Cynicism originally meant the life-style of the ancient cynics, a philosophical current of antiquity. However, the term has now assumed a different meaning in the use of language. Whoever is cynical is highly mocking and violates his fellow human beings with his thoughts and utterances by disregarding or even ridiculing their moral values as well as the social conventions. Cynicism is based on radical skepticism (critical doubts) and pursues the intention to recklessly reduce the values and truths of others. Cynicism is related to irony and sarcasm, although there are differences.
The term goes back to the Latin Cynicus, derived from the Greek word Kynikós (Κυνικός). This signifies a Cynical philosopher, and goes back to the Greek noun kynismós (κυνισμός), which can be translated with roughness. In this translation, the original meaning of the concept, referring to the doctrine of the ancient Cynics, sounded.
The Cynical philosophy is characterized above all by an ethical skepticism and needlessness. However, the doctrines of this philosophy are handed down only in fragments and anecdotes, which is why a precise definition is difficult, and in the modern age it is frequently confounded with other currents, especially Stoic philosophy. The majority of the sources also come from a third party.
Nevertheless, the main focus is on the pursuit of needlessness and naturalness, which also includes rejecting social and cultural values (eg shame, nudity, or possessions) that have been dismissed as conventions, that is, rules that are not necessarily fixed.
Cynicism in language usage
The term was subject to a change in meaning and is now increasingly negatively attested. In principle, the cynic is still ignoring the values of society or its norms, making them ridiculous, but at the same time mocking and contemptuously opposing its fellow human beings. It is not so much about individual expressions as about a Weltanschauung. An example:
“The country suffers from a growing number of retirees, for there are more and more old and less and less young ones who can retire their retirement. One could tackle the problem by refusing medical care to the elderly, so as to reduce the mortality rate to a normal level and keep the old man in check. That would lead to the relief of our generation. ”
The above example illustrates a cynical world outlook. The cynician is radical in his views and violates social norms when he rejects the fundamental idea that life is valuable in his statement. Furthermore, he clearly violates his fellow men – the older generation – when he brandes them as a ballast of today’s generation.
However, it is also seen that cynicism generally does not work in a concise utterance, but is always to be assessed in the context of a person’s perception of the world or a longer version. The recipient (reader, listener) of an utterance can only recognize the cynical when he knows the views of the orator, the statement is embedded in an explanatory context, or the recipient has the necessary background knowledge. Another example:
Cynic: “When I look at Africa, the clear rules and structures of slavery do not seem to have been the worst. After all, things were moving forward. ”
In this example as well, the cynic rejects social values of value and morality when, in the above statement, which is highly racist, mocking, and hurtful, the cynic makes a review of the development of Africa. The cynic, too, is radical in his views, rejects the prevailing view that people should be free and continue to violate their fellow human beings – in this example all the people who live in Africa and, of course, those who work for their rights.
Difference: irony, sarcasm and cynicism
If the cynical was recognized in the statement, it quickly becomes apparent that there is a closeness to sarcasm and irony. But even if the three concepts are related to one another and are partly similar, they can be distinguished. That is why we want to highlight the differences.
Irony: As a rhetorical stylistic means, it primarily means the fact that something is expressed by the contrary. It is important that the recipient is aware that this is the case. Otherwise, the ironic is misunderstood. It is therefore a common knowledge that the utterance is ironic, necessary. Irony uses the technique of meaning reversal and is a means to express something.
Sarcasm: Signs of mockery or mockery. Sarcasm can be expressed ironically when the opposite is said. However, he can also be completely free of irony. In contrast to irony, sarcasm is not a technique but an intention of the statement. This should clearly mock the recipient as well as ridicule. The mean can be expressed directly or indirectly.
Cynicism: In contrast to irony and sarcasm, describes a kind of mental attitude. Cynicism is not a technique but a life setting. A cynic rejects central norms and morals of society and makes them ridiculous. Cynicism is such a character. Who makes the values of other persons ridiculous, violates and ridicules them deliberately. Cynical remarks can, however, be sarcastic and ironic, which is why the distinction is difficult in individual cases.
Cynicism as stylistic means
Even if irony, sarcasm and cynicism are often mentioned in one breath or are understood as an increase, this classification is fundamentally wrong. Actually, they only have in common that all three of them are usually hurtful or mocking.
With regard to rhetoric, only one of the three terms can be regarded as a pure stylistic figure: the figure of irony. It belongs to the tropics. As a trope, a speech figure is called, in which there is a break between what has been said and what is meant. The speaker expresses something, but means something quite different. With the irony he means the exact opposite of the statement. Thus the irony is a stylistic figure.
Sarcasm pursues the goal of making a person or group ridiculous. It can be expressed indirectly, if he uses the irony, but can also be used directly. Thus, if sarcasm is ironic, there is also a break between what is said and what is meant, which can then be regarded as stylistic means. But if he is direct, he is not a stylistic figure, but an attack (cf. polemics).
Cynicism is a view of the things which throws social values overboard as well as conventions. Thus, of course, the cynician pursues the goal of making ridiculous the supporters of such values, and overpowering them with acrimonious mockery, but this too is not a stylistic device of rhetoric. Cynicism is a property, a view of life and can be expressed ironically or sarcastically – but not a stylistic figure. Friedrich Theodor Vischer, a German philosopher, put it this way:
Cynicism […] is a way of revealing, dealing with the filth, acting with consciousness in such a way that a certain accent falls on it.
Short overview: The most important part of the term at a glance
Cynicism originally described the life-style of ancient cynics. However, the term has now assumed a different meaning in the use of language. Whoever is cynical is highly mocking and violates his fellow human beings with his thoughts and his utterances by ignoring their moral values and the conventions
The cynical is related to irony and sarcasm. Nevertheless, there are differences. The irony is a stylistic figure that expresses the opposite of what is actually meant, sarcasm means the biting, bitter mockery of a person or group, where cynicism is a world view.
The effect of a cynical utterance is not clear. For the addressee, the statement is injurious and humiliating, whereby other persons can record the utterance as humorous or humorous. However, the limit is not clear.
The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, in his essay Critique of Cynical Reason (1983), attempted to define the cynic in modernism and concludes that it is “the characteristics of modern machination, the values of love , Truth, authenticity “to his” power and profit “.
Note: Very often, sarcasm, irony, and cynicism are mixed with each other in general language usage. However, there are features to differentiate the individual terms, even if a separation is not always clear or possible.