Live Like the Ancient Cynics

Modern cynicism traps you in an unhappy cycle.

The original version will set you free.

Written by Arthur C. Brooks and published in the Atlantic 1/20/2022

Jan Buchzik

How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.

There are a growing number of Marxists today. By which I mean followers of Groucho, not Karl. “Whatever it is, I’m against it,” Marx sang in his 1932 film, Horse Feathers. “I don’t know what they have to say / It makes no difference anyway.”

What was satire then is ideology today: Cynicism—the belief that people are generally morally bankrupt and behave treacherously in order to maximize self-interest—dominates American culture. Since 1964, the percentage of Americans who say they trust the government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time” has fallen 53 points, from 77 to 24 percent. Sentiments about other institutions in society follow similar patterns.

Whether cynicism is more warranted now than ever is yours to decide. But it won’t change the fact that the modern cynical outlook on life is terrible for your well-being. It makes you less healthy, less happy, less successful, and less respected by others.

The problem isn’t cynicism per se; it’s that modern people have lost the original meaning of cynicism. Instead of assuming that everyone and everything sucks, we should all live like the ancient Greek cynics, who rebelled against convention in a search for truth and enlightenment.

The original cynicism was a philosophical movement likely founded by Antisthenes, a student of Socrates, and popularized by Diogenes of Sinope around the fifth century B.C. It was based on a refusal to accept the assumptions and habits that discourage people from questioning conventional dogmas, and thus hold us back from the search for deep wisdom and happiness. Whereas a modern cynic might say, for instance, that the president is an idiot and thus his policies aren’t worth considering, the ancient cynic would examine each policy impartially.

The modern cynic rejects things out of hand (“This is stupid”), while the ancient cynic simply withholds judgment (“This may be right or wrong”). “Modern cynicism [has] come to describe something antithetical to its previous meanings, a psychological state hardened against both moral reflection and intellectual persuasion,” the University of Houston’s David Mazella wrote in The Making of Modern Cynicism.

There were no happiness surveys in Antisthenes’s times, so we can’t compare the ancient cynics’ life satisfaction with that of those around them who did not share their philosophy. We can most definitely conclude, however, that modern cynicism is detrimental. In one 2009 study, researchers examining negative cynical attitudes found that people who scored high in this characteristic on a personality test were roughly five times more likely to suffer from depression later in life. In other words, that smirking 25-year-old is at elevated risk of turning into a depressed 44-year-old.

Modern cynics also suffer poorer health than others. In 1991, researchers studying middle-aged men found that a cynical outlook significantly increased the odds of death from both cancer and heart disease—possibly because the cynics consumed more alcohol and tobacco than the non-cynics. In one 2017 study on middle-aged Finnish men, high cynicism also predicted premature mortality. (Although both of these studies involved only men, nothing suggests that the results are gender-specific.)

Adding insult to injury, people tend not to respect cynics. Writing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General in 2020, psychologists found that cynical attitudes lead to being treated disrespectfully—possibly because cynics tend to show disrespect to others, leading to a vicious cycle. You won’t be surprised to hear, then, that cynical people also earn less than others. Scholars writing in 2015 found that, even after correcting for gender, education, and age, the least cynical people saw an average monthly increase in income of about $300 over nine years. The most cynical saw no significant income increase at all. The authors explain this pattern by noting that cynics “are more likely to forgo valuable opportunities for cooperation and consequently less likely to reap the benefits of joint efforts and mutual help.” In other words, being a misanthrope is costly.

To improve your well-being, you shouldn’t merely try to avoid cynicism in all its forms. Instead, work to become a true cynic, in its original sense.The Making Of Modern CynicismDAVID MAZELLA,UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA PRESSBUY BOOKWhen you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

The ancient cynics strove to live by a set of principles characterized by mindfulness, detachment from worldly cravings, the radical equality of all people, and healthy living. If this sounds like Christianity or even Buddhism, it should: Greek philosophers, including skeptics, who were contemporaries of the cynics, were probably influenced by Indian traditions when they visited the subcontinent with Alexander the Great, and in the following centuries, the ideas of cynicism and its offshoot stoicism heavily influenced early Christian thought.

To pivot from the modern to the ancient, I recommend focusing each day on several original cynical concepts, none of which condemns the world but all of which lead us to question, and in many cases reject, worldly conventions and practices.

1. Eudaimonia (“satisfaction”)

The ancient cynics knew that lasting satisfaction cannot be derived from a constant struggle for possessions, pleasures, power, or prestige. Happiness can come only from detaching ourselves from the world’s false promises. Make a list of worldly rewards that are pulling at you—such as a luxury item or the admiration of others—and say out loud, “I will not be subjugated by this desire.”

2. Askesis (“discipline”)

We cannot clear our mind of confusion and obfuscation until we stop anesthetizing ourselves, whether it be with drugs and alcohol or idle distractions from real life. Each day, forgo a detrimental substance or habit. Instead of watching television after dinner, go for a walk. Instead of a cocktail, have a glass of water, and consider the refreshment you get from every sip. This discipline promises to strengthen your will and help you adopt routines that improve your happiness.

3. Autarkeia (“self-sufficiency”)

Relying on the world—especially on getting approval from the world—makes equanimity and true freedom impossible. Refuse to accept your craving for the high opinions of others. Think of a way that you habitually seek validation, be it for your looks, your cleverness in school, or your material prosperity. Make a plan to ignore this need completely. Note that this is not a modern-cynical practice of rejecting everything about the world; rather, you will simply be refusing to accept its conventional standards.

4. Kosmopolites (“cosmopolitanism”)

Seeing ourselves as better or worse than others sets us against one another and makes love and friendship difficult, which is self-destructive. This can be as obvious as thinking, I am better than someone else because I was born in this country, or as subtle as feeling slightly superior to a colleague because of my academic affiliation. Start each day by reminding yourself that the world belongs equally to everyone, and resolve not to treat anyone differently because of her status. Act exactly the same with your boss and your barista.

The modern cynic is miserable because he is enchained to the outside world, which oppresses him because it is corrupt. The ancient cynic, by contrast, is happy—not because she thinks the outside world is perfect (it obviously is not) but because she chooses to focus on the integrity of her interior world, over which she has control.

One famous (and perhaps apocryphal) story summarizes the power of this latter way of living. Diogenes, the philosopher who popularized cynicism, was known for showing no bias toward any party or clique, and was thus not well liked by those in power, who could have given him a comfortable life. One day, a philosopher named Aristippus, who was much favored by the royalty, found Diogenes in the task of washing vegetables, a low and disdained food for the ancient Greeks. Far from being ashamed of his paltry diet, Diogenes reminded Aristippus, “If you had learned to eat these vegetables, you would not have been a slave in the palace of a tyrant.”

If you want to be a good cynic and a happier person, learn to eat your vegetables. They may not seem like a sumptuous feast to the people around you, but you’ll find that they nourish you far more than the empty calories of social conformity.


Arthur C. Brooks is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School. He’s the host of the podcast seriesHow to Build a Happy Life and the author of From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life.

America Will Be Twelve Countries Very Soon

It’s inevitable and here’s why

A map of the USA, re-imagined as 12 nations.

Written by Jared Brock and published in 11/16/2021

Have you been following the situation in Ethiopia?

Of course you haven’t.

No one has the time or mental fortitude to endure the unending amount of conflict that happens between human beings on planet earth.

The only reason I keep up with Ethiopia is that’s where my wife grew up.

Briefly: Colonialists left Africa in a terrible state, in which various tribes were smashed together into single nations, while others sought to grab new territory in the wake of colonial retrenchment.

Ethiopia is one of those latter places (but also was kinda-sorta colonized by Italy, which is why it still has such great pasta. It’s complicated.)

Home to five official languages and eighty different ethnic groups, Ethiopia is a powder keg for conflict with a growing population and depleting resources. One people group has already managed to splinter off: Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia came at the high price of 250,000 people dead.

Now, essentially two tribes in Ethiopia — Tigray in the north, Oromo in the south — are trying to destroy each other. The Tigrayans are an ancient Spartan-style warrior tribe, and they’re so desperate for self-rule that they’ve started killing Ethiopian citizens. Things have gotten so bad that the Prime Minister of Ethiopia has ordered all military to protect the capital from falling, and is sending in Turkish combat drones. In twenty years, we might look back on the conflict and call it the next Rwanda.

It makes you wonder:

Maybe Ethiopia would be better off as two, ten, or even eighty smaller nations.

It’s the same all over the world:

  • Spain’s arcane monarchy oppresses several nations including Andalusia, Aragon, Asturias, Basque Country, Castile, Catalonia, Galicia, León, Navarre, Valencia, and Aran Valley.
  • Anglophone Canada just celebrated its 150th anniversary a few years ago, but it rules over a French-speaking nation that’s 400 years old.
  • A certain 1.45 billion-person Eastern nation that cannot be named rules over at least four other countries with brutal authoritarian force.
  • Want peace in the Middle East? Try a nine-state solution.
  • The United Kingdom is a laughable misnomer. The Welsh hate the English. The Scottish hate the English. The Cornish hate the English. Half the Northern Irish just call themselves Irish. The United Kingdom contains at least five countries, and all are essentially colonies of the City of London Corporation.
  • There are more than five thousand Indigenous nations across the globe, totaling nearly half a billion people.

The gig is up

Young people are waking up to an obvious fact that many older folks (especially those who murdered people who carried a different team flag) simply cannot fathom:

Nations are legal fictions.

Just bits of paper and a bunch of people who agree to play by the paper’s rules.

Yes, there are some benefits to nationalism.

There are also heavy costs.

People are rightly starting to question the value of nation-states as they are currently arranged.

What is the purpose of a nation?

To preserve a unique culture?
To express a political ideology?
To propagate a religion?
To organize an economy?

At the end of the day, I believe every nation is just an experiment in what it means to live well.

And currently, almost every nation on earth is on a downward trajectory, if not failing miserably.

The end of big countries

Large nations are unwieldy.

The bureaucracy it takes to run a 300+ million person nation proves economically inefficient in the extreme.

Democracy crumbles because it’s hard to get real representation at scale.

And there are so many disparate opinions that disagreements become intractable.

When working together inevitably fails, one party dominates through coercion, violence, or worse.

In a nuclear age where going to war will destroy everyone and everything, there’s no longer a need to have a vast population to defend your borders.

We just don’t need big countries anymore.

An introduction to Tinyism

“Tinyism is a political philosophy that believes current empires and nations should be fractured, shattered, and dissolved into thousands of independent micro-states and city-states. This action would vastly improve democracy and enhance economies — recent statistics indicate small nations are usually the happiestwealthiest, and most peaceful.” — Hank Pellissier

Here’s my prediction:

Within one hundred years, there will be at least one hundred new nations on planet earth.

But there could be plenty more.

After all, there are 650 major ethnic groups, about 9,800 cultural-ethno-linguistic groups, and up to 24,000 unimax groups.

(Plus there are 108,000 publicly-listed corporations, all of which will be chomping for a private domain in the years ahead… and not one should get it.)

Why shouldn’t ethnic groups have the right to self-sovereignty, especially for the hundreds who’ve had their sovereignty stolen? Isn’t it inherently racist for one ethnicity to impose its will on another ethnic group?

After a major disruptive event — a colossal economic depression, a cyberwar or solar flare that knocks out the grid for a year or more, or a supervolcano that causes years of winter — we could see the emergence of tens of thousands of new sovereignties.

And that would be a very good thing.

In praise of tiny

When you have a smaller population, you can have a smaller bureaucracy.

When you have a smaller population, you can have more representation and democracy.

When you have a smaller population, you can avoid getting pushed around by groups that don’t share your values.

When you have a smaller population, you can better preserve unique cultures, races, religions, economic systems, histories, societal structures, and experiments in what it means to live well.

When you have a smaller population, you can have fewer rules, fewer laws, and more freedom.

And if you don’t like your tiny country, you now have far more other options to choose from.

“But what about national defense?!”

It’s a legitimate fear, but it’s worth noting that small nations are some of the safest nations on earth.

And luckily, returns to violence are drastically decreasing in the digital economy. There’s just less stuff to steal and fewer resources to exploit.

Quite paradoxically, being more “vulnerable” makes you learn to get along. New sovereignties will do well to form an alliance with hundreds of other city-states. Like NATO, attacking one would be like attacking all. Plus, new sovereignties will move swiftly to ink trade deals with hundreds of other nations to further increase the cost of war and the value of peace.

Pretty soon, everyone will get along because there’s no other choice.

The return of the city-state

The world is urbanizing and power is accruing to cities. Already in America, we’re seeing mayors defy state and national mandates in order to protect and defend their citizens (or just rebel for political reasons, depending on your point of view.)

There’s no reason to think that many cities won’t eventually just become laws unto themselves.

I’m excited for this to happen. After all, some of the most beautiful places on earth started out as tiny little cities, and their historic urban cores are still beautiful all these centuries later:

  • Paris was 25 acres.
  • Athens was 35 acres.
  • Lille was 60 acres.
  • Vatican City is 109 acres.
  • Oxford was 115 acres.
  • Old Jerusalem is 225 acres.
  • The City of London is 330 acres.
  • Monaco is 499 acres.
  • Rome was 608 acres.
  • The walls of Avila, one of the most gorgeous sights on earth, surround just 77 acres.

What will become of America?

Nearly half of all Americans want to secede from the union in one direction or another.

And that’s perfectly within their rights as human beings.

Others protest loudly that the union must be preserved at all costs. But they never seem to answer the all-important question:

What are we actually trying to preserve?

Our lack of shared values?
The sham of democracy?
McDonald’s and apple pie and baseball?

Think long and hard about this question — no matter what conclusion you reach, you’ll find that it simply doesn’t resonate with the majority of Americans.

And what’s preferable: A few dozen independent countries, or another civil war?

(31% of Americans think a civil war is likely within the next five years, with Democrats thinking it’s more likely.)

So why not take the bloated carcass that is the American corporatocracy and carve it up into a handful of actual democracies?

With any luck, we could see some pretty amazing things come out of the USA:

  • Washington and Oregon will become Cascadia and rebuild the rainforest.
  • Utah will rename itself Deseret and grab a chunk of Nevada.
  • New England will be the world’s purveyor of blueberries, maple syrup, and winter skiing adventures.
  • 32% of Californians already support Calexit, which will make it the fifth-biggest economy in the world (ahead of the UK, France, Italy, India, and hundreds more.)
  • The Plains Nation will continue to feed the world as a giant agrarian commune, likely swarmed with bitcoin-loving libertarian “sovereign individuals.”
  • Texas (or rather, the Hispanic-majority República de Tejas) will have the eleventh largest military on earth, the tenth-largest economy, its own power grid, and enough solar and wind power to be a net clean energy exporter.
  • Las Vegas will obviously become the American Amsterdam.
  • Minorities will pour out of Dixie, plunging the Deep South into social chaos and economic depression — and perhaps the Confederacy will finally learn the lessons they were supposed to learn from the Civil War. (Or maybe it becomes New Afrika and all the whites head for Florida.)
  • New York City CorpTM (12th-largest economy) will become the first city-state with skyscrapers to be fully underwater due to rising sea levels.

What’s compelling about Tinyism is that the more experiments we run, the more we’ll discover what works and doesn’t work. Clearly, Sweden is better than North Korea. But is the Texan way better than the California way? With Tinyism, we’ll know pretty quickly. In that sense, Tinyism is almost free-market, with the political “market” being democracy itself.

“But it’s unconstitutional!”


Tinyism is inevitable

Have you noticed that society is fracturing?

Do you think that extreme left wokies are ever going to find common ground with ultra-right Q-Anoners?

It’s just not going to happen.

There will come a day when the USA falls apart.
Will it be a massive economic depression?
The Yellowstone Caldera finally erupting?
Donald Trump becoming President whether he’s elected or not?

Even without a mega-event, there’s an unstoppable tide that all but guarantees a breakdown of these united states: Individualism.

Individualism, by its very nature, is an anti-culture.

As Russ Linton put it:

“Decentralization and blockchain tech will ensure this happens. Fiat currencies will be worthless and with that, the power of a nation-state largely evaporates. DAO communities, both digitally and geographically-bound, are what the future holds.”

We in the rich West have enjoyed a lifetime of unlimited selection, and this atomization mentality will eventually seep its way into politics. As the speed of change escalates, it could happen far sooner than we think.

And that’s okay.

I believe in the unconditional right of cultural and communal (but not corporate) sovereignty, and support all independence efforts toward Tinyism, so long as the leaving party takes their fair portion of the national debt and repays all federal infrastructure investment.

The key will be to have some kind of pre-agreed-upon sorting/transition process, like a peaceful version of the Hindustan breakup into India and Pakistan, followed by hopefully-less-dysfunctional EU (but without a shared currency) so the states all get along as the founding fathers intended.

Obviously, none of this is going to happen. The corporate predator elites who control the USA have a vested interest in keeping America together so they can wield its collective might overseas. Tinyism in America will only work once Tinyism sets in everywhere (especially in Ch!na.) We need a huge drop in returns to violence before unique cultures can become sovereign nations. Only then will smaller countries be allowed to flourish. And do you know what? It’s going to seem impossible until the very moment it seems obvious. Change is a long time coming and then it happens overnight.)

(But let’s be honest: It’s probably just as likely that we’ll all be dead from climate change, nuclear winter, or widespread “free”market-induced poverty.)

Still, Tinyism could create a great leap forward in human innovation, creativity, and culture-making, as real democracies create real diversity, reversing our long and boring descent into multinational sameness.

I’m cheering for a twenty-nation America and a 10,000-nation earth.

It’s either that, or we become a corporate-controlled one-nation earth where everyone conforms or gets crushed.

And no one wants that.