The Allure of the Cynics
Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY on November 1, 2009
Readings for “The Allure of the Cynics” from The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce
- Male: A member of the unconsidered or negligible sex. The male of the human race is commonly known (to the female) as Mere Man. The genus has two varieties: good providers and bad providers.
- Female: One of the opposing, or unfair sex.
- Religion: A daughter of hope and fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.
- Scriptures: The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.
- Saint: A dead sinner, revised and edited.
- Unitarian: One who denies the divinity of a Trinitarian.
- Universalist: One who forgoes the advantage of a Hell for persons of another faith.
- Minister: An agent of a higher power with a lower responsibility.
- Clergyman: A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method to better his temporal ones.
- Monsignor: A high ecclesiastical title of which the Founder of our religion overlooked the advantages.
- Love: A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder.
- Marriage: The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making, in all, two.
- Self-esteem: An erroneous appraisement.
The Allure of the Cynics
Mr. Ambrose Bierce is such a master of wit that we are tempted to applaud him. He is not just clever and not just witty. He saw the human condition the way a surgeon sees a patient, saw each human flaw as the surgeon sees the tumor. He has a facility with the verbal scalpel and he approaches the human condition with that scalpel in much the way a surgeon approaches a tumor that needs excising. He sizes up the terrain, isolates the disturbing tissue and approaches it with surgical detachment and inserts the weapon into the skin.
Somewhere in the transition, the scalpel is transformed into a weapon, but it still retains the elegance of the surgeon’s touch. Generally, there are no cheap laughs in The Devil’s Dictionary. Bierce is a cynic whose love for human possibility is deep. He is hurt to see it destroyed by fallible human beings who really should know better, but a fact is a fact and I’m just reporting them, Ma’am.
There are cynics and there are “Cynics.” The word comes to us from scores of centuries of use and evolution– or devolution. The philosophy of the “Cynics,” originated in Ancient Greece in 440 BCE. The word itself comes from the Greek word for “dog;” it referred to the supposedly “doggish” qualities of those who practiced this way of life– ragged, random, rough.
The philosophy of Socrates is fairly well known, as is his method of inquiry. The “Socratic method” calls for deep and repeated questioning of anyone who holds to an opinion– that is all of us, I imagine. Socrates was in some ways the ultimate Unitarian Universalist, not in his beliefs, but in his methods. If you told him that the gods were good, he would ask on what information you based that opinion. If you held to the accepted tenants of any orthodoxy, he would question you until, in Plato’s account, at least, your argument fell to shreds.
Socrates, as you’ll recall, was considered too dangerous to be allowed to wander the streets poisoning the minds of the impressionable youth. The stability of a society, so we are led to believe, depends on a conformity of thinking. A hemlock cocktail was the final beverage of this philosopher.
Antisthenes is considered the first of the ancient Cynics; he was one of Socrates’ disciples. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy states that “The major assault on ‘civilized values’ in the ancient world as being no true values was mounted by the Cynics.” They “rejected all conventions, whether of religion, manners, housing, dress or decency, advocating the pursuit of virtue in a simple and unmaterialistic lifestyle” as the author of our Wikipedia article on the Cynics states.
Not much is known about Antisthenes and what is known is open to dispute. Some classify him as thinking and acting along the lines of Diogenes; others say that there is no connection between the two. Diogenes, anyway, is the one who was later considered the founder of the school of thought and behavior. Stories of his life have come down to us most fully, through colorful anecdotes which, themselves, are of dubious authenticity.
Diogenes, as you’ll recall, wandered the streets of Athens holding a lit lantern, day or night. When asked for the object of his search, he answered “I search for an honest man.” Some would say, the search continues.
So little did Diogenes respect established authority, it is said that when Alexander, that master of war and achievement through the manly virtues, came to visit him in the streets of Corinth and asked what he could do to help, Diogenes’ response was, reputedly, to say “Get out of my light.”
When you consider the outlook of the philosopher, you have to believe that the response, apocryphal or not, had a deeper philosophical dimension than simply the literal. “Take the obstacle of your established traditions away from my line of vision, so I can be illumined by the clarity natural to the world.” It may have been literal as well, though, as it is reputed that Diogenes, for the sake of simplifying his own conventions to the barest, lived in a bath tub in the public square. Perhaps he was sunbathing at the time.
Diogenes is reputed to have revered the natural life, admiring the mouse that darts from hole to hole in the house in search of food as living a noble life within the limits given it. “Simply, simplify” was his motto before Henry David Thoreau was thought of. It is said (once again, the truth or falsity of all stories is in dispute) that Diogenes reduced his possessions to a cup, a cloak and a knapsack. When he saw a boy take a drink of water with cupped hands, Diogenes threw away his cup. He found himself at one point sold into slavery. When he saw a potential purchaser, he said “Sell me to him; he needs a master.” He then, so we are told, “devoted himself to bringing up his owner’s children in good health and spirits” (OCtP). Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, indeed.
One of Diogenes’ followers was named Crates. With his wife, Hipparchia, he abandoned a rich inheritance to live the simple life of a Cynic. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy states that Crates “left his fortune in trust, with instructions that if his sons were ordinary men, they should have the money, and if they were philosophers, it should be given to the people, as they, his sons, would have no need of it” (p. 173).
Crates himself was an inspiration for Zeno of Citium in Cyprus. When Zeno came across Xenophon’s account of Socrates in an Athenian bookstall, he asked the bookseller where he could find such a man. The bookseller pointed to Crates. Zeno soon abandoned the life of trade for good and set himself up in Athens in the Painted Portico known as the Stoa. He and his followers became known as “Stoics” because of their location.
The Stoic philosophy we have stereotyped as not only admiring the natural, but pursuing a studied disregard of pain, almost a kind of Buddhist detachment by way of Hemingwayesque machismo. As usual, there is more to the story. The Stoics refused to acknowledge the primacy of social mores in their philosophical development. Instead, they held such mores in deliberate disregard.
Professor Stephen Clark of the University of Liverpool puts it this way: Why not have sexual relations in the temple, really? Can private property really be defended as just distribution of wealth? Friends hold property in common. Should we not all aspire to be friends? Why not reckon everyone’s property as one’s own? They justified their thinking this way: “Owing no allegiance to the gods or customs of any little state, they could declare themselves as citizens of the universe.”
The wise are those who are friends of the gods. The gods, after all, own everything. But the wise will not use material things “to satisfy escapable desires” (Ibid.). So the Stoics, after all, challenge the status quo not to gain any significant advantage of power or material; instead, they want to control unthinking dependence and conformity of thought within themselves, so as to rise above the common herd by self-discipline and practice. Cynics evolved into Stoics whose thinking, if not motivation, falls not too far from the Buddhist’s path.
So how is it that the original School of Cynics who based their philosophy on discipline and rejection of easy answers lend their name to the philosophy that dictionaries describe as “an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity?” Professor Clark argues that the some of the blame “derives from the poor reputation of Cynics during the early centuries AD, described by such satirists as Lucian. But the major explanation” he says “lies in the natural assumption that those who despise our values must despise all values.” (I wonder if a little bit of modern-day cynicism lingers in that explanation.) Further, he argues, that “Cynics, like early Christians were reckoned misanthropes because they preached against class division, greed and enmity” (Ibid.).
The early Cynics of Ancient Greece held one value higher than all others. They called that quality “virtue.” “Virtue” is often defined as “moral excellence” and, unless codified in a set of rules or laws, such as the Ten Commandments or the Legal Code of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, must have a core that is strongly subjective. The Cynics of Greece inherited a tradition that held that all virtue could be known through four traits of character. These were prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice. Seneca, the Roman Stoic, held that prudence and virtue were indistinguishable, paring down virtue to a single quality.
What was meant by prudence? The Oxford English Dictionary tells us it is the “ability to discern the most suitable, politic, or profitable course of action, especially as regards conduct; practical wisdom; discretion.” The Greek Cynics, not holding to social mores would, I imagine, scorn courses of action that we would see as profitable in any worldly sense.
In terms of being politic, I can think of nothing less so than telling the leader of the empire in which you live to “get out of your sunlight.” (Though it must be added that when Alexander’s soldiers took exception to the bluntness of this response of Diogenes, that emperor is reputed to have said “If I could not be Alexander, I would want to be Diogenes.” There is some freedom in the autonomy of being to say whatever one wants.)
Prudence, for the ancient Cynics, then, means suitability in the pursuit of truth– to be neither too exacting, nor too casual in determining one’s course of action. Temperance, too is one of those virtues that stresses moderation– the Middle Path, as the Buddha would say.
Fortitude is that virtue that is indispensable for speaking truth to power. Indispensable for those who respect no temporal authority but their own judgment. The ancient Cynics, I imagine, spent a good amount of their time in discussion of virtue and its pursuit, with the understanding that virtue can be attained only by vigorous search and thorough examination. The pursuit of justice under such a system of philosophy would take into consideration such elements as the internal and external circumstances of the person being judged, that person’s philosophy and the conditions surrounding the circumstance of the actions held for judgment. Thoughtful, balanced, wise– not the considerations we expect of the “cynic” as we understand the word these days.
One of the common understandings these days of “cynic” is “one who believes everyone is motivated by selfish motives.” If that is the case, count me as a cynic. Of course, I don’t see myself that way. Everyone is motivated by selfish motives, yes, but most folks are motivated by a stream of considerations, some selfish, some altruistic, some defensive, some confused, some unclear even to ourselves. For me, a clearer definition is that a “cynic” is one who believes that others are solely motivated by selfish concerns.
These days, when I think of “cynic,” I think of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter and Oliver North on the far right of the media stream and Bill Maher and David Letterman and– more and more– Jay Leno on the left of the media/entertainment stream. I think of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz politically. I’m sure the left has its share of cynics as well. What these personalities share is a tendency towards divisiveness. The understanding is that each of us is a solitary individual at battle against an array of other solitary individuals.
The cynical media exploits our fears in this way: Someone is out to take our rights so we better make sure that doesn’t happen. Cynical politics says that Our point of view is correct, so distortion of evidence to convince others to act in our interest is permissible. After all, if we don’t, the other side sure as hell will, so we’d better beat them to the punch. Cynical entertainment breaks persons down to one quality– whatever weakness they’ve shown in the past week– and pretends that there is no more to the complexity of being human than that one flaw of character. It is a dangerous tendency, and it is profligate and it’s what spurred me to address this cynicism in today’s discourse.
To be cynical means to tear things apart because you are convinced that they will not hold together. To be hopeful means to mend and repair and do what we can to soothe wounds towards healing and to urge the human community towards self-knowledge. It is not hard to be cynical.
There’s an awful lot of hard reality to look at that seems to say: You can’t beat me, humanity, I’m too much for you. You think you can tame the beast that lusts to burn carbon? Good l uck to you on that one. Hey, those melting polar icecaps, maybe they’re just an illusion. Anyway, hey look, it opens up shipping lanes so we can do more self-destructive exploitation of mineral reserves. When’s the last time you jumped into a creek to swim? How is that bratwurst treating you? Enjoying that burger? Let me tell you something about burger…
What is humanity’s response to the taunts of the reality of secular life? Sometimes it helps to laugh. Sometimes it helps to jump into that pool of rich cynicism and let it wash over you. If everyone else is in the pool with you, maybe it’s even therapeutic on the order of: Let’s take the challenges of life seriously, but ourselves not too seriously. It’s really true that we’ve got to come up with a new paradigm for living, not just because we are interested in self-improvement, but because the alternative is passivity pooling to despair.
A conversation with the minister of the Jamaica Plain church in Boston a few years back. My response to one of his remarks prompted him to say, almost in shock: “That’s just cheap cynicism!”
“No,” I said, “that’s well-earned cynicism.”
Life is hard. You can count on a head cold once a year at least, allergy-producing coughing, cars that are running out of gas, cars that are broken down, computers that won’t work properly, telemarketers being telemarketers, a stray pain in the neck, some periodic lower back pain, the gutters that need cleaning, that bill that still needs to be paid, that utility company that’s still billing you too much, your child’s third fall of the week, your cousin’s embolism, the news that your first girlfriend has cancer, the nest of wasps you forgot to clear out, your wife’s refusal to speak with you and you don’t quite know why, that broken lock in the cellar that you were going to look at yesterday except the dog… Oh yes, you still have to clean up that mess from where the dog got sick. And then you take a fall when going down the cellar stairs to get the bucket and the ankle is broken—yep, in two places and no one’s home so you have to drive yourself to the hospital and you don’t have crutches yet.
Would anyone care to adopt a posture of cynicism?
Cynicism believes that each of us is alone in the world and all its decisions proceed from there. Unfolding hope believes, too, that each of us is alone in the world, but each of us is also in community as we choose to be. The church community is holy community because we come together in voluntary association. We come together because we think there is value in being together, there is value in singing together, there is value in talking with one another and listening and deliberating and discerning and believing some things and disbelieving others. And enjoying a cup of coffee and a muffin and a dish of fruit and being civilized together. Taking the time to plan our message to the community and carrying out that message by our work together in the community.
Maybe some of you are familiar with the Mormon Church’s website “Times and Seasons.” Probably not. It’s described as “A Place to Gather and Discuss Ideas of Interest to Faithful Latter-Day Saints.” In an article there “Jim F.” makes this statement: “Faith requires trust in something that is, in some meaningful sense, uncertain.” For him, that is God or the community sustained by God.
One uncertainty for us is the degree of the strength and richness and resource of this congregation. And yet we put our faith in it because we know that there is strength and richness and resource. To what degree? To the degree that we build our faith by the healing we encourage, the hopes we stitch together, the steps we take together, the actions in which we engage. Temperance, prudence, fortitude, the pursuit of justice. Qualities to consider as a religious community of Cynics. There is hope enough and time if the present moment is always a moment precipitating action.
Ambrose Bierce was born in 1842. I first came across his work when I read a short story of his in high school called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a haunting tale and macabre. He was the tenth of thirteen children. His other siblings were named Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Arthur, Adelia and Aurelia. He enlisted in the Union Army at the age of 18, was commissioned First Lieutenant at the age of 19. He fought at the Battle of Shiloh and was forever after traumatized by it, though that word would not have been used in that day.
He sustained a serious head wound at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. He was discharged from the army in 1865 and rejoined in 1866 to inspect military outposts. He became an newspaper columnist, journalist and editor. He wrote short barbs that ornamented his newspaper columns. Later they were collected as The Cynic’s Dictionary, later called The Devil’s Dictionary.
He married Mollie Day on Christmas Day in 1871. They had two children whom they named Day and Leigh. Both of Bierce’s sons died before him. Day was shot in a brawl over a woman we are told. Leigh died of pneumonia as a result of alcoholism. Bierce separated from his wife in 1888 after discovering compromising letters to her from an admirer, and the couple divorced in 1904. Mollie died the following year. Bierce suffered from asthma all his life and his health after the war was always compromised because of complications from war wounds.
Bierce was famous in his lifetime, prominent and influential among West Coast writers and journalists. He wrote dozens of short stories still in print. In October of 1913, he departed Washington for a tour of the battle fields of the Civil War. In Ciudad Juarez, he joined Pancho Villa’s army as an observer. In this way, he witnessed the Battle of Tierra Blanca. He accompanied the Army as far as Chihuahua. A close friend received a letter from him dated December 26, 1913. He was never heard of after that. [All this from Wikipedia.]
Every cynic, like every other person, has a story to tell, a life that has been led and lessons to be learned. We need to heed the wisdom of the cynic without yielding to cynicism ourselves. We are not alone, after all. Here we are, together.
- The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce
- “Cynics” in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy
- “Santa-God and the Second Naivete” from “Times and Seasons” website
- Wikipedia articles on “Ambrose Bierce,” “The Devil’s Dictionary,” “Cynic,” “Cynicism”