I recently re-read Animal Farm.  I think I last read it in secondary school in English class thirty (!) years ago.  I still remember it (unlike Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders) because of the donkey character, Benjamin.   The animals on the farm revolt and get rid of the farmer.  They are led by the pigs.  But the pigs are up to no good and are simply replacing the farmer with their own exploitative regime.  They are very, very clever and can read and write.  Benjamin is also clever and knows what the pigs are doing but he keeps quiet about it.  The pigs succeed at huge cost to the other animals.

This is the thing I found mysterious and incomprehensible when I was twelve – why doesn’t the donkey reveal what the pigs are doing and save the other animals and the farm?  This is the naivete of youth, believing if truth is simply spoken, it will be understood, appreciated and acted upon.  Well, I was twelve.  But I suppose (hope?) that many of us have these sorts of beliefs initially.  As time passes, we act of these beliefs.  Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail.

When we fail, we learn from our mistakes realizing what strategies do not work.  Anyone who wants to influence collective decisions has to be subtle and know when to keep their mouth shut.  This seems obvious now but presumably we learn it in school or in our family sometime when we see power trump reason.  This learning process creates wisdom – you know more than before about strategies that fail.  It also creates cynicism as you realize strategies with moral force have no political force.  This is a sense in which cynicism is a form of wisdom.  I didn’t understand Benjamin at all when I was twelve but now I see exactly why he was quiet.  Orwell makes sure we understand the dilemma – Benjamin is alive at the end of the book unlike some animals who spoke out.  I’m older and wiser.

What about successful strategies?  The reverse logic applies to them.  Success leads to optimism.  A sophisticated learner should have contingent beliefs: some strategies he is optimistic about and some pessimistic.  Someone more naive will have an average worldview.  Whether it is cynical or not depends on the same issue that Jeff raised in his entry: are you overoptimistic at the beginning?  If so, the failures will be more striking than the successes.  This will tend to make you cynical.