The sickness of cynicism

The Devil’s Dictionary by satirist Ambrose Bierce defines a cynic as “a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.” This definition cynically expresses a leading impediment to education in these times of faulty vision where things are not as they ought to be.

Young people are sick with cynicism, caught up as they are in a world of vicious faults and faulty visions that refuse or fail to believe in anything—falling away even from the poignant Chestertonian principle that it is better to believe in the wrong thing than to believe in nothing at all.

Nihilism is the new anti-creed and “whatever” the new watchword. Even if it is not consciously embraced, cynicism is a toxin that runs in the blood of modern society, and when mentalities are mired in noxious nothingness, there can be no such thing as education.

Shortly before becoming pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger famously said that modernity struggles under “a dictatorship of relativism,” where “the desires of one’s own ego” are centralized in society. Though the fashionable hedonism and fierce relativism rampant today confirms the veracity of the pronouncements of the now-pope-emeritus, it should also be noted that nothing goes with dictatorship so well as cynicism. As Georges Bernanos once said, “Democracies cannot dispense with hypocrisy any more than dictatorships can with cynicism.” When beautiful truths and basic freedoms are replaced with relativism, a sneering, sardonic dismissal from a position of assumed superiority is an invaluable asset.

When men hedge their bets on the demands of human whims before anything else, it is hardly surprising that many experience existential letdowns. Human beings are naturally imperfect, and thus it is natural that humanists are suspicious, even contemptuous, of any kind of idealism—even in the sphere of education.

This attitude degenerates into the habit of questioning man’s sincerity of motive, his rectitude of conduct, and traditional mores. When cynical men lose faith in man, it is difficult to retain faith in anything higher than mankind, which leaves a pretty poor playing field. This is the faulty vision of the cynic. Recovery, however, is possible; and one way to be healed from cynicism is through educational experiences unsullied by cynicism.

Since cynicism is a malady of the mind, a good school must seek to restore intellectual health through the healthy balance of levity and gravity, and an enjoyment of learning as something that is good in itself. Tales of high adventure, studies of high principles, activities of high physicality, conversations on high ideas, and liturgies of high transcendence are a balm for a nihilistic day and age. Good and great books, music, wonder, religion, sports, hands-on learning, active engagement, and a friendly, personal approach.

Such experiences and exercises remind people of the glory and grandeur of man and the divine glories and grandeurs that give meaning to mankind. Such things take a definite side and claim a definite stake. They are the furthest thing from “whatever.”

The old traditions make the world young again, and they are safe from or at least resistant to cynicism because they are informed by and infused with an ancient and time-tested wisdom, with the thrill of passionate endeavor, the charm of poetry, and the thrust of truth.

For all its rigors, a good education is a celebration and a rejuvenation of the broad and bright light of truth. And yet what is wholesome cannot easily be seen, much less appreciated, if the vision of the whole has been lost to fracture. When the concept of truth itself is dismissed as fatuous or futile or far-fetched, what hope can be had for education? When human behavior, and all of its wild anomalies, is held and heralded as the alpha and the omega while driven by nothing more than subjective self-interest and self-indulgence, what effect can an education possibly have? When pride in imperfection is all that is embraced, what more but gloom, mistrust, disparagement, or even despair can be expected? This is the prison of pessimism and the poisoning of culture by the sickness of cynicism.

In the words of Oscar Wilde, the cynic is one “who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” If this is so, a true education is priceless! It is about the intrinsic value of things. It breaks people free from the tyranny of cynicism, allowing them to step outside of themselves and into the wide world that God has made so that they can see that it is both good and beautiful. This is the antidote to the sickly supercilious cynicism of the times.

SEAN FITZPATRICK is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves as the headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pa. He also serves on the Advisory Council for Sophia Institute for Teachers. His writings on education, literature and culture have appeared in Crisis Magazine, The Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic Exchange.

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