The American Cynic

Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut at least in the U.S.A. gave us the voice and stance of the American Cynic at large, satirizing our foibles, our politics, our stupidity; each in his own age provided us with that moral vision which is the primary source of the cynics pessimism and comic fatalism. True to the ancient cynics they provided laughter rather than tears, an honest appraisal rather than deluded lies. Without the voice of such cynics among us we’d be worse off than we are. Menippus and Lucian were the lights of that ancient temperament of satirical eloquence which would find its way down the pipeline of literature in every comic maximalist and encyclopedic satirist in history. These were the men and women who showed us who and what we are with unflinching appraisal, and would strip us of our delusions, deliriums, and false imprecations; deliver us up to the unmerciful derision of critical laughter, and yet with humanity and care would then show us by example the way of things and life, the honesty of being what one is as nothing, nothing at all. To be human is to forget one’s self and enter the poverty of spirit that brings us all to that equality of being together. A world where laughter and fellowship begin and end in honesty with one’s self and others.

We’ve been distinctive in my homeland for producing cynics of the caliber of the two above, along with Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken, George Ade, Sinclair Lewis, Ring Lardner, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman, Terry Southern, Lenny Bruce, Tom Wolfe, Jean Shephard, Philip Roth, Fran Lebowitz, Charles Portis, Donald Barthelme, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Dave Chappell, Robin Williams, and thousands of other writers, satirists, comedians, stand-up comics, cartoonists, essayists, and down home village cynics on the streets of every city in America.

The darkest of our cynics was Ambrose Bierce, a man who defined the pessimism of dark laughter as his approach to writing in his essay “To Train a Writer”: “He should free himself of all doctrines, theories, etiquettes, politics.” A writer, he averred, must “know and have an ever-present consciousness that this is a world of fools and rogues … tormented with envy, consumed with vanity, selfish, false, cruel, cursed with illusions …” Bierce, whose reactions to the world ran from ironic dismay to Olympian scorn, has always been easy to dismiss as merely a negater—a quality freighted with the implication of a poser. But Bierce’s cynicism could not have been more honestly acquired.

“Emerging from the charnel house of the Civil War, Bierce shunned any effort to invest the butchery with meaning—including the North’s smug myth of a Battle Cry of Freedom (still cherished by many contemporary historians, as it flatters their sense of their own righteousness). For him the war was nothing more—could be nothing more—than a meaningless and murderous slaughter, devoid of virtue or purpose. The youth who joined the ranks, Bierce would later say, was dead. But his ordeal gave birth to a lonely, stoic, and bitter rectitude, a sensibility that was the impetus of his career as a writer and—most lastingly—of his compressed, astringent prose style.” (see Benjamin Schwarz: Great American Cynic)

Without Bierce or Twain or all these others greats and those not listed the power of America’s darker traditions and counter-traditions against the optimism of the capitalist mainstream would have gone unchecked. At the heart of noir in the 40’s and 50’s, crime fiction from the 30’s onward, along with the stand-up comics throughout our modernity we’d of assumed the dreamlands of the upper-crust and utopian desires of the rich and famous ruled the day. Without the cynic to strip away the veneer and uncover the ugliness below the threshold of the American Dream the world would have thought we lived like Hollywood blockbuster Moghuls.

Yet, in this supposed Land of the Free there has always been a false form of cynicism, too. In our American Empire not unlike the mid-to-late Roman empire—“a colossal bureaucratic apparatus whose inner and outer workings an individual could not fathom or influence”—contemporary citizens of the West have grown so used to satire, so pre-programmed to roll their eyes at the next item that crosses the news ticker, that they have all become, in Sloterdijk’s terms, not kynics in the lost tradition of Diogenes, but cynics. They have become self-satirists. No longer a commitment to a new way of life, cynicism is a lifestyle, what Sloterdijk calls “enlightened false consciousness”:

Psychologically, present-day cynics can be understood as borderline melancholies, who can keep their symptoms of depression under control and can remaine more or less able to work. Indeed, this is the essential point in modern cynicism: the ability of its bearers to work—in spite of anything that might happen, and especiall, after anything that might happen . . . . For cynics are not dumb, and every now and then they see the nothingness to which everything leads. Their psychic apparatus has become elastic enough to incorporate as a survival factor a permanent doubt about their own activities. They know what they are doing, but they do it because, in the short run, the force of circumstances and the instinct for self-preservation are speaking the same language, and they are telling them that it has to be so. . . . Cynicism . . . is that modernized, unhappy consciousness on which enlightenment has labored both successfully and in vain. Well-off and miserable at the same time, this consciousness no longer feels affected by any critique of ideology; its falseness is already reflexively buffered.1

If we go back and reread Critique of Cynical Reason, beginning with Diogenes, a pattern emerges: both kynics and cynics are likely to be people who live on the periphery of a privileged space, who feel both secure and uncomfortable—secure enough to be uncomfortable. Sloterdijk acknowledges this, at least tacitly, but seems not to consider it worthy of much discussion: he never points out, for example, that Diogenes’s extreme behavior was tolerated, even celebrated, only because he was a free man, an educated and fully endowed citizen of the polis—albeit one from a provincial backwater, a kind of arriviste.2

For all the gloom attached to the word, wits of many periods have delighted in fashioning their own definitions of the cynic-sometimes an exercise in self-analysis. Oscar Wilde’s often-quoted quip has it that a cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing:’ H. L. Mencken sees the cynic as a person “who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin;’ and (Mencken adds mischievously) a “cynic is right nine times out of ten.” In Ambrose Pierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (originally titled The Cynic’s Word Book) , a cynic is “a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic’s eyes to improve his vision.” Other definitions understand the cynic as “a parasite of civilization, [who] lives by denying it” (Jose Ortega y Gasset); as “intellectual dandyism without the coxcomb’s feathers” (George Meredith); or cynicism as “the intellectual cripple’s substitute for intelligence” (Russell Lynes). More detached is the Oxford English Dictionary: “Cynic. A person disposed to rail or find fault; now usually one who shows a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and is wont to express this by sneers and sarcasm; a sneering fault-finder.” One would be inclined to go further than such dictionary definitions: the cynic is one who dismisses all “higher” ideals like justice, generosity, patriotism, love, and holiness as nonexistent, for in his view people are incorrigibly self-interested, and human nature essentially evil. At times, the cynic will act upon these principles and “cynically” employ any means for his own selfish ends: hence, Machiavelli and Hobbes are often spoken of as the cynic’s cynics.3

And, yet, for all the negative qualities the modern Cynic’s among us have taken on, we should remember that some cynics  like the great aphorists had a deep and abiding moral vision that showed us the power of the ancient credo. As Luis Navia will propound

Modern cynicism is characterized by a pervasive sort of ethical nihilism and by a permeating commitment to egoism, and is a social phenomenon from which any and every kind of human aspiration is lacking. Classical Cynicism, on the other hand, is based on a set of ethical and moral convictions, that, although poorly defined and indistinctly stated, can be discerned through the negativity apparent in its teachings and examples.4

More than anything it’s this oppositional quality between the modern nihilistic cynic and the Ancient Greek and Roman Cynical traditions that needs to be understood in our time. Most Americans assume the dark nihilist cynics as the purveyors and prophets of the cynic in our era without ever knowing the other more powerful vision of the ancient forbears. It’s this duplicitous vision that needs to be challenged and a reintroduction of the older, classical vision brought back into our world.


  1.  Peter Sloterdijk. Critique of Cynical Reason (Theory and History of Literature, Volume 40). Univ Of Minnesota Press; First edition edition (February 1, 1988)
  2.  Jess Row. American Cynicism. Boston Review: http://bostonreview.net/books-ideas/jess-row-american-cynicism
  3. William D. Desmond. The Greek Praise of Poverty: Origins of Ancient Cynicism. University of Notre Dame Press; 1 edition (January 30, 2006)
  4.  Luis Navia. Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study (Contributions in Philosophy). Praeger (October 30, 1996)

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