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What Is Cynicism in Literature?


Cynicism has come to mean sarcasm, a jaded point of view or mistrust; in literature, however, it originally indicated a much more positive philosophy. The Cynics were ancient Greeks, followers of the ideals of Socrates, who believed that challenging the status quo was the way to truth. That idea survives still, although Cynic literature does not.

The First Cynic

The first Cynic was Antisthenes, who set the pattern for followers of his short-lived philosophy by practicing a lifestyle of extreme asceticism, renouncing worldly goods and living through self-reliance. This attitude, many centuries later, would be touted by Transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The philosophy of self-denial, quite similar to the one developed by Gautama Buddha, proved to be such a difficult path to follow that most adherents branched into another philosophy, Stoicism, the belief in bearing ills without complaint.

Nietzsche, a Modern Cynic

Cynicism in literature therefore arises from a philosophical basis that encompasses both anarchy -- since few human beings have the ability to self-govern -- and self-denial. This gave birth to literary genres such as satirical and existential writings. A characteristically cynical work is Nietzsche's "The Gay Science," in which he takes on the myth of Diogenes, who carried a lighted lamp in the daytime in search of a human being. Nietzsche's Diogenes figure is a lunatic seeking God; he must finally declare that God is dead.

Shakespeare's Great Cynic

Memorable cynical characters in literature carry the dual burdens of anarchic thought and self-denial. Iago, in Shakespeare's "Othello," says of himself, "I am nothing if not critical," and proceeds to satirically dissect the flaws of both himself and the characters around him, all the while enacting an horrific plot to destroy his general Othello with jealous rumors. Iago foreshadows the logical end of the cynical philosophy when he veers into God-denying nihilism. Asked to explain himself, his reply is truly cynical: "What you know, you know."

Modern Cynics in Literature

The cynics are gone from Greece, their sect having died out around 323 B.C., but cynical characters -- not jaded misfits but real seekers of truth -- are still around in contemporary works such as Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain," where Confederate deserter Inman seeks home and his beloved, only to find, like Nietzsche's madman, that God and truth seem to be absent from his life.

About the Author

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.

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