Cynicism (Kυνισμός) originally comprised the various philosophies of a group of ancient Greeks called the Cynics, founded by Antisthenes in about the 4th century BC. The Cynics rejected all conventions, whether of religion, manners, housing, dress, or decency, advocating the pursuit of virtue in a simple and unmaterialistic lifestyle..
In pop culture, the word cynicism generally describes the opinions of those who see self-interest as the primary motive of human behaviour, and who disincline to rely upon sincerity, human virtue, or altruism as motivations.
On the other hand, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests as the usual modern definition (per cynic): showing "a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions" and a tendency "to express this by sneers and sarcasms".
The classical Greek and Roman Cynics regarded virtue as the only necessity for happiness, and saw virtue as entirely sufficient for attaining happiness. Classical Cynics followed this philosophy to the extent of neglecting everything not furthering their perfection of virtue and attainment of happiness, thus, the title Cynics, derived from the Greek word κύων, ("dog" in English) because they allegedly neglected society, hygiene, family, money, etc, in a manner reminiscent of dogs. They sought to free themselves from conventions; become self-sufficient; and live only in accordance with nature. They rejected any conventional notions of happiness involving money, power, or fame, to lead entirely virtuous, and thus happy, lives.
One aspect of the Cynic way of life involved criticism of the types of behaviours, such as greed, which the Cynics viewed as causing suffering. Emphasis on this aspect of their teachings led, in the 19th century, to the modern understanding of cynicism as "an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others. This modern definition of cynicism differs markedly from the ancient philosophy, which emphasized "virtue and moral freedom in liberation from desire.
Nearly 2000 years after certain Greek philosophers first embraced classical cynicism, 17th and 18th century writers such as Shakespeare, Swift, and Voltaire, following in the traditions of Geoffrey Chaucer and François Rabelais, used irony, sarcasm, and satire (which had never gone out of fashion) to ridicule human conduct and revive cynicism. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary and cinema figures such as Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, H.L. Mencken, and W.C. Fields used cynicism as way of communicating their low opinions of certain manifestations of human nature. By 1930, Bertrand Russell — in the essay On Youthful Cynicism — could describe the extent to which (in his view) cynicism had penetrated parts of Western mass consciousness, and could note particular areas partially deserving of cynicism: religion, country (patriotism), progress, beauty, truth. The first half of the 20th century, with its two World Wars, offered little hope to people wishing to embrace an idealism diametrically opposed to cynicism: seeing fellow-humans as trustworthy, well-intentioned, caring, decent, and honourable.
The second half of the 20th century featured a general rejection of virtue and self-restraint, and a movement toward materialism — particularly in what Pope John Paul II termed "the cynical society of consumerism" in his 1984 Christmas remarks. The same communications media whose advertising bolstered consumerism also occasionally promoted entertaining conspiracy theories, thus adding the long-standing traditions of conspiracies to a new "hidden agenda" dimension to the cynicism of some.
In recent decades, the study of human nature — one book's title portrays a Battle for Human Nature — focused new attention on cynicism. In attempting to counter an alleged widespread belief portraying "jungle ethics" and the associated competition, self-interest, and survival of the fittest as innate to the human animal, researchers with an opposing agenda looked for a genetic basis for co-operation and altruistic behavior, and for signs that human societal participation ultimately built upon co-operation and altruism. Alfie Kohn argued that a person's cynicism stems from escaping responsibility, another belief sees cynicism as following sophistication in human psychological development.
In 2005, researchers at Yale University found that children as young as eight years old could discount the statements of others as tarnished with "self-interest".