Socrates may have been one, but Pyrrho certainly was (b ca 360BCE), and even further back, Xenophanes (b ca. 570 BCE). Sophists probably could be described similarly: skeptics. Originally based on the idea of acatalepsia, being able to suspend judgement. Skeptics. From skeptomai, to search for. Suspenders of judgement. Put me down as that, along with all the other labels.
It can’t be avoided, however: the meanings of words change as they are uttered. Pyrrhus considered anyone who was a skeptic to be a dogmatist, but I doubt many would go to that extreme nowadays. The common sense understanding of skepticism has come to wander around the notion of disbelief. But not that of incredulity, perhaps. Skepticism is seen more as a healthy disregard for opinion whereas incredulity contains somewhere in the creases of the word the idea that the incredulous would actually rather be credulous, striving to believe, but not quite able to make the leap of faith. Skepticism, in contrast, is implicated in all kinds of rational debate, criticism, discussion, reflection and hypothecation.
Skeptics have open minds. Questioning minds. Happy to accept the facts, but wary when the facts are used to impose a belief or an attitude on another. Modern skeptics are open to offers of empirical or experiential discovery. What they are not is dismissive of something on the basis of their own views alone. That is cynicism. And we’ve got the two words hopelessly muddled.
I am of an ironic nature, you might say. Or you might say I am always sarcastic about things that are not to my liking. Mrs Brown’s Boys, Love Island, Jeremy Kyle, toothpaste adverts, audiences clapping to a beat, incorrect use of number-based words like decimate, people saying, “it’s not like it used to be,” celebrity worship… you get the picture. I’m ironic, he’s sarcastic, they are cynics. That’s how it goes for me. Nowhere in there is room for skepticism. Skepticism is drawn from a desire for knowledge. Cynicism is drawn also from a philosophical school, one which advocate a virtuous life, avoiding excesses and living in a pure fashion (often on the streets, as did Diogenes, known as “the Dog”, perhaps from which the name cynic derives). The cynics lived and advocated a life utterly at odds with contemporary usage, founded on not credulity or questions, but of trust, in fact distrust.
So, we have healthy skepticism, in scientific or legalistic ways. It is best to question and unearth the reality of a situation. But cynicism is about starting from the entirely negative point of view, that “you are wrong and are duping me”.
So what? Why this snippy monologue? Because I am fed up with Eurocynics being allowed to pretend they are euroskeptics. I am a Euroskeptic. I don’t think the EU is perfect, and I want to ask questions about it so as to find out how it can be made much better. But most of all, before any of that, I want to be part of the system that is the union of Europe. I am a skeptic. Still searching and still learning. But I can’t call myself that because the word has been stolen away and stuck over the Eurocynic label. Eurocynics implicitly distrust Europe. All kinds of reasons are given some asked on experience, and some based on readings of the Daily Mail (other Euocynic publications are available). Eurocynic reveals the truth beneath their opinions. Euroskeptic allows for development.
We should all question: Each other, what we see and what we hear, and, most of all, what we think, ourselves. Jesus, the Christ, was a skeptic. He questioned all he saw. He also came to realise that the answers were blowing in the wind. He was a formal cynic as well. He stepped out of the culture and showed people a virtuous life. Odd, I find, that the contemporary cynic has no interests in such virtue, only in making sure others are shot down for an opinion often based on healthy skepticism.
If Jesus and Socrates was a skeptic, I think its something we’d could all have a look at. Only to question, of course. Don’t know what you might find.