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The Making of Modern Cynicism

David Mazella

BUY Cloth · 320 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813926155 · $38.50 · May 2007

Once describing a life of exile, self-denial, physical rigor, and mastery of one’s desires, cynicism now describes a life of political quietism, passivity, and moral indifference, representing not a weakening of ancient philosophic norms but rather their inversion. In The Making of Modern Cynicism, David Mazella asks: how did ancient Cynic philosophy come to provide a name for its modern, unphilosophical counterpart, and what events caused such a dramatic reversal of cynicism’s former meanings? He traces the concept of cynicism from its origins as a philosophical way of life in Greek antiquity through its successive transformations in the early modern and Enlightenment periods and into the nineteenth century when it took its distinctively modern, unreflective form as a variety of disenchantment, disbelief, or distrust.

Sampling a wide variety of literary, philosophical, and historical writings, Mazella documents the transition of the cynic from an ascetic philosopher to any person whose "faded belief or curdled trust had left him unfit for attachments to others." Even more important, Mazella questions why cynicism should provoke such hand-wringing from cultural critics when it has been a stable, recognized, even routine feature of modern politics for the better part of 150 years. Arguing that modern cynics inspire powerful reactions by envisaging a future without hope of meaningful change, he then suggests that we address popular cynicism in more effective, less moralistic ways. Rather than dismissing cynicism as an irrational attitude of distrust or fatalism, or chiding cynics for their persistent disbelief, Mazella contends that analyzing cynicism can reveal the unacknowledged limits of current political argument, a crucial first step toward developing the kinds of reasoned persuasion necessary for more meaningful and substantive forms of political change.

Well-written and engaging, The Making of Modern Cynicism will appeal not only to readers in literary and cultural criticism but also to those interested in political theory and the history of philosophy.


Mazella's genealogical analysis of ‘cynicism’ illuminates the literary, philosophical, and political history of this concept, casting a particularly rich light on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Mazella's book also contributes to the discussion of cynicism in contemporary politics, offering the ancient and early modern Cynic—the Diogenes figure—as a partial antidote to what cynicism has become in an age of media saturation. Written in a lively, accessible style, The Making of Modern Cynicism should be of interest to a broad academic audience.

Adam Potkay, The College of William and Mary

"[A] tour de force of scholarship and an argument whose complex components work like clockwork to illuminate the changing facets of cynicism.... This book's elegant prose, its learning, and its careful parsing of philosophical position with rhetorical strategy enable the reader to absorb the twists and turns of the fortunes of cynicism with a sense of lively engagement.... It has been a long time since I have read a book that left me feeling so nourished, so grateful, so optimistic."

The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The book's argument takes us from Diogenes and his reception in the ancient world, through the early modern English appropriation of the figure of Diogenes, to the crucial example of Rousseau as the hinge upon which the ancient and modern version of cynicisms turn and the Burkean counter-Enlightenment reaction to Rousseau. Mazella then turns to the development of a form of cynicism related to dandyism in the late nineteenth century and closes with an epilogue on the use of cynicism as a critical political resource today. If they confined themselves to reading the Rousseau and Burke chapters, scholars in eighteenth century studies would be rewarded with extraordinary insights, but they would miss out on a tour de force of scholarship and an argument whose complex components work like clockwork to illuminate the changing facets of cynicism. More than that, Mazella's view of each age through the prism of these transformations turns out to afford a precise analysis of what is most significant in the intellectual debates of the time.

Molly Anne Rothenberg, Tulane University · Eighteenth Century Theory and Interpretation

"As social historians and cultural studies specialists have demonstrated,once you study enough five-year periods closely youare ready to make revisionary observations about movements andchange. The number of intellectual histories may be this year’spreeminent harbinger of the future. That they are published bypresses not established as eighteenth-century powerhouses reinforcesthe sense that this is a movement. Mazella’s The Making ofModern Cynicism is an ambitious study stretching from Diogenesto modern politics. His engaging introduction sets the stage fora challenging examination of 'cynicism' that embraces its contradictionsand humankind’s ambivalences toward it" (749)

Paula R. Backscheider · SEL

The Making of Modern Cynicism is an encyclopedic story of semantic and cultural sea change. Mazella shows how the ‘Cynicism’ of the ancient world, represented by the shadowy but powerful figure of Diogenes, turns into the watered-down ‘cynicism’ of the present. Along the way are some surprises: Oscar Wilde is predictably present, but so are Beau Brummell and even Jane Austen. An eye-opening account.

W. B. Carnochan, Emeritus, Stanford University

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