Cynicism and the Search for Meaning

Note: This is the third installment on a long-dormant series of posts in which I reflect upon various heresies. Today's subject is cynicism; the modern cynic often tends to combine one or more formal heresies, or more broadly to reject three important ideas: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. I should add as a final note that I am here reflecting upon modern cynics, which are loosely based on the cynics described by Fr George Rutler in his essay for Disorientation: How to Go to College without Losing Your Mind, and not necessarily as the Greek philosophers such as Diogenes and Antisthenes (though these do have some things in common).

"Jesus answered: My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would certainly strive that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now my kingdom is not from hence. Pilate therefore said to him: Art thou a king then? Jesus answered: Thou sayest that I am a king. For this was I born, and for this came I into the world; that I should give testimony to the truth. Every one that is of the truth, heareth my voice. Pilate saith to him: What is truth? And when he said this, he went out again to the Jews, and saith to them: I find no cause in him" (John 18:36-38).

As a general rule, heresy involves taken a single true doctrine or set of true doctrines and either rejecting them or overemphasizing them to the detriment of all other doctrines. Today's heresy, however, is not a heresy in the proper and particular sense, but rather is a type of attitude which lends itself to heresy, and indeed is a more vague kind of heresy. In fact, in a certain sense, it is an attitude adopted along with certain other attitudes or heresies, upon whose shoulders it stands. Cynicism might be described as the combinations of modernity (and post-modernity), moral relativism, and iconoclasm with a decided--indeed even and intentional--lack of charity.

Thus, before I can describe cynicism, I must at least briefly describe the ideas or habits-the elements--of these other ideologies which the cynic borrows for himself. The modernist may once have begun as a man in search of truth; but he rejected revelation as a source of that Truth: rather, truth must fit within the world described by logic and reason. The post-modern, in seeing that logic and reason did not always agree with the way things are, concluded that there must be no truth. In a like manner, the moral relativist concludes that because logic and reason at times conflict with human pleasure and emotion when searching for the Good, there must ultimately be no good and evil. As for the iconoclast, he dismisses beauty, destroying the images and statues, and then later all art, architecture, and even music: for if there is no true beauty, then utility must rein supreme.

The modern cynic takes all three of these rejections and runs with them. Be he nihilist hipster or aloof academic, he has rejected Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. This rejection may be passive, the cool indifference of the hipster, or the sad resignation of a Pontius Pilate. Or it may be very active, rolling about with all the fury and passion of the original iconoclasts, selling its soul--intellect and conscience alike--to seek employ with the eagerness of the original sophists, and perhaps engaging those who hold that Truth is transcendent with the tenacity of a Marx or the madness of a Nietzsche--or of a Stalin or Hitler.

Whatever else he is, the modern cynic is not charitable--nor does he desire to be. His preferred expression is the sneer, and his creed is to mock all other creeds, in particular the traditional ones. He holds, with a twisted and dark sense of irony, that "There is no Truth, and I detest it. There is no Goodness, and I revile it. There is no Beauty, and I despoil it." If he is feeling especially thorough, he will add "There is no God, and He is a deplorable tyrant." There is no right, there is no such thing as honesty, and all traditional values are especially wrong.

That the cynic's creed refutes itself is evident, though he does not allow this to bother him. After all, if there is no Truth, it cannot be detested; if there is no Goodness, it cannot be reviled; and if there is no Beauty, it cannot be spoiled; and a God who isn't there can't be deplored, nor can He be a tyrant. Finally, if there is no "right"--no Truth and no Goodness--then "especially wrong" is especially meaningless. The cynic, however, is too busy examining (and mocking) the lives and loves of others to ever examine his own.

Those few who do are made to face a terrible realization. They realize that it is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty which give meaning to life. Having discarded these things, the cynic has discarded any meaning from his life. We need look no further than the Baltimore Catechism which states (Q.6) that "God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next." Life's meaning is to know God--that is, to know Truth; to love Him--we must love what is Good; to serve Him in this life--we can serve both Truth and Goodness; and to be happy with Him forever in the next--our happiness comes from Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Christ Himself tells us that He is "the way, the truth, and the light" (John 14:6)--the way to Goodness, Truth in the flesh, and the light by which Beauty may be made known.

In order to spit in the eyes of others, the cynic much first put out his own. In his desire to mock the lives of others, he has ultimately lost the meaning in his. In the ninth of Scewtape's letters to his nephew, Wormwood, we read that (emphasis mine)
Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy's ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula. It is more certain; and it's better style. To get the man's soul and give him nothing in return—that is what really gladdens our Father's heart.

This is precisely the bargain which the modern cynic has made, all to obtain the supposed pleasure of sneering at his opponents--and even his friends. He has lost the natural pleasures of laughter and humor in exchange for the smug chuckle and the sarcastic quip. Those he calls his friends share none of the higher orders of community--or fraternal affection and filial love, of joy and vibrancy of life--but rather share at times with his aloof indifference or his mean-spirited mockery. His soul he sold for a cheap pleasure which he seldom enjoys.

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