Critique of Cynical Reason

Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason is a nearly 600 page survey of the history of cynical (and kynical) thought, from ancient Greece through contemporary times. It is an eccentric book, written in an oddball style; at various points scholarly, humorous, vulgar and wacky. At some points it’s just outright bizarre! Nevertheless, it is not boring. It is a book that is fun to read while also being filled with many provocative insights into the evolution of cynical (and kynical) thinking in western culture.

Although its title makes reference to Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Cynical Reason reminds me more of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Geist. Both books are presented as phenomenological explorations of history from ancient to modern times, exploring the unfolding nature of philosophy, art, politics and religion. Additionally, both books end with the authors advocating the virtues of accepting the world for what it is, thereby allowing us to overcome the alienation of our thinking selves from the world we inhabit. But whereas Hegel’s book is humorless, often incomprehensible, and yet profound, Sloterdijik’s book is hilarious, usually intelligible, and often striking in its keen insights. While Hegel’s book leaves one with a heavy sense of gravity, Sloterdijik’s book leaves one with a light-hearted sense of whimsicality. Like Nietzsche, Sloterdijk wants to drain the dogmatic seriousness out of contemporary philosophy and transform it, again, into a Gay Science. This desire, as he reports in the Preface, is inspired by his own “childlike veneration for what, in the Greek sense, was called philosophy”: a discipline that he believes has become strangled and stunted in its growth. With Critique of Cynical Reason, he intends to reinvigorate the “dying tree of philosophy,” in order to produce “bizarre thought-flowers” (p. xxxviii). And, yes, many of the “flowers” that bloom in this book are indeed bizarre!

Sloterdijk begins his book by defining the nature of cynicism as “enlightened false consciousness” (p. 5). This paradoxical definition is, he admits, puzzling; for with enlightenment it would seem that “false” consciousness should melt away in the blaze of its exposure. To be enlightened about false consciousness would be to see through the lies one tells to one’s self and thus necessarily to expose and undermine the state of “falseness” in one’s thinking altogether. After all, if I know that I am lying to myself about something, maintaining confidence in the lie would be impossible, wouldn’t it? Not really, claims Sloterdijik. With enlightened false consciousness, what occurs is that people are fully aware that their beliefs and work efforts are based on some sort of lie, but they nevertheless continue to act as if everything is just fine. They carry on their life routines, going through the motions of day-to-day work in a state of melancholic awareness that their actions in the world are out of sync with their inner beliefs and understandings of what is really true and important. With modern cynicism:

A certain chic bitterness provides an undertone to its activity. For cynics are not dumb, and every now and then they certainly see the nothingness to which everything leads. Their psychic apparatus has become elastic enough to incorporate as a survival factor a permanent doubt about their own activities. They know what they are doing, but they do it because, in the short run, the force of circumstances and the instinct for self-preservation are speaking the same language, and they are telling them that it has to be so. (p. 5)

Because of the circumstances that they find themselves living in, cynics feel that they are compelled to work in a particular job, act as if they adhere to a particular set of polite beliefs, and live in a particular manner that will allow them to prosper and thrive. Survival is seen as the reward for playing by the rules, even though, inside, the cynic thinks that the rules are fraudulent. “Thus, the new, integrated cynicism even has the understandable feeling about itself of being a victim and of making sacrifices.” (p. 5) Cynics adopt a protective social facade, but behind that facade is bitter sadness and angry resentment against a world that forces them to lie to others while telling themselves the truth. They are, thus, enlightened about their own false consciousness while continuing to make the sacrifices that are necessary to survive in a corrupt world.

Enlightened false consciousness doesn’t just happen out of the blue. It takes mental labor. In order to pursue enlightenment of any kind, one must abandon an old way of thinking in favor of a new, better way of thinking. For this reason, enlightenment is connected with a process of internal and external dialogue in which ideas and conflicting arguments must confront one another. This process brings pain, and so it rarely unfolds in a completely rational manner. In the unfolding history of enlightenment, Sloterdijk tells us that power struggles inevitably develop between the enlightened and unenlightened. Enlightened thinkers would like the unenlightened to give up all prejudice – including their attachments to tradition – in order to engage in open-ended, purely logical dialogue leading to an uncertain future. The unenlightened, on the other hand, desire to hold onto their comfortable illusions, viewing those who want to dislodge their beliefs as enemies rather than friends. Each side, then, ends up reifying the other. The unenlightened consider the enlighteners to be dangerous revolutionaries while the enlighteners regard the unenlightened as those who either are lying to themselves or those who harbor ill will toward the truth (p. 15). Since the traditional philosophical perspective (going back to Socrates/Plato) is that no one willingly hates the truth, enlighteners end up concluding that it must be socialization into some form of pre-existent, corrupt ideology that keeps the unenlightened from abandoning their false beliefs about the world. They must be brainwashed. So then, in order to rescue the unenlightened, the enlightened ones must fight fire with fire and adopt a strategy of “ideology critique” in order to “cut open” the opponent “in front of everyone, until the mechanism of his error is laid bare” (p.16). Abandoning pure reason and logic, the enlighteners resort to confronting and criticizing things like the economic interests or class membership of those that won’t listen to “reason,” in the process exposing just why it is they are so stubborn.  This amounts to what, in logic, is called an ad hominem attack, a strategy that strictly speaking is not “logical” at all, and thus not endorsed by philosophers, but which is regarded as a necessary evil under the circumstances.

Sloterdijk suggests that if used in the vein of satire, “ideology critique” allows enlighteners to demonstrate the sorts of laughable irrationalities that lie beneath the surface of everyone’s conscious awareness (including the enlighteners). However, in the history of the west, what we find is that ideology critique instead pretends to take on the character of a science, becoming dogmatic in its observations that those against whom the critique is leveled are uniquely “sick” and in need of a cure that only the enlightened can provide. When it loses its sense of humor, then, ideological critique also abandons its openness to ongoing dialogue, claiming to have the final, unquestionable solutions to the world’s problems. It thus descends into totalitarianism, which advocates a kind of functionalist pragmatism, teaching others how to remain “healthy” and productive by submitting to the ideological assumptions of the enlightened. A non-humorous, “scientific” ideological critique ends up teaching this lesson:  “Stop reflecting and maintain values” (p. 21).

Sloterdijk endeavors to recapture the humorous, “cheeky” (p. 101) nature of ideology critique as satire by looking back to it’s origins in the ancient Greek philosophy of kynicism. He uses the term “kynicism” (with a ‘k’) to distinguish the philosophy of Diogenes and his students from “cynicism” (with a ‘c’), the modern, non-humorous outgrowth of the ancient Greek tradition. With the appearance of Diogenes of Sinope, Sloterdijk tells us that we find “the most dramatic moment in the process of truth of early European philosophy” (102). Diogenes begins a rebellion against the idealistic form of thought advocated by Plato through his engagement in a non-linguistic method of argument that employs his own embodiment as a means of communication. Diogenes is an existentialist who, instead of chasing after “unattainable ideals” (p. 101), simply “says what he lives” (p. 102). His own body, and the actions that it carries out, become the premises and the conclusions in his arguments. Instead of verbally debating with others, Diogenes farts, shits and masturbates, shocking those around him, but in so doing, he also reveals the taken for granted assumptions about normal behavior in those who are shocked. His “shamelessness” is a subversive “low theory” (p. 102) that “refutes the language of philosophers with that of the clown” (p. 103), humorously demonstrating that the mainstream, polite and taken for granted mode of social life is a form of unquestioned ideology that inhibits and suppresses basic human nature. Instead of speaking against idealism, he “lives against it” (p. 104). In living against idealism, Diogenes is a materialist; but he is a materialist whose actions, because performed in public, also have a generalized, moral, imperative force. By acting out in public, he implicitly suggests that it is legitimate for others to do the same. If he had just performed his natural, private functions behind closed doors rather than in public, nothing would change. By shitting, pissing and masturbating in public, however, Diogenes demonstrates to others that they have nothing to be afraid of in turning against convention. His actions highlight how funny it is that people are so ashamed of what they do in private.

Sloterdijk argues that the history of cynicism after Diogenes consists of the progressive suspension of embodiment and the increasing exaggeration of thought and ideas split off from life. Philosophy eventually becomes just another form of ideology: ideas that are thought and argued about but not embodied in the day-to-day actions of life. By degrees, embodiment and idealism still do battle with one another in the arts, in religion, in politics, in warfare, in sex; but in a cynical (as opposed to kynical) age, the incongruity between the body and the mind, nature and convention, is increasingly approached non-humorously, with real, embodied rebellion being supplanted by new conventions of idealistic pseudo-rebellion, thus establishing new norms of behavior that are out of synch with real life. Even in subcultures like punk, which purport to resist the “system,” Sloterdijk complains that cynical cheekiness has become appropriated as a new ideology, a new cynical norm governing life in the nuclear age:

A short time ago, the leader of the English punk group, The Stranglers, celebrated the neutron bomb in a frivolous interview because it is what can set a nuclear war into motion. “Miss Neutron, I love you.” Here he had found the point where the kynicism of protestors coincides with the brazen-faced master cynicism of the strategists. What did he want to say? Look how wicked I can be? His smile was coquettish, nauseated, and ironically egoistic: he could not look the reporter in the face. As in a dream, he spoke past the camera for those who will understand him, the little, beautifully wicked punk devil who causes the world to rattle with unthinkable words. That is the language of a consciousness that earlier perhaps did not mean to be so wicked. But now, since the show demands it, not only is it unhappy, it also wants to be unhappy (p. 127).


He does, I think, have a point. Today, I am amazed at how even the most subversive and rebellious sentiments have been harnessed and domesticated for the cynical purposes of money-making and fame. Musical stars, actors, comedians and other celebrities express anti-establishment sentiments before going back to their mansions in the Beverly Hills. The parts that they play in movies or on TV, or the things that they joke about in their routines, are treated as completely divorced from real, embodied experience; and when it turns out that these stars do live lives resembling their artistic performances, the result is often public outrage. Fearing the loss of their careers, the offending stars then apologize and promise to mend their ways, changing their behavior to be more normal and in line with public expectations. It is supremely ironic that the very sorts of behaviors audiences pay to see depicted on the screen, hear sung about in songs or joked about in stand-up comedy are the same sorts of behaviors that they are outraged by in “real life.”

I’ve only scratched the surface of what appears in Critique of Cynical Reason. In addition to what I’ve covered, Sloterdijk offers a hilarious account of the symbolic meaning of differing body parts and functions (tongue, mouth, eyes, breasts, arses, farts, shit and genitals); he presents a “cabinet of cynics” including Diogenes, Lucian, Mephistopheles, The Grand Inquisitor, and “Anyone” (Heidegger’s Das Man); he gives an account of “cardinal” and “secondary” forms of cynicism; and he ends with a long section on the Weimar Republic that traces the development of increasing existential uneasiness among the Germans as a result of their progressive technical achievements. The thread that the author always pursues, sometimes grabs hold of, and sometimes loses altogether in the course of these sections is the exploration of a historically recurrent disjunction between the commands of the body and the ideological demands of culture, politics, and religion.

Sloterdijk ultimately wants to do more than simply describe the historical convolutions of cynical consciousness, however. He also wants to resurrect the spirit of Diogenes in present times, advocating a return to the kynical, rather than the cynical, way of life. He wants us to overcome the conventional abstractions that ultimately make human beings less, rather than more, happy, and replace them with an honest recognition of our embodied, lived experience. Instead of the “enlightened false consciousness” of cynicism, he wants to pair rationality with nature, encouraging us, like Diogenes, to satirically and humorously confront the absurd, contradictory demands that are always a part of being a social animal.



Cynicism, like nihilism, has a bad name in the poplar mind. It is generally thought that cynics are negative, distrustful, and see only the worst in others. They have nothing positive to say or to contribute, but are full of complaints and criticisms. They assume everyone is motivated by foul intentions, and consequently believe no one can be relied on.

This contemporary deployment of the term “cynic,” however, deviates from its original use in the ancient world. In ancient times, Cynicism was the name of a philosophical movement that, contrary to popular opinion today, did indeed possess positive ideals and that provided not only a diagnosis of, but a solution to, the despairing unhappiness of the times. Ancient Cynics were more than just unhelpful social critics; they were optimistic philosophers who wanted to demonstrate that human contentment is achievable through a life of natural simplicity. William Desmond’s book Cynics offers a clear, systematic overview of this movement in ancient philosophy, while also describing its lasting impact on contemporary thought.

Desmond’s main thesis is that while Cynicism in the ancient world certainly was a diverse phenomenon with much variation, there was nonetheless a stable, core set of beliefs uniting the various individual Cynics. Figures like Antisthenes, Diogenes and Crates were more than just nonconformists. They were proponents of a consistent, cohesive philosophy. The core beliefs of this philosophy are that the renunciation of custom is liberating (Chapter 2), that one should live life according to nature (Chapter 3), that the self is a stable substance, independent of society (Chapter 4), and that the best form of social organization maximizes the freedom of the individual (Chapter 5).

The English word “cynic” comes from the Greek word kyōn, which means “dog” (p. 3). The ancient Cynics advocated a simple life that was based on fulfilling natural desires while resisting what they regarded as unnatural, decadent desires. Like dogs, Cynics went around naked or wearing very little. They owned hardly anything, wandering from place to place, scavenging food and shelter. They urinated, defecated and masturbated publicly. They rejected marriage, politics, and work. This dog-like existence was intended as an antidote to the perverting influence of civilization, which encourages people to hide behind a veil of artificiality.

The Cynics claimed that human unhappiness is the result of the repression of natural needs coupled with the cultivation of unnecessary desires that cannot be satiated. Civilization encourages us to disguise and stifle our natural functions while also encouraging us to seek money, prestige, power, and so forth. But in pursuing these sort of things, humans find themselves on a hamster wheel of unquenchable craving that only leads to anxiety and unhappiness. Better to live like a dog, then, in the moment, absent conventional aspirations. If we live simply and according to nature, we can be satisfied and content with what the world gives us. In this way, Desmond writes, the Cynics preached a positive message: “Far from being pessimistic or nihilistic, ancient Cynics were astonishingly optimistic regarding human nature. For them, ultimately, human beings are good: very good” (p. 3). This confidence in human nature – coupled with their rejection of artificiality – comprises the center of the Cynic philosophy.

Desmond suggests that in the ancient world, we can detect four stages in the evolution of Cynicism. First, there is the “pre-Cynic Greek period,” which includes what he classifies as “proto-Cynics” such as Socrates. While a philosopher like Socrates is rarely regarded as a true Cynic, his influence on later Cynics was powerful. Not only was he the teacher of Antisthenes (who is sometimes credited as being the founder of Cynicism), but his simple lifestyle and anti-establishment battles against the Athenian mainstream can be regarded as expressing what would become some of the main concerns of the later, classical Cynics (pp. 13 – 16).

The second stage in the evolution of ancient Cynicism consists of the “classical period” of thinkers, the most famous of which is Diogenes of Sinope; a man that Plato described as “Socrates gone mad.” Diogenes is said to have been exiled from his home state, ending up in Athens where he lived in a pithos; a large barrel or tub normally used to store wine or olive oil (p. 21). Though he reportedly wrote dialogues, letters and tragedies, all of them are lost, and so the only knowledge that we now have about Diogenes “the dog” comes from the accounts of others like Diogenes Laertius, a Roman author. The stories are legendary. Diogenes was purported to have been banished from Sinope for “defacing the coinage”; a phrase which took on great significance for later Cynics who regarded it as a “command to decommission the ‘coinage’ of social custom” (p. 20). Diogenes threw away his own drinking cup when he saw a slave boy sipping water with his hands, illustrating that even a cup is an unnecessary extravagance in a world where nature has provided us with hands, which themselves can be cupped. When he was confronted by outraged Athenians for masturbating in public, Diogenes scoffed at their prudery, lamenting “If only…one could relieve a hungry belly also just by rubbing it” (p. 89). He walked through the Athenian marketplace with a lantern in broad daylight “looking for an honest man” (p. 21), insinuating that honesty was invisible in highly civilized Athens. Differing accounts claim that he died by holding his breath, or from eating raw octopus, or from being bitten by a dog (p. 23). Upon his passing, he did not want to be buried, but to have his body left in the open to be consumed by animals.

Despite his unconventional life, Diogenes was reportedly admired by Alexander the Great, the leader of the Macedonian Empire. Upon arriving in Athens, Alexander found Diogenes asleep in his barrel. He prodded the Cynic, telling Diogenes that he was willing to grant him any wish he desired. Diogenes’ response was for Alexander to “stand out of my sun” (p. 21), suggesting that the only thing a king could do for him was to make way for what the world already provided naturally.

After Diogenes and the “classical period” of Cynicism, the third period of evolution occured with the literary influence of Cynic philosophy on Hellenistic thinkers – in particular the Stoics – and then continued into the Roman Empire, the fourth period of evolution.

The final chapter of Desmond’s book examines the legacy of Cynic thought, highlighting some of the philosophers, writers and religious figures who have been influenced by Cynicism. I was especially interested to see the ways in which Desmond characterizes one of my own favorite thinkers, Friedrich Nietzsche, as a sort of neo-Cynic. Like Diogenes, who coined the term “cosmopolitan” or “citizen of the world,” Nietzsche spent the majority of his adulthood homeless, wandering Europe and declaring himself to be a “good European” rather than a citizen of Germany. He railed against the constraining forces of polite society, exhorting people to harness their natural “will to power” in service of an earthly sort of contentment in the here-and-now. His philosophy extolls the virtues of individualism, naturalism, and self-sufficiency; very much like the ancient Cynics. It’s no wonder (as Desmond notes on page 231) that Nietzsche, in The Wanderer and His Shadow (§ 18) writes:

The modern Diogenes. – Before one seeks a human being, one must have found the lantern. Will it have to be the lantern of the cynic?

More startling to some readers might be Desmond’s speculation that Jesus may, perhaps, have been a Cynic. Desmond reports that some of the major Cynic philosophers of Jesus’s time – Menippus, Meleager and Oenomaus – lived in Gadara, a city near Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps Jesus became familiar with their ideas and integrated them into his own teachings. His praise of poverty, his rejection of convention, his mixing with lowly people and his courage in speaking out against those in power all offer tempting suggestions that there was something “cynical” about Jesus. Indeed, Desmond writes that some scholars have gone so far as to conclude that we find “Cynicism in the heart of the Christian Gospels themselves” (p. 211).

I really enjoyed Desmond’s book. While I have long been a fan of Diogenes, I was not acquainted with all of the details in the development of Cynicism as a philosophy. Instead, most of the other, shorter accounts of the Cynics that I have read characterize them as proponents of something more like a lifestyle or an attitude rather than of a coherent system of thought. Desmond’s account of this movement convincingly puts the Cynics into a larger perspective, demonstrating the underlying method to their madness as well as the long-lasting influence that the “classical” Cynics have had on philosophy up to present times. Desmond has inspired me to explore the Cynics further, and perhaps even to integrate more of their cheekiness into my own life.