AskDefine | Define cynical

Dictionary Definition

cynical adj : believing the worst of human nature and motives; having a sneering disbelief in e.g. selflessness of others [syn: misanthropic, misanthropical]

User Contributed Dictionary

see Cynical



Originated 1580–90 from cynic+-al.



  1. of or related to the belief that human actions are motivated only or primarily by base desires or selfishness.
  2. skeptical of the integrity, sincerity, or motives of others.
  3. bitterly or jadedly distrustful or contemptuous; mocking.
  4. showing contempt for accepted moral standards by one's actions.
  5. In the context of "medicine|rare": like the actions of a snarling dog.


of or related to the belief that human actions are motivated by base desires or selfishness


  • American Heritage 2000
  • WordNet 2003

Extensive Definition

Cynicism () originally comprised the various philosophies of a group of ancient Greeks called the Cynics, founded by Antisthenes in about the 4th century BC. The Cynics rejected all conventions, whether of religion, manners, housing, dress, or decency, advocating the pursuit of virtue in a simple and unmaterialistic lifestyle.
On the other hand, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests as the usual modern definition (per cynic): showing "a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions" and a tendency "to express this by sneers and sarcasms".

History of cynicism

Ancient Greece

mainarticle Cynic
The classical Greek and Roman Cynics regarded virtue as the only necessity for happiness, and saw virtue as entirely sufficient for attaining happiness. Classical Cynics followed this philosophy to the extent of neglecting everything not furthering their perfection of virtue and attainment of happiness, thus, the title Cynics, derived from the Greek word κύων, ("dog" in English) because they allegedly lived like dogs. They sought to free themselves from conventions; become self-sufficient; and live only in accordance with nature. They rejected any conventional notions of happiness involving money, power, or fame, to lead entirely virtuous, and thus happy, lives. This modern definition of cynicism differs markedly from the ancient philosophy, which emphasized "virtue and moral freedom in liberation from desire."

Toward modern cynicism

Nearly 2000 years after certain Greek philosophers first embraced classical cynicism, 17th and 18th century writers such as Shakespeare, Swift, and Voltaire, following in the traditions of Geoffrey Chaucer and François Rabelais, used irony, sarcasm, and satire (which had never gone out of fashion) to ridicule human conduct and revive cynicism. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary and cinema figures such as Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, H.L. Mencken, and W.C. Fields used cynicism as way of communicating their low opinions of certain manifestations of human nature. By 1930, Bertrand Russell — in the essay On Youthful Cynicism — could describe the extent to which (in his view) cynicism had penetrated parts of Western mass consciousness, and could note particular areas partially deserving of cynicism: religion, country (patriotism), progress, beauty, truth. The first half of the 20th century, with its two World Wars, offered little hope to people wishing to embrace an idealism diametrically opposed to cynicism: seeing fellow-humans as trustworthy, well-intentioned, caring, decent, and honourable.
The second half of the 20th century featured a general rejection of virtue and self-restraint, and a movement toward materialism — particularly in what Pope John Paul II termed "the cynical society of consumerism" in his 1984 Christmas remarks. The same communications media whose advertising bolstered consumerism also occasionally promoted entertaining conspiracy theories, thus adding the long-standing traditions of conspiracies to a new "hidden agenda" dimension to the cynicism of some.
In recent decades, the study of human nature — one book's title portrays a Battle for Human Nature — focused new attention on cynicism. In attempting to counter an alleged widespread belief portraying "jungle ethics" and the associated competition, self-interest, and survival of the fittest as innate to the human animal, researchers with an opposing agenda looked for a genetic basis for co-operation and altruistic behavior, and for signs that human societal participation ultimately built upon co-operation and altruism. Alfie Kohn argued that a person's cynicism stems from escaping responsibility, another belief sees cynicism as following sophistication in human psychological development.
In 2005, researchers at Yale University found that children as young as eight years old could discount the statements of others as tarnished with "self-interest".

Types of cynicism

The following types of cynicism can be differentiated:

Cynicism in the sense of "animosity"

The focus of this concept is on the negative perceptions and hostile attitudes of individuals concerning others. People who obtain high values on the Hostility scale, have low confidence in their fellow humans, and regard them as dishonest, antisocial, immoral and bad.

Social cynicism

The consequence of excessively high expectations concerning society, institutions and authorities. Missing these expectations leads to disappointment, which releases feelings of disillusionment and betrayal.

Occupational cynicism

Cynical attitudes in relation to aspects of one's own work, leading to a loss in pride and respect concerning oneself in relation to one's own work.

Organisational cynicism

A general or specific attitude, characterized by frustration, hopelessness, disillusionment and distrust in regards to economic organizations, managers and/or other aspects of work.

Cynicism with organisational changes

Pessimism concerning the success of future organisational changes, which can result among other things from negative experiences of previous changes. People responsible for organisational changes are viewed as incompetent or unwilling.

See also


Further reading

  • David Mazella, (2007), The Making of Modern Cynicism, University of Virginia Press. ISBN 0-813-92615-7
  • Peter Sloterdijk, (1988), Critique of Cynical Reason, University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-816-61586-1

External links

cynical in Czech: Cynismus
cynical in Danish: Kynisme
cynical in German: Zynismus
cynical in Hebrew: ציניות
cynical in Lithuanian: Cinizmas
cynical in Dutch: Cynisme (taal)
cynical in Occitan (post 1500): Cinisme
cynical in Russian: Цинизм
cynical in Swedish: Cynism
cynical in Yiddish: צינישקייט
cynical in Chinese: 犬儒主義

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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