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Cynicism (Greek: Kυνισμός

) was originally the philosophy of a group of ancient Greeks called the Cynics, founded by Antisthenes.[How to reference and link to summary or text] The Cynics rejected all conventions, whether of religion, manners, housing, dress, or decency, advocating the pursuit of virtue in a simple and unmaterialistic lifestyle.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Currently, the word 'cynicism' generally describes the opinions of those who maintain that self-interest is the primary motive of human behaviour, and are disinclined to rely upon sincerity, human virtue, or altruism as motivations.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

History of CynicismEdit

The Cynics believed virtue was the only necessity for happiness, and that it was entirely sufficient for attaining happiness. The Cynics followed this philosophy to the extent of neglecting everything not furthering their perfection of virtue and attainment of happiness, thus, the title 'Cynics', derived from the Greek word 'kuon', 'dog' in English, was assigned them because they lived like dogs—neglecting society, personal hygiene, family obligations, pursuing money—to lead entirely virtuous, and thus happy, lives.[1]

Toward modern cynicismEdit

Nearly 2000 years after Greek philosophers embraced cynicism, 17th and 18th century writers such as Shakespeare, Swift, and Voltaire used irony, sarcasm, and satire to ridicule human conduct and revive cynicism. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary and cinema figures such as Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, H.L. Mencken, and W.C. Fields used both these modes of perception and other, new ones in communicating their low opinions of human nature. By 1930, Bertrand Russell—in the essay On Youthful Cynicism—was describing the extent to which cynicism had penetrated Western mass consciousness, and noting particular areas where there was much about which to be cynical: religion, country (patriotism), progress, beauty, truth. Certainly, the first half of the 20th century, with its two world wars, offered little hope to people wishing to embrace an idealism diametrically opposed to cynicism: that people can be trusted, have good intentions, are caring, decent, and honourable.

Many felt that the second half of this century was characterized by a general rejection of virtue and self-restraint, and toward materialism—particularly in what Pope John Paul II termed "the cynical society of consumerism" in his 1984 Christmas remarks. The same communications media whose advertising bolstered consumerism also occasionally promoted entertaining conspiracy theories, thus adding a new "hidden agenda" dimension to the cynicism of some.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

In recent decades, scientific study of human nature—one book's title characterized it as The Battle for Human Nature [Schwartz]—focused new attention on cynicism. In attempting to counter the widespread belief that "jungle ethics" and the associated competition, self-interest, and survival of the fittest are innate to the human animal, researchers looked for a genetic basis for co-operation and altruistic behaviour, and signs that human societal participation ultimately was built upon them.

In underscoring cynicism's wide spread in Western society, in 2005 Yale University researchers found that children, as young as eight years old, regularly discounted the statements of others as tarnished with self-interest.[2]

Cynicism in the work placeEdit

Cynisism in political psychologyEdit

See alsoEdit


  • Kohn, Alfie The Brighter Side of Human Nature New York: Basic Books 1990
  • Schwartz, Barry The Battle for Human Nature New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1986

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