Meanings: Cynicism

“Everybody is cynical and few people are changing their minds. That’s the takeaway from the House’s impeachment hearings.”  That’s the opening sentence in a piece by Maggie Koerth on Five Thirty-Eight this morning. But what is a “cynic,” and what does it mean to be “cynical?”
Here’s a definition from The American Heritage Dictionary.  Note the emphases on selfishness and negativity.  (I don’t think of myself as a cynic, even when I’m at my most skeptical.)
cyn·ic  (sĭnĭk), n.
1. A person who believes all people are motivated by selfishness.
2. A person whose outlook is scornfully and habitually negative.
3. Cynic A member of a sect of ancient Greek philosophers who believed virtue to be the only good and self-control to be the only means of achieving virtue.


1. Cynical.
2. Cynic Of or relating to the Cynics or their beliefs.
The history of the word is what especially caught my attention, how it’s original meaning was grounded in virtue and self control, but no has come to mean “one who believes selfishness determines human behavior” — a nearly total reversal.  (Also note the derivation from dog-like at a time when dogs were not so warmly regarded as today.)
No one would accuse Trump (or McConnell or Nunes or Lindsey Graham of living lives grounded in virtue and rigorous self-control.
Again, from The American Heritage Dictionary:
Word HistoryThe Greek word kunikos, from which cynic comes, was originally an adjective meaning “doglike,” from kuōn, “dog.” The use of the word kunikos to designate the Cynic philosophers may make reference to the Kunosarges, an athletic training area where Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, is said to have taught the foundations of Cynic philosophy: that virtue, rather than pleasure, is the only good, and that virtue can be attained only through rigorous self-control. Alternatively, the designation kunikos may make reference to Antisthenes’ most famous student, Diogenes of Sinope, whom the people of Athens nicknamed ho kuōn, “the dog.” Diogenes himself seems to have accepted this nickname as an apt description of the life he tried to lead, stripped of all elements of civilization and social convention that he considered superfluous and detrimental to virtue. Diogenes lived without shame out of an old wine jar in the public spaces of Athens and went barefoot in the snow to inure himself to cold, all the while reproaching the citizens of Athens for their addiction to worthless pleasures and luxuries. Even Alexander the Great admired Diogenes’ determination and powers of self-denial in the pursuit of virtue. Once, when Diogenes was sunning himself outside, Alexander came up and stood over him. “Ask me any favor you wish,” Alexander said. “Stand out of the sun,” Diogenes replied. According to another anecdote, diners made fun of Diogenes at a banquet by throwing bones at him like a dog, and he responded by urinating on them. Tales like these have undoubtedly influenced the development of the meaning of the word cynic in English. When Cynic first appeared in English in the 1500s, it referred to the Cynic philosophers, but cynic and cynical were soon applied to anyone who finds fault in others in a contemptuous or sneering way. Eventually, cynic came to mean “one who believes selfishness determines human behavior”very far from an accurate description of the ancient Cynic philosophers practicing asceticism and poverty and occasionally trying to shock their fellow citizens into virtue.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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