Never Mistake Cynicism For Wisdom
The Unhappy Man: Guiding Axiom #3
The following is the third guiding axiom for this newsletter, The Unhappy Man. It’s one of many that I hope to share in the upcoming weeks.
In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov has a point when he says, “Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth” (C. 5, Constance Garnett translation). Perhaps it’s true that men of higher intellectual acuity are more aware of the world’s tragedy and folly. So their contempt for the deluded masses, who’re lost in superficial vanity and worldly self-indulgence, probably has some warrant. But I wonder if those Nietzschean critiques, with their eruditeness and polemical virtuosity, tend to fall in love with their own ingenious. In truth, the highbrows rarely believe about themselves what Socrates declared of himself, “I neither know nor think I know” (Plato’s Apology 21d). Most casual, critical philosophising is merely one’s cynicism being projected onto the world masquerading as wisdom.
The only thing worse than a cynic is an accompanying sharp intellect to tantalise the cynicism. For instance, if we take happiness—something elusive for us humans—such a person refuses to believe that someone could be genuinely happy in this world. And is dismissive or even hates anyone trying to do so! They’d see a man who’s sincerely endeavouring to make something of himself as merely a show one puts on to please the cultural overlords, pusillanimously and slavishly living by an emasculating moral duty. For the cynic, the “ordinary person” playing his part as a steadfast citizen, fulfilling responsibilities towards his family, paying his dues to the divine without overtly theologising God and maybe even volunteering at a homeless shelter once in a while is all but puppetry. The cynic sneers at all of this effort and says it’s all futile and only for the credulous; they are in utter disbelief of sincerity and anyone striving towards the good; in their enlightenment state, they think of themselves as being beyond the trivialities of ordinary life and “basic morality”, despite being willing to even suffer for their cynical ideologies. But the irony is that a cynic is critical of everything and anything, but their hubristic cynicism—the cynical attitude of the heart always comes first and the rationalisation second. Whenever I encounter a cynic (which sometimes is someone I meet within my own soul), I’m reminded of what G.K. Chesterton wrote about the new rebel in Orthodoxy (P. 23):
“But the new rebel is a Sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book (about the sex problem) in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble. The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite sceptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.”
To explicate his sentiments: Chesterton writes not of his averseness or disdain of the revolutionary. But of the rebel who’s a cynic where his ideological affiliation’s merely a projection of an essential, spiritual attitude. And the problem with cynicism is that it becomes a lazy way to opt-out of life. Echoing a more contemporary religious thinker, Jordan Peterson’s sentiments, we’re met with an ultimate outlook on life: either everything one does matters which comes with the concomitant and crushing burden of responsibility; the striving man chooses this path and recognises that his striving, no matter how arduous and demanding, is meaningful and necessary. Or the other is nothing matters; therefore, one refuses to partake in life; this man is superciliously contemptuous of the striving man and his so-called higher virtues, which is too simple and naive; it’s only a matter of time when such a person’s cynicism becomes resentment, and they’ve created hell for themselves—he’d say better to be a king in hell than a slave in heaven. Funnily enough, I’ve begun to notice the latter type in the more cerebral, intellectual types, but that’s a whole other conversation. In any case, existential apathy and resignation cannot be a mere negation because being—which we all inescapably are—requires the void to be filled with something meaningful; free will itself is mostly a curse as one does not look into the Nietzschean abyss. But the infinite boundlessness of one’s possibilities which Kierkegaard called the “dizziness of freedom” that everyone confronts in life when we’re met with “freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility.” (The Concept of Anxiety, 1844) This is why the philosophers try to convince themselves that men are not free. Most of us are petrified of truly being free.
Having said that, I’m not as optimistic as Peterson or any other run-of-the-mill conservative. Unequivocally adopting responsibility, much like the striving man, ipso facto, cannot be the antidote to rescue one from the gazing abyss or the dizziness imbued by the endless possibility of possibility. I could see how most of us modern humans could be a Joesph K. or Gregor Samsa, stuck in a Kafkaesque nightmare, lost in triviality and vanity, doing meaningless, alienating work, knowing very well our life entails a nothingness but refusing to unshackle ourselves from the ideological chains as freedom hurts; Kafka himself wrote “I am in chains. Don’t touch my chains.” (The Metamorphosis)
Ergo, in typical absurdist fashion, I go even a step further from my previous claim of humans being lousy at being happy to conclude that we’re equally or even lousier at finding meaning despite being the only known beings in the universe that yearns for it desperately. The predominant ideologies and modes of being prescribed to us by the wisest of men, i.e. Stoicism, revolt or rebellion, adopting responsibility, piety, cosmic resignation, Sartrean radical freedom, the postmodern notion of existence precede essence, etc., are inadequate for the human heart. While there are pronounced ways to be unhappy, miserable, loveless and meaningless in life, there’s no ideal predestined way to be happy, content and live meaningfully. In that case, I have no choice but to be wholeheartedly happy for the happiness of another, even though it may seem ludicrous to me. I ought to never assume someone’s happiness is a sign of inauthenticity or, God forbid, naivety. And indeed, this means never to mistake my cynicism for wisdom.
If the ideas I discuss in this newsletter evoke your interest, please consider subscribing.