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Virtuous Cynicism VS Mere Misanthropy: The Way of the Light Troll

Introduction: “What a Cynic!”

There's a certain irony in the way we use the term 'cynic' in our everyday conversations. Often thrown around to label doubters and disbelievers, 'cynic' bears a decidedly negative connotation in mainstream discourse, almost indistinguishable from 'misanthrope'. Yet, if we peel back the layers to its philosophical roots, we find cynicism in a radically different light.

In the philosophical sense, a cynic isn't just “a faultfinding captious critic” as Merriam-Webster would have you believe. Instead, a cynic is a thoughtful observer, scrutinizing societal and individual motivations, promoting authenticity over pretense, and substance over the superficial. This ancient cynicism aligns more with a quest for virtue and discernment than it does with the modern perception of misanthropy.

The irony deepens when people, who carry a vague understanding of cynicism, self-label as 'cynics' but end up exhibiting traits closer to misanthropy. They stand against insincerity and pretense but fail to recognize or appreciate the genuine virtue in others. This is where the essence of cynicism gets twisted. What they perceive as cynicism often morphs into a disdain for humanity at large.

Our societal slide from the cynicism of “individualism” to the misanthropy of “rugged individualism” becomes evident when we examine the popular discourse around the concept of 'virtue signaling'. This term has a distinctly negative undertone, primarily used to accuse individuals of superficially parading their moral values for personal gain or social approval, without genuinely living by them. However, the essence of what 'virtue signaling' criticizes can be distilled into one older, well-established term – 'hypocrisy'. Yet, the culture wide choice to package this critique as 'virtue signaling' instead of simply calling it 'hypocrisy' might reflect an inadvertent societal skepticism towards virtue itself. Perhaps due to repeated exposure to insincere rhetoric, we've now been Pavlovian conditioned to instinctively associate any discussion of virtue with hypocrisy This, however, muddies the waters and risks overlooking those who genuinely embody and express Virtue. It's essential to distinguish between genuine virtue and its hypocritical counterfeit, to preserve the value of authentic virtue, and to not let misanthropy eclipse the virtue of cynicism.

This concept echoes Aristotle's philosophy on virtue, wherein he identifies the golden mean as the balance between deficiency and excess in a given situation. To apply this to our current discussion, we might consider cynicism as a virtue positioned within the spectrum of incredulity, ideally maintaining a balance between the deficiency of naïveté and the excess of misanthropy. This places cynicism as the golden mean on this spectrum, upholding a healthy skepticism without devolving into an all-encompassing scorn for humanity.

Yet, this understanding of virtue as a golden mean could seem abstract without acknowledging Aristotle's concept of Practical Wisdom. For him, virtue transcends mere understanding; it demands action. Thus, virtuousness necessitates the practice and embodiment of these virtues, not merely comprehending them. By this understanding, a cynic isn't just one who questions, but also one who actively strives for authenticity and virtue in themselves and in society.

With this frame of reference, we introduce Diogenes, a man who personified this golden mean of cynicism through his actions. Among his many legendary exploits, Diogenes is famously depicted strolling the streets of Athens in broad daylight, clutching a lit lantern. When asked about his odd pursuit, he would reply that he was in search of an honest man. This tale, while seemingly peculiar, serves as a striking embodiment of the cynic’s quest for authenticity and virtue amidst a world veiled in pretense.

As we delve into the depths of this complexity, we will unravel the layers of misunderstanding and carve a path towards a more nuanced comprehension of these ideas in our everyday lives. In the light of Diogenes’s lantern, we too might find ourselves on the quest of seeking virtue in places often overlooked and recognizing the invaluable lessons that cynicism, when understood in its true essence, can teach us.

Misanthropy, Cynicism, and Envy: Definition and Distinctions

As we embark on this exploration into the nature of cynicism, it is crucial to distinguish it from misanthropy and to understand the role envy can play in distorting our perceptions. By untangling these concepts, we can form a clearer picture of the virtuous cynic, distinguish them from misanthropes, and build resilience against the corrosive effects of envy.

Misanthropy, far removed from virtuous cynicism, paints a bleak picture of humanity. It stems from a deep-seated dislike or distrust of people, denying the potential for goodness in any individual. Misanthropes view the world through a lens of skepticism so intense that it blinds them to any semblance of virtue or sincerity.

On the other hand, cynicism, when correctly understood, stands not as a denial of virtue but as a quest to find it. Cynics, rather than denying the existence of virtue as misanthropes do, instead question the authenticity of its display. They pierce through the veneer of societal pretense, ever in search of genuine sincerity and value. This search is not born out of a disdain for Human Nature, but rather out of an earnest desire to uncover and appreciate its true potential.

Despite the profound difference between these two worldviews, the line separating them can often become blurred, primarily due to the corrosive influence of envy. Envy, a feeling of discontent stirred by another's success, possessions, or qualities, can distort our perceptions of virtue. Rather than appreciating the virtue we see in others, envy leads us to dismiss its validity or even to deny its existence. In doing so, we risk sliding from cynicism into misanthropy, losing our ability to discern and appreciate genuine virtue in the process.

Uncovering these distinctions gives us the tools to navigate the complexities of our online and offline interactions. It offers us the opportunity to disentangle virtuous cynicism from the less constructive aspects of misanthropy, and to guard against the vision-clouding effects of envy. Understanding these nuances allows us to align more closely with the spirit of Diogenes, shedding light on the authenticity we yearn to find in ourselves and others, while maintaining a healthy skepticism toward superficial hypocrisy.

As we continue our exploration, let us remember that the virtuous cynic, rather than denying all virtue or succumbing to envy, strives to seek out and appreciate authentic goodness. And with that understanding, we are better equipped to further delve into the compelling philosophy of Diogenes and its relevance in our contemporary world.

Diogenes: The Cynical Sage

Diogenes of Sinope, the ancient Greek philosopher, serves as our archetypal virtuous cynic. His life was a theater of thought-provoking episodes, each revealing a different facet of his cynicism which, though distinct from misanthropy, was not without humor. Two particular anecdotes stand out, one featuring the mighty Alexander the Great, and the other, a humble orphan boy.

Diogenes was once spotted lounging in the sun by Alexander the Great, arguably the most powerful man of his time. Intrigued by the philosopher's reputation, Alexander approached Diogenes, who remained nonchalantly unfazed by the presence of the Great King. Seizing this opportunity to show magnanimity, Alexander offered to grant him any wish. With an unwavering gaze, Diogenes looked up into the shadow of the great king. "Stand a little out of my sun," he said, effectively dismissing the conqueror of worlds.

This incident, told and retold, has often been celebrated for its audacious humor and its embodiment of cynic defiance against authority and pretentious grandeur. But it's not just a tale of wit and dismissal. This story underscores a significant aspect of virtuous cynicism - the understanding that real virtue doesn't lie in power or riches, but in authenticity, simplicity, and self-sufficiency.

Now, while Diogenes' well-publicized encounter with Alexander often takes center stage in discussions about his life, there exists another tale that's perhaps less flashy but imbued with greater depth. Once, Diogenes saw a poor orphan boy drinking water from his hands at a stream. The philosopher, who carried a wooden bowl as his only possession, tossed it away upon seeing the boy. "A child," he said, "has beaten me in plainness of living."

This unassuming boy, drinking water from his cupped hands, presented a virtue that resonated with the cynic's quest for simplicity and self-sufficiency. The boy's lack of possessions didn't signify impoverishment to Diogenes, but freedom from superfluous material ties. In essence, he saw virtue not in an emperor clad in royal attire, but in a boy who had nothing yet lacked nothing. This is the key aspect of the ancient cynicism: Looking beyond superficial appearances, appreciating virtue where it truly lies, and then actively incorporating virtue into our own character.

These tales of Diogenes shed light on his philosophy of virtuous cynicism. They underscore the importance of questioning societal norms, valuing authenticity, and appreciating simple virtue, even when they manifest in the most unassuming places. This appreciation, free from the clouds of envy and disdain, forms the crux of virtuous cynicism - a philosophy that, when adopted, can illuminate our path, just like the lantern in Diogenes's daytime quest for an honest man.

Cynicism in the Digital World: The Way of the Light Troll

In our exploration of cynicism, we'd be remiss if we didn't consider a modern analog of Diogenes – the internet troll. Yet, the term 'troll' often carries negative connotations, much like 'cynic' and 'misanthrope,' suggesting an individual who sows discord online for personal amusement. However, the practice of trolling, like cynicism, is much more nuanced and can indeed serve to provoke thought, challenge preconceptions, and illuminate truth.

We delve into a deeper examination of trolling in its varied forms and motivations on our Trolling page, where we unpack its complexities beyond the narrow perception of mere online antagonism. We invite you to explore it for a broader understanding of this unique aspect of digital culture.

However, in the context of our current discussion, we will bring our focus back to the intersection of trolling and cynicism. Specifically, we will examine how trolling is indeed often misanthropic, however, like the cynicism of Diogenes, it can also serve as a vehicle to challenge societal norms, provoke thought, and reveal underlying truths in our digital discourse.

Let's start by broadening our understanding of trolling. Just as Diogenes challenged the societal norms of his day, trolls challenge our digital discourse. Yet, their methods and motivations can vary greatly. To make sense of this, we may imagine a spectrum of trolling behaviors, from the destructively disruptive to the constructively challenging.

At one end of this spectrum, we find the notorious dark trolls, the individuals typically associated with the term 'troll.' Dark trolls take a sadistic pleasure in provoking, disrupting, and spreading confusion. Their modus operandi is to bait others into heated debates, incite anger, or simply to cause distress for the sheer enjoyment of it - a concept often justified with the term "lulz," a distorted version of 'laughs.'

These dark trolls, emboldened by the anonymity the internet often provides, believe themselves to be invincible. They revel in the chaos they create and dismiss any criticism or consequence as irrelevant. They lack sincerity and tend to bail out after they've had their fun, leaving behind a trail of discord and upset.

If you're a self-proclaimed ‘cynic’ who often finds yourself engaging in this type of behavior under the guise of challenging people's beliefs or shaking up complacency, you might want to take a step back and reconsider. Cynicism, especially as Diogenes practiced it, isn't about causing distress for the sake of amusement. It's about sparking thoughtful reflection and dialogue.

Returning to the earlier incident with the orphan boy in Athens, Diogenes' well-known presence would have been recognizable to the child. Despite his unconventional lifestyle, Diogenes was generally loved by the Athenians for his wit and candor. We can imagine the boy, perhaps feeling low or lacking self-confidence due to his circumstances, seeing Diogenes approach. In this scenario, Diogenes' kind and unexpected act - throwing away his wooden bowl in recognition of the boy's virtue - would have served not just to challenge the status quo, as he often did, but also to uplift the boy, akin to initiatives like the "Make-A-Wish Foundation."

Even Diogenes' iconic exchange with Alexander the Great reflects this aim to provoke thought rather than irritate emotions. In that memorable encounter, Diogenes, as the prototypical troll, wasn't merely trying to dismiss or enrage to the powerful figure by opting for a simple yet impactful request, it was a playful nudge towards virtue. Having been educated by Aristotle himself, Alexander was conditioned to appreciate such philosophical provocations, he didn't respond with resentment, but was so moved by Diogenes' bold disregard for societal hierarchy that he famously declared, "If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes."

There's a breed of modern trolls that embody this spirit of constructive cynicism on the other end of our spectrum- the light trolls. These are individuals who, much like Diogenes, use provocation as a tool for illumination rather than disruption. Light trolls engage others with puzzles and thought-provoking questions, aiming to elevate rather than deflate. They earn their lulz laughing with, not at, others, and their delight comes from mutual understanding reached rather than chaos sowed. Light trolls aim for common ground, avoiding unnecessary confrontation. Their presence is often accompanied by an atmosphere of camaraderie and enjoyable intellectual pursuit.

Their approach mirrors that of Diogenes, who provoked thought not to validate his nihilism but to inspire others towards virtue. They hold up the lantern, metaphorically, searching for genuine reflection and self-awareness. Much like Diogenes recognized virtue in the simple act of a boy drinking water, light trolls seek out and acknowledge the virtue found in online discussions, no matter how obscured they might be.

To put these principles into practice, light trolls draw upon a range of strategies and methods, a collection of resources that could be called their toolbox. Just like a skilled artisan might select the appropriate instrument for a particular task, so too do these virtual virtue seekers choose the correct tool to craft their LOL. The contents of this toolbox derive from various intellectual traditions, combining the wisdom of Socrates, the down-to-earth humanity of Diogenes, and the adaptability of the digital age:

Not all trolls are created equal, and not all incredulity is inherently destructive. Dark trolls might feel like they're challenging the status quo and pushing boundaries, but so long as they ignore the pursuit of genuine virtue, their actions often devolve into nothing more than mere misanthropy. In contrast, light trolls and virtuous cynics like Diogenes serve as catalysts for critical thinking and reflection, embodying a philosophy that can enrich our interactions.

A Cynic’s View on Virtue, Hypocrisy, and the Need for Authenticity

In today’s digital discourse, the term ‘virtue signaling’ often surfaces to critique those who publicize their moral stances, allegedly more for personal image-building than effecting substantial change. Critics, however, might be misplacing their focus. The cynic would argue the problem lies not in the ‘signaling of virtue’ but the ‘hypocrisy’ of failing to embody these professed virtues. This reflects our societal drift from constructive cynicism to a more hostile, misanthropic mindset.

Here, Aristotle’s philosophy provides a refreshing perspective. He championed the concept of moral exemplars - those who embody virtue through regular practice, serving as inspirational figures for others. Such an idea aligns with a cynic’s skepticism toward mere declarations of virtue without matching deeds. It’s the action that proves the virtue, not just words.

Echoing Diogenes of Sinope, our modern cynics are the ‘light trolls’ from the digital world, maintaining a thoughtful scrutiny of virtue declarations. Their skepticism isn’t a blanket dismissal, but a critical examination of the gap often seen between one’s professed values and their actual behavior. Diogenes was known for his talent in revealing hypocrisy. He endeavored to show the stark differences between individuals’ lofty claims and their contradicting actions. His goal wasn’t to taint virtue but to question the sincerity of those professing to uphold it.

For example, if someone vocally supports environmental conservation yet lives an opulent, wasteful lifestyle, a cynic won’t hesitate to highlight the inconsistency. However, this discrepancy doesn’t undermine the principle of environmental conservation. The virtue remains pure; it’s the person’s commitment that’s in doubt. Through revealing such hypocrisy, cynics aren’t attempting to devalue virtue. Instead, they’re reinforcing that espousing virtue and living it are two different matters.

Drawing on this, the term ‘virtue signaling’ should be set aside. Instead, let’s appreciate genuine virtue when it’s demonstrated, and call out hypocrisy where it exists. This form of cynicism doesn’t undermine virtue; instead, it paves the way for a culture where hypocrisy is unveiled, and authenticity is cherished. By doing this, we can promote a culture of sincerity, integrity, and true commitment to our values, in the spirit of the ‘light trolls’ and our virtuous cynics.

Envy: Misplaced Virtue Recognition and the Corrective Force of Cynicism

Aristotle articulated that we, as humans, are inherently equipped to recognize Virtue in others. This enlightening fact inevitably raises a fundamental question: how have we managed to contort this natural instinct into something as damaging as Misanthropy? Our investigation into this question takes us back to The Five Barriers to Peace of Mind, the primary colors of human suffering as discussed in the Vibing like a Sage article, and the corrosive effects of envy that can distort our recognition of Virtue

Envy is like a blinding white light, a composite of all colors – or rather, a composite of the five primary barriers: lust, spite, sloth, worry, and bad faith. To understand the blinding power of envy, we must dissect it into these fundamental elements and explore how they color our perceptions and emotions.

Lust, the first of these barriers, often manifests as the root of garden-variety jealousy. We covet others' material possessions, status, or reputation – a car, a promotion, a successful business venture. Such everyday jealousy, while it might stir unease within us, is generally recognized and manageable by most individuals. Aware of these feelings, we typically make conscious efforts to address them before they escalate into something more destructive.

As we move along the spectrum of emotions, spite becomes the next hue in the white light of envy. Spite emerges when feelings of jealousy are left unchecked and begin to cause a sense of animosity and bitterness. We might begrudge others for their success, perceiving their accomplishments as a personal affront.

At this critical crossroads, Cynicism's Virtue offers us a lifeline. Cynicism, echoing the philosophical tradition, teaches us that external possessions, wealth, power, and even social recognition are immaterial to our true nature. It encourages us to view others' positions, wealth, or social standing with a grounded and realistic perspective, guiding us through these challenges.

A turning point appears as we confront the barrier of sloth. Sloth doesn't merely refer to physical laziness but also to a reluctance to confront our negative emotions and work towards personal growth. It symbolizes inertia, a resistance to cultivating the qualities we admire in others. When we witness genuine Virtue in someone else, something worthy of emulation, we may falter in the face of the effort required to instill similar qualities within ourselves. Rather than taking action, we might yield to complacency, allowing envy to creep in and fostering resentment instead of self-improvement.

Worry is the fourth hue in the spectrum, a byproduct of living in the digital age. Worry in this context often takes on the form of anxiety, a preoccupation with the future. It’s not merely a fleeting feeling of unease, but a nagging concern about our personal progress in relation to our peers. We may find ourselves caught in the relentless cycle of comparing our milestones - be it graduating college, starting a family, or advancing in our careers - with those of our contemporaries, showcased on the various digital platforms.

The anxiety engendered by these comparisons can be amplified by the realization of the uncertain amount of time we have left in life to reach these milestones or achieve these accomplishments. This profound concern, characterized by the barrier of worry, can lead us to question our self-worth and value, ultimately pushing us into the territory of envy.

Unfortunately, this form of worry can compel us to not only dismiss the boastful displays of success but also belittle genuine accomplishments. The authentic achievements of others, instead of being a source of inspiration, become a yardstick by which we harshly measure our own progress, thereby breeding envy and resentment.

In this light, it's essential to discuss the concept of Rugged Individualism, often presented as an ideal in our society. The doctrine of Rugged Individualism espouses self-reliance and personal independence to an extent that becomes untenable, given our inherently social nature as humans. It harbors the pretense that one must master every aspect of life single-handedly, disregarding the fact that humans thrive through cooperation, communal effort, and specialization. This mindset, while admirable in its pursuit of self-sufficiency, can paradoxically sow seeds of resentment towards the mastery seen in others, thus, exacerbating the already existing jealousy.

This misstep can lead to bad faith, the final barrier that crystallizes envy. Bad faith manifests when we delude ourselves into believing that others’ successes are undeserved or their demonstration of Virtue is insincere. This mindset is reminiscent of the ‘sour grapes’ fable, where a fox, unable to reach a bunch of grapes, convinces itself that the grapes are sour, therefore unworthy. Like the fox, we may belittle the Virtue or successes of others when they appear unattainable, treating them as ‘sour grapes’. This act of self-deception solidifies envy and disrupts our peace of mind.

Here, we can draw upon the practice of Noticing, as discussed in last week's article on the superpowers of solitude. This practice encourages us to notice and acknowledge our feelings, enabling us to recognize the root causes of envy and address them constructively. By noticing our own accomplishments and areas of growth, we can begin to disentangle ourselves from envy, turning towards self-realization and interconnectedness.

Cynicism, in this landscape, offers navigation back to the path of authentic Virtue recognition. It helps us distinguish true Virtue from mere posturing, enabling us to appreciate the authentic goodness in others. In this journey, we may encounter the compassion of one, the integrity of another, and the courage of a third. Cynicism facilitates the process of acknowledging these instances of Virtue and, crucially, incorporating them into our distinct moral character. Aspiring to embody virtues seen in others can inspire us to not merely imitate those we look up to, but to become better versions of ourselves. It can guide us in transforming envy into admiration, converting the blinding white light into a spectrum of opportunities for personal growth. Admiring others does not diminish us; instead, it empowers us. By understanding and overcoming envy, we can build our own unique character and embody virtue like the moral exemplars we admire, fostering a more peaceful and virtuous self.

Conclusion: Navigating Towards Virtuous Cynicism

The journey towards virtuous cynicism is not a one-time event, but a continual practice, a personal odyssey of self-discovery and growth that requires dedication, patience, and open-mindedness. It involves challenging our preconceptions, questioning our responses, and, above all, seeking a deeper understanding of our interactions and emotions.

Becoming a virtuous cynic starts with critical thought, a crucial skill that allows us to dissect situations and identify authenticity and virtue. It means looking beyond the surface, bypassing the shallow displays of hypocrisy, while discerning the genuine virtue in people and situations. However, while cynicism is indeed a school of skepticism, we must distinguish between a healthy skepticism and contrarian misanthropy. A virtuous cynic does not dismiss everything as false or deceitful but maintains an open mind, ready to recognize and appreciate true virtue when it presents itself. Perhaps the most challenging yet rewarding aspect of becoming a virtuous cynic is developing the willingness to admire true virtue. It involves overcoming our ego, letting go of envy, and accepting that others may possess qualities we admire and wish to embody. This acceptance does not diminish us but elevates us, allowing us to learn, grow, and refine our virtue.

Embracing virtuous cynicism is a journey of self-refinement and personal growth. It is a path that encourages us to continually strive for authenticity, respect, and thoughtful interaction, not just in the digital realm, but in all aspects of life. In navigating towards virtuous cynicism, we're not just building an ability to recognize virtue; we're also cultivating an inner strength that can weather the storm of online interactions and beyond. We're learning to see the world with a more balanced view, where we appreciate virtue without falling into the traps of envy or resentment.

"I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world." -Socrates

In this global, interconnected world, we too are citizens of the world, and as such, it is our responsibility to cultivate an online culture that promotes understanding, empathy, and mutual respect. Let's embrace the philosophy of Diogenes, embodying the spirit of the virtuous cynic, and promote a healthier, more thoughtful, and discerning online environment.

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