Why We Need Cynicism Now

Molly Anne Rothenberg
Tulane University

Reading David Mazella’s study of cynicism, The Making of Modern Cynicism (Virginia, 2007), during the presidential election of 2008 made it possible for me to tolerate (barely) the daily lies and shenanigans, because it helped me find value in political activity designed to destroy public discourse and independent thought.   Repeated descriptions of the self-interested and attention-seeking, “celebrity” nature of Obama by McCain; the calculated exploitation of the irrationality of her supporters by Palin; the wanton repetition of dangerous and exploded lies by Fox News; Obama’s positioning of himself as the anti-cynic, the apostle of hope and collective action–these maneuvers ceased to seem like the deadening political theater to which we have been treated for decades and began to emerge as a large-scale object lesson in the complexities of cynicism.

How is it possible to regard cynicism as anything other than a wholly negative political attitude?   Mazella begins by defining political cynicism as “a drastic redescription of our experience that reverses existing political and moral valuations” (7).   Cynicism is dangerous because it has the power to “spread the contagion of disbelief”: it works like an acid to dissolve three cherished political assumptions about the efficacy of collective action (7).   First, cynicism points to the unintended consequences of actions and derides our belief in our ability to rationally assess those consequences or plan for them.   Second, it attacks the stability of institutions–our means for solidifying collective decisions and projecting them into the future–as “unthinking resistance to time, opportunity, or circumstance” (6-7).   Third, it recasts valued political concepts that link agency with emotional satisfaction into empty or degraded terms: intellectual autonomy, for example, is treated as nothing more than knee-jerk skepticism.

Nonetheless, Mazella argues, there is a critical value to cynicism’s attack on our beliefs in progress and reason because it forces us to examine the assumptions on which they rest.   Cynicism “points to the often unspoken limits of political discussion” (5).   What is more, cynicism as we know it today is not the cynicism of old.   Mazella’s book is dedicated to the possibility that a historical examination of cynicism will provide us with the means for recognizing and countering the effects of modern cynicism.   He wishes to find the resources for a firmer basis for political persuasion to productive collective action.   Such resources are difficult to find, in large part because cynicism is a complex phenomenon.

Drawing on the work of Peter Sloterdijk, William Chaloupka, and Alan Keenan,[1] Mazella describes different types of cynicism that interact in an “ensemble effect,” composed of master-cynic, insiders, and powerless public.   The master-cynic exploits the irrationality of the public, whom he hypocritically urges to practice beliefs he himself does not hold.   He relies upon the workings of insiders, shamelessly indiscreet shapers of public opinion, to put enough of his cynicism on display to corroborate the public’s sense that all politics is power-seeking, and in this way fosters public cynicism.   The disempowered public becomes actively hostile to government and at the same time alienated, thereby further disempowering themselves.

Mazella points out how this complex dynamic takes different historical forms.   His analysis reveals how the ancient Cynic tradition gradually became transformed into its modern moralized and psychologized form.   By taking morality out of the equation, Mazella finds that we can identify the conditions that make cynicism likely to take hold.   Through his “genealogical” approach, he seeks to undermine our sense that the modern world is irrevocably deadlocked in a pervasive cynical stalemate, a world in which publicity and power reinforce each other in a seemingly unstoppable “cycle of disenchantment” (221).

The book lays out this program in an acute and beautifully argued introduction.   The body of the book traces how the Cynic philosophy invented by Diogenes–premised on cosmopolitan reason, devotion to the improvement of the polis, and moral self-regulation–was transmuted into its diametric opposite, the self-interested and power-hungry exploitation of public irrationality.   In some measure, the changes that would be rung on Cynic philosophy into modern times derive from the complexities of Diogenes himself.   Rude, opinionated, and independent, Diogenes also was a model of intellectual honesty, temperance, and public service.   Take away the commitment to those latter values, and we begin to discern the outlines of the modern cynic–someone who tears down the current order simply as a sop to his vanity, someone who derides all political activity as nothing more than a means to acquiring power over others.   Under the regime of new communication technologies, like vernacular languages and print media, Diogenes’s rhetorical stance–what Michel Foucault calls “parrhesia,” or speaking truth to power, no matter what the personal risk–came to be seen as a pose that could be adopted for demagogic purposes (27-32).

The book’s argument takes us from Diogenes and his reception in the ancient world, through the early modern English appropriation of the figure of Diogenes, to the crucial example of Rousseau as the hinge upon which the ancient and modern version of cynicisms turn and the Burkean counter-Enlightenment reaction to Rousseau.   Mazella then turns to the development of a form of cynicism related to dandyism in the late nineteenth century and closes with an epilogue on the use of cynicism as a critical political resource today.   If they confined themselves to reading the Rousseau and Burke chapters, scholars in eighteenth-century studies would be rewarded with extraordinary insights, but they would miss out on a tour de force of scholarship and an argument whose complex components work like clockwork to illuminate the changing facets of cynicism.   More than that, Mazella’s view of each age through the prism of these transformations turns out to afford a precise analysis of what is most significant in the intellectual debates of the time.

Let me give just one example from the bounty offered by Mazella.   It turns out that a focus on the appropriation of Diogenes, both as a figure of approbation and of scorn, clarifies the relationship between Burke and Rousseau in more complex ways than most of us have appreciated.   Consider first Burke’s “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly” (1791), where Burke both reiterates his defense of prejudices against Jacobin Enlightenment principles and offers an analysis of Rousseau as a politically dangerous cynic.[2]   Once the National Assembly resolved to commemorate Rousseau, Burke found it necessary to depict Rousseau’s personal vices, most notably his selfishness and lack of feeling (as instanced in his abandonment of his own children), because Rousseau had become a public model and hence a political danger.   Calling Rousseau an “insane Socrates,” Burke explains that Rousseauan cosmopolitanism offers only an abstract universal benevolence, one detached from immediate social relations, such as those embodied in prejudice.   At the political level, this unnatural posture would be unbelievably destructive.   What is more, in Burke’s view, Rousseau’s Confessions reveal his philosophical positions to be mere hypocrisy. So, Rousseau’s own adoption of the Cynical attitude of being willing to take the personal risk of going against convention stands exposed as nothing more than a mask:   Burke is at once faulting Rousseau for being too cynical and for not being honest in his cynicism.   Mazella thinks that this letter is most interesting for its assumption that the Rousseauan vices could be transferred to the entire body politic.   Strange as it may seem, in Burke’s eyes, Rousseau’s distrustful misanthropy was likely to be imitated: this communicability multiplies the dangers of cynicism.   As Mazella puts it, “Once again, the Cynic had become equated with what he had once tried to oppose, in this case corruption, falsity, artificiality, hypocrisy, and vice” (160).

Now comes another turn of the screw.   In “An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs,” after his forced retirement from the Whig party in 1791, Burke chooses Diogenes as his model of an independent philosopher.[3]   Mazella, who seems to have read every reference to Diogenes, argues that this is “the last serious, rhetorically based humanist” portrayal of Diogenes.   Comparing his situation to that of Diogenes–who when he was condemned to exile from Sinope, retorted that he condemns his enemies to live in Sinope–Burke remarks that the Whigs have done nothing more than confirm the sentence “which he had long before passed upon himself” (160).   Mazella astutely reads this comparison:

In light of all his other statements about prejudices, the episode of Diogenes and the Sinopeans’ mutual condemnation is noteworthy because it shows that Burke finally does acknowledge that political affiliations, at least at the level of party affiliations, can legitimately arise from individual choice.   This departure from his usual position on prejudice might have occurred because his exclusion from the Whig party had forced him to consider not just national loyalties but also the question of how party loyalties were to be regarded in the context of national conflict.   In a rare moment of openness in Burke’s post-Revolutionary writings, the local views of a community and its settled prejudices do not trump those of its outsiders and excluded . . . .   In his moment of crisis, Burke was glad to have the example of Diogenes before him, in order to remind his former friends and allies of the pettiness and provinciality of their exclusions . . . .   Prejudice has indeed triumphed, and Edmund Burke was forced to embark upon a new career as a cosmopolitan and exile. (161-62)

Burke, the great anti-Cynic, taking Diogenes as his model and comfort!   In this brief example, we see the fruits of Mazella’s admirably attentive approach.   Not only do we find a richer interplay of discourses in Burke’s assessments of Rousseau, but we also find a more complex–and more explicable–Burke.   And that’s not all: Mazella goes on to read the response to Rousseau and the development of modern cynicism through William Godwin’s Fleetwood , Isaac D’Israeli’s portrait of Thomas Hobbes (which brings to an end the Enlightenment debate about the philosophes and consolidates the modern equation of cynicism with power and publicity), Lord Byron’s Childe Harold , Beau Brummell, Thomas Henry Lister’s Granby , Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Pelham , Margaret Oliphant, Henry Beecher, and Oscar Wilde.

This book’s elegant prose, its learning, and its careful parsing of philosophical position with rhetorical strategy enable the reader to absorb the twists and turns of the fortunes of cynicism with a sense of lively engagement.   If the book has a weakness, it may be the underdevelopment of the interesting model of the “ensemble effect” of master-cynic, insider cynics, and public.   Sometimes the invocation of this model adds clarity and depth, but sometimes it seems forced.   Although the model has its own merits, I found the value of the book to lie elsewhere: its detailed scholarship, its fresh analyses, and its broad scope.   This book revitalized my understanding of the relationship between classical and Enlightenment philosophy.   It makes available occulted tools for thought.   You can sense Mazella’s own growing excitement with each discovery, and that excitement becomes contagious.   Texts you thought you knew well reveal unexpected dimensions: their purposes and connections stand out with greater clarity.

Mazella’s return in the epilogue to the theme of public engagement to articulate the conditions for combating cynicism is both refreshing and empowering.   He reminds us that “the word-spinning of degraded insider-cynics is oftentimes the only trace we have of the self-seeking behavior of the powerful” (223).   In what could stand as a rebuke to ?i?ek’s latest work (although ?i?ek is not mentioned here), Mazella makes a crucial distinction between political action and political language: those who attack cynicism without making this distinction

betray their impatience with the vagaries of free discussion, which they figure as an empty delaying tactic designed to forestall genuine action or change.   In such attacks, the cynical disbeliever passively toys with words, while the committed and active believer insists that discussion case and the real action begin with his own words . . . .   The public’s impatience or disenchantment with the messiness of genuine discussion can only lead them to embrace the one political actor able to act unilaterally in this system, the master-cynic untroubled by others’ scruples.   This may be one reason why popular discontent and cynicism often do not lead in the direction of progressive reforms, as one might expect, but toward a still more conservative embrace of those who already project power and authority.   (224)

He is making a case that what we might call “active cynicism”–along Diogenical lines–has an important role to play in sustaining the openness of public discourse.   It has been a long time since I have read a book that left me feeling so nourished, so grateful, so optimistic.


[1]   See Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason , trans. Michael Eldred, (Minneapolis, 1987); William Chaloupka, Everybody Knows , (Minneapolis, 1999); and Alan Keenan, Democracy in Question, (Stanford, 2003).

[2]   Edmund Burke, “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly” [1791], Further Reflections on the Revolution in France , ed. Daniel E. Ritchie (Indianapolis, 1992), 48.

[3]   Burke, “An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs” [1791], Further Reflections, 76 .