“Cynicism” is actually an ancient Greek philosophy. Using this definition of cynicism, the most famous cynic would be the 4th century philosopher Antisthenes. (But then again, how famous could he be? I’ve never heard of him, and I even took three philosophy classes in college.) This classic version of cynicism repudiated conventional style. The classic cynics were interested in goodness and simplicity in all aspects of their lives. Cynicism, in this sense, is an early example of asceticism.
My favorite thing that Antisthenes said? “I’d rather be mad than feel pleasure.”
That’s some hardcore philosophy right there.
Modern Famous Cynics
The classical definition of cynicism is only used by philosophers these days. In contemporary usage, cynicism is just the attitude that people are self-interested. One of the most common adjectives used to describe a modern-day cynic is “jaded.” When you describe someone as cynical, you’re usually referring to their eagerness to believe the worst in others.
When I think of cynics in the contemporary usage, I think of people like Howard Stern, Donald Trump, and George Carlin. Other famous cynics include Richard Nixon, Gordon Gekko, and Snake Plissken.
One of the more recent statements from Howard Stern demonstrates his cynicism: “Just the mere mention of Jay Leno’s name makes me want to vomit.”
It’s hard to imagine a more innocuous person in entertainment than Jay Leno, but Howard Stern, in his cynical mode, sees through that seemingly charming persona. He sees Jay Leno as a guy who sabotaged Conan O’Brien and who pushed Carson off The Tonight Show in a merciless way.
Coming up with a famous cynical quote from Gordon Gekko doesn’t take long. “Greed is good.” What more needs to be said?
George Carlin managed to be cynical, funny, and whimsical all at the same time, which is no small feat. My favorite cynical George Carlin quote? “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize that half of them are even stupider than that.”
Richard Nixon said, “Any change is resisted because bureaucrats have a vested interest in the chaos in which they exist.” Nixon, cynical? Nah.
But is cynicism an appropriate approach to life? Will it make you happier? Will cynicism increase the quality of anyone’s life?
Some cynics might argue that cynicism is just a matter of being realistic, and that being realistic can and will improve the lives of yourself and others. I wonder of Mother Teresa, a notable non-cynic, would agree with that viewpoint.