In praise of cynicism

I practise cynicism. But it’s becoming seen more and more as a vice and while I don’t promote it exclusively as a virtue, nevertheless I feel something should be said in its praise.

I’ve long maintained that true cynicism is, in fact, a protective shield for the romantic idealist who is dangerously exposed to the disappointments of everyday life. The life of a romantic idealist is horribly laden with risk; cruel “reality” stalks it in every direction, the finger-wagging pragmatists are firmly in the driving seat and I can hear the admonishing tones of headmasterly correction everywhere I go.

So it’s no wonder that you need to protect yourself: the only other solution would be decorative suicide and that really is quite a waste. The romantics used to go for Consumption, of course, but modern medicine sadly rules that out. But a good bout of cynical appraisal of the modern world is an exceptionally good thing, I feel, and just think of the savings you can make going without therapy. The point is, it’s harmless and can be funny. Fowler’s Modern English Usage includes it under the heading of ‘Humour’: its motive or aim is self-justification; its province, morals; its method or means, exposure of nakedness; and its audience, the respectable.

The trouble is that politics has given cynicism a bad name. Governments have proved themselves capable of breathtaking cynicism – usually at the same time as condemning us all for the very same trait: Tony Blair was a supremely good exponent of it. What do I mean

But I uncovered a rather fine specimen recently, when I was sent a free ballpoint pen in a mailing by a charity. Sitting idly at my desk – I’m surpassingly good at that – I took the ballpoint apart and found the ink in the inner tube measured just over an inch long: just enough, presumably, for me and one or two other members of the household to write the charity a cheque with it before it was exhausted.

That’s it, really. A form of ‘respectable’ cynicism exposed in all its nakedness by a romantic idealist who might, otherwise, have made a modest contribution. Life is indeed like a box of chocolates: by the time you get to it, the only ones left are montelimar.

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