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What We Need Are A Few Good Cynics

My limited understanding of Hellenistic philosophy suggests that cynicism originally developed as an approach to life intended to deliver happiness and freedom in an age of uncertainty.
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Maybe I got it wrong. Perhaps what we really need are a few more good cynics in order to make the world a better place. Of course, there's a twist to my thinking. Maybe what we need are real cynics, just not the ones who pass themselves off as cynics.

Recent articles of mine focusing on complaint, intolerance, and criticism, have engaged readers in a variety of exchanges. Those interchanges have ranged from the thoughtful interplay of ideas and differing points of view, to the captious arguments of those whose only apparent mission in life is to dismiss anything or anyone pointing a way forward.

Criticism, complaint and judgment seem so commonplace these days as to be indistinguishable from what passes for normal discourse. I say "passes for normal discourse" only because real discourse is defined as the capacity of orderly thought or interchange of ideas, typically in an extended interaction. Discourse today seems to have been reduced to barbs, slurs and sound bites, offering very little room for inquiry or the desire for understanding and relationship.

Over the past few months, many have written comments or sent email messages on this subject. Some have followed the ongoing line of ill-natured attack intending more to be argumentative than contributory to a dialogue. Others have offered additive thought, both from those in agreement, as well as from those offering differing points of view. My sister wrote last week, suggesting that I write something about cynicism, noting that we had been exposed to more than our fair share of both criticism and cynicism while growing up.

Her suggestion resonated, and I began thinking about the roots of cynicism in contrast to what it has come to mean in today's world. In today's world, someone who is cynical is said to be fault-finding and contemptuously distrustful of human motives. As Merriam-Webster puts it, the cynical hold "a sneering disbelief in sincerity or integrity." Perhaps you have encountered this brand of cynicism. However, that's not where cynicism started.

My limited understanding of Hellenistic philosophy suggests that cynicism originally developed as an approach to life intended to deliver happiness and freedom in an age of uncertainty. Summarizing from such scholars as Malcolm Schofield and Anthony Long, the principles of cynicism would include:

  1. Achieving happiness by living in harmony with nature is the goal of life
  2. Self-sufficiency and mastering one's mental attitude are fundamental to the process
  3. Living a life of virtue is required to achieve self-sufficiency
  4. Virtue is achieved by freeing oneself from such influences as wealth, fame, or power
  5. Suffering arises from false judgments of value which produce negative emotions and a malicious or spiteful character

Early cynics denounced property, wealth, fame and power and typically lived on the streets, or "in nature," untethered by the trappings of the material world. They were often likened unto dogs by their willingness to live on the streets and to "bark" at people who crossed their pathways.

I don't know about you, but achieving happiness and freedom in an age of uncertainty seems both timely and useful. However, many of today's cynics would appear to have abandoned life on the streets in favor of various trappings of the world while still barking at those with whom they would disagree. The cynics of today would appear to have become more critic than cynic. Rather than focus on improving life happiness and freedom, the modern critic-cynic seems more committed to finding fault than finding a path to improvement.

I'm sure the scholarly cynic-critic will be able to dismantle these words without needing to engage much of their intellectual ability. My lack of scholarly depth makes this easy pickings.

However, for those of us less interested in scholarly discipline or intellectual argument, I would suggest that we cherry pick from early cynicism to see if we might find a kernel of truth or value that might be helpful here in the 21st century.

If you resonate with the goal of living a life of happiness and freedom in an age of uncertainty and social, political and economic upheaval, then what is the way forward? Is there a way forward for you? For your family? For your community?

Is there one right way forward or might there be multiple options? To what extent is your happiness dependent on that of others? How do the choices of others impact you and your experience of life? How do your choices impact them? What are you pursuing in life? What do you hope to experience if you get there?

The answers are far more complex than the questions, and yet if you stay with the questions, you may find answers that fit more elegantly and simply than would first appear to be the case.

In many of my articles on the Huff Post, starting with this one two years ago on the difference between what we pursue in life and why we pursue it, I encourage you, the reader, to consider two key questions: what do you hope to achieve in life, and what do you hope to experience?

What do you tell yourself about the possibility of improving your life experience? Have you become your own cynic or critic? Are you a cynic seeking greater happiness and freedom in life, or have you become the critic-cynic more interested in finding fault and raising objections to possible ways forward?

As you gain additional clarity on what you want vs. why you want it, you may discover greater capability and power to create the kind of life experience you truly seek. You may also need to become some form of the modern day cynic in order to keep challenging yourself on choices you can make to bring greater happiness and freedom into your life and into the lives of those with whom you work and live.

Care to offer your thoughts?

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)

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