It is good to be skeptical; it is bad to be a cynic. Especially while one is still young.
When we are surrounded by stupidity, ignorance, sham and superstition, it is good to take all things with a pinch of salt, and not to believe anybody blindly, whether it be parents or teachers, god-men or political leaders. Using one’s reason, and finding out the facts for oneself is good: always look things up in the dictionary and atlas and encyclopedia, always listen to the voice inside that warns ‘This fellow is talking through his hat’. That is what is meant by skepticism. It lies at the heart of all true science, and any attempt at safe and sane living. As a great philosopher said, ‘If we had all listened to our parents, we should still be swinging from the trees’. And if we believed everything our teachers said (especially given the kind of teachers all around us in this country!) we’d all grow up utterly confused and dulled – which is far worse than being merely ignorant.
But to be cynical is to be unable to believe there can be anything good, anything beautiful and noble and heartening at all in human beings. It is to react knee-jerk fashion to all such suggestions with a singular fixed idea in mind: there must be some base, ulterior motive behind what someone is doing or saying. And it often goes like this: since I am incapable of a good deed or a beautiful feeling or a noble thought, anybody who claims such things must be a fraud. There is nothing called true love, no honesty in business or examinations, nothing like idealism in politics, no use for knowledge beyond making a living, nothing beyond feeding and procreation and preening in life … that’s the sort of thing I mean.
The ghastly thing about cynicism is that you make life more difficult than it need be for both yourself and others (cynics are bound to be gloomy people full of despair, and crooked to boot, even if they put on a veneer of good cheer and niceness) and that it is self-fulfilling: in a world full of cynics even the good are condemned to live unhappily, and also turn crooked by and by, unless they are driven to madness and suicide, because cynicism, in order to justify itself, cannot allow truth and goodness and beauty to live happily.
Now it is ancient wisdom that the old are cynical, and it is both the power and the duty of the young to break old moulds and rejuvenate the world with new hope, joy, love, dreams and ideals. So what I find terrifying is that all around me there are young people who are already vastly more cynical about just about everything, even their own love lives and careers, and the need and potential of philosophy for change. Just beneath the perpetual (and juvenile -) surface exultation about how fast the world is ‘progressing’ (as measured by how many ‘apps’ the latest mobile can handle), there runs a current of deep distrust, frustration, apathy, aimlessness and despair. I can sense it even among folks in their late teens, and it is already set hard by the time they are ten years older (children still, for God’s sake!) And the wonderful thing is that all these people are middle- or upper middle class, and have been brought up in sheltered cocoons by doting and extravagant parents: beyond the occasional death by accident in the family and failure in exams and office politics and quarrels with friends and lovers, these people have hardly seen any suffering at all. Whereas, I reflect, lots and lots of people have come through infinitely worse trials and tribulations and emerged triumphant, whether I think of Dickens or Charlie Chaplin or Michael Faraday or Vidyasagar or Douglas Bader or Helen Keller or more characters in great fiction than you can handle at one sitting. Or, even if they have failed and gone under, they have been ‘destroyed but not defeated’, whether you think of Gandhi or Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, of Anne Frank or Paul Baumer in All Quiet on the Western Front: so they remain glorious memories in the mind as tragic and heroic figures, capable of inspiring us to great things, not objects of ridicule and pathos. Tagore was not a cynic, nor was Louis Pasteur, nor Nurse Cavell, nor Abraham Lincoln – and these people faced trouble, danger, insult, hardship, fear, confusion and failure on a scale that most of today’s young can hardly even conceive, leave alone dare to handle!
Another awful thought: the completely brainwashed young terrorist, armed to the teeth and going on his midnight hunt for victims, whatever else you can accuse him of being, cannot be called a cynic. He believes absolutely in the supreme importance and rightness of his cause, so even if he blows himself up along with many others, there dies a happy person. The poet wrote The best lack all conviction/ the worst are full of passionate intensity. Poets can always see further and say it better than anybody else…