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St. Cloud State University

The Rhetoric of Cynicism

To speak of rhetoric and cynicism in the same breath is to bear a double
burden of pejorative jeopardy. The pejorative freight of either term, ''rhetoric''
or "cynic," weighs heavily against anyone who tries to use these terms in
non-pejorative ways. Such people are quite simply trying to swim against a
torrent ofpejorative everyday usage. Yet sorne ofthe positive historicallegacy
of the traditions of classical rhetoric and of the ancient cynics is still around and
does carry over into contemporary contexts, especially when we speak of
rhetoric and cynicism away from the marketplace and in academia, where
rhetoric still is the art of persuasion and cynicism graces Iiterary texts with
clever displays of verbal play and repartee.
Wayne Booth ata recent conference, in discussing the problem ofthe public
image of rhetoric, quoted a colleague as referring to sorne fellow as "an
asshole,'' but at the same time explaining that the term was not in tended in its
pejorative sense. The twist of irony in the remark stimulates our imagination to
come up with a context in which someone could be an asshole in a nonpejorative sense. Quite possibly there is a virtue in acting like an asshole
towards others who act the same.
Let us leave aside any question of a non-pejorative sen se of rhetoric. What
possible approbation can there be for the cynic, or for the use of the role of the
cynic in our rhetoric? What is the rhetorical payoff of a cynical ethos? What
function do cynical remarks serve in rhetorical strategies? To pursue these
questions 1caution against question begging assumptions when we examine the
phenomenon of cynicism, for cynicism is a loaded term. But first off, cynical
remarks do not a cynic make. Yet certainly they are used as evidence for
attributing cynical attitudes, beliefs and cynicism to the one who makes them.
Note in your own experience the degree to which the attributions of cynic and
cynical are simply allegations that a sin has been committed. A second note of
caution. The phenomenon of cynicism is, 1 believe, recalcitrant to any essentialist description, and we ought to avoid the pitfalls of pursuing a phantom
of cynicism, that is, seeking to describe or to define the essential nature of
cynicism. lf you are not willing to take my advice on this matter, 1 commit you
to chasing your tail endlessly in verbal circles, a game called 'whose paradigm
is on first?''

Rhetoric Review, Vol. 4, No. 1, September 1985

The Rhetoric of Cynicism


What I propose rather in trying to understand the phenomenon of cynicism is

to try another less circling pursuit. I propose to investigate the remarks of
self-proclaimed cynics and alleged cynics to see what threads run this way and
that through theirremarks. In that way I hope to come away with at least a rough
description ofwhat is running through the phenomenon. It is my contention that
an analysis of cynical remarks reveals interestingly related considerations
bearing on the phenomenon. lt raises, in addition, an interesting variety of
problems. And last of all it does pro vide us with sorne measure of understanding
of the phenomenon.
But before tuming to the literature of self-proclaimed and alleged cynics, let
me first illustrate sorne peculiarities in the use of the terms "cynic" and
"cynical" by engaging in sorne "ordinary language" philosophy word play. It
would first off be quite odd for someone to say that they were cynical about
God. We would, however, readily understand their meaning ifthey were to say
that they were cynical about religion. What is it about being cynical, unlike
being sceptical, that seems to apply to religion and not to God? Is it the case that
no one is so despicable as to be cynical about God? Or again, is it that being
cynical about God is like being cynical about Mother Goose? Or again, is there
something about the logic ofthe term ''cynical'' that apparently rules out its use
in characterizing attitudes towards God? We might, for example, be cynical
about holy water, but would it not be rather strange to say that we were cynical
about salt water? Is being cynical about salt water odd just because we have
sorne psychological incapacity to be cynical about salt water, or is it odd
logically, that is categorically, that the object of cynicism cannot simply be
facts? I want to apologize for sounding very much like an "ordinary language"
philosopher, but I found the mimicry useful to illustrate that there is a strange
mixture of presumptions about rules and conventions of language mixed with
presumptions about beliefs and attitudes operating in situations where cynics
and cynicism are at play. What I ha veto say in what follows will focus primarily
on the si de of presumptive attitudes and beliefs rather than on the grammar and
logic of cynical remarks. In a secondary sense, however, I will be saying sorne
things about the pragmatics or functions of cynical remarks.
What strikes me immediately in surveying cynical remarks is that many
attitudes and beliefs thought to play essential roles in cynicism, and often
conflated with cynicism, are on many occasions simply absent from the phenomenon. Moreover, it is also the case that many roles and attitudes presumed
to be a part of cynicism simply overlap and appear causally related in complex
and intricate ways with the phenomenon. To get at the heart ofthe problem we
need to peel away these conflated attitudes and assumptions that appear to be
playing essential roles in the phenomena. But this task of sorting is made even


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more difficult by the fact that cynical remarks are quite often epigrammatic,
figurative, conspicuously rhetorical in the pejorative sense, and often are ironic
in very unstable ways; that is, we do not know where the author stands in his
irony. Thus, most cynical remarks are ambiguous both in what is being said and
as to the presumptive roles and attitudes evidenced in making them; consequently, cynical remarks are open to a variety of plausible interpretations.
One last complication to consider: interpretations of alleged cynical remarks
al so vary from the viewpoints of authors and readers. From the point of view of
the reader, a remark is sometimes interpreted to be cynical, apart from the
author's implied intentions, by mere surface features of the remark. If the
remark is, for example, amoral, carping, or sarcastic, it is frequently considered cynical without reference to any presumptions of what the author in tended.
The following line by Osear Wilde illustrates sorne of my points about the
difficulties of interpreting whether a remark is really cynical. Obviously I have
intentionally removed the remark from its original context to generate ambiguity; and, as presented, it is ripe with contextua) and pragmatic ambiguity, that
is, ambiguity about what the author is doing in saying what he does. Wilde's
Iine goes, ''A gentleman is someone who is never unintentionally rude. '' If we
take Wilde's remark straight, that is literally, it is not at all cynical. It simply
says that a gentleman avoids being rude unintentionally, which is pretty much
to say that he is never rude. But the line reeks with irony, saying one thing and
meaning its opposite. Interpreted as irony, the line still has two possible
interpretations depending upon the speaker's presumptive attitudes and beliefs.
In both interpretations the gentleman when rude is deliberately rude. But for the
remark to be really cynical the speaker must, it should be noted, hold certain
ethical views. The speaker must condemn the rudeness, the pretensions, and the
hypocrisy of the gentleman. On the other hand, if the speaker were to hold a
somewhat Nietzschean ethical view, the speaker would be praising the gentleman, not condemning him for his skill in manipulating and controlling people,
especially dolts. The remark would be an expression of admiration for the
power and the ability of the gentleman to rise above the weak, the stupid, and
the impotent. As such. it is not cynical but ironic. But nevertheless the remark
might still be cynical from a hearer's point ofview, as for example, ifits hearer
were charitable, benevolent, anda lo ver of all humanity. In su m then, whether
or not a remark is cynical in part requires that we take into consideration the
ethical assumptions both of the speaker and the hearer.
Let us now focus on those presumptive attitudes and beliefs that appear
essentially a part of cynicism but are not. I wish to show that an analysis of sorne
of the ways these attitudes play into the phenomenon of cynicism helps us trace

The Rhetoric of Cynicism


down many of the motives behind the strategies of the self-proclaimed and
alleged cynics. Among these beliefs and attitudes that I wish to consider are
scepticism, pessimism, irony, a self-interest ethic, misanthropy, disenchantment, and idealism.
Cynicism has been frequently confused with scepticism. If all cynics were
sceptics, the confusion might be innocent or trivial, and no real confusion
would obtain. They are, however, quite opposite in many respects. Indeed
many cynical remarks are both sceptical and cynical. For example, Mark
Twain' s remark about the large number of nails in Europe that ha ve come from
the true cross is both sceptical and cynical. In Twain' s case scepticism appears
to be the ground for his cynicism. But does scepticism necessarily give rise to
cynicism? A sceptic about astrology does not become cynical because of his
scepticism about astrology. Freud is sceptical about man' s capacity to be
civilized, but he is notcynical about man. Thus, although scepticism might well
be a causal factor in generating cynicism, it is not a necessary condition of it.
Scepticism characterizes primarily our attitudes towards beliefs concerning
matters of fact. Cynicism, on the other hand, seems directed towards situations
where matters of value are at issue. Osear Wilde cynically illustrates the cynic 's
orientation towards questions of value in the following: "What is a cynic? A
man who knows the price of everything, and the val ue of nothing. '' Many
cynical remarks frequently express moral attitudes or value judgments of a
negative sort. One might call cynicism a sort of moral or value scepticism. But
scepticism is essentially negative, and many cynical remarks rest upon quite
positive beliefs. For example, La Rochefoucauld said, "In !ove, he is best
cured who is first cured." Or as I ha ve heard attributed to Westbrook Pegler,
"Never underestimate the stupidity of the American people." Such cynical
remarks presume strong beliefs about something or other. To characterize
positive attitudes as sceptical on the grounds that they are sceptical about the
negation of a positive belief is to stretch the terrn ''sceptical'' beyond its use in
most contexts. That is to say, it would be odd to characterize scepticism as a
disbelief in a disbelief. In that case we would have the odd contention that "a
theist is a sceptic about atheism. '' However, since much cynicism discounts the
truth of much that is accepted, much cynicism understandably is connected to
and is overlapping with scepticism, consequently the confusion that they are
constantly conjoined and identical.
While scepticism primarily relates to questions of fact, pessimism on the
other hand is an attitude towards the realization of value or the value of a
presumed value. Frequently pessimism and scepticism again trail along
together. The following claim made by Charner Perry, an o id teacher, is both
pessimistic and cynical: ''No civilization has been able to recognize its fun-

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Rhetoric Review

damental problems, let alone be able to do anything about them." But the
tradition of the pessimist is one of resignation. Such resignation is contrary to
much that went on in traditions of the Classical Cynics in Greek and Roman
times. Cynical remarks were barbs in the classic tradition to prod moral reform.
Equally toda y many cynics, such as Mort Sahl or William Buckley, are social,
political, or moral reformers. They are objecting cynically to prevailing pretensions and hypocrisies. The rhetorical force of their remarks is provocative of
either reform or reaction. Swift's modest proposal certainly was cynical, not
pessimistic. Pessimistic remarks rhetorically tend to disincline one to action,
not provoke it.
A very significant point, 1 believe about cynicism, is that many cynical
remarks, such as Swift's modest proposal, are ironic. The frequency ofirony in
cynicism suggests again that there is a close correlation between the two. Note
the irony in the cynicism of Benjamn Franklin's remark that the thing that he
likes about rational people is that they ha ve good reasons for everything. What
is striking here is that irony centers on the ambiguity ofthe terms referring to the
objects of irony or cynicism. Franklin 's irony plays with the appearance and the
reality of what are rational people and good reasons. Wilde was doing the same,
ifwe accept his lineas cynical, with ''gentleman'' and ''unintentionally rude. ''
In sum, cynicism uses irony to transfer attention from apparent to real, and this
shift enables the cynic to bring into better focus the ground of his cynicism,
namely the contrast between a real value anda pretending value, a real rational
person and a pretending rational person, a real gentleman and a pretending
Other cynicism seems attached toa self-interest ethic. A self-interest ethic,
sometimes called ethical egoism, usually maintains that man naturally acts for
self-interest, and that since he cannot do otherwise, that he ought to accept itas
right and go with the flow and not to oppose it. La Rochefoucauld's cynicism,
for example, apparently grows out of the view that psychologically man acts
naturally from self-interest and that deep in his heart every man is out for
himself. The question in interpreting La Rochefoucauld is whether or not he is
sad that this is so, whether or not one can do anything about it, or whether or not
one should even bother to try. One of the bitterest of his maxims, 1 believe, is
the following: "In the misfortunes of our dearest friends we always find
something not entirely displeasing." Do cynics, such as La Rochefoucauld,
necessarily hold a self-interest ethic? 1 think not. But either way, the attack on
conventional morality makes it easily understandable why the cynic is thought
either immoral or amoral. For any attack on the hypocrisy of conventional
altruism or benevolence is perceived as an attack on morality itself.

The Rhetoric of Cynicism


The cynic, instead of holding a self-interest ethic, may simply be calling

attention to the degree that men deceive themselves about their own motives,
and that they pretend to be operating on moral grounds when in fact they are
only acting in self-interest. A cynic, for example, may be simply denying the
honesty of most people.
But does the cynic thereby deny the value of al! honesty, even the value of
being honest with himself? The cynic who proclaims that "honesty is the best
policy racket" may be condemning what he sees as moral pretensions in men,
but is he necessarily denying the values ofthe virtue he proclaims to be a sham?
Again, is it not the duality of appearance and reality that is behind the denial of
the value ofhonesty? When Diogenes, the cynic, supposedly lighted acandle in
the daytime to loo k for an honest man, he did not deny the moral worth of the
honest man. Even Immanuel Kant admits that one can never be certain .that
anyone has ever acted from apure motive ora disinterested motive (25). The
cynic easily operates in this sphere of questionable motives. La Rochefoucauld
is direct about this matter in the following maxim: ''Self interest speaks al! sorts
of languages and plays al! sorts of roles, e ven that of disinterestedness.'' The
cynic challenges as appearance what others claim to be a real value. No wonder
from the point of view of the righteous the cynic appears amoral or immoral.
One can see how easily it would be, especially so for anyone holding a
self-interest theory of ethics, to be attacked for amorality when he is attacking
the altruism of others as sham, hypocrisy, or self-delusion. The logic is simple
for the righteous: "You attack morality, namely my morality; therefore, you
must be amoral or immoral. Your cynicism is a rejection of morality."
Misanthropy is characteristically found in many cynical remarks. Note the
cynicism in the statement "People are no damned good." Mark Twain's
cynicism about man has brought him the !abe! of misanthrope. A frequent
quotation from Twain is ''The difference between dogs and men is that a dog
never bites the hand that feeds it. '' The asceticism, the shunning of human
companionship that marks the ancient classical tradition of the cynic, lends
credence to the view that the cynic is anti-social and disdainful of mankind in
general. But again, the tradition of the ancient cynic, so praised by the Stoics,
depicts him as a moral reformer. Such a portrait of the cynic operates against
any view that cynics completely despair of mankind. The cynic's sarcasm may
be perceived as a form of moral shock therapy, and if the cynic is engaging in
rhetorical therapeutics, then he cannot be in complete despair about his patient,
especially if the therapy is free.
Final! y, cynics are somet mes characterized as disenchanted or disillusioned
idealists. Here 1 think les the crux of the matter in understanding much of the
phenomenon of cynicism. For in one sense the cynic is sayingjust the opposite,


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that he is not an idealist. He claims that ''a cynic is a realist. '' As one cynical
remark goes, "The power of accurate perception is called cynicism by those
who lack it." To say that a cynic is a realist brings out the ambivalence in
viewing the cynic. An unstable irony, playing on the term "realist," succeeds
in understanding what is fundamental. Cynical remarks oscillate between what
is an apparent value and what is a real value. They force the hearer to recognize
the value of oppositions; consequently, irony as a mode of speech as airead y
suggested is ideally adapted to express cynical remarks, for it directs attention
to the basic opposition between appearance and reality in the vision of the
cynic. The cynic's scom of those who consider cynicism as a vice instead of a
virtue is based upon this very opposition. But nevertheless the irony is unstable
for anyone rising above the viewpoints of both speaker and hearer, for the
outsider may not see truth in either side of the issue. Both parties are damned
with the presumptions that they are right. Ambrose Bierce in his Devil' s
Dictionary, or as he first entitled it, The Cynic' s Wordbook, illustrates this
oscillating point in his definition of a cynic. A cynic according to Bierce is ''one
whose faulty vision sees things as they are, notas they ought to be. Hence the
custom of the Scythians of plucking out a cynic's eyes to improve his vision"
(61). The cynic for Bierce sees what is real. The cynic's critic sees the cynic's
faulty vision. We have the basic opposition of what is appearance and what is
reality at issue in the cynic's eyes. From the point of view of the cynic's critic,
however, the cynic fails to see truly what the critic thinks the cynic ought to see.
But, as outsiders we wonder about the vision ofboth cynic and his critic, and we
question the confidence of the cynic in thinking that he sees what he sees.
Let me summarize my analysis so far. The term "cynic" shifts relative to
moral points of view. The critic of the cynic speaks of the cynic as essentially
callous, captious, fault-finding of what he considers moral. The term "cynic"
thus becomes pejorative in the eyes of the person towards whom cynicism is
directed. The speaker or author of a cynical remark, on the other hand, who
recognizes himself as cynical, is critica) ofthe morality of others and finds their
morality a sham ora pretense; and consequently his attitude of fault finding is a
virtue to him instead of a vice. The cynic in making his cynical remarks plays
upon the duality of what is a value and what is a pretended value. The force of
his remarks is toward correcting someone's vision of what is the real value in a
situation. The critic of the cynic fails to see the necessity of having his own
vision corrected about what are real values. The cynic's critic looks upon the
cynic as basically disillusioned and disenchanted about life. He looks upon the
cynic as having no sense ofvalue or having a corrupt sense ofvalue. The cynic
from the cynic's point of view is a moral critic. The cynic points out mistaken
appearances of value. From the cynic's point of view he is sceptical of

The Rhetoric of Cynicism


traditional or accepted values. Since the cynic looks upon many traditional or
accepted values as a sham ora fraud, he appears pessimistic about the forces
that carry civilization and mankind towards the future. Since sometimes the
cynic sees little hope for man 's future with accepted morality, his attitude
towards a value tradition casts the cynic in the role of an amoralist, a disenchanted person, a misanthrope, anda pessimist. Since much of the cynic's
criticism of traditional virtue takes the form of showing that much of the
traditional ethic is self-interested rather than disinterested, he seems to be
upholding psychological or ethical egoism, and consequently a self-interest
theory of ethic. Since for many, a self-interest ethic is amoral or immoral, the
cynic's remarks are presumed to be grounded in amoral or immoral beliefs and
attitudes. Consequently, the cynic is frequently thought amoral or immoral, and
the terms ''cynic'' and ''cynical'' are used evaluatively in a pejorative sense to
condemn attitudes, persons, beliefs, and actions. The cynic's irony and his
apparent disenchantment and disillusioned idealism merely reflect the duality
in much ofthe phenomenaof cynicism. The cynic resorts to irony, to overstatement, and other forms of figurative language that play on the duality of apparent
and real virtue. The rhetorical force of his remarks against sham and pretense
take on a note of exaggeration, distortion, and despair that easily lead to the
conclusion that the cynic is disillusioned and mistaken about reality. But one
can easily interpret mistakenly the cynical stance by taking cynical remarks too
literally. The cynic in his resort to irony, tongue-in-cheek statements, overstatement, caricature, and distortion easily confuses those in his audience who
are the object of his cynicism. A basic lack of sincerity and ambiguity of
intention displays itself in loase and figurative ways of speaking. His irony
becomes unstable. The language of cynicism is the source of much of the
confusion about where the cynic stands. Irony plays with honesty. And if the
cynic slips in maintaining his own moral honesty, he may develop the cynical
consciousness of the liar that Sartre speaks about. At that point the cynic passes
beyond the boundary of healthy cynicism and probably is guilty of many of the
neurotic states of mind attributed to him. He becomes the cynic, such as
Shakespeare' s lago, placing himself outside the moral point of view. The cynic
has reached Sartre's "ideal description of the liar" ... "a cynical consciousness, affirming truth within himself, denying in his words, and denying that
negation as such."

Works Cited
Bierce, Ambrose. The Devil' s Dictionary. New York: 1911. 61.


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Kant, Immanuel. Werke, Bank IV, Grundlegund zur Metaphysik der Sitten. Darmstadt: Zweiter
Abschnitt, 1963. 25.

Georg e Yoos is chair of the Department of Philosophy and director ofthe Rhetoric Program at St.
Cloud State University. He is editor of the Rhetoric Society Quarterly. His early work was in
aesthetics and philosophy of language. More and more his work and interests ha ve shifted away
from philosophical concems with rhetoric and its history to empirical approaches to the study of
discourse and discourse strategies, especially in writing, in argument and exposition.

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Freshman English News
Department of English
Texas Christian University
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