“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
― Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan
Current thought on semantic change recognizes that language is continually and systematically altered by speakers’ use of it. In the wake of the account given by Bloomfield (1933), linguists have attempted to explain various diachronic semantic processes, such as metaphor and metonymy, and the factors that cause them. In the English language, there are a number of cases in which the meaning of a word has changed to such an extent that the modern meaning and its ancestor may contrast strikingly, or even diametrically oppose one another. To take one salient example, the noun cynic has two commonly recognised meanings. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the first as ‘one of a sect of philosophers in ancient Greece… marked by an ostentatious contempt for ease, wealth, and the enjoyments of life’. In the same entry, the alternative meaning is given as ‘…one who shows a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and is wont to express this by sneers and sarcasms’. The Macquarie Encyclopedic Dictionary divides these meanings between two entries, rendering orthographically the distinction between the classical, philosophical Cynic, and the modern, sneering cynic. In the words of Luis Navia, ‘the Cynics were not cynical, nor are modern cynics authentic Cynics’ (6). Although these meanings are polysemous, it is not immediately clear how the two are related, and a diachronic account of how the latter meaning emerged from the former is the subject of the present discussion. Drawing on the analysis offered by Sloterdijk (1987), it is argued that the meaning of cynic, along with that of the derived abstract noun cynicism, has undergone a process of degeneration and broadening, driven by psychological and socio-cultural forces operating on latent contradictions in the original sense of the word, with the literary works of Lucian of Samosata and the Marquis de Sade, among others, offering clear snap-shots of such changes as they took place.
Although it is clear that the word cynic is derived from the Greek root kyon (‘dog’), there are two alternative accounts of how this derivation occurred. Diogenes Laertius, an early source on the Cynic sect of philosophy, identifies Antisthenes as its founder and speculates that the temple where he taught, the Cynosarges (‘place of the agile dog’) in Athens, gave the sect its name. In his Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Klein asserts that this is the correct explanation. However, Dudley, citing evidence from Aristotle, contends that ‘the original kyon was undoubtedly Diogenes’, the latter being a later philosopher from Sinope renowned for his dog-like shamelessness and frugality (5). Although Laertius also attributes these characteristics to Antisthenes, and describes the Cynic Diogenes as a pupil of the former, Dudley argues from the historical disparity between their lifetimes that an association between the two likely did not exist, and was invented by Greek writers prior to Laertius. According to Navia, cynic was straightforwardly derived from kyon in the sense of like-a-dog, and attributed pejoratively to Diogenes by other men upon viewing his unorthodox practices, such as eating and defecating in public. Thus one account holds that cynic derived from the name of a place, while in the other it developed by theriomorphism. For Navia, there is insufficient evidence to choose between either side of this ‘double doxographical and historical tradition’, except to conclude that both played a role in the meaning of cynicism as interpreted by scholars since antiquity, and which appear to ‘converge into a focal point that was and is best symbolized by the figure of a dog’ (15-16). Regardless of whether this was original source of the modern meaning of cynic, it is well-attested by Laertius and more recent scholars, such as Sayre, Desmond, and Shea, that the comparison Athenians drew between the behaviour of Diogenes of Sinope and that of dogs played an important role in the development of the meaning of cynic as it related to the philosophical sect in antiquity. Thus, analogy is observed as a key process early in the semantic history of the word.
Within the lifetime of Diogenes, the term cynic underwent a socially mediated process of reappropriation and elevation. Reappropriation, which may be described as ‘the process of taking possession of a slur previously used exclusively by dominant groups to reinforce a stigmatized group’s lesser status’, is familiar to modern readers in cases such as that of ‘queer’ and ‘nigger’ the connotations of which have changed following their reappropriation by sexual and ethnic minority groups (Galinsky et al. 2020-2022). A similar process appears to have taken place where cynic, formerly used pejoratively, came to designate a flourishing philosophical school. Although it had been used by Athenian citizens to mock and scorn the followers of Diogenes, the latter ‘wittily adopted the opprobrium for themselves’, developing its analogical meaning further by recording or otherwise inventing many chreia, or anecdotes, in which the virtues of Diogenes and other Cynics are compared, approvingly, with those of dogs (Shea 4-7). Indeed, by the time of Epictetus, the term Cynic ‘had come to be invested with an aura of spiritual and intellectual excellence and earnestness… the Cynic became, at least in the minds of those who idealized the Cynic way of life, al holy man devoted to the practice of philosophy’ (Navia, 15). For the early Cynics, the meaning of their sect was elaborated in a cluster of analogies, which served for a de-facto set of principles which classical Cynicism entailed. Aristotle describes a number of these principles and their connection to the analogy:
There are four reasons why the Cynics are so named. First because of the indifference of their way of life, for they make a cult of indifference and, like dogs, eat and make love in public, go barefoot, and sleep in tubs and at cross-roads. The second reason is that the dog is a shameless animal, and they make a cult of shamelessness, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it. The third reason is that the dog is a good guard, and they guard the tenets of their philosophy. The fourth reason is that the dog is a discriminating animal which can distinguish between its friends and enemies. So do they recognize as friends those who are suited to philosophy, and receive them kindly, while those unfitted they drive away, like dogs, by barking at them. (Aristotle, quoted in Dudly, 5)
To the above might be added cosmopolitanism (Navia), as dogs recognize no nation-state; parrhesia, or freedom of speech and criticism, as dogs set their ‘teeth in rascals’ (Shea); the privileging of physis, or nature, over nomos, or law; autarkeia, or self-sufficiency; apatheia, or indifference to hardship; askesis, or discipline; and atyphia, or clarity of mind (Shea, 9). In the anecdotes of Cynics recorded by Diogenes Laertius, these terms recur frequently as organizing principles for Cynicism itself.
Another significant aspect of classical Cynicism, and one that would play a constitutive role in the culturally-mediated transformation of its meaning, from the end of the Hellenistic period and through the first and second centuries CE, was the centrality of satire to Cynicism as a philosophical movement. Although the writings of the Cynics did not consistently adopt the satirical form until the works of Menippus circa the third century BCE, it is clear that the use of satire as a literary genre developed directly from the central Cynic principle of parrhesia and their contempt for what they regarded as the arbitrariness and artificiality of human values. According to Dudley, it is in the satirical writings of Menippus that ‘the Cynic spirit of mockery of human values’ first finds its literary form. In its influence on the works of Roman authors such as Varro and Lucian, Menippean satire preserved and transmitted the principle of parrhesia and the ‘sarcasm and ridicule, denunciation and condemnation’, characteristic of Cynicism, through the literary mainstream of antiquity (Navia, 27). It is for this reason that Sloterdijk counts Lucian among his Cabinet of Cynics, even as he opposes the satirical Cynicism of Lucian to the ascetic Cynicism of contemporaries such as Peregrinus Proteus, who Lucian viciously mocks in his Menippean satire The Death of Peregrinus. Further, as Sloterdijk correctly claims, this opposition represents a key turning point in the development of the meaning of Cynicism. Where the distinction between classical and modern cynicism is conventionally rendered orthographically with a capitalized C in English, Sloterdijk writing in German opts to distinguish the classical, virtuous aspects of Kynismus from its modern, nihilistic derivative Zynismus. Although Navia detects elements of the arrogance and opportunism that characterize modern cynicism emerging in Cynicism as it was practiced by Bion in the third century BCE, for Sloterdijk a radical break between Kynismus and Zynismus is observed in the second century CE. During this period of social unrest in Roman territories and colonies, the Cynic cult expanded in a ‘situation of flourishing alienation’ (Sloterdijk, 170). This popular Cynicism, which retained the stern moralism and shocking antics of Diogenes, preserved little of its philosophical heritage, and became a subject of attack for authors, such as Varro, who was nicknamed the Roman Cynic, and Lucian, who had inherited the satirical element of Cynicism from Menippus. In Sloterdijk’s words, at this time the Cynical tradition split between the ‘existential direction’ of popular Cynicism, and the ‘satirical-intellectual direction’ represented by Lucian (Sloterdijk, 172). The corpus of Lucian representing the literary movement of Cynicism is thus crucial to understanding the meaning of modern cynicism, as the suspicion of the motives of others that characterizes the latter is a key element of his critique of other Cynics.
The ‘sneers and sarcasms’ which define modern cynicism according to the O.E.D. having emerged in the works of Lucian, the meaning of the term continued to develop in the period leading up to the French Enlightenment, the literature of which reveals a radically different sense, although one in which its ancestry can still be traced. In English, the term ‘cynic’, denoting the classical sect, was first used in 1547, while the degenerated, pejorative sense of cynic as a ‘faultfinder’, such as Lucian, was recorded in 1596 (American Heritage Dictionary). Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, published in 1755, likewise gives definitions that reflect the split analysed by Sloterdijk: Johnson defines a ‘cynick’ as variously ‘a follower of Diogenes’, ‘a rude man’, ‘a snarler’, or ‘a misanthrope’ (143). These uses of the term were made possible by the rediscovery of primary sources on Cynicism in the Renaissance period, which also saw the first translation of Lucian; throughout the Middle Ages, the meaning of Cynicism had to some extent been bowdlerised by a clergy attempting to emphasise the similarities between Cynicism and Christianity, and to reconcile the two (Shea). Following the rebirth of Menippean satire and a renewed interest of European scholars in the Cynics, especially Diogenes, a critical turning point occurs in a text by Garasse, in which he identifies the Cynics as precursors of the amoral, hedonistic libertines contemporary to himself. Diogenes, according to Garasse, is a ‘rogue’, and ‘an arrogant atheist’ (134-35). Although certain Enlightenment figures, such as Pierre Bayle and D’Alembert, acknowledged the virtuous aspects of Cynicism, Garasse’s assessment is indicative of how the meaning of cynicism continued to develop. In particular, the use of the term by the Marquis de Sade in describing the protagonists of his grotesque and often pornographic satires illustrates a radical transformation. For instance, in the introductory ‘To Libertines’ of his Philosophy in the Bedroom, Sade encourages hedonists to
…study the cynical Dolmance, proceed like him and go as far as he if you too would travel the length of those flowered ways your lechery prepares for you; in Dolmance’s academy be at last convinced it is only by exploring and enlarging the sphere of his tastes and whims, it is only by sacrificing everything to the senses’ pleasure that this individual, who never asked to be cast into this universe of woe, that this poor creature who goes under the name of Man, may be able to sow a smattering of roses atop the thorny path of life. (3)
While in the 120 Days of Sodom, the derived abstract noun cynicism likewise appears in a radically altered form:
‘Tis all a question of cynicism,’ was Curval’s deliberated opinion, pronounced while toying with Fanchon’s buttocks. ‘Who is unaware that even punishment produces enthusiasms, and have not we seen certain individual’s pricks stiffen into clubs at the same instant they find themselves publicly disgraced?’ (245).
In these texts, Sade appropriates the title of cynic for his own brand of nihilistic perversion, retaining the sense of shamelessness that marked the classical sense of the word but otherwise rendering the two indistinguishable. Although the work of scholars such as Bayle preserved the historical account of classical Cynicism through the Enlightenment period, the definitions offered by Johnson as well as present day dictionaries reveal the increasing influence of the alternative sense of cynic as used by writers such as Garasse and Sade. Here is, recognisably, the modern sense of cynic, denoting a person who lacks values, and denies that others have them also. For Sloterdijk, this use represents ‘late-aristocratic’ cynicism, the ancestor of the bourgeois form that he diagnoses as Zynismus, or ‘enlightened false consciousness’ (210; 5).
In the light of this account of the historical and social forces altering the meaning of cynicism, the relationship between the modern use of the term and its Greek ancestor becomes clearer. As Stanley notes, the modern sense of cynicism is especially prominent in political discourse, in which scholars and tabloids alike condemn and bemoan cynicism, whether it be that of politicians, electorates, or of the age itself. In this context, cynicism is understood as a lack of ideals, the nihilism evident in the works of the Marquis de Sade having being transposed to the political sphere of life. Significantly, speeches delivered by Barack Obama in 2004 invoked a dialectic between cynicism and his slogan of hope, asking constituents whether ‘we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope’ (2). That, in contrast to its classical sense, misanthropy and negativity increasingly characterise cynicism in its most common usage is clear: in 1954 the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory introduced cynicism as a factor of hostility (Pattyn et al. 566).
Chaloupka, somewhat echoing Sloterdijk, defines cynicism as ‘a condition of lost belief’, and links this sense of cynicism to the contemporary political climate and events that shape it (xiv). Where Chaloupka illustrates the use of the term in political discourse, for example in George Will’s criticism of the Republican Party for its cynical opportunism following the Monica Lewinsky scandal, or Thomason’s promise to ‘alleviate the country’s cynicism’ through Clinton’s inauguration ceremony, the author clarifies a further, albeit subtle, distinction between two senses of cynicism that were already present in the use of the term by Sade (9). The cynicism of politicians, ‘so apt that the two words seem to become one’, is distinguished from the ‘cynical culture’, in which electorates have lost belief in the public personae of politicians, and are acutely aware of the power wielded by the latter (12-30). Cynic thus may denote either one who does not believe in any values, and is only interesting in accruing power to themselves, e.g. a cynical politician, or alternatively, one who suspects others of only having egoistic motives, e.g. cynical voters. The second sense may be understood as one’s projecting the first sense as a state of mind onto others, and this relationship is reflected in the definitions given by contemporary dictionaries. For Chaloupka, what the two senses share is ‘something like a worldview… [in which] the cynical citizen perceives institutions as cynical, suspecting that manipulators inside those institutions have abused faith and caused cynicism’ (10). Stivers articulates cynicism as a condition in which morals are lost and ‘everything is reduced to power’ (90). The author also characterizes cynicism as ‘destruction of meaning’ brought about by relentless pursuit of ‘the myth of technological utopianism’ (169). Comparing this with the frugality fundamental to the practices of the ancient Greek sect, it is clear that a further divergence between the ancient sense of Cynic and the modern that has emerged historically is that the Cynics of antiquity shunned technology and materialism, while modern-day cynics tend to embrace it. In the words of Chaloupka, cynics ‘know how the system works, and they know how to work it, with manipulations, deals and muscle’ (29). In spite of all of these divergences, it is to be acknowledged, as Chaloupka does, that the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of the Cynics has survived in modern cynicism, although radically altered by the moral nihilism of the latter (30).
The present account of semantic change, taking the noun cynic and the abstract derived noun cynicism as its focus, has elaborated in detail a number of processes that have altered the meaning of the term throughout history. Although present-day dictionaries still acknowledge the difference between the sense of the word in antiquity and its modern usage, the latter is far more common in popular and political discourse, and the link between the two is unclear in the absence of a diachronic account. The term, originating via analogy and pejorative usage, underwent several stages of elevation and degeneration as Cynics reappropriated the term for their philosophical worldview, and fell into disrepute in the first and second centuries CE, especially due to the satirical attacks of authors such as Lucian, who had inherited the literary strain of cynical mockery from Menippus. Satire proved an important medium for discourse about cynicism in the Enlightenment period, where, especially in the works of the Marquis de Sade, it acquired connotations of moral nihilism. In present day cynicism especially flourishes as a diagnostic term in cultural and political theory, where subtle senses of the term may be discerned where it is used to refer to, alternatively, the active cynicism of the powerful or the passive cynicism of the powerless. The changes in its meaning record changes in the character of Western thought.
Alembert, Jean Le Rond d’. Miscellanies Concerning Literature, History, Philosophy, And Other Subjects Of The Belles Letters. Glasgow: Printed for Robert Urie, 1765. Print.
Bayle, Pierre. The Dictionary Historical and Critical Of Mr. Peter Bayle. London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1997.
Bloomfield, Leonard. Language. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1965. Print.
Chaloupka, William. Everybody Knows: Cynicism in America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. Print.
Desmond, William D. Cynics. Stocksfield: Acumen, 2006. Print.
Diogenes, Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.
Dudley, Donald R. A History of Cynicism from Diogenes to the 6Th Century. London: Methuen, 1937.
Galinsky, Adam D., et al. “The Reappropriation Of Stigmatizing Labels: The Reciprocal Relationship Between Power And Self-Labelling.” Psychological Science 24.10 (2013): 2020-2029. Print.
Garasse, François. La Doctrine Curieuse des Beaux Esprits de Ce Temps. Westmead, Hants: Gregg International, 1971. Print.
Johnson, Samuel, E. L. McAdam, and George Milne. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary: A Modern Selection. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981. Print.
Klein, Ernest. A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary Of The English Language. : Dealing With The Origin Of Words And Their Sense Development Thus Illustrating The History Of Civilization And Culture. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1966. Print.
Lucian. Lucian/with an English Translation by A.M. Harmon. London: W. Heinemann, 1913. Print.
McPhee, Margaret, et al. Macquarie Encyclopedic Dictionary. Sydney: Macquarie Dictionary Publishers, 2010. Print.
Navia, Luis E. Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996. Print.
Obama, Barack. Keynote Address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc, 2011.Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Pattyn, Sven, et al. “Stripping the Political Cynic: A Psychological Exploration of the Concept of Political Cynicism.” European Journal of Personality 26.6 (2012): 566-579. Print.
Sade, Marquis de, Austryn Wainhouse, and Richard Seaver. Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, And Other Writings. New York: Grove Press, 1990. Print.
Sade, Marquis de, Austryn Wainhouse, and Richard Seaver. The 120 Days of Sodom And Other Writings. London: Arena, 1989. Print.
Sayre, Farrand. The Greek Cynics. Baltimore: J. H. Furst, 1948. Print.
Shea, Louisa. The Cynic Enlightenment: Diogenes in The Salon. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. Print.
Sloterdijk, Peter. Critique of Cynical Reason. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. Print.
Stanley, Sharon A. The French Enlightenment and the Emergence Of Modern Cynicism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Print.
Stivers, Richard. The Culture of Cynicism: American Morality in Decline. Oxford, UK; Cambridge, Mass., USA: Blackwell, 1994. Print.
The American Heritage Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Print.
Waite, Maurice. Paperback Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.
Wilde, Oscar, and Ian Small. Lady Windermere’s Fan. London: A & C Black; New York: WW Norton, 1999. Print.