267. Youthful folly (VI)
Words are the currency with which we negotiate reality; and, for the most part, words are debased. Behind each word should be a certain weight, just as valuable currency should contain real gold to support its value as a token. The weight behind words is reality, the word is a signpost to reality; it is not worth anything, except insofar as it points to reality. Unlike currency debasement, words have been debased for many, many centuries.
To take one particular example, the words “cynicism” and “cynic” have come to mean a person with a sour, possibly wicked, take on human nature. A person who assesses human motivation in very materialist terms—ignores pronouncements about morality and good intentions—and then uses what they know about human motivations to get their way. The term is synonymous with “Machiavellian”, another word that is misused. To be described as “a cynic” is not a compliment and it suggests a person who does not see reality in the whole—possibly for their own selfish reasons.
The word “cynic” derives from “kynos”, the Ancient Greek word for “dog”. The Cynic philosophers, led by Diogenes the Cynic, wished to emulate the dog. The dog: it muzzles its friends and bites its enemies, it is sincere. The dog finds it difficult to simulate; for the Cynic philosophers, human societies reject dogginess. In broad daylight, Diogenes set out about his native city with a lamp; when asked what he was about, he replied: “I search for an honest man.” Diogenes had, by this point, cast away all his possessions and lived in a barrel; and when he saw a shepherd boy drink from a stream with his hands, Diogenes threw away his only wooden cup—he had been shown that even a wooden cup was a pretension. His view was that man had been corrupted by sociability—almost everything we do is an affectation to please others or cultivate support. Consequently, Diogenes could not find an honest man in his own city—especially in the daytime, the time when everyone was out doing deals, seducing, and flattering each other. To be a dog is to be straightforward, honest, and truthful; so he became Diogenes the Dog.
His father was a banker, so Diogenes knew much about currency and its debasement; indeed, his whole life was a protest against the debasement that grips man when he becomes civilised. As Diogenes knew, this debasement eventually kills a civilisation; the citizens—just as with the contemporary West—become addicted to polite lies that are rewarded with social status, and eventually the delusion kills. A catastrophe goes unchecked or the city is overrun by barbarians who have fewer illusions.
So it is ironic that to be described as “a cynic” today is taken to be an insult; it is quite the opposite. The debased person flatters themselves that they only say and think good things and that those people around them—for the most part—only think good things and are motivated by the highest ideals. The dog bites frankly—or it licks frankly—but man strokes those he detests and punishes those he admires because it suits his social status, financial goals, or delusions about the world.
The man who is a real Cynic—with a capital “C”, a man who lives the philosophy—is a virtuous man; and it is entirely typical that debased people would turn the word around to criticise and mock such a man. The person who gives the real thing—the real currency, the gold—is seen as morally debauched, since morality is mostly a social lie and he violates it. This is why we find in fairytales, time and again, that the real wisdom the hero needs is hidden with a hermit; he is often despised and mocked as a bitter old man because the truth is bitter and rejected by the dishonest mass. The real gold is driven from the city—even though the city will surely die without it.