Thursday, September 29, 2005

On cynicism ...

In his play Lady Windermere's Fan, Oscar Wilde famously defined a cynic as "a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." Like all good aphorisms, this one is richly ambiguous. The more one values something, the harder it is to put a price on it. And yet, in the market place at least, the price attached to something does tell us how much some people value it. Is a Rolex watch worth what it costs? Just as a timepiece, probably not. My Swiss Army watch tells time just as well as any Rolex, I suspect.
Among the young, cynicism has become a sort of protective coloration. It's a way of justifying sitting on the fence. Which is fine, because the fence is the right place to sit sometimes. Eventually, though, one must make up one's mind and decide what it is one values. This is best done when one is comfortable being unsure of things (the young are unsure enough -- though they may pretend or even think otherwise; they're just not comfortable with it, which is why they may pretend or think otherwise). Making a decision that has to be made, knowing full well that it may turn out to be wrong -- that's the start of maturity. Of course, things get even dicier afterwards, since a decision may be right even though things initially go wrong, and may be wrong even if things initially go well.
Life is every bit as ambiguous as the best aphorism.

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