Monday, October 10, 2011

In Praise of Cynicism

 Diogenes by John William Waterhouse
 “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” - Matthew 19:24

Do you wish to know the shortcut on the path to leading a Virtuous life? Take all your unnecessary shit – all the things you don't need, and which do not allow you to lead a self-sufficient life – and burn it. Burn your home to the ground and buy a large car and live in it. Do not attempt to gain money, power, or status. Devote yourself instead to knowledge and self-knowledge, and thus you will enter into the domain of Truth and live a life of virtue.

While it is true that it is virtuous and possible to accumulate wealth to benefit one's fellows – it is also true that this is also a lie many tell themselves to justify their actions, or their participation in a morally bankrupt system of thought. So many devote themselves to the ideas of their nation that they ignore the terrible reality around them, and instead choose to see their actions through rose colored glasses. They are lying to themselves. Wealth can be a trap, in which the belief is that the accumulation of it will lead to happiness, while in reality the person is miring themselves in a morally bankrupt system and choosing to instead value general economy over, say, his fellow man. This is the right of any individual to do: and many will. It is not, however, virtuous.

Many believe that power and status will allow them to live happily. They, too, lie to themselves. Those who wish for power will never love or treat their fellows as if they have worth – unless they have something to gain from that person. And therefore to seek power from the supposedly “Powerful” (which are but wordly individuals) is to mire oneself in the traps of politics and public opinion. All too quickly that power – so forcefully fought for – will suddenly vanish if one does not become, in reality, a Tyrant and instead expects the general goodwill or love of others.

To be a celebrity remains the desire of all too many, despite the fact that our “Stars” are in fact unhappy, pitiful, crippled things that we jeer and poke at. There is no quicker way to lose all sense of self and love for life than to become a part of the public spectacle, the terrible Fool who is ever-present.

To live a life of virtue is an act of courage – and it is not in accord with the laws of the land when they are unjust, nor with the notions of those around living around one. One is not allowed to pretend that shallow ideals will simply be enacted, nor is one allowed to pretend that one is holy or better than anyone else. To live this way is to serve oneself, above the notions of those around one, and to be subject to their derision.

There are no rewards for such a choice, except knowing that you abided by your code and refused to be drawn into systems which you object to. There is no good karma for this: you will suffer as others suffer, and face problems which others will not have to face. That is why so few manage to act this way; and that is why there is so little virtue in the world around us.

In the end, the easier choice is to follow along blindly, and to believe that Power, Privilege, Titles, Fame or Wealth will make you Happy. And perhaps it is possible to be happy in such a state. But it is not, nor has it even been, virtuous.

And for those who wish to deceive themselves on this matter, there is nothing but contempt.

Edit: I do not wish to sound as if I am proselytizing, because I am not. The above is an intentionally constructed extreme of the Cynical philosophy, not by any means something most – if anyone – actually manages to do. The path of cynical thought is to spend one's life disentangling the value judgments that society places on status symbols versus what is actually of worth, and allows for virtue. In this case the primary prizes are knowledge (which can be used any time, any where, and passed along) and self-knowledge (which is used to help disentangle ourselves at the places where are hard to deal with.

The biggest thing I wish to make clear is that acting on this line of thought may very well be highly praised in some eyes, many find it pointless. It neither satiates their personal desire (which some of us find pointless), nor does it give them any visible reward. This is why almost no one acts in such a fashion. Chasing wealth leads to a visible reward, but will always come at the cost of greed. Every time you engage in the process of working to facilitate and maintain wealth, you will run the risk of being greedy. So, while I do think it's a great thing that certain folks are getting their message out there about being a King, and serving your community by being prepared to part with the wealth you've worked for when the time is right – I feel compelled to note that this comes at a higher risk than, say, spurning wealth all together and focusing on other things. Which is not to say that spurning wealth and luxuries is by any means easy.

It is harder to do right by your fellow wo/man when you are consumed by greed, or envy (by far) than it is to simply give up what is necessary to maintain the state you wish.

Enough barking. I'm done for the night.


Robert said...

I would love to follow this advice. sell everything and be self-sufficient. Where would I live? Where would I obtain the most basic of health care? I am not sure that self-sufficiency is really possible in this system unless you have a particular skill or get lucky.

Jack Faust said...

@Robert: See my edit. But, frankly, you would note have a home, and you would not have healthcare. And it's likely (if not simply possible) you would die trying to live in such a fashion, due to the extremes of the choice. That's what makes the act courageous.

Rufus Opus said...

I think I'm heading deeper into a more Cynical approach. For some reason, I thought the cynics were like the prototype heaven's gate/harold camping-rapture, who predicted the world would end on a certain date and sold everything waiting for the end of the world that never came.

I actually agree idealistically with the cynics as you (and wikipedia) present their beliefs 100%, and I fully embrace your warning against greed. I spent years in greed, but since I started getting deeper into teh magics, and actually mastering the materialization magics, money isn't hard to produce anymore, and since it isn't scarce, it has lost most of its value to me.

The hymn isn't "Oh god make me the wealthy elite top 1%!" it's "health and necessary wealth."

Frater A.I.T. said...

Very interesting. I wonder if you've taken account the greater ability to do right by your fellow man one has with adequate resources?

I was talking with the wife about doing active good last night; we were debating whether the rich asshole who spent $40,000 at a charity auction and otherwise lives a life of pure luxury is actually doing more "good" than the poor person who regularly helps the folk in poverty who live around them (soup kitchen work, donating clothes and food and the like, etc). The poor person may not come anywhere near $40,000 worth of actual help in their entire life, while the rich dude will go on to burn more money at charity functions and the like, and that money will do a lot more "work" for the poor then the dude living in his van will be able to, regardless of how noble his heart may be. So, what is more important, the motivation of the individual or the fruit of their works?
If it is the fruit, than it is more noble to acquire wealth and put it to work, than it is to have no wealth and a kind heart.
I think it is best to acquire as much wealth as one can with moral action; the problem isn't the wealth, it's whether the person who has the wealth is with or without virtue. In a money-based society, people without money are also people without much power. Good requires work like anything else.

It's not that I think the Cynic way is wrong; I just think that it has nothing to do with the good of one's fellows and everything to do with personal virtue. Even then, it's tricky. Self-sufficiency is great living in a forest, but in a community it usually means that at some point the individual will rely on the kindness of his fellows, without having the means to return that kindness when they are in need.

Interesting bidness.

layo said...

I gave up my comfortable lifestyle and lived in a van. NOBODY thought I was a wandering holy person embracing voluntary poverty. I did feel really free, though. Also, it's dangerous.

Rufus Opus said...

Were you living down by the river, layo?