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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/May 1881/Cynicism Opposed to Progress


WHEN examining a question of possible corruption, or any form of crime, we find that nearly all men take a somewhat cynical view. So common is this that we may safely say that it applies to all who know the world. Yet a careful examination of facts, though giving us a vague idea of the real proportion of crime, must finally convince us that cynicism is similarly the sentinel on guard to warn us against possible injury from exceptional qualities in others. It is clear that cynicism is due to the fact that there still remain traces of a mutually devouring condition of development. But this destructive position in thought ought not to remain extreme long after the advancing light has modified the conditions that partly justified it. In truth, there is in the nature of things a check to the cynical tendency in the fact that the realization of severity in thought is impeded by considerations that involve some deliberation. Thought and imagination easily lead to extreme conclusions never carried to a practical result, because it is often so much easier to think, and requires so much less time than to act. In other words, the thought may be cynical, but the everyday action is generally in accordance with the assumption that men are trustworthy.

As the advances are made directly through the influence of practical and talented men, and indirectly through the deepest thinkers, it follows that a low opinion of the general intelligence and morality tends to discourage all but men of genius, to decrease the number and extent of higher influences, and to retard material advancement. One of the striking characteristics of the age is the promptness with which money is invested and speculative enterprises are carried forward. The prevailing tendency is to assume the inevitable success of a project, and overlook the chances of failure. In fact, the liberality with which our country is supplied with improvements in steam transit, newspapers, ocean-cables, telephones, etc., denotes that the modern spirit is far from cynical. The transaction of business, except in a limited and inefficient way, would be impossible if the majority of men were swindlers.

It is with much satisfaction that we observe a general conspiracy in the drift of affairs whereby a negative way of viewing things fails to become general. Affirmative and cheerful people have positive force that dispels the shadows of needless anxiety with excess of light. The friends with whom we are the most unreserved, and who exert the most social power generally, are not severe in their judgments. The cheerful man is a center of attractive force, while the cynic at times dissipates important and beneficial influences. In truth, the ideas of the cynic are like blasts of cold air, out of which people are glad to escape with the utmost promptness. Cynicism does not represent as much intelligence as the constructive tendency, because cynical ideas are allied to feeling and held without reference to any wide generalization of facts. Events take place or combine in a purely intellectual way, or in accordance with laws of necessity and causation. But in opposition to this principle we often find the vague expectation that events can be modified by emotional action, or feeling, or by theories not adapted to experience. The seeming obduracy of inanimate objects, when we try to disentangle their complications by means of anger, shows that emotional action may be quite absurd when applied to affairs of the intellect. A like suggestion of mania is observable in the cynicism which sees in human nature only different grades of rascality. It is a subjective conclusion deduced from exceptional instances.

In addition to the want of effect due to emotional conclusions reached regardless of objective causes, we find further source of error in the very common cynical belief that there is ultimate strength in deception. Bonaparte claimed that much of his success resulted from his ingenious lying, but his power really lay in his reasoning, his knowledge of human nature, his wonderful constructive force, and his grasp of details. These qualities are intellectual, powerful, positive. The success of his lying depended upon intellectual weakness or deficient knowledge in others, and not upon superior power exerted in spite of their relative intelligence. Strategy, like stimulants in sickness, may bridge over a chasm, but, when subjected to the test of time or innumerable repetitions, it is inevitably exposed by unexpected and incalculable events. In fact, deceptive action often has an air of absurdity, humorous as well as geometrical, as seen in Dickens's judge, who, at the Bardell trial, tried to conceal the fact that he had been aroused from sleep—when Buzfuz ceased speaking for a moment—by apparently writing with a dry pen, and then looking as if he thought most profoundly with his eyes shut.

Spinoza was right in his conclusion that destruction and violence are negative. The highest form of conceivable existence, the most real, must be in accordance with principles of reason and harmony. This implies the elimination of discord or destruction, which in its effects upon our consciousness is always negative—that is, tends toward indefiniteness and a vanishing-point. Consciousness is reduced almost to zero during intense pain, because there is simply one sensation, and no sustained or connected line of thought including many ideas.

Reasonable mental actions are usually present, but if we select negative mental actions—hate, fear, envy, anger—we are at once conscious of their exceptional nature as compared with the total amount of time consumed by more rational forms of thought. It is observable that persons noted for manifestations of motiveless malice are often reputed to be incipiently insane.

All forms of envy are magnified by the instant prominence which they occupy in thought. In an orchestra of ten instruments the harmony of nine may be overpowered by one that persists in playing out of tune. The presence of envy and malice in one person may cause us to lose sight of its absence in ninety-nine. We may therefore conclude that cynicism, which is the perception of the dark side of everything, can never become a great destructive force, because it can not accumulate power. It must ever remain a standing threat, a stimulus to right thinking. The higher forms of power in men are positive and not passive. Superstition and the darkness of cynicism must be swept away by the evolution of intelligence.