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The Collaborative International Dictionary

Cynicism \Cyn"i*cism\ (s[i^]n"[i^]*s[i^]z'm), n. The doctrine of the Cynics; the quality of being cynical; the mental state, opinions, or conduct, of a cynic; morose and contemptuous views and opinions.

Douglas Harper's Etymology Dictionary

1670s, "philosophy of the Cynics," from cynic + -ism. Meaning "cynical character" is from 1847. For nuances of usage of cynicism, see humor.


n. the philosophy of the Greek Cynics


n. a cynical feeling of distrust

Cynicism (philosophy)

Cynicism is a school of Ancient Greek philosophy as practiced by the Cynics . For the Cynics, the purpose of life was to live in virtue, in agreement with nature. As reasoning creatures, people could gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which was natural for themselves, rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, sex and fame. Instead, they were to lead a simple life free from all possessions.

The first philosopher to outline these themes was Antisthenes, who had been a pupil of Socrates in the late 5th century BC. He was followed by Diogenes of Sinope, who lived in a tub on the streets of Athens. Diogenes took Cynicism to its logical extremes, and came to be seen as the archetypal Cynic philosopher. He was followed by Crates of Thebes who gave away a large fortune so he could live a life of Cynic poverty in Athens. Cynicism spread with the rise of Imperial Rome in the 1st century, and Cynics could be found begging and preaching throughout the cities of the empire. It finally disappeared in the late 5th century, although similar ascetic and rhetorical ideas appear in early Christianity.

By the 19th century, emphasis on the negative aspects of Cynic philosophy led to the modern understanding of cynicism to mean a disposition of disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions.

Cynicism (contemporary)

is an attitude or state of mind characterized by a general distrust of others' motives. A cynic may have a general lack of faith or hope in the human species or people motivated by ambition, desire, greed, gratification, materialism, goals, and opinions that a cynic perceives as vain, unobtainable, or ultimately meaningless and therefore deserving of ridicule or admonishment. A common misapplication of this attitude involves its attribution to individuals who emote well-thought-out expressions of skepticism. Such miscategorization may occur as the result of either inexperience and/or a belief system in which the innate goodness of man is considered an important tenet or even an irrefutable fact. Thus, contemporary usage incorporates both a form of jaded prudence and (when misapplied) realistic criticism or skepticism. The term originally derives from the ancient Greek philosophers, the Cynics, who rejected all conventions, whether of religion, manners, housing, dress, or decency, instead advocating the pursuit of virtue in accordance with a simple and idealistic way of life.

By the 19th century, emphasis on the ascetic ideals and the critique of current civilization based on how it might fall short of an ideal civilization or negativistic aspects of Cynic philosophy led the modern understanding of cynicism to mean a disposition of disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions. Modern cynicism is a distrust toward professed ethical and social values, especially when there are high expectations concerning society, institutions, and authorities that are unfulfilled. It can manifest itself as a result of frustration, disillusionment, and distrust perceived as owing to organizations, authorities, and other aspects of society.

Usage examples of "cynicism".

His own brusqueness, cynicism and temper predisposed him to atrabilious vodyanoi.

Even when Citrine was at her most peaceful there was a brooding cynicism in her blue-eyed gaze that should not reside in a child so young.

This cackle of geriatric cynicism ill became such a creature made for pleasure as Jeanne, but was pox not the emblematic fate of a creature made for pleasure and the price you paid for the atrocious mixture of corruption and innocence this child of the sun brought with her from the Antilles?

And now the detested Courtenay Youghal, with his mocking eyes and air of youthful cynicism, had stepped in and overthrown those golden hopes and plans whose non-fulfilment would make such a world of change in her future.

Lew Michelson was a big heavy man with tired blue eyes, an expression of benign cynicism and a peptic ulcer that absorbed much of his attention.

But Stephanie superadds to those attributes a bitter, mocking cynicism, thinly veiled by artificial suavity and logically irradiant from natural hardness of heart, coupled with an insensibility that has been engendered by cruel experience of human selfishness.

Sick with cynicism and unvented rage, a shelled self thrilled only by mastery, power games, control, armor-plate with a wounded beast inside?

He must needs weave his phantasy into some quietly melancholy fabric of didactic or allegorical cast, in which his meekly resigned cynicism may display with naive moral appraisal the perfidy of a human race which he cannot cease to cherish and mourn despite his insight into its hypocrisy.

Paris, apathy which seeks stimulation, lament without talent, a mimicry of strength, the venom of past disappointments which excites to cynicism, and spits upon all that enlarges and grows, misconceives all necessary authority, rejoicing in its embarrassments, and will not hold to any social form.

The young nobleman in question, whose handsome features and prematurely-wasted frame bore the impress of cynicism and debauchery, was Lord Roos, then recently entrapped into marriage with the daughter of Sir Thomas Lake, Secretary of State: a marriage productive of the usual consequences of such imprudent arrangementsneglect on the one side, unhappiness on the other.

Listening to this mighty scherzo, we know the cynicism that corroded your spirit.

The cynicism, and his unreduced rank of Apprentice Brother, Third Class, made it possible for him to go into the ministry, rather than into the already overcrowded ranks of Techs, Fares, or Lays.

Bech, long mangled by citified cynicism, will now enter Rabbitland, with its safety, its squabbling, its marathon acquisitiveness.

Even Jimmy Kilmartin, middle age on him like a volcanic crust, was displaying that enduring paradox of cynicism and hope, that cardinal Irishism that Minogue had learned late he could not escape himself: professing to be aloof while sitting on an overwhelming desire.

Vance, on the other hand, was volatile, debonair, and possessed of a perpetual Juvenalian cynicism, smiling ironically at the bitterest realities, and consistently fulfilling the role of a whimsically disinterested spectator of life.