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Cynicism and whatever its opposite is

Notes on:
Robert C. Solomon, “In Defense of Sentimentality”

…. It is rather that sentimentality betrays the cynic, for it is the cynic and not the sentimentalist who cannot abide honest emotion. [p. 234.]

We must defend the cynic a little here. The cynic can well abide honest emotions. What is telling is which emotions. The cynic is appalled at human gullibility and stupidity, but more importantly, at the absence of the faintest evidence that this will ever change.

We must pause to distinguish between the pessimist and the cynic. The superficial similarity is that they share a propensity for dim expectations. Nevertheless, the attitude with which each faces the past and the future could not be more different.

The pessimist believes in the degrading effects of time. What good there ever was is always in the past for her; history is ever a downward spiral, nostalgia for a golden time her only consolation. Something irretrievable is lost every minute and she cannot help lamenting this. What can the future bring but more cause for lamentation?

By contrast, the cynic sees the past as a long string of errors and, if induction is any guide, we can rationally expect nothing different in the future. But afflicted with his own species of irrationality he is, nevertheless, joyful in the face of this knowledge. How can this be? Because as horrible as he perceives the past, he finds his present condition yet luxurious enough that he can contemplate the barest possibility that, all evidence to the contrary, tomorrow is a new day. Tomorrow is not (yet) contaminated with the past. Contrary to the principle of the uniformity of nature, the future may not be like the past. What hope there is must lie there, in what has not yet been soiled with having happened. The cynic suffers from lack of due respect for induction, perhaps, but not from morbidity or stupidity.

Conflated though the two often are, whichever you pick, each has his or her own set of sentiments to contend with and again these could not be more different. (Are not nostalgia and joy “tender” emotions?)

Now, what of the celebrationist of the moment, of “sweet” or “tender” sentiments, the carpe diem school of philosophy? Under what burden does he or she labor?

None at all—to the extent she or he is rigorous in this attitude. And it is precisely that which has alarmed moralists and esthetes alike about sentimentality. To the extent the day can be seized it cannot be lived by fully realized human beings.

This, then, is the burden, oblivious as the pure sentimentalist may be of it. Obliviousness, indeed, is the key to survival, the cynic will say, winking.

Room for tender emotions is almost always stolen. This is not to say that the darker emotions of shame, guilt, despair, etc. are not also prone to distract us from moral agency. In our struggle to survive our emotions, we must pit one against the other. Sometimes a certain neutralization results. Only in that fleeting calm, does truth sometimes make a cameo appearance.

In saying the cynic cannot abide honest emotion, Solomon probably has in mind, not the joyful Diogenean variety (that even Nietzsche extolled), but the facile “cynicism” of the jaded, those so expert in the imagination of others, they fail to develop their own… So then the proper contrast is between the sentimentalism of those incapable of being jaded, who never cease to wonder because no matter how many times they have experienced it before they have never really experienced it before. They will die as innocently as they were born. (We are trying very hard to describe them as kindly as we can.)

The proper comparison ought to be between the jaded and those too stupid to be jaded. The joyful are either cynics or dense.

See also “Moral Sentiment.”.

Posted by luno in cynicism (Friday September 9, 2005 at 2:43 pm)

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