Friday, August 1, 2008

'romantic' and 'cynic'

Looking back at some of the stuff I've said about the words 'romantic' and 'romanticism' I feel slightly ashamed. So superficial! And while it is true that these words were coined after the fact by literary historians trying to get a handle on the way the mentality of western Europe had changed in the early 19th century (none of the poets we call 'romantic' now would have used that word in talking about themselves or their work. I don't think Wordsworth ever uses it in his "Preface" to the Lyrical Ballads that he and Coleridge had planned to jointly publish), that doesn't mean we should discard them; what would we use instead? What would I use? I call The Flying Dutchman a romantic image and the young woman, Senta, who falls in love with it a romantic. That seems right, does it not? What other word should I use?

Romantic poets, so-called, use the pronoun 'I' in a way that none of the poets that preceded them would have done. "I wandered lonely as a cloud...." says Wordsworth... Or Blake:

I travel'd thro' a Land of Men,
A land of Men & Women too,
And heard & saw such dreadful things
As cold Earth wanderers never knew....


As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy....

'Romanticism' is the word we use to describe the revolution in the uses of subjectivity that occurred sometime around the end of the 18th and the early years of the 19th.

The romantics were idealists; they believed in truth and beauty and justice. Wordsworth welcomed the French Revolution, before it went sour.

The word 'cynic' has a very different history, and very different uses, but it enters our modern vocabulary at about the same time as the romantic revolution in the uses of subjectivity.

The original Cynics composed a philosophical school or sect in the Hellenistic era, after the deaths of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, and before the rise of Christianity. They regarded themselves as the only true followers of Socrates. They thought and taught that virtue is the only good and that none of the goods prized by the Greek and Roman elites--wealth, power, fame--were goods at all but vicious shams and delusions. The only goods are honesty, integrity, and--a modern word for which there was no ancient equivalent--authenticity. They adopted lives of voluntary poverty and went about teaching the poor. The ancient philosophical and literary elites regarded them with scorn and, since they had the power, were able to define them on their own terms which may be why we don't really know very much about them. They were called Cynics, from the Greek 'kunakos' or dog-like, by those who despised them and the name stuck. It may be that Christianity made them irrelevant for they disappeared sometime in the second or third century A.D. And then the word 'cynic' essentially died, existing only the lexicons written by their enemies.

Now here is something strange: sometime in the early 19th century, the word 'cynic' got dusted off and came back into use, not as the name of a philosophical school, but as the name of someone who disbelieves in the very possibility of honesty, integrity, authenticity. He or she might agree with the ancient cynics that these are the highest virtues, but deny that anyone actually practices them. And this revival of the word 'cynic' happened at about the same time as the romantic revolution.

Romanticism and (modern) cynicism, are polar opposites it seems to me. One can't be a romantic and a cynic at the same time. Is that right? What do you think?


  1. Was the author of Ecclesiastes a cynic and a romantic? He said "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" (1:2). He also wrote "And whatsoever mine eyes desired, I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy ..." (2:10).

    Was St. Augustine a romantic? His Confessions are quite personal and refer to sex.

    Is the Song of Solomon romantic? It is about physical desire.

    Is Montaigne a romantic? His essays are personal explorations

  2. Thank you for your writing.
    I wonder, does an _ancient_ cynic and a plain romantic share the same perception of life? They both believe in truth, justice, honesty, integrity and so on, don`t they?
    Is the only difference between them is that the ancient cynics believe there is no good in wealth, power and fame, wheres romantic still enjoy and appreciate those? ?

  3. Good question, Amir. The short answer to your questions is yes. But that is not the only difference; the differences between the modern romantic sensibility and ancient cynicism run so deep that such comparisons are almost meaningless. The ancient world was objective in ways that we can only with difficulty imagine; the subjectivity that we take for granted in poetry and fiction did not exist 2000 years ago. People did not reinvent themselves; the idea of losing oneself in order to find who you really are would not have been understood. It has been suggested, by the way, that Jesus was influenced by the cynics who travelled all over the Empire, teaching.