In J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Farmer Giles of Ham,” the small village of Ham has a blacksmith with the fantastic name of Fabricius Cunctator. He is commonly known as “Sunny Sam.” It’s one of those ironic nicknames–like the big guy named Tiny. Sam is anything but sunny. Indeed, he is typically quite gloomy. Sam always sees things in the worst light. Whatever his fellow villagers are up to, you can count on Sam to explain why it will never work. Sam is never happier than when things are going bad. When plans fail and when catastrophe strikes, it only goes to show how smart Sam was to see through the foolish plans of his naïve neighbors. If only everyone had as penetrating an intellect as Sam.
One assumes that the citizens of Ham sometimes get some things right. Indeed, the whole story is about a man named Giles who successfully defeats a dragon and achieves great wealth and renown as a consequence. But the thing about the Sunny Sam types of the world is that no one ever pays attention to the times they get things wrong (i.e., when things go right), but they never stop reminding us of the times that they got things right (i.e., when things went wrong). And very few plans of either mice or men ever go off without a hitch. No policy is implemented perfectly. Few of our choices are unmitigated successes. There is always fodder for the Sunny Sams to say, “I told you so.”
C.S. Lewis famously intoned “You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”
This is the problem of the cynic. He’s always “seeing through.” He takes the truism that things are rarely ever exactly what they seem to lead us to believe that everything is phony. All proclaimed intentions are really masks for hidden agendas. All plans are futile. If only we could “see through” the naive ideals of the gullible, credulous fools then we would be truly wise. That’s the cynic’s claim.
Cynicism, in truth, is the dumb guy’s version of being smart. Unable to construct any positive vision or defend any normative claims, he contents himself with tearing things down. And because, like Sunny Sam, you will from time to time (maybe most of the time) be correct you will pat yourself on the back about how smart you are. You don’t have to put anything on the line, because you are so busy seeing through everything you can’t bring yourself to actually think through and create a positive plan or a constructive insight.
To try to achieve something good requires taking a risk. The risk is that you might be wrong. It is the risk that you might fail. When we fail, we naturally feel despondent, perhaps feeling a little bit stupid. If I tried and failed, my failure perhaps reveals some inadequacy on my part. I wasn’t clever enough to come up with a plan that would work. I didn’t work hard enough to see the project through to success. Our failure is proof that we shouldn’t have tried in the first place. That’s the inner cynic that resides in all of us.
The cynic is the enemy of excellence, constantly undermining our faith in anything good, true, and beautiful. All this to play act at being smart. This is the guy who is always saying, “Well, ACTUALLY…” as in “Well, actually, we don’t need to learn from Aristotle because Aristotle didn’t believe in equality of the sexes and defended slavery” or “Well, actually, the Allies committed war crimes, too, not just the Nazis” or “Well, actually, The Magnificent Seven is just a remake of The Seven Samurai.”
I sometimes call this the Homer Simpson Problem. In an old Simpson’s episode, Homer has forsaken his religion. One very cold Sunday, while his family braves the elements to go to church, Homer stays at home. He watches football, drinks beer, reads Playdude, and smokes a cigar. He announces confidently, “Everyone is dumb, except me.” He promptly falls asleep on the couch with a lit cigar in hand and nearly burns down his house.
By destroying any concept of the good, the cynic saves himself from ever having to rise up to a standard. In an attempt to appear smarter than everyone else, he really is, like a child, just avoiding responsibility while undermining the very concept of merit. If every measure is stupid, then I can’t be blamed for not measuring up.
The cynic can oppose but never propose. In that sense cynicism is simply a negation. If you want to build, you can’t be a cynic. Being a person of conviction runs the risk that your convictions won’t work out. That you are proven wrong. That you appear the fool. But better that than being a Fabricius Cunctator, a man who will never fail because he never actually tries to win.