Cynicism – Rhetorical stylistic devices

What is cynicism?

Related imageCynicism is not a rhetorical figure in the true sense. That is why he can not be defined at the level of grammar or by the proof of certain linguistic means of design.

Rather, we speak of cynicism when the speaker or author represents a characteristic world view or speech . This includes

  • a pessimistic, life-negating basic attitude,
  • the disregard of conventions and the taboo break,
  • the attack and the targeted violation of the addressee.

Origin in the Cynic philosophy

The term cynicism originally goes back to the ancient philosopher’s school of the Cynics (Greek »kyon« = dog) , which is based on Antisthenes (about 445 – 365 BC). The Cynics were convinced that happiness can not be gained through material possessions. They taught absolute indifference and renunciation as a way to freedom.

Such a doctrine inevitably goes hand in hand with the renunciation of the norms of a civilized society; In ancient Greece that was hardly any different from today. With the bite of a dog ( see above ) , the Cynics therefore defended their world view towards state representatives and critics.


Famous is the story of the Cynic philosopher Diogenes (about 405 – 320 BC), who lived in a barrel. At the question of Alexander the Great, with which he could serve him, the radical ascetic answered:

“Just go out of the sun.”

Change of the word meaning

The Kynikern was in the first step to self-discipline . They lived completely undemanding and thus opposed the prevailing social norm of material need satisfaction. In the second step, this lifestyle had to be defended against critics. This relationship explains how the meaning of the word “cynicism” changed over the centuries.

Since the 18th century, the outward-looking aspect of cynicism has been increasingly emphasized in German-speaking countries. The defense of one’s own world view was now at the center of the definition. Often the motto was “Attack is the best defense”. By contrast, the original conditions, simple life and overcoming material needs, took a back seat.

Cynicism as a role versus true cynicism

Cynicism in its present-day meaning always includes a decaying, malicious and inhumane attitude of the speaker or author. That is why one finds hardly any examples of cynicisms in the recognized literary canon.

Writers such as the American Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1914), who are commonly referred to as cynics, generally turn out to be moralists on closer inspection. They merely take on the role of the cynic to point out social and moral ills.

Ambrose Bierce

Example from the “Dictionary of the Devil” by Ambrose Bierce:

“Amnesty: Generosity of the state to those lawbreakers whose punishment would be too dear to them.”

An example of genuine cynicism in the literature is Curzio Malaparte’s novel The Skin (1949). He plays in 1943 after the liberation of the Germans in Naples and represents the liberated as completely degenerate. Parents prostitute their own children to get money for the black market. From such experiences Malaparte draws the cynical conclusion that war is preferable to peace. Critics accuse the novel of subliminal fascism. His cynicism is enhanced by a kind of desire for the macabre and obscene, with which the most terrible scenes are almost “tasted”.

Cynical figures in the literature

Related imageMuch more common than such a cynical keynote in the literature, however, there are individual figures that represent a cynical attitude to life. Often their cynicism is exposed and leads to their social and human failure.

Thus, in the moral novels of the eighteenth century, there is usually a cynical villain and seducer who acts as the antagonist of the virtuous protagonist. A famous example is the Vicomte de Valmont from Choderlos de Laclos’ novel “Dangerous Liaisons”.

Differentiation to irony and sarcasm

Especially in colloquial usage cynicism, sarcasm and irony are often equated. Although they are related to each other, they can be clearly distinguished.

Irony , in contrast to cynicism, is a true figure of speech. One recognizes them by the fact that what is said is the opposite of what is actually meant.

Example 1 / irony

When returning the German examinations the teacher says to a lazy student with a miserable note:

“You’ll see how well you’ve prepared yourself again.”

This statement is also sarcastic.

Sarcasm is always mocking and disparaging. He can, but does not necessarily have to appear as irony.

Example 2 / Sarcasm

The German teacher says with a view to the poor exam:

“Your achievements will help you to a lap of honor.”

In cynicism scorn and mockery are increased. It is not only aimed at the offending of the addressee, but is also characterized by the hopeless and pessimistic attitude of the speaker or author.

Example 3 / Cynicism

The German exams in the class are very bad. The teacher commented this (cynically) with a »round robin« on the whole generation of students:

“It’s no wonder that everyone is constantly hanging in front of the TV or playing with the computer. From you will never become something sensible. Poor Germany!”