When Nothing Is Good Enough

The law of supply and demand, like the law of gravity, applies to just about everything. These days, for example, cynicism abounds—“We are all cynics now,” Ansgar Allen reports—and we value this oversupply accordingly, which is to say not at all.

In ancient Greece, however, true Cynics were few. Hard-bitten dissidents, they lived an aggressive, contrarian philosophy opposed to convention, keen on what is “natural,” and enabled by near-fanatical independence. Diogenes the Cynic, perhaps the best known of their number, scandalized Athenians by flaunting his bodily functions. But these enemies of propriety had a certain usefulness, much like short sellers in today’s financial markets. When human values seem built on thin air, count on a Cynic—or if necessary, a mere cynic—to realign them with reality by sneering at their emptiness.

Neither Mr. Allen’s “Cynicism” nor Helen Small’s “The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time” celebrates cynicism, but both make a kind of case for it. They also concern themselves as well with how we went from the paradoxically idealistic social criticism of the ancient Cynics to the nihilistic cynicism of our own times. The short answer is: Friedrich Nietzsche.

“Even avowed atheists, Nietzsche argues, have not come to terms with the loss of a higher, divine authority,” Mr. Allen explains in “Cynicism,” his richly informed if dour guide to the subject. Faced with the “ontological convulsion” of God’s death, he says, “we late moderns switch listlessly between substitutes—reason, liberty, utility and so on.” In the “dubious interregnum” that persists between the old divine order and some fuller understanding of its loss, “modern cynicism is what reigns.”

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