cynicism makes the world livable; if we were all “jaded” we would not do anything but sit around telling ironic jokes, subtly communicating our visions of a perfect world. There is no perfect world, and with that recognition we will neither be consumed by dreams of what it would be or by the gap between us and it. It’s not that everything will be beautiful only once we are dead and gone, but rather that there is beauty to be had now, and actual effective work to be done. But the coupling of faith and doubt necessary to make the improvements within our power, collectively, are missing. We really won’t get perfection, but we need not resort to pessimism either – we might, however, just might, be able to achieve a little bit of progress. And that’s not nothing.

The Phoenix

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