And please don’t confuse my point of view with cynicism; the real cynics are the ones who tell you everything’s gonna be all right.
— George Carlin
Cynicism often gets a bad rap by being used interchangeably with “jaded”. Personally, I think it would be great if we revived the tradition of literally barking like dogs at bullshit artists and other anti-intellectuals incapable of carrying on conversations in good faith. You’ll never convince me that people with such a wonderful sense of absurd humor are mere apathetic nihilists.
But still, cynicism in its modern connotations is one of the most common charges leveled against people who profess some degree of pessimism about ideas of progress or improvement. For the record, I don’t think it has to be an either/or choice. I still stand by what I said recently, that you can thread a middle path between hope and despair by dismissing “the future” as an abstraction and concentrating on doing what’s needed here and now. I might even say that Edward Abbey was on to something when he described a pessimist as simply an optimist in full possession of the facts.
And “full possession of the facts” is what we should be striving for in the first place if we intend to improve on things. Do-gooders aren’t going to help anyone if they’re too beguiled by the beauty of their visions to notice inconvenient facts, a primary example being: the world does not need our permission to be what it is.
When it comes to hopeful ideas of purpose and meaning in life, people have been openly and publicly using evidence of mindless, pointless suffering against the concept of a personal, loving God and caring universe since the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, at least. Not just the suffering humans endure, but that of animals as well, many of whom only exist to disappear down the gullet of another. We’ve all heard of wonderful examples of intelligent design such as the wasps who paralyze spiders and caterpillars before laying their eggs in them; when the eggs hatch, the still-living victim is slowly devoured from the inside out. Or the type of worm that can only exist by burrowing into an eyeball. Schopenhauer spent a lot of time detailing this sort of thing, so if you need further material to furnish your existential crisis, he’s your one-stop shop.
A friend of mine is one of those who thinks atheists are arrogant for thinking they know enough to draw even provisional conclusions, that we should live in a state of suspended belief just in case some miracle happens to contradict everything we’ve learned from science and history. But the only way forward for someone who is aware of all the mindless suffering in the world, yet still determined to keep some sort of faith in a higher purpose, is through teleology. You have to justify it all as part of some long-term plan, as necessary steps along the way to something better.
…[T]hat in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened with men — but though all that may come to pass, I don’t accept it. I won’t accept it. Even if parallel lines do meet and I see it myself, I shall see it and say that they’ve met, but still I won’t accept it. That’s what’s at the root of me, Alyosha; that’s my creed.
..While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible?
…I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing.
In one sense, I have to smile at the youthful, romantic idealism of Ivan here. There’s no one to protest to, and there’s no way for you to take your ball and go home. Like I said, the world is what it is, regardless of how that makes any of us feel. But his reaction, however futile, is still preferable to me than that of a person who trivializes and depersonalizes all the horrendous suffering in history by reducing it to stepping-stones. I live a comfortable life as a well-fed, sorta-educated, middle-class, white, heterosexual male in the most affluent and powerful society that has ever existed, and I certainly appreciate that twist of good fortune. How many advantages could one person possibly ask for? But it would be positively obscene to me if I were asked to believe that all the nameless, faceless billions of people who lived short, painful and ultimately unimportant lives did so in order that people like me might enjoy this spoiled, ennui-filled existence. It may have happened that way, but it didn’t have to be that way. They were not means to my end, to yours, to any of ours. It seems to me to be, well, awfully jaded and arrogant to think so. In fact, it seems to me that a resolute determination to face the world squarely and see it plainly, without the comforting intermediaries of myth and ego, is actually one of the highest forms of idealism.