Cynicism, Justice, and the Teaching Profession


Cynicism has become more widespread over the years. The causes of this encroaching cynicism among Catholic teachers in particular are complex and cannot easily be reduced to a single one.

Love is, essentially, an act of the will that desires what is truly good for another, and that is why it should not be surprising to discover, after a careful reading of the gospel of Matthew, for instance, that the unconditional love of Christ does not readily translate into unconditional tolerance and acceptance.  A truly loving person wills the best for another and will not tolerate anything less.  Love is, in many ways, intolerant.  And there was a great deal that Jesus would not tolerate, for not everyone was of acceptable character.  There are places in the gospels in which he clearly has some rather difficult things to say about people of certain character.  For example, one of the harshest things that Jesus ever said in the New Testament was:
Anyone who is the downfall of one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round his neck. (Mt 18, 5-7)
This presents a rather violent image, and it is one of the passages that speaks of the mystery of the divine anger, which is very real and rooted in the intensity of his love for “these little ones” who believe in him.  He even calls the Pharisees "whitewashed tombs full of bones and corruption" (Mt 23, 27), and you can use your imagination to figure out exactly what this would mean today.

Another remarkable example of Christ’s realism is found in the Sermon on the Mount:

Do not give to dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls in front of pigs, or they may trample them and then turn on you and tear you to pieces. (Mt 7,6)
Jesus, of course, was not referring to actual pigs and dogs, but to human persons.  These are the ones who do not have it within them to discern what is of genuine value, as the pig has no sense of the value of a pearl.  Dogs have no eyes for what is truly holy, and so they will trample on what is genuinely holy and good, whether it is truth, or a person of profound holiness.

Now, what continues to impress me as I look back over my early years as a secondary school teacher is the tremendous quality of staff of which I was once a part.  In particular, I recall the Salesian priests of the order of Don Bosco, who often said Mass for us, ran retreats for us, preached to us and exhorted us with inspiring and anointed words.  They gave us everything we needed to rise above the sorrows that loomed on the horizon, and they offered us a spirituality that would enable us to have young people eating out of our hands.  But what I found particularly striking was how a core group of teachers were unable to recognize their fortune, let alone benefit from it.  These people simply did not have the perception by which to see how genuinely lucky they were to be working alongside such colleagues and leaders.  They were as reverent as pigs trampling upon invaluable pearls.

But what became difficult was to have to witness, over the following years, the spreading of such a mindset among my teaching colleagues.  As good teachers left for other things and were replaced with those of lesser character, the conditions were soon in place for this rather cynical core to grow to a majority.  I recall sitting in the school chapel one day relaying to one Salesian priest the predominant “ideas” among the new staff, to which his only reply was that “the blessing of God cannot come upon a school that thinks this way.”  Five years later, the doors of this school were permanently closed.

Cynical is the word that best describes the kind of character that we are talking about.  In fact, the Latin word cynicus is from the Greek kunikos, or dog.  A cynic is doglike (kuon).  The cynic is one who believes that virtually everyone is motivated by selfishness, and so he has an outlook that is habitually negative.  The cynical attitude stems, among other things, from an inordinate confidence in one’s own way of seeing things.  The cynic lacks a healthy sense of his own limitations, and so he tends to lack docility, a very important ingredient of the virtue of prudence, the mother of the virtues.  Docility (from the Latin docere, ‘to teach’) renders one capable of being taught, but the cynical tend to be inflexible and thus very difficult for those in positions of authority to work with.

The first of the fruits of the cynical mind is a spirit of complaining.  Cynics have a difficult time accepting the fact that in a community, like a school, things are never and never will be exactly the way we want them to be in every respect.  This is a problem for the person who lacks a sense of his limits and trusts too readily in the particular way he sees things; given that things are not happening the way he would like them to happen, he regards them as not happening the way they ought to happen.

There is nothing noble about cynicism, for it has its roots in arrogance, and above all it is unmagnanimous.  In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes the magnanimous character thus:

He will not be overjoyed when his luck is good, nor will bad luck be very painful to him…He bears no grudges, for it is not typical of a high minded man to have a long memory, especially for wrongs, but rather to overlook them.  He is not a gossip, for he will talk neither about himself nor about others, since he is not interested in hearing himself praised or others run down…When he encounters misfortunes that are unavoidable or insignificant, he will not lament and ask for help. (IV, 3)
The cynic is precisely the one for whom bad luck is particularly painful, and who has an unusually long memory, especially for wrongs suffered, but lacks the kind of memory that is an integral part of prudence, the kind by which a person learns from experience and acquires wisdom.  The cynic delights somewhat in scandal, and when he encounters misfortune, he will not find it in himself to rise above the sorrow of the situation.  And so his personality is characterized by perpetual complaining and lament.  But the magnanimous man, as Joseph Pieper writes, “does not complain; for his heart is impervious to external evil.  High-mindedness implies an unshakable firmness of hope, an actually challenging assurance, and the perfect peace of a fearless heart.”

Cynicism is highly contagious and tends to beget its likeness.  That is why one of the most important responsibilities incumbent upon the young and inexperienced teacher is to guard against the subtle and corrupting influence of the cynical, who usually make up about fifteen percent of a teaching staff.  And cynics can be detected.  They will gossip during their lunch.  They will complain about nearly everything outside of themselves, but give nearly nothing from within themselves, and the administration team of the school are almost always the target of their complaining.  They will separate themselves into a clique of like-minded individuals — for dogs do not associate with doves, only dogs — and of course they rarely smile, except to make room for the occasional sardonic laughter.  They lack a spirit of joy, playful humour, and gratitude; for gratitude in particular depends upon an awareness of what is given gratis, but the cynical believe that everyone is motivated by selfishness.  In his eyes, therefore, nothing is given gratis.  These are the people that the young teacher is wise to avoid.  For consider the following exhortation, which is also another instance of Christ’s realism:

You are the salt of the earth.  But if salt loses its taste, what can make it salty again?  It is good for nothing, and can only be thrown out to be trampled under people’s feet. (Mt 5, 13-16)
The ancient world placed a high value on salt.  It’s glistening whiteness renders it a fitting sign of purity, and it was a common preservative, used to keep food from spoiling, and it brought out the unique flavor of various foods.  But the cynic is “good for nothing”, for he has lost his “taste”.  In fact, the cynical are themselves a corruptive influence, a positive agent of disintegration.  Moreover, the cynical are somewhat bitter of spirit and resentful, and as Pieper remarks, bitterness of spirit and resentment “close the ears to the language of truth and love”.

Cynicism has become more widespread over the years.  The causes of this encroaching cynicism among Catholic teachers in particular are complex and cannot easily be reduced to a single one, but I submit that a very real contribution to this rather unfortunate condition has been the presentation, over the years, of a fragmented Catholicism that has its roots in the 1960s.  For the most part, Catholic teachers have received their "theological" formation from their teaching colleagues, some of whom have been adequately qualified to provide such instruction — a qualification, I might add, that amounts to much more than a graduate degree in theology or religious studies.  But some, on the other hand, have limited the content of their courses, geared to their colleagues, to a very small part of Catholicism, namely that part which usually goes under the designation of 'social justice', but which in the final analysis amounts to only a part of justice, namely, its distributive kind.  Such fragmentation is deficient and has helped to shape attitudes, some aspects of which can return to haunt us even further.

Let me explain.  Justice has always been understood as a threefold synthesis of legal, commutative, and distributive justice.  Consider the following diagram:

As Pieper remarks, "justice rules in a community or state whenever the three basic relations, the three fundamental structures of communal life, are disposed in their proper order: firstly, the relations of individuals to one another; secondly, the relations of the social whole to individuals; thirdly, the relations of individuals to the social whole."  And corresponding to these three social relations are the three fundamental kinds of justice, namely commutative, distributive, and legal justice (general justice).  The habit of justice does not begin on the level of distributive justice, but on the more fundamental level of commutative and legal justice.  Without these latter, there is no hope of achieving a proportionate and just distribution of goods any more than we can hope to build a pyramid by starting from the top.  In this light, at least, it should be obvious that the distinction between and subsequent separation of personal and social morality — and the emphasis upon the latter over the former — is not true to the facts and only defeats itself in the long run.  For the state is composed of individual persons, and if individual persons lack the habit of justice (which properly disposes the will), they cannot be relied upon to justly distribute the goods to which individuals have a right.

Commutative justice orders the relations between individual and individual, while legal justice orders the relations of individuals to the social whole.  Distributive justice orders the relations between the social whole and the individual.  And not only is distributive justice grounded in commutative and legal justice — for unjust men cannot constitute a just government — but these latter depend upon the cultivation of those virtues allied to justice, which order those relations of indebtedness that are beyond the scope of the full realization of justice, namely the relation between the individual and his parents (piety), the individual and his country (piety and observance), and finally the individual and God (religion).  Legal justice, which involves commitment to the common good, depends upon the virtues of piety, observance and religion, and distributive justice cannot stand without legal justice.

For example, the person who fails to honor his parents and recognize the debt that he cannot fully repay is one who will forever remain incapable of recognizing the debt he owes the civil community, and so he will fail in that part of piety that is a love for one's country.  He is the kind of person who has a right to expect anything from everyone, but has a duty to no one.  And so piety is the condition for the possibility of legal justice, for we cannot fully repay what we owe to the country as a whole, but we are required to try, and this means doing our part for future generations.  It means directing our lives towards the common good (general justice).  The person who lives primarily for himself, as opposed to the common good, is one who fails to recognize all the goods of which he has been made the beneficiary, and this is ingratitude.  Such people are unjust in all their other relations, for the unjust man is unwilling to maintain the proper equality between himself and others.

Religion is the most perfect part of justice, for it is to God that we are indebted above all, and it is not possible to completely render to God what is due to Him; for God's gifts are always prior to anything we can accomplish in the way of trying to do justice to Him.  So there is a natural duty to be religious as there is a natural duty to be just.  The non religious man is unjust and will likely remain unjust in his relations with his fellows and with the civil community as a whole.  Although it is impossible to fully render to God what is due to Him, a person is required by the demands of justice to surrender his life to God, to make every attempt to order his life entirely in accordance with God's will, that is, to make God the very center of his moral existence. The love of God is to be the form of all his actions. In doing so, he still does not satisfy the debt, but he does all he can to do so.

And so evil does not exist on the level of the "system", as Marxism mistakenly holds, and neither is the solution to evil to be found there.  Rather, evil exists in the will, that is, in human persons, and if human persons are unjust, the state that is composed of such persons will inevitably remain an unjust state, regardless of the system.  But how can the virtues of religion and piety be fostered outside of the entire sacramental network of the Catholic faith?  I don't care to resolve this question, except to say that in light of our fallen human condition and the availability of the sacraments, as well as the rich spiritual heritage that is ours in the Church, any Catholic institution that attempts to contribute to the bringing about of a just state of affairs without tapping into these available resources is simply doomed to produce results at odds with its original intention.

But many Catholic institutions have attempted to do just that.  And one of the results of focusing exclusively on distributive justice has been the tendency, even now among many Catholic teachers, to regard justice as the sole duty of those who hold public office, or those in authority.  Voters, on the other hand, are regarded as just to the degree to which they keep their eye on those in public office (or authority) and raise their voices in protest.  And so the just man is now defined as the watch dog, whose permanent posture moreover is one of suspicion — readily manifest in his gaze.  And it is precisely this doglike suspicion that characterizes the cynic (kuon).

But justice is much more than its distributive type, and morality is much more than the virtue of justice.  Furthermore, Catholicism is much more than morality.  A fragmented Catholicism can no more promote a just society than a fragmented diet can bring about the physical health of a living organism.


Human knowledge always takes place in perspective.  To perceive something is to know it from a particular angle.  This implies that we never really behold something in its entirety at first glance.  To perceive the same thing again and from a different angle enlarges our vision.  Now the classroom provides an important angle.  A teacher can see things that are otherwise overlooked by those who have never been directly involved in the classroom.  But the classroom, like anything else, lends a very limited perspective.  I recall, in particular, the eye opening experiences that came my way the year I was compelled to take over chaplaincy.  Two periods spent every day outside of classroom walls, and a large part of that time spent in the office, allowed me to come to know things I otherwise would have been prevented from ever knowing.  These experiences always give rise to new and better judgments that eventually replace those made previous.  And that is why communication is so important.  Cynicism is an obstacle to communication.  But genuine communication alone establishes genuine community, and teaching can only be successfully carried out in community with others, a community that is living; for the personal development of adolescent youth cannot take place outside of genuine community, for the very word “person” (from the Latin: persona, ‘through sound’, communication) implies community.  Young people need to belong to a living community, and a divided and disintegrating one, dominated by a cynical group of unhappy minimalists who demand so much and give so little, is simply dying, ‘good for nothing’, and destined for closing:  “For if the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the builders labor” (Ps. 127,1).


McManaman, Douglas. "Cynicism, Justice, and the Teaching Profession." (Winter 2002).

Reprinted with permission of Douglas McManaman.


Doug McManaman is a high school religion teacher with the York Catholic District School Board in Ontario. He is currently teaching at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario and maintains a web site, A Catholic Philosophy and Theology Resource Page, in support of his students. He studied Philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. Mr. McManaman is currently the President of the Canadian Chapter of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.

Copyright © 2002 Douglas McManaman

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.