Thinking can be like a three course dinner at an unknown restaurant in the country where each meal and morsel is a surprise and a treat, or it can be a quick bite at McDonald’s that satisfy the urge for the moment. I very much prefer the former to the latter, but it is the latter that gets all the press.
Aeroplane neighbours can be a bad thing, which I discovered on the flight back home where one particular gentleman that sat next to me would not stop offering his keen analysis of the world, its people, and the major trends.
Armed with the alcohol that the flight attendant kept bringing, while not being unseemly drunk, this man saw no reason for sleep, and let his mind wander over everything from the sorry state of South Africa since the ANC had taken charge, to the matter of the white flight from the country, and on to the state of youth these days.
While having a particular talent for pithy summary into one-liners, what struck me was the low-calorie thinking that was behind the utterances, and I realised that I was dealing with a cynic and not a sceptic.
There is a fair bit of distance, and misunderstanding, about the nature of scepticism and cynicism, if you ask me. Which you haven’t, but since this is my blog I’m going to tell you anyway.
The modern cynic is entirely negative, and lack the ability to move on from his starting place. If you look at it in a didactic way, the cynic declare that the thesis antithesis and synthesis are all corrupt and bad. There is no possible improvement (or degradation) between any state of mind or being, as all are equally bad.
If all positions and states are equally bad, then there is no point in progressing or retreating to a more beneficial place. The cynic then stands still, intellectually and physically, and can only pour another whiskey and complain more. Like my aeroplane seat neighbour at one A.M. somewhere over the African continent when I tried to get some shut-eye in the turbulence.
The cynic was not always like this. It started as an ascetic movement and gave us powerful philosophers in Ancient Greece: Antisthenes, Diogenes and Crates spring to mind.
For the Cynics, the purpose of life was to live in virtue, in agreement with nature. As reasoning creatures, people could gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which was natural for humans, rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, sex, and fame. Instead, they were to lead a simple life free from all possessions.
Modern cynicism does not include any of that, and is only about focusing on the negative. It does not recognise anything positive about ethics, history, human nature, or society. It is an intellectual dead end that freezes the mind into negativity.
By the 19th century, emphasis on the negative aspects of Cynic philosophy led to the modern understanding of cynicism to mean a disposition of disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions. Modern cynicism, as a product of mass society, is a distrust toward professed ethical and social values, especially when there are high expectations concerning society, institutions, and authorities that are unfulfilled. It can be caused or manifest itself as a result of frustration, dissatisfaction, disillusionment, oppression, persecution, and distrust perceived as owing to organizations, authorities, and other aspects of society.
I am not a cynic, and consider myself a sceptic which is quite different. The only need of a sceptic is to adhere to reason. Question everything, but if given reasonable proof a sceptic must adopt an intellectual position based on the proof. The observer has fallible knowledge, and if refuted the fallible knowledge must change.
Scepticism needs amendment all the time, and over the progress of the flight, this sceptic changed opinion quite a bit while the aeroplane neighbour cynic did not. I, the sceptic, reasoned myself from being cheerfully polite to being annoyed and furious.
The cynic happily chattered on throughout the night, damning everything from the sun and the stars and the moon to the most intricate things of human nature. The cynic did not change his spots, but the sceptic certainly did, and that makes all the difference.