The word "cynic" comes from the ancient Greek word "kynikos" (or "kunikos" or the closest, "kynos"), meaning "canine" (or more to the point, "dog-like") - and yet this philosophy is not best known for the propensity of its adherents to sniff each others' butts and roll around on stanky carcasses. What's the deal? Read on, MacDuff...

Aristotle, a contemporary of Antisthenes and Diogenes (the founder and most famous member of the Cynic school of philosophy, respectively), justified the label as follows:

To say nothing of the nuttery of the third reason (their tenets fairly dripping from their actions for anyone half-adept at reading the context of their constant arcane and ironic pronouncements), we know that Aristotle was not entirely opposed to making things up on occasion to sound smarter than he really was, and so we seek a few other possible reasons for the original application of this tenacious appellation.

One account has it that the philosophers derived the name from the location where Antisthenes taught, a Gymnasium in Athens called Cynosarges (translated, "white dog"), itself bearing that odd name after a wacky incident early on there when a white dog stole a choice cut from a sacrifice to Hercules. This explanation lacks the arbitrariness of Aristotle's fucking smug pronouncement but itself carries a certain indifference I can't stand - there being no value judgements associated here with being said to centre around a particular building in the city - and so I continue the search for a satisfactorily subjective yet just explanation of the association between the word and the group.

As an individual, Diogenes was singularly referred to not merely as a Cynic, but more directly as the dog. The metaphor would have had the same negative connotations as it does today, but he embraced it and truly made it his own, as evident from the following (wholly apocryphal) anecdotes:

    * In response to Plato boldly calling him a dog to his face, he agreed, saying that it was "Quite true, for I come back again and again to those who have tried to give me away."

    * When asked what kind of dog he was, he said "When hungry, a Maltese; when full, a Molossian - two breeds which most people praise, though for fear of fatigue they do not venture out hunting with them."

    * Interrupted from his breakfast in the middle of the busy public marketplace, sniggering onlookers taunted him with calls him of "dog!" "It is you who are dogs," cried he, "when you stand round and watch me at my breakfast."

    * While at a feast, obnoxious party guests kept throwing their bones to "the dog." Fed up with greasy lamb ribs being constantly tossed his way, he sidled up and lifted his leg on them.

Though perhaps on the flimsiest basis of all, I ignore Aristotle's retroactive arbitration and the passive locale and instead choose as my own favourite version of the origin of the term then Cynic as a label applied not necessarily to those who behave like dogs but those of philosophies and demeanours similar to The Dog, Diogenes, voluntarily and even enthusiastically adopting a derogatory nickname to ward off the proud plague of hubris.

"A cynic is what an optimist calls a realist."

Why do I say this? Well, take a look at what an optimist is. An optimist looks for the good in all things, or try to look on the bright side. In real life, this doesn't work awfully well.

Why not? Well, not everything has a bright side. Does HIV/AIDS have a bright side? Only if you're Fred Phelps waving around a sign that says AIDS KILLS FAGS DEAD. How about sweatshops? The only optimists there want the shoes and soccer balls made cheap, and are more than happy to pay some kid 10 cents a week to work. Capitalism really worked wonders for that kid, eh? I bet he's not doing radio ads for Hooked On Globalism. You won't hear his cute voice saying "WTO worked for me!" Drug addiction treatment? For the average person, it's like Sam Kinison said, if you're able to afford drug treatment, you really don't have a problem yet.

I prefer to be a realist, that is, someone who subscribes to realism. I try to look at things as they are, seeing the good or the bad, but not necessarly trying to find either one in everything.

However, a true cynic would find bad in all things, no matter how good most people would believe something to be. A realist is generally be able they see it. Hitting the Powerball jackpot? A cynic would probably complain about how many people are going to ask them for money. Personally, I'd be overjoyed, and I figure for that much money, I'd be more than happy to deal with it.

Of course, one is bound to be more vocal about what they find to be bad. This is how realists can seem cynical to an optimist.

Cyn"ic (s?n"?k), Cyn"ic*al (-?-kal), a. [L. cynicus of the sect of Cynics, fr. Gr. , prop., dog-like, fr. , , dog. See Hound.]


Having the qualities of a surly dog; snarling; captious; currish.

I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received. Johnson.


Pertaining to the Dog Star; as, the cynic, or Sothic, year; cynic cycle.


Belonging to the sect of philosophers called cynics; having the qualities of a cynic; pertaining to, or resembling, the doctrines of the cynics.


Given to sneering at rectitude and the conduct of life by moral principles; disbelieving in the reality of any human purposes which are not suggested or directed by self-interest or self-indulgence; as, a cynical man who scoffs at pretensions of integrity; characterized by such opinions; as, cynical views of human nature.

⇒ In prose, cynical is used rather than cynic, in the senses 1 and 4.

Cynic spasm Med., a convulsive contraction of the muscles of one side of the face, producing a sort of grin, suggesting certain movements in the upper lip of a dog.


© Webster 1913.

Cyn"ic, n. Gr. Philos


One of a sect or school of philosophers founded by Antisthenes, and of whom Diogenes was a disciple. The first Cynics were noted for austere lives and their scorn for social customs and current philosophical opinions. Hence the term Cynic symbolized, in the popular judgment, moroseness, and contempt for the views of others.


One who holds views resembling those of the Cynics; a snarler; a misanthrope; particularly, a person who believes that human conduct is directed, either consciously or unconsciously, wholly by self-interest or self-indulgence, and that appearances to the contrary are superficial and untrustworthy.

He could obtain from one morose cynic, whose opinion it was impossible to despise, scarcely any not acidulated with scorn. Macaulay.

© Webster 1913.

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