Seeking A Cynic’s Library

Cynicism and Idealism are a classic yin and yang, a contradictory pair where we all seem to need both sides.  Few of us can really stomach an entirely cynical or entirely idealistic frame of mind.  Yet instead of finding some peaceful balance, these polar views seem to eternally struggle for our sympathy.

This struggle is not entirely symmetric:

Let us first notice some patterns about cynical moods. The young tend to be more idealistic, while the old are more cynical. People can remain idealistic their entire lives about social institutions that they know little about, but those who know an institution well tend to be more cynical. Leaders and the successful in an area tend to be less cynical than underlings and failures in that area. Things said in public tend to be less cynical than things said in private. People prefer the young to be idealistic, and discourage the teaching cynicism to the young. Cynicism is not considered an attractive feature.

If you wander a library you will find far more coherent and articulate book-length presentations of idealistic views than of cynical views.  Books on education, medicine, government, charity, religion, technology, travel, relationships, etc. mostly present relatively idealistic views, though of course no view is entirely one way or the other.  So one reason the young tend to be idealistic is that most reading material they can easily find and understand is idealistic. 

This seems to be the way society wants it; idealistic kids make a better impression so most folks want their kids taught that way.  But I would prefer a fairer fight between idealistic and cynical views; I'd prefer that kids could easily find and understand coherent and articulate book-length direct presentations of cynical views.  I've even considered writing something on this myself.  So let me collect the wisdom of our readers:  what is the best stuff out there now?

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  • david

    Yes, Minister or other such shows which mock the internal workings of organisations, perhaps?

  • Aaron

    I think that the Harry Potter series, although idealistic, demonstrates a great deal of cynicism towards governing institutions. And A Series of Unfortunate Events was cynical about people as well. These are just some of the children’s lit that springs to mind. I probably don’t need to mention The Wire for adult fare that teens could related to, and A Parliament of Whores does a good job of being an accessible essay.

  • michael vassar

    Thesis: Cynicism is about the idea that YOU have been lied to about how things work by the authorities. It contrasts with idealism on one side and with simple ignorance (no-one has ever told you how things supposedly work outside of your immediate environment) on the other. Children go into school ignorant and come out stupid. THEN, once they have a theory to work with, they can start to experiment and discover new paradigms.

    Stories that convey “official truth”, outward facades, or the like will almost necessarily be considered idealistic, even if the idealism is vested in an awful ideology such as NAZIsm, as to a great extent the belief that the way the world actually *is* conforms to a simplified official description of how things are.
    To a traditional Hindu child growing up in the slums of Calcutta the official story is that life is an eternity of misery that one can hope to escape into nothingness, if you work hard, after another million or ten reincarnations. Final death, if it existed, would appear to be great news, but disbelief in Brahmanism story is still ‘cynical’. In the bible Job is being cynical when he proclaims innocence, and Joshua is idealistic when he orders genocide in the name of god and tribe.

    So far as idealism is belief in the official story, cynical books for children will miss the mark, as they still lack cynicism to overturn. Jumping directly to evolutionary psychology won’t communicate any worse view of human nature than the Bible does or the Norse Myths did.

  • jimrandomh

    This is another case of the near/far bias. Explaining how a system is meant to work is simpler than explaining how it’s meant to work the ways in which it doesn’t work as intended. That said, looking specifically for books that are cynical will make you more biased. It will probably also make you less intelligent. If you read books that tell you the world fits neat abstractions and gloss over the cases where it doesn’t, then you’ll expand your toolbox of abstractions for understanding the world with; on the other hand, if you read books that tell you the world is inherently chaotic, you will learn nothing useful. Believing something to be inherently chaotic is the same thing as being unwilling or too stupid to understand it.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    Yes, Minister sticks to the facts – that really is how the civil service within UK government operates 😉

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    I’m seeing direct presentations of cynical views, so fiction is mostly not relevant here.

    Michael, by the age of ten most kids have been exposed to enough idealism for cynicism to be meaningful.

    Jim, I’m not telling kids to focus only on cynical books; I just want that side of the argument to be available to them.

  • http://hisowndevices.com His Own Devices

    So let me ask the collected wisdom of our readers: what is the best stuff out there now?

    Nothing. It’s all rubbish.

  • Scott Troutman

    Nassim Taleb’s books, although he may go a bit over the top.

  • Alan Post

    I’ve not personally read his books, but the first person that comes into my mind is Derrick Jensen (http://www.derrickjensen.org/). My second-hand impression is that his books are unmitigatedly cynical and coherent.

  • Eric

    Revolution as Theatre, by Bob Brustein, is one very good cynical book I’ve read recently. Plus it’s short!

    Brustein was a theater professor and critic at Yale in the late 60s/early 70s. The book is about the student protest movement.

    What about Bill Easterly’s books on foreign aid? Or James Grant’s books about the financial markets?

    Book-length cynicism is probably hard to publish.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/denisbider/ denis bider

    If one were looking to stress-test one’s cherished values, I guess a most extreme form of cynicism could be found in Marquis de Sade. Specifically, Juliette, the full-length version, where the actual story is merely a backdrop for the author’s lengthy philosophical ramblings.

    I’m guessing Richard Feynman’s books may also be popular because they are an intriguing mixture of idealism and cynicism.

    Perhaps people are biased towards idealism in education for fear that kids won’t always be able to properly process cynical views (might make the wrong conclusions, leading to harm), and/or because idealism might make the kids more docile, whereas exposure to cynicism might lead to rebellious behavior.

  • Cyan

    On Bullshit, by Harry Frankfurt. Maybe not cynical per se, but a definite must for a cynic’s library.

  • http://knol.google.com/k/james-miller/james-miller/1j9f9ffxxeue5/1# James D. Miller

    Mao: The Unknown Story by Chang and Halliday. Argues that a leader who was loved by hundreds of millions was really a sociopath.

    Cynic quote from Dune capturing the age cynicism / idealism difference

    “Nothing wins more loyalty for a leader than an air of bravura” the Duke said. “I therefore cultivate an air of bravura”

    “You lead well” Paul protested. “You govern well. Men follow you willingly and love you”

    “My propaganda corps is one of the finest” the Duke said.

  • frelkins

    If I understand what you are seeking Robin, one volume may be the work of the famous and controversial German posthumanist, Peter Sloterdijk, a professor at the Karlsruher Hochschule für Gestaltung. Specifically, his renowned 1987 Critique of Cynical Reason.

    You will not agree with many things he says (he is a Continental philosopher), but other things I think you will find in accordance with your outlook. Altho’ you may at first balk at his German style, which you might call Persuasive: “The universities and schools practice a schizoid role, in which an unmotivated, prospectless but intelligent youth learns to keep up with the general standards of enlightened meaninglessness.”

    For more serious academic sources of formal study on cynicism – political, academic, organizational – of course you have the scholarly access for that beyond what a Google search would return? I see lots of gated papers? But I could misunderstand what you seek.

    On this note it might be interesting to consider the relation between the kind of irony which has become common parlance and real cynicism.

  • Alan

    One might consult the writings of Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, in his passages where he idealizes the (original?) cynical approach to life, as epitomised by Diogenes. A modern context where the tension between idealism and cynicism is on display is the field of medicine. One could read, for example, Roy Porter’s, “The Greatest Benefit to Mankind,” alongside George Lundberg’s, “Severed Trust.” I think Nassim Taleb recently postulated that one reason “faith healing” was considered effective was that it had the effect of keeping patients away from doctors, who, until quite recently, may have caused more severe iatrogenic problems than the physical problems they were consulted to resolve. On this topic, also see Simon Singh, co-author of “Trick or Treatment.”

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Cialdini’s “Influence”, Wright’s “The Moral Animal”, Dawes’s “Rational Choice in an Uncertain World”.

    Surely if we’re looking for useful cynicism we should look for (popularizations of) those sciences that have actually demonstrated negative truths about human nature?

  • http://www.allancrossman.com Allan Crossman

    I’ve not personally read his books, but the first person that comes into my mind is Derrick Jensen

    Hmm. I opened one of his books and flicked through it a while ago, and put it back down when he claimed that warfare in primitive societies is really just a form of harmless play.

  • Tom
  • John Maxwell

    Derrick Jensen is a good example of a coherent & cynical left-wing nutcase. What are some good coherent & cynical right-wing nutcases?

  • michael vassar

    Robin: By age 10 kids have been exposed to massive cynicism via popular culture, (most humor and much action and drama), have been told that the founders of the US were great because of their skepticism of human virtue (some theme of contrast to communism here, may not be part of current schooling) and if Christian have been told that they are fallen etc and seen Ecclesiastes etc. By age 13 or 14 they have been assigned Mark Twain in school, endless books about racism and oppression, etc.

    Long before ANY of that they know that humans engage in war. Really the implications of that one thing contain most of the rest.

    jimrandomh and eliezer seem to have complimentary comments and I would second both.

  • Eric J. Johnson

    “Animal Farm.” Machiavelli. Nietzsche. “The Wire.” Ecclesiastes. “Stuff White People Like.” And I second “The War Nerd.”

  • salacious

    I would recommend Isaiah Berlin’s essay on De Maistre. De Maistre sounds sickeningly cynical to the modern ear, but taken on his own terms, he is actually strangely idealistic. It illustrates the importance of context in creating the distinction between idealism and cynicism.

  • steven

    What are some good coherent & cynical right-wing nutcases?

    Mencius Moldbug

  • Stefan King

    ‘Maxims’ by La Rochefoucauld

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

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    Jennifer Michael Hecht’s The Happiness Myth is good medium cynicism. It would be better titled as “Happiness Myths”, but the less dramatic title might not sell as well. It’s a historical overview of people’s ideas about happiness, with the purpose of discovering what is actually known about how to be happy and how much of what we bother ourselves about is likely to make us happy. Her conclusion is that we aren’t entirely wrong, but we’re missing a lot. If you want the “we’re all bozos on this bus” sort of cynicism, rather than the “look at how stupid and corrupt all those other people are” variety, check out Hecht.

    I’m looking forward to her Doubt, a history of various sorts of skepticism.

    I second the recommendation of the Harry Potter books. They’re stunningly cynical about most institutions– more so than most adult fiction, let alone children’s. (The honest, competent institutions seem to be Gringott’s, and the magic exams.)

    Hard Facts, Dangerous Half Truths, and Total Nonsense by Jeffrey Pfeffer. A book on evidence-based management about how much is known about how to manage effectively, to what extent was is known gets ignored, and how much of that is a result of management’s desire to feel as though it has a magic ability to lead.


  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

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    Jennifer Michael Hecht’s The Happiness Myth is good medium cynicism. It would be better titled as “Happiness Myths”, but the less dramatic title might not sell as well. It’s a historical overview of people’s ideas about happiness, with the purpose of discovering what is actually known about how to be happy and how much of what we bother ourselves about is likely to make us happy. Her conclusion is that we aren’t entirely wrong, but we’re missing a lot. If you want the “we’re all bozos on this bus” sort of cynicism, rather than the “look at how stupid and corrupt all those other people are” variety, check out Hecht.

    I’m looking forward to her Doubt, a history of various sorts of skepticism.

    I second the recommendation of the Harry Potter books. They’re stunningly cynical about most institutions– more so than most adult fiction, let alone children’s. (The honest, competent institutions seem to be Gringott’s, and the magic exams.)

    Hard Facts, Dangerous Half Truths, and Total Nonsense by Jeffrey Pfeffer. A book on evidence-based management about how much is known about how to manage effectively, to what extent was is known gets ignored, and how much of that is a result of management’s desire to feel as though it has a magic ability to lead.


  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

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    Jennifer Michael Hecht’s The Happiness Myth is good medium cynicism. It would be better titled as “Happiness Myths”, but the less dramatic title might not sell as well. It’s a historical overview of people’s ideas about happiness, with the purpose of discovering what is actually known about how to be happy and how much of what we bother ourselves about is likely to make us happy. Her conclusion is that we aren’t entirely wrong, but we’re missing a lot. If you want the “we’re all bozos on this bus” sort of cynicism, rather than the “look at how stupid and corrupt all those other people are” variety, check out Hecht.

    I’m looking forward to her Doubt, a history of various sorts of skepticism.

    I second the recommendation of the Harry Potter books. They’re stunningly cynical about most institutions– more so than most adult fiction, let alone children’s. (The honest, competent institutions seem to be Gringott’s, and the magic exams.)

    Hard Facts, Dangerous Half Truths, and Total Nonsense by Jeffrey Pfeffer. A book on evidence-based management about how much is known about how to manage effectively, to what extent was is known gets ignored, and how much of that is a result of management’s desire to feel as though it has a magic ability to lead.


  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    I’m sorry about the triple post– I was worried that my comment hadn’t appeared, and used the back button.

  • Tom

    I’ll add more of these as I think of them. Leo Strauss has been mentioned on this blog before, I think. His take on “Noble Lies and Deadly Truths” has some relevance to what we do here. Schopenhauer is notoriously pessimistic and cynical, his essays and aphorisms are quite entertaining. John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education borders on a conspiracy theory, but contains some interesting ideas nonetheless.

  • michael vassar

    Robin: I was just thinking how idealistic you sound about both the cognitive abilities of average people and the quality of exposure to idealism that kids get when you assert that by age 10 kids have been exposed to enough for cynicism to be meaningful. The kids I taught in a high school in Cincinnati with a 0% graduation rate certainly didn’t have enough idealism for cynicism to be meaningful to them. Neither did the kids in Kazakhstan. It seems to me that American middle class kids with IQs of 110 or greater have been exposed to enough idealism for cynicism to be meaningful to them by about the age at which the system starts ladling it on to them, e.g. late adolescence.

    Agreed with Tom about Gatto, both it’s conspiracy theory weaknesses and its general strength.

  • http://lightskyland.com Matthew C.

    Robin,

    Any young person with an internet connection has access to all the cynicism he or she could ever want to read, all neatly indexed and waiting a simple google search. . .

  • Eric J. Johnson

    Celine. Stendhal.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    The most famous cynical book in Western literature is “Candide”, by Voltaire.

    Mike Vassar is on to something wrt idealism = towing the official line. Idealism encourages cooperation above and beyond self-interest. It is a social mechanism for overcoming the prisoner’s dilemma. In cases where its function is to maintain the status quo, “idealism” can actually mean eg. keeping slaves and untouchables in their place.

  • David Jinkins

    Easterly, William. The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.

  • Kyre

    John Raulston Saul’s “Doubter’s Dictionary” and “Voltaire’s Bastards”. Both cynical about appeals to reason being used to serve narrow interests, and idealistic that there is such a thing as public interest.

  • Martin Cohen

    Catch-22

  • Z. M. Davis

    This is to nominate Steve Sailer.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/paultopia/ Paul Gowder

    Scott’s Seeing Like a State, of course.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I think it’s worth observing that good cynical books are, apparently, much easier to think of than good idealistic books. Nor does my own experience indicate differently.

  • Catville

    “A people’s history of the United States” by Howard Zinn

  • Dan D

    Poor Charlie’s Almanack by Charlie Munger has a healthy amount of cynicism in its pages. One of my favorite speeches included in the book is his Harvard School Commencement Speech from 1986 where he expands on a previous speech by Johnny Carson on prescriptions for guaranteed misery in life.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/outofculture/ outofculture

    Not a book, but Penn&Teller’s Bullshit would be accessible to an adolescent audience.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/outofculture/ outofculture

    Not a book, but Penn&Teller’s Bullshit would be pretty accessible to an adolescent audience.

  • Doug S.

    I’d also suggest the non-fiction works by Scott Adams, as well as Putt’s Law and The Successful Technocrat, which is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how technology corporations operate.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    That reminds me – “Parkinson’s Law” and “The Peter Principle” are old classics, but I don’t know if they’re superseded by more factual (and equally well-written?) works on the same subject.

  • Floccina

    Tangental to other comments that mention “Yes, Minister”, my father used to work with the police in a mid sized US city and he used to say that “Barney Miller” was the only realistic cop show. My guess is that the CIA, FBI etc are the same. Just a bunch of people waiting to retire with full benefits. I bet that Medical care is more like scrubs than House but scrubs has way too much success also.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    (Master rationalist) Robyn Dawes’s “House of Cards” does for psychiatry and psychoanalysis what Robin Hanson does for healthcare spending in general.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/hopefullyanonymous/ Hopefully Anonymous

    A cynical way to develop a lifelong predisposition towards idealism in a kid may be for an overbearing adult to emphasize the importance of their learning cynicism.

    An alternative or supplement to a cynic’s library of cynical books is a cynic’s library of conflictingly idealistic books by rival experts or observers.

    In terms of a sort of comprehensive cynicism that’s an easy pill to swallow, I think Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker series is hard to beat. For more official stuff that purports to be empirical, history textbooks from rival nations (translated appropriately) and educational and advocacy literature from rival interest groups (pharmaceutical companies, plaintiff’s law firms) could be useful. Selections from all that could make a good reader for younger age groups.

  • michael vassar

    Those are great suggestions Hopefully.

  • Douglas Knight

    jimrandomh says that cynics believe in chaos. Perhaps people who profess cynicism use chaos as an excuse for failing to engage with the system, but when one accuses other people of cynicism, especially “cynical manipulation,” the accusation is that the cynic believes in a very structured world.

    Perhaps cynicism is associated with defection, but the various uses depend on the independent questions of whether the cynic defects and whether everyone else defects. Mere association is a sign that a word is bad for communication. (like “normative”)

    (perhaps that was unfair to jimrandomh)

  • Sean Brown

    Several of Sowell’s books, including Basic Economics. Some of Hayek’s writing is also cynical of ideas like socialism and “meritocracy.”

  • http://www.vikitr.org viki

    “A people’s history of the United States” by Howard Zinn