A wry view of life for the world-weary

Owed To A Cynic


I may be getting even more cynical as I get older but the world seems to be full of fatuous pieces of research these days. Take this piece of research conducted by a team from the University of Cologne and recently reported in the ever popular Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They found that workers with a more cynical disposition earned less than those with low levels of cynicism.

The researchers focused on data compiled from the United States and Germany – the level of cynicism of a person was determined by their response to a questionnaire. I don’t know about you but I get a bit tired of answering questionnaires and my bit of sport, if I have to fill one in, is to try to determine the characteristics they are looking for and respond in a way that is diametrically opposite. Anyway, back to the research – the discrepancy in pay between those of a cynical disposition and those who see nothing wrong with their mundane existence as a wage slave to an uncaring corporate behemoth can be as much as £200 per month.

Is it possible to make any kind of sense out of all of this? Well, of course, corporations are all for an easy life and what is easier than having a docile and supine workforce who are content to go along with whatever mad-cap idea is flavour of the month just for a quiet life. Hiring identikit employees – same background, ethnicity, work experience – engenders an environment in which that most insidious of institutional characteristics – groupthink – thrives.

And if you want to imagine how dangerous endemic groupthink can be, just consider Ed Miliband’s stone tablet detailing his six main election pledges. Somewhere at some time a group of trusted advisers must have thought that was a great idea. Where was the cynic when they were needed? The cynic should be cherished and valued.

Of course, there may be some fundamental flaws in this research, the principal one, it seems to me, is whether it is cause and effect going on here. In other words, is it because someone is stuck in a mundane under-paid job that they become cynical rather than that it is because of their cynicism that they are in a low paying job? I suspect it is.

But those of us with a longer cultural view should not be surprised by the findings. Cynicism was a branch of Ancient Greek philosophical thought which taught the adherent that the purpose of life was to be virtuous and at one with nature. This could be best achieved by leading a simple life and eschewing all worldly goods.

The top dog amongst the cynics was Diogenes of Sinope who for some time lived in a tub on the streets of Athens and rejected all conventional values of money, fame, power and reputation. Cynics were quite happy to live in the public eye and were quite indifferent to any insults that were flung their way. Rather than blind adherence to any one country they saw themselves as citizens of the world. The heyday for the cynics was the 1st century CE when throughout the Roman Empire cynics could be found begging and preaching.

So to have less cash than your fellow citizens is a natural state of grace for the full-time cynic and they wouldn’t have it any other way. You may delude yourself with your temporary riches but the true cynic is on the path to eudaimonia, a life of virtue, inner happiness and contentment. What’s more, they’re more often right!


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