‘Cynicism is the only form in which base souls approach honesty.’
Nietzsche is not usually the first philosophical destination for those seeking assurance and life-affirmation. The great German existentialist has, in my view, suffered from overly simplistic interpretations that downplay both the humor and fierce intellectual commitment to truth-seeking that are the foundations of his philosophical approach. Too often we are left with the familiar portrait of a cantankerous old man that spent his life complaining about God and eventually descended into madness. This image has not been helped by the tragic way in which Nietzsche’s work has been co-opted by a range of individuals and political groups to justify violence. The Nazi’s were committed appropriators of his work. (1) A further example would be the high number of America’s high school shooters who have each been influenced by Nietzsche’s alleged commitment of a perverse sort of social-Darwinism. Even today, if I spot a long-haired youth on public transport wearing a trench-coat, I will automatically assume that he will have a copy of Beyond Good and Evil close at hand. All of this leaves us with an unfortunate and incomplete picture of Nietzsche’s life and philosophy.
One of the recurrent themes throughout Nietzsche’s work, and one of the areas in which he is so commonly misunderstood, is on the nature of cynicism. Cynicism, of course, is a philosophical school of thought that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, and Nietzsche clearly valued the cynical tradition as a core focus of his work. Writing in Ecce Homo (his final work before his descent into insanity), Nietzsche gives readers the definitive insight into his understanding of cynicism in his comment that (cynicism) is ‘the highest thing that can be attained on earth.’ (2)
For Nietzsche, cynicism is not merely a negative lens through which one views the world, but rather an active method of truth seeking, despite the consequences. As someone who is fairly consistently labelled a cynic by those close to me, I care about the nature of cynicism a lot and find in Nietzsche the most compelling expressions of true cynical philosophy. I suspect that what we mean when we discuss cynicism in contemporary times owes more to an avoidance of the reality of death than the truth-seeking so espoused by Nietzsche. To illustrate I would like to compare two forms of cynical expression, the first reflecting a more contemporary interpretation and the second a more Nietzschean understanding. I have named these ‘lazy’ and ‘active’ cynicism. These are just my interpretations so feel free to disagree.
The lazy cynic does not ultimately believe in anything, and so anything that professes belief elicits a negative response. The lazy cynic often thinks that they and they only have the necessary insight to see through the intentions of others, and that humanities true orientation is toward the selfish.
This view, although often accurate, is nonetheless lazy because it does not motivate the cynic to any form of action in response. It is marked by a passive acceptance of a perceived reality that finds its comfort and familiarity in cursing the world and its ills, for this is much easier than trying to think more deeply about issues. It is content to mock and curse the status quo without considering one’s own contribution to it. Finally, it is lazy because it does not encourage a self-reflection that might result in learning that we may be wrong in some of our assumptions.
In contrast, the active cynic does not just see what is but also what could be. In fact, a large part of the discontent felt by the active cynic is due to the fact that what is possible is so often not realized, resulting in a sense of powerlessness and disillusionment. The active cynic believes that things can and should be better than they are, and as such questions the motivations of others insofar as these motivations might prevent the fullest expression of truth and life. The fundamental distinction between the lazy and active cynic, therefore, lies in their differing visions of the future. The lazy cynic begins and ends at a place of apathy and hopelessness toward the world. The active cynic, however, begins from a place of commitment to truth and intellectual freedom, and will continually explore this and attempt to transform their world in spite of the negative realities of day-to-day living.
Active cynicism is, I believe, the kind that Nietzsche was so committed to. Throughout his complex and tragic life, Nietzsche remained intent on exploring, without fear, the implications and consequences of the human condition in all its grandeur and baseness. If this is cynicism then count me in.
(1) See: Keith Ansell Pearson. An Introduction to Nietzsche as Political Thinker: The Perfect Nihilist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 29-35.
(2) See: R Bracht Branam, “Nietzsche’s Cynicism: Upper Case or Lower Case?.” In Nietzsche and Antiquity: His Reaction and Response to the Classical Tradition, edited by Paul Bishop (New York: Rochester, 2004), 170.