I have long been described (or should that be accused?) of being a fully-paid up member of the cynic’s club. I see this as a largely positive thing, since I subscribe to the view I’ve seen bandied about elsewhere that a cynic is merely a disgruntled idealist and I guess that sums me up.
And, since I’ve already done lists of books, records and films I figured a list of my favourite cynics was long overdue. My idea of a great cynic is one who is well-aware of the flaws and foibles of human nature but nevertheless retains something of a heart of gold, even if it is buried underneath quick-drying cement somewhere.
I could not let pass a huge thanks to the prime influence on the making of this list, Rick Bayan, whose superb ‘Cynic’s Sanctuary’ has kept me entertained and amused for many years. Thanks to him and all the real-life cynics, disgruntled curmudgeons and frustrated idealists I’ve come across. You make the world a better place and this list is my affectionate tribute to you all.
So here it is – my Top 100 Cynics (in alphabetical order)
Adams, Scott (1957 – )
- American cartoonist and creator of ‘Dilbert.’ the perennially put-upon office drudge. With his curling stripey tie and glasses, horrendous pointy-haired boss and insane co-workers, he’s a sure-fire Everyman for corporate America. ‘The Dilbert Principle’ is as good a collection of his strips as I’ve come across.
- Favourite quote: “Engineers like to solve problems. If there are no problems handily available, they will create their own.”
- Greek fabulist and story-teller best known for his fables. Whether he wrote them all or not, the stories attributed to him take the fairy-tale staple of talking animals and use them to skewer human vanity, stupidity and other vices. Some of them are a bit samey, but the best still have enough of a bite to make them worth a re-read.
- Favourite quote: “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.”
Allen, Woody (1935-)
- American film director, comic and jazz aficionado. Probably best-known for his public image as the neurotic little Jewish guy who somehow always manages to get the girl despite spending most of his time in therapy. His best work includes critical favourites ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Manhattan’ his love-letter to New York.
- Favourite quote: “My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.”
- Also: “Don’t knock masturbation, it’s sex with someone I love.”
- Greek philosopher and pupil of Socrates, regarded as the father of Cynicism, guaranteeing his place in any list of cynics. Adopting the teachings of Socrates, he advised living a simple, ascetic life guided by ethics, making him of eternal relevance to mankind.
- Favourite quote: “The most useful piece of learning for the uses of life is to unlearn what is untrue.”
- Greek dramatist known for his bitingly witty comic plays which include ‘The Clouds’, an hilarious send-up of the silliness of philosophy and ‘Lysistrata’ a madcap feminist farce where the ladies of a town try to stop a war by withholding their – er – favours.
- Favourite quote: “Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine so that I may wet my mind and say something clever.”
Bayan, Rick (1950-)
- American writer, author of The Cynic’s Dictionary and Extremely Dark Chocolates as well as his online presence with the Cynic’s Sanctuary and The New Moderate blog. A self-described ‘kinder gentler cynic’ and I’d have to agree.
- Favourite quote: “The gods have always shown a distressing tendency to favour their most obnoxious creations.”
- Also: “Cynicism may be ineffective as a long-term solution, but at least it provides short-term comic relief.”
Beckett, Samuel (1906-1989)
- Irish playwright who wrote in both English and French. His best-known work includes ‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘Endgame’ reflecting a profoundly bleak and pessimistic view of humanity as individuals struggle to retain meaning in an absurd and surreal world. Some of his more experimental work takes a similar tack including ‘Not I.’
- Favourite quote: “Let’s go and hang ourselves immediately!” / “We can’t.” / “Why not?” / “We’re waiting for Godot.”
- Also: “We are all born mad. Some remain so.”
Bierce, Ambrose (1842 – c. 1914)
- American writer and journalist best-known for his ‘Devil’s Dictionary’ whose sardonic wit and dictum ‘Nothing matters’ earned him the nickname ‘Bitter Bierce.’ A trenchant writer with no time for vice, folly or humbug and a willingness to skewer it wherever it could be found.
- Favourite quote: “Cynic (n) – a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not how they ought to be.”
- Also: “Erudition – dust shaken out of a dust into an empty skull.”
‘Blackadder, Edmund’ (1485-1917)
- One of only two fictional characters to make the list, Blackadder is of course the titular character from the great British sitcom. If you haven’t come across him already, I suggest a trip to youtube and watch as Edmund, Baldrick and the rest of them rampage their way across the pages of history. Better still, buy the DVD box-set, it’s not that expensive these days and it’s money well spent, believe me.
- Favourite quote: “A man may fight for many things. His country; his principles; his friends. The glistening tear on the cheek of a golden child. But personally? I’d mud-wrestle my own mother for a ton of cash, an amusing clock and a sack of French porn!”
Breugel, Pietr (c. 1525-1569)
- Netherlandish painter and key figure of the Northern Renaissance. Like Bosch before him, this old master’s work frequently lampoons the stupidity of people with a whimsical palette of coded references, visual puns and allusions to folklore and proverbs. Other work reflects the bleakness of human survival in the face of the elements such as ‘Hunters in the Snow.’
Bukowsky, Charles (1920-1994)
- German-American writer whose novels, short stories and poems charted low-life America with a cast of bums, losers and petty criminals but with a sympathetic eye for the human condition. His work also reflects the misery of poverty and the drudgery of routine work especially in his debut novel ‘Post Office.’
- Favourite quote: “I don’t hate them (people)… I just feel better when they’re not around.”
- Also: “If you’re losing your soul and you know it, then you’ve still got a soul left to lose.”
Burgess, Anthony (1917-1993)
- English author and composer best known for his novel A Clockwork Orange in which protagonist Alex and his ‘droogs’ enjoy a bit of the old ‘ultraviolence’ in a dystopian world. Alex’s love of classical music (Beethoven) is a deliberate poke in the eye for anyone who thinks great art will automatically ‘civilise’ the young.
- Favourite quote: “Life is a wretched grey Saturday but it has to be lived through.”
Byron, (Lord) George Gordon (1788-1824)
- English Romantic poet and nobleman. Dubbed ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ by one contemporary, Byron’s sardonic view of the world is shown in epic works such as ‘Don Juan’ – an appropriate legacy for one who delighted in shocking polite society in his day.
- Favourite quote: “I only go out to get me a fresh appetite for being alone.”
- Also: “Those who will not reason are bigots, those who cannot are fools and those who dare not are slaves.”
Camus, Albert (1913-1960)
- French philosopher and writer, often dubbed an existentialist although he rejected the label. His brilliant novellas ‘The Outsider’ and ‘The Fall’ perfectly show the frailty of the bonds which bind humanity together and the self-serving motives which often underlie them.
- Favourite quote: “In the depth of winter I finally learned there was within me an invincible summer.”
- Also: “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”
Carlin, George (1937-2008)
- American comedian and actor. A cantankerous curmudgeon who gleefully skewered a raft of worthy targets with his inventive and foul-mouthed tirades. An institution whose famed sketch ‘Religion is Bullshi*t’ is the definitive take on the subject.
- Favourite quote: “Most people work just hard enough not to get fired and get paid just enough not to quit.”
- Also: “I have just as much authority as the Pope. I just don’t have as many people who believe it.”
Chaplin, Charlie (1889-1977)
- American film actor, director and comic legend. While best-known for his on-screen persona ‘The Little Tramp’, this left-wing icon had plenty to say about the dehumanising effects of industrialisation, the war and Fascism, to name but three. Best work includes ‘Modern Times’, and ‘The Great Dictator.’
- Favourite quote: “Life would be wonderful if people would leave you alone.”
Churchill, Winston (1874-1965)
- Great Britain’s most famous 20th Century Prime Minister, journalist, historian, artist – and of course, cynic. Renowned for his sharp-tongue, ready wit and legendary drinking habits he was a complex character with no shortage of both admirers and detractors.
- Favourite quote: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
- Also: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Cioran, Emil (1911-1995)
- Romanian philosopher best-known for works such as A Brief History of Decay. After dabbling with fascism in his youth, his writing came to reflect a profound pessimism in which existence itself is meaningless. Similar in some ways to Camus and Sartre, his work is far more vinegary – and, at times very funny.
- Favourite quote: “However much I have frequented the mystics, deep down I have always sided with the Devil. Unable to equal him in power, I have tried to be worthy of him, at least, in insolence, acrimony, arbitrariness and caprice.”
- Also: “It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.”
Cohen, Leonard (1934 – )
- Canadian poet and songwriter whose work exudes a dry, sardonic wit even at its most despairing. Well-known songs include ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Suzanne’ among many others.
- Favourite quote: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
- Also: “If it be your will / If there is a choice / Let the rivers fill / Let the earth rejoice / Let your mercy spill on all these burning hearts in hell / If it be your will / To make us well.”
Cook, Peter (1937-1995) and Moore, Dudley (1935-2002)
- English satirists and comedians, closely associated with the anti-establishment comedy movement of the 1950s. They found fame in shows such as ‘Beyond the Fringe’ and their material became darker as the years went on. Their ‘Derek and Clive’ recordings show them at their sozzled, black-comic best.
- Favourite quote: “Do you feel you have learned from your mistakes here?” / “I think I have, yes, and I think I can probably repeat them almost perfectly.”
Costello, Elvis (1954 – )
- English musician who first found fame in the 1970s with the Attractions. A musician’s musician, his beautifully-crafted cynical songs include ‘Alison’, ‘Oliver’s Army’ and the melancholic ‘Shipbuilding.’ A wonderful compilation released in 1994 covers his prime 1977-1986 years.
- Favourite quote: “I told her I’m so happy I could die / She said ‘drop dead’ then left with another guy.'”
Coward, Noel (1899-1973)
- English playwright and songwriter whose plummy tones and sardonic lyrics made his name as a cultural critic and raconteur. Songs include ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ and ‘The Stately Homes of England’ while his dramatic works include ‘Blythe Spirit’ and the haunting ‘Brief Encounter.’ In spirit, a sort of 20th Century answer to Oscar Wilde.
- Favourite quote: “I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.”
- Also: “Never trust a man with short legs; his brain’s too near his bottom.”
Cruikshank, George (1792-1878)
- English caricaturist and the premier visual satirist of his day, in the grand tradition of Hogarth. His work mercilessly lampooned the follies of the rich and powerful and he was once even offered £100 not to ridicule George IV. His work was also used in several of Dickens’ novels.
Diogenes (c. 412-323BC)
- Greek philosopher and one of the founders of cynicism, who supposedly lived in a barrel. Like some of his fellows, he advocated simple, good living, guided by virtue. Often referred to as ‘the dog’ he claimed to ‘set his teeth’ on ‘rascals’ while his inventive wit readily supplied the means.
- “You can get out of my light.” (supposedly said to Alexander the Great when he asked if there were anything he could do for the philosopher)
- “A friend is one soul abiding in two bodies.”
Dostoevsky, Fyodor (1821-1881)
- Russian writer, one of the towering figures of 19th Century literature. Like Shakespeare, his work is great in scope but often explores human frailty against a backdrop of turbulent times. For a brilliant snapshot, read ‘Christ and the Inquisitor’ from his ‘Brothers Karamazov’ and prepare to be amazed.
- Favourite quote: “The formula ‘two and two make five’ is not without its attractions.”
Dylan, Bob (1941 – )
- American songwriter whose inventive wordplay made him a central – if unwilling – figure of the 1960s counter-culture, but more importantly, an artist with a peerless power to capture humanity in all its guises. An enigmatic and mercurial talent whose work is best sampled (initially) with 1967’s ‘Greatest Hits’ and his best album ‘Blood on the Tracks’ (1975).
- Favourite quote: “Well God is in his heaven / And we all want what’s his / But power and greed and corruptible seed / Seem to be all that there is.”
- Also: “And if my thought-dreams could be seen / They’d probably put my head on a guillotine.”
Eliot, TS (1888-1965)
- American-born British poet and playwright, one of the leading figures of modernism. His jazz-like rhythms and striking word play conjure up bleak, sardonic views of humanity. For his humorous best, try ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ and for his bleaker stuff, dive into ‘The Wasteland’, ‘The Hollow Men’ and the ‘Four quartets.’
- Favourite quote: “Things fall apart / The centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world / The blood dimmed tide is loosed / And everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned / The best lack all conviction / While the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Fagen, Donald (1948 – ) and Becker, Walter (1950 – 2017 )
- American musicians best known for their work in Steely Dan in which they were the sole constant members. Their jazz-rock leanings were allied to a razor-sharp lyrical content frequently expressing cynical themes and sarcastic sentiments. Their most critically-praised work is ‘Aja’ from 1977.
- Favourite quote: “No marigolds in the promised land / There’s a hole in the ground where they used to grow / Any man left on the Rio Grande is the king of the world as far as I know.”
Fields, WC (1880-1946)
- American comedian, actor and juggler whose public persona of a lovable curmudgeon earns him a spot on this life. Fields cultivated an image of a hard-drinking misanthrope who especially disliked animals and small children, but nonetheless remained a sympathetic figure in his many screen outings. Work includes ‘It’s a Gift.’
- Favourite quote: “Fish **** in it.” (attributed – when asked why he didn’t drink water.)
- Favourite quote: “I do if they’re properly cooked.” (on being asked if he liked children)
Fitzgerald, F Scott (1896-1940)
- American writer, best known for novels such as ‘The Great Gatsby’ depicting the world of the vacuous, self-involved (and ultimately doomed) party set of the Roaring 1920s. For his punchiest work, see ‘The Crack Up.’
- Favourite quote: “In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning. Day after day.”
Flanders, Michael (1922-1975) and Swann, Donald (1923-1998)
- English singer-songwriter duo who together wrote more than 100 comic songs best-sampled in their review albums At the Drop of a Hat and At the Drop of Another Hat. Cynics in the best tradition of exasperated, middle-class Englishness with stiff upper lips concealing a wry grin underneath.
- Favourite quote: “You can’t pass heat from a cooler to a hotter / You can try if you like but you’re far better not-a.”
Freud, Sigmund (1856-1939)
- Austrian neurologist, the father of psychoanalysis. As one of the most influential figures in modern psychiatry, Freud had a thing or two to say about the modern world. He famously described America as a ‘vast mistake’ and religion as a an delusion based on man’s need for a supernatural father figure to curb his violent impulses.
- Favourite quote: When his work fell victim to the Nazis’ book-burning, he sardonically remarked: ‘What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me – now they are content with burning my books.”
Goya, Francisco (1746-1828)
- Spanish painter who combined a public life capturing the rich and famous with a darker, private vision showing a world populated by witches, inquisitors and the insane.
- Favourite quote: As the title of one of his most famous works reminds us – ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.”
Groening, Matt (1954 -)
- American cartoonist and creator of the Simpsons – an American institution which has spent the better part of 30 years being hugely popular and hugely cynical all at the same time.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel (1804-1864)
- American writer and key figure in dark romanticism. His work includes ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and the short story ‘Young Goodman Brown’ both of which focus on the hypocrisy which lies behind everyday life during the time of the Puritan era and its social / sexual repression.
- Favourite quote: “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognised it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery and another portion as the site of a prison.”
Heine, Heinrich (1797-1856)
- German poet, essayist and literary critic whose lyrical poems were made into songs by the likes of Schubert and Schumann. His work is notable for its mournful cynicism and his work fell foul of the Nazi book-burnings in the 1930s (he was Jewish). Ironically he himself had been well aware of the likelihood of such things. Favourite quote: “Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings.”
Heller, Joseph (1923-1999)
- American writer, best known for his novel ‘Catch 22’ – an epic deconstruction of the horrors of war and the mindlessness of the high command’s bureaucratic intrigues. The titular phrase has long since entered our popular culture as a cypher for an paradoxically inescapable fate.
- Favourite quote: “Peace on Earth would mean the end of civilisation as we know it.”
Hicks, Bill (1961-1994)
- American comedian and satirist who found fame in the alternative-comic boom of the 1980s as a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed dissector of America’s foibles. His ‘Rant in E Minor’ album is a representative slice of his unique style, attacking targets including (but not limited to) stupidity, consumerism and religious nuttiness.
- Favourite quote: “I don’t mean to sound bitter, cold or cruel; but I am, so that’s how it comes out.”
- Also: “I left in love, in laughter and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.”
Hitchcock, Alfred (1899-1980)
- English film director. Dubbed the ‘Master of Suspense’ his large body of work often features an everyman protagonist battling human evil, icy blonde femme fatales and the hunt for an elusive ‘MacGuffin.’ His work, which includes ‘Rear Window’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘North by Northwest’, ‘Psycho’ and ‘The Birds’ often forces the viewer into the position of voyeur, presenting a distinctly unsettling view of the world.
- Favourite quote: “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”
Hitchens, Christopher (1949-2011)
- English journalist and writer. Hitchens more accurately fits the role of cultural gadfly than pure cynic, although many of his writings show an acute awareness of the folly and vices of humanity. His punchy autobiography ‘Hitch 22’ is a good introduction for his powerful intellect and mastery of vinegary prose.
- Favourite quote: “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
- Also: “My own view is that this planet is used as a penal colony, lunatic asylum and dumping ground by a superior civilisation to get rid of the undesirable and the unfit. I can’t prove it but you can’t disprove it either.”
Hogarth, William (1697-1764)
- English painter and print-maker whose work includes the Rake’s Progress and the Harlot’s Progress and lampoons the rotten nature of 18th Century society, populated by low-lives, hypocrites, corrupt politicians and drunkards. Underneath it all, there is warmth and humanity which prevents the satire becoming too strident.
- Roman poet, known for his Odes and Satires. A writer during a pivotal time in Rome’s history (the transition from republic to empire), he was for some the ‘master of the sidestep’ able to keep up the role of the cheerful insider while still giving reign to his satirical tendencies. His work shows a man well aware of the frailty of life.
- Favourite quote: “I have constructed a monument of bronze, more lasting than the royal heights of the pyramids.”
Hughes, Robert (1938-2012)
- Australian art critic and writer best-known for the seminal ‘Shock of the New’ series, the definitive exploration of modern art. Spent much of his life aiming his eloquent invective against the empty-headed postmodern slush which dominates the post-war art market.
- Favourite quote: “Popular in our time, unpopular in his. So runs the stereotype of rejected genius.” (on Caravaggio)
- Also: “The new job of art is to sit on the wall and get more expensive.”
Huxley, Aldous (1894-1963)
- English writer and intellectual, who died on the same day as CS Lewis and JFK. Best known for his seminal dystopian novel ‘A Brave New World’ and ‘The Doors of Perception’, a whirlwind account of his experiments with mescalin. Like Lewis Carol before him, he was beloved of the counter-culture, but his work if anything, is a plea for sanity in an often insane world, making him essential reading for all cynics.
- Favourite quote: “A belief in hell and the knowledge that every ambition is doomed to failure at the hands of a skeleton have never prevented the majority of human beings from behaving as though death were no more than an unfounded rumour.”
Jackson, Shirley (1916-1965)
- American writer, best known for her work exploring the American Gothic idiom with the novel ‘The Haunting of Hell House’ and the brilliant short story ‘The Lottery’ – the latter among the greatest explorations of viciousness within a sleepy community ever set down.
- Favourite quote: “I delight in what I fear.”
Johnson, Samuel (1709-1784)
- English lexicographer, writer and man of letters. An endlessly-quotable curmudgeon, Johnson was an imposing figure in a literal as well as literary sense. But behind the grumpiness there lay a kindly soul, beloved by his friends and one of the 18th Century’s most colourful characters. Any good quotations book will usually furnish plenty of his pithy sayings.
- Favourite quote: “That fellow seems to me to possess but one idea and that is a wrong one.”
- Also: “Depend upon it sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Juvenal (c. late first-early second century AD)
- Roman satirist best known for his satires. While we know relatively of his personal life, his pungent attack on Rome’s foibles and vices earns him his place on any list of good satirists and by extension, cynics.
- Favourite quote: “Who watches the watchmen?” A phrase with which humanity still wrestles.
Kafka, Franz (1883-1924)
- German-language writer whose work including The Trial and The Castle as well as short-stories such as the Metamorphosis capture a nightmarish world in which individuals find themselves controlled or menaced by mysterious forces beyond their comprehension.
- Favourite quote: “A book should be an axe for the frozen sea within us.”
Kane, Sarah (1971-1999)
- English playwright and a key player from the ‘In Yer Face Theatre’ style. Her work such as ‘Blasted’ and the TV play ‘Skin’ provide an unsettling view of the world which proved controversial in her all-too-brief lifetime. Her most powerfully personal work is perhaps ‘4.48 Psychosis’ which dispenses with character altogether and draws on her own experience of mental illness.
- Favourite quote: “Once you have perceived that life is very cruel, the only response is to live with as much humanity, honour and freedom as you can.”
Kierkegaard, Søren (1813-1855)
- Danish philosopher, theologian and social critic, regarded by some as the first existentialist. A complex thinker whose cynical status is affirmed by his sustained attacks on organised religion which he viewed as a manipulative sham, urging instead readers make a ‘leap of faith’ to find their own personal relationship with God. Works include ‘Either / Or’ and ‘The Sickness Unto Death.’
- Favourite quote: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
- Also: “I begin with the principle that all men are bores. Surely no-one will be so great a bore as to contradict me in this?”
Kubrick, Stanley (1928-1999)
- American film director whose masterly technique gave a distinctly cold and sardonic view of the world. Best seen in masterpieces such as Lolita, Dr Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and others.
- Favourite quote: “If you can talk brilliantly about a problem it can create the consoling illusion that it has been mastered.”
Larkin, Philip (1922-1985)
- English poet, critic and jazz aficionado. His writings spanned several decades while he worked as a librarian at the University of Hull. His best work, collected in volumes such as ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ and ‘The Less Deceived’ are erudite dissections of the disappointments of life including the bitterness of unfulfilled ambition and parochial life. Refused the Poet Laureateship, confirming his status as perpetual outsider
- Favourite quote: “Man hands on misery to man / It deepens like a coastal shelf / Get out as early as you can / And don’t have any kids yourself.”
- Favourite quote: “Death is no different whined at than withstood.”
Lehrer, Tom (1928 – )
- American mathematician and songwriter best known for such sardonic ditties as ‘Poisoning Pigeons and the Park’ and ‘We Will All Go Together When we Go.’ Less prominent since the 1960s, but a talent well worth (re)-discovering.
- Favourite quote: “Bad weather always looks worse through a window.”
Lynch, David (1946 – )
- American film director whose surrealist work presents a grotesque view of small-town Americana. Best-known for such nightmarish fare as ‘Eraserhead’, ‘Blue Velvet’, ‘The Lost Highway’ and the equally weird cult TV classic ‘Twin Peaks.’
- Favourite quote: “The whole world is wild at heart and weird on top.”
Machiavelli, Nicolo (1469-1527)
- Italian statesman, philosopher and writer. While best remembered for ‘The Prince’, a text instructing Renaissance rulers on how to control the masses, there is more to him than meets the eye. Later philosophers, among them Spinoza, argue he was, at heart, a Humanist republican whose ideas influenced the development of the 18th Century Enlightenment. Whatever the truth, he was clearly a man well aware of the dangers of the world in which he lived and was unafraid to paint a picture of the Renaissance prince ideal – warts and all.
- Favourite quote: “If men were honest, my principles would not be good. But because men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you, you need not keep your word to them.”
Marcus Aurelius (121-180AD)
- Roman emperor, stoic philosopher. Marcus was a stoic, not a cynic, so he may seem a slightly odd choice for this list. Nonetheless, he advocated a simple, virtuous life despite its petty vexations and disappointments in his book ‘Meditations.’ As a rare example of a man in power who tried his best to keep his moral compass despite the murkiness of politics, Marcus deserves his place as an honorary cynic in the best tradition of the term.
- Favourite quote: “Begin each day by telling yourself ‘Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”
Marx, Groucho (1890-1977)
- American comedian, actor and Marx brother. Famed for his glasses and greasepaint moustache (he later grew a real one), Groucho cultivated the character of a cigar-chomping wise guy, always ready with a cheeky jibe or a flippant remark. One of the greatest comedians of the last century, he and his brothers can best be appreciated in films including ‘Duck Soup’, ‘Animal Crackers’ and ‘A Night at the Opera.’
- Favourite quote: “Those are my principles and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”
- Also: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
Maupassant, Guy de (1850-1893)
- French writer and a master of the short story form. His cynical tales often revolve around the cunning Norman peasants of 19th Century France and lay bare the deceit, treachery and pettiness which often lie at the centre of the human heart. His collected short stories are always worth a read.
- Favourite quote: “You have an army of mediocrities followed by a multitude of fools. As the mediocrities and the fools always form the immense majority, it is impossible for them to elect an intelligent government.”
Mencken, HL (1880-1956)
- German-American satirist, writer and journalist. The ‘Sage of Baltimore’ followed a similar jaundiced path as the earlier Ambrose Bierce, attacking vice, folly and humbug wherever he found them. Among his favourite targets were populism, religion and even representative democracy, a system in which he believed lesser men dominated their intellectual betters.
- Favourite quote: “If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.”
- Also: “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.”
Milligan, Spike (1918-2002)
- Anglo-Irish comedian and writer who first found fame on the Goon Show and was a national treasure ever after. A master of surreal humour whose madcap antics reflected the crazy world around him, ‘The Essential Spike Milligan’ admirably shows off his versatile talent.
- Favourite quote: “Money can’t buy you happiness but it can bring you a more pleasant form of misery.”
Montesquieu, Charles-Louis (1689-1755)
- French philosopher and writer, advocate of the separation of powers in political theory. A man of letters who, like Voltaire, used his formidable intellect to dissect the wrongs of the world. Best known for various aphorisms and his ‘Persian Letters.’
- Favourite quote: “Men should be bewailed at their births, not their deaths.”
Moore, Alan (1953 – )
- English writer and graphic novelist. Best known for his imaginative work such as ‘Watchmen’, ‘V for Vendetta’, and ‘From Hell’, his stories are a beguiling mixture of alternate-history mixed with psychological depth and dark, humour. The perfect example of comic books ‘doing’ serious social issues and succeeding through sheer verve and imagination.
- Favourite quote: “We’re all puppets… I’m just a puppet who can see the strings.”
- The only other fictional character to make this list. Academically, a genius, socially – er – troubled, Ms Morgendorffer brought cynicism to the slacker generation in the late 1990s with her almost-as-cynical friend Jane ever by her side. And to think she began life as a spin-off from Beavis and Butthead…
- Favourite quote: “My advice is – stand firm for what you believe in, until and unless experience proves you wrong. Remember, when the emperor looks naked, the emperor is naked. The truth and a lie are not sort of the same thing. And there is no aspect, no facet, no moment of life that can’t be improved with pizza.”
Morrissey (1959 – )
- English singer, songwriter. One of rock’s more literate figures who first found fame in the Smiths and later as a solo artist. His latter-day work has veered at times into self-parody but at his best, his lyrics are among the more striking the genre has thrown up in the past 30-something years. ‘The Queen is Dead’ remains the definitive Smiths album although ‘Strangeways Here We Come’ is a personal favourite.
- Favourite quote: “There’s more to life than books, you know. But not much more.”
- Also: “What makes most people feel happy leads us headlong into harm.”
Munch, Edvard (1863-1944)
- Norwegian painter, perhaps best known for The Scream. His work, which straddles expressionism and symbolism presents a terrifyingly warped view of the world with more than a touch of madness.
- Favourite quote: “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them, and that is eternity.”
Newman, Randy (1943 – )
- American singer-songwriter whose work includes perhaps his strongest album ‘Sail Away’ which targets, among others, the slave trade, religious hypocrisy and the folly of nuclear war. A perennial favourite of musicians and critics alike.
- Favourite quote: “We give them money / But are they grateful? / No they’re spiteful and they’re hateful / They don’t respect us so let’s surprise them / We’ll drop the big one and pulverise ’em.”
Nietzsche, Friederich (1844 – 1900)
- German philosopher best known for works such as ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ and ‘Beyond Good and Evil.’ His work attacks the ‘slave morality’ of Christianity and exhorts people to transcend all limitations by becoming a ‘superman’ through the ‘will to power.’ His aphorisms give a suitable pithy flavour of his varied, fascinating and highly idiosyncratic thought.
- Favourite quote: “Do not fight too much with monsters lest you become yourself a monster. And if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
- Also: “A casual stroll through a lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.”
Orwell, George (1903-1950)
- English writer and one of the greatest essayists of all time. His best-known novels are ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ both familiar as terrifyingly vivid depictions of totalitarianism. For his most intimate voice however, his essays have no equal, taking on topics as diverse as colonialism, books, cigarettes, the viciousness of the English public school system and how to make a good cup of tea.
- Favourite quote: “The sound of a stick rattling in the swill bucket.” (of advertising)
Parker, Dorothy (1893-1967)
- American writer, satirist and social critic. Well-known for her punchy turn of phrase, she was dismissive of her own talents and deplored her reputation as a ‘wise-cracker.’ Her witty remarks are well-represented in most good books of quotations and her Complete Short Stories (1995) is a good introduction to her work.
- Favourite quote: “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”
- Also: “Guns aren’t lawful / Nooses give / Gas smells awful / You might as well live.”
Peake, Mervyn (1911-1968)
- English writer and artist best-known for his Gormenghast series, in which anti-hero Steerpike schemes and plots his way to the top of the ancient Groan family set against the backdrop of a decaying castle, cut off from the rest of the world. There has seldom been so piquant a picture painted of the eccentric madness that is English society.
- Favourite quote: “If he (Steerpike) ever had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing – flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again, he could never find it.”
Pinter, Harold (1930-2008)
- English playwright, director and actor. His best-known work includes the plays ‘The Birthday Party’, and ‘The Caretaker’, which take seemingly-ordinary setting and imbue them with an atmosphere of menace lurking just underneath the surface.
- Favourite quote: “It’s so easy for propaganda to work and dissent to be mocked.”
Poe, Edgar Allan (1809-1849)
- American author, poet, critic and journalist. A master of gothic fiction, his dark short stories such as ‘The Premature Burial’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ hold up a jagged mirror to the real world, showing horror lurking around every corner while his best poem ‘The Raven’ is one of the finest in the English language, showing the unravelling sanity of its narrator.
- Favourite quote: “I became insane with long intervals of horrible sanity.”
- Also: “All religion, my friend, is simply evolved out of fraud, fear, greed, imagination and poetry.”
Pope, Alexander (1688-1744)
- English poet, the second most widely quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations after Shakespeare. Well-known for his vicious satires including ‘The Dunciad’ and others. Was snubbed for the Poet Laureateship, no doubt for having tweaked too many noses in his lifetime.
- Favourite quote: “Still Dunce the Second reigns like Dunce the First.”
- Also: “A little learning is a dangerous thing / Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.”
Potter, Dennis (1935-1994)
- English dramatist, screenwriter and journalist. His work including ‘The Singing Detective’ and ‘Pennies From Heaven’ mix social commentary with surrealism complete with trademark song and dance routines. His characters often find themselves struggling against a world which disgusts them while his later work is preoccupied with the baleful influence of the mass media and the Murdoch press.
- Favourite quote: “I did not fully understand the dread term ‘Terminal illness’ until I saw Heathrow for myself.”
Rabelais, Francois (d.1553)
- French Renaissance writer, Humanist and physician. Less a pure cynic and more an irrepressible wit, Rabelais still earns his place on the list through the shocking effect his words had on 16th Century France. His ribald humour shines through in his most famous work ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel.’
- Favourite quote: “I am going to seek a great perhaps; draw the curtains, the farce is played.” (attr. last words)
- Also: “There are more old drunkards than old physicians.”
Rouchefocauld, Francois de la (1613-1680)
- French nobleman, intellectual and writer. Author of numerous maxims and whose clear-sighted dissection of humanity earns him a place on any list of great cynics.
- Favourite quote: “True love is like ghosts, which everyone talks about and few have seen.”
Reed, Lou (1942-2013)
- American singer-songwriter, initially with the Velvet Underground and then as a solo artist. A highly literate and incisive social critic, Reed was as known for his curmudgeonly persona (especially towards journalists) as he was for his work, the best of which includes the albums ‘Transformer’, ‘Berlin’ and ‘New York.’
- Favourite quote: “One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it, three chords and you’re into jazz.”
Sade, Donatien Alphonse Francois, Marquis de (1740-1814)
- French aristocrat, libertine, writer and eroticist. A proponent of absolute freedom, his work combines philosophical discussion with racy pornography which saw him spend years at a time in jail. For many, the ultimate rake with scant regard for human decency, he is perhaps better seen as a first-rate satirist and who gleefully mocked the hypocrisy of the aristocracy and the Catholic Church which ran pre-revolutionary France.
- Favourite quote: “In order to know virtue, we must first acquaint ourselves with vice.”
- Also: “Religions are the cradles of despotism.”
- Pen-name of British writer Hector Hugh Munro. Tragically killed in the First World War, he produced some of the best-known short stories of his age including the many ‘Reginald’ stories and ‘Sredni Vashtar’ a wonderfully sardonic tale of a sickly boy who imagines his pet pole cat to be a deity.
- Favourite quote: “The cook was a good cook, as good cooks go and as good cooks go, she went.”
Salinger, JD (1919-2010)
- Enigmatic American author, best-known for his seminal coming-of-age novel ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ Published nothing after 1965 and gave no interview after 1980 – which of course, only made him all the more famous. Also wrote the short story ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ among others.
- Favourite quote: “I’m sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect.”
Sanders, George (1906-1972)
- English actor, writer and musician. Well-known for playing refined gentleman villains, cads and rotters, Sanders deserves his place on the list for giving cynics everywhere one of their greatest screen icons. Best-known for appearing in films such as ‘Rebecca’, ‘Foreign Correspondent’ and ‘All About Eve.’
- Favourite quote: “Dear World. I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.” (suicide note)
Schopenhauer, Arthur (1788-1860)
- German philosopher with a distinctly pessimistic view of humanity who rejected the optimism which had dominated the post-Kantian world and combined Eastern thought with good old-fashioned misanthropy to produce his unusual philosophy. Best sampled through his aphorisms.
- Favourite quote: “A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants.”
- Also: “The doctor sees all the weakness of mankind; the lawyer, the wickedness and the theologian, the stupidity.”
Shakespeare, William (1564-1616)
- English playwright and poet. A giant of literature who needs no introduction here and while not perhaps a fully paid-up member of the cynics club, his plays produced enough first-rate cynics to demand his inclusion. Many of his characters espouse cynicism, but the finest is perhaps The Fool from ‘King Lear’ – a brilliant creation whose bitter jibes make him part cultural commentator, part Greek chorus, to haunting effect.
- Favourite quote: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
- And: “Out, out brief candle. Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his our upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound a fury, signifying nothing.”
Shaw, George Bernard (1856-1950)
- Irish playwright whose work (along with that of Wilde) revolutionised Victorian theatre with its pointed social criticisms. Also an acerbic reviewer and cultural commentator. His plays include ‘Pygmalion’, ‘Man and Superman.’
- Favourite quote: “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach.”
Smith, Mark Edward (1957 – )
- English singer-songwriter and the only constant member of the Fall. A perpetually disgruntled outsider, his dizzying wordplay conveys his own unique view of the world, backed by an ever-changing rota of musicians. ‘Always different, always the same’, as the late, great John Peel said.
- Favourite quote: “You can clutch at my toes / You will drive me insane / You know nothing about it / It’s not your domain / Don’t confuse yourself with someone who has something to say.”
Socrates (c.470 – 399BC)
- Greek philosopher and gadfly whose thought survives chiefly in the writings of his disciple Plato. A brilliant and original mind, never afraid to skewer vice, folly and humbug wherever he found it. His sharp tongue often landed him in bother and he was condemned to death, taking hemlock. Plato’s ‘The Last Days of Socrates’ paints a vivid picture of one of history’s great thinkers.
- Favourite quote: “True knowledge consists of knowing that you know nothing.”
- And: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Swift, Jonathan (1667-1745)
- Anglo-Irish writer and satirist best-known for Gulliver’s Travels in which his everyman protagonist encounters one topsy-turvy world after another, lampooning the follies of the everyday world including the Royal Society. Also produced many other vinegary works including a Tale of a Tub and a Modest Proposal.
- Favourite quote: “Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.”
Thoreau, Henry (1817-1862)
- American writer and philosopher and one of the more lovable figures on this list. Thoreau’s best-known work is ‘Walden’ a novel which charts his attempts at a more simpler living, shedding the pretensions of modern civilisation. He was also a master essayist and his ‘Civil Disobedience’ is an unflinching view of the cruelty of authoritarianism – and an impassioned plea to resist it.
- Favourite quote: “Laws never made men a whit more just.”
Twain, Mark (1835-1910)
- American writer and journalist best known for folksy tales such as the ‘Adventures of Tom Sawyer.’ A cynic of the first-order, some of his latter-day works are among his vinegary best, including ‘The Mysterious Stranger’ and ‘Letters From Earth’ showing his biting wit to full effect.
- Favourite quote: “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence and then success is sure.”
- Also: “Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience. This is the ideal life.”
Vidal, Gore (1925-2012)
- American novelist, essayist, screenwriter and public intellectual. Well-known for his pithy, epigrammatic turns of phrase, Vidal was one of the best-known figures of post-war America, with an opinion on just about everything. Famously described Ronald Reagan as a ‘triumph of the embalmer’s art.’ His wit and wisdom is to be found in his many essay compilations.
- Favourite quote: “The four most beautiful words in our common language – I told you so.”
Villon, Francois (c.1431-1463)
- French poet and outlaw who spent some of his life on the run from the authorities before vanishing from history. Best known for his scurrilous and often scatological verse with his ‘Grande Testament’, a bittersweet farewell to his friends standing as his masterpiece.
- Favourite quote: “And by this rope / Six foot to eight / My neck shall know my arse’s weight.”
- Also: “Of what became the snows of yesteryear?”
- French 18th Century man of letters and intellectual giant. Best known for Candide, a novel which skewers the silly optimism espoused by Dr Pangloss that ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.’ Also wrote a cutting Philosophical Dictionary plus reams of other work.
- Favourite quote: “Now, now my good man, this is no time for making new enemies.” (Attr. on his deathbed when asked by a priest if he would renounce Satan)
- Also: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
Vonnegut, Kurt (1922-2007)
- American writer, best known for darkly satirical novels such as ‘Slaughterhouse Five’, ‘Breakfast of Champions’, and ‘Cat’s Cradle.’ An insightful social critic, his work takes an acidic and sometimes detached view of the insanity perpetuated by mankind.
- Favourite quote: “So it goes.” (recurring phrase in ‘Slaughterhouse Five.’)
- Also: “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”
Waits, Tom (1949-)
- American singer and songwriter with inimitable tree-bark voice. Waits’ cynicism pervades his prolific work but for a quick fix, check out his album ‘Rain Dogs’ for a dose of all things Tom. Quintessential song title – ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me.’
- Favourite quote: “Don’t you know there ain’t no Devil / That’s just God when he’s drunk.”
- Also: “The big print giveth and the small print taketh away.”
Waters, Roger (1943-)
- English singer-songwriter best known as a founder member of Pink Floyd. Led the band in the 1970s, producing albums with a distinctly jaundiced view of humanity such as ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, ‘Animals’ and ‘The Wall.’ His solo career from the 1980s on has explored similar themes.
- Favourite quote: “Everything under the sun is in tune / But the sun is eclipsed by the moon.”
- Also: “So you thought you might want to go to the show? / To feel the warm thrill of confusion, that space-cadet glow?”
Watterson, Bill (1958-)
- American cartoonist, creator of beloved comic strip Calvin and Hobbes (1985-1995). Calvin, the pint-sized philosopher and smart-ass takes on the world with his (somewhat) more sensible tiger friend Hobbes.
- Favourite quote: “I’m yet another resource-consuming kid in an overpopulated world, raised to an alarming extent by Madison Avenue and Hollywood, poised with my cynical and alienated peers to take over the world when you’re old and weak.” (Calvin explaining his Halloween costume)
Weill, Kurt (1900-1950) and Brecht, Bertolt (1898-1956)
- Inspired German partnership, the former a composer, the latter a playwright. Their combined efforts include the ‘Threepenny Opera’, a glorious satire mocking musical traditions and cliches with reckless abandon – including that of the happy ending. Closed down by the Nazis who feared their irrepressible voices, their work continues to inspire.
- Favourite quote: “Who is the greater criminal – he who robs a bank or he who founds one?”
West, Mae (1893-1980)
- American actress and sex-symbol always ready with a waspish comment or a wry turn of phrase.
- Favourite quote: “I believe in censorship – I made a fortune out of it!”
- Also: “Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.”
Wilde, Oscar (1854-1900)
- Anglo-Irish writer and wit, well known for his brilliant turns of phrase, the novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and satirical plays such as ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. Behind the image of the debonair dilettante there lay a man of genuine compassion for the unfortunate and the downtrodden, shown in latter-day works such as ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ and ‘De Profundis’.
- Favourite quote: “The 19th Century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.”
- Also: “To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.”
Wilmot, John, Second Earl of Rochester (1647-1680)
- Restoration-era nobleman, libertine, poet and satirist. One of a ‘mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease’, Rochester was a notable intellect of his day who died an early death from venereal disease aged just 33. His epigrams and poems are notable for their wit and willingness to take a sideswipe at many a powerful target – even the king.
- Favourite quote: “Here lies our sovereign Lord the King / Whose word no man relies on / Who never said a foolish thing / Nor ever did a wise one.” (of Charles II)
Wyndham, John (1913-1969)
- English writer best known for terrifying sci-fi nightmares such as Day of the Triffids, The Chyrsallids and the Midwitch Cuckoos. Despite being dubbed ‘cosy catastrophe’ by some critics, his work often shows a world in which humans are the real monsters.
- Favourite quote: “We have a new world to conquer; they have only a lost cause to lose.”
Zamyatin, Yevgeny (1884-1937)
- Russian writer and one of the first dissidents produced in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution. Horrified by the brutality of the new regime, he produced his masterpiece ‘We’ an intellectual ancestor of ‘1984’ and others. Not surprisingly, his work was banned in Russia but he arranged for the book to be smuggled to the West for publication.
- Favourite quote: “You’re in a bad way! Apparently you have developed a soul.”
Zappa, Frank (1940-1993)
- American songwriter, musician and gadfly. Spent his career taking sideswipes at many worthy targets including the self-satisfaction of the hippie movement and in later life, the censorship brigade. His work straddles many styles and his views on contemporary American life are very quotable.
- Favourite quote: “Music journalism is people who can’t talk being interviewed by people who can’t write for the benefit of people who can’t read.”