Helen Small: The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time

Date and time

24 Feb 2021 17:30



Professor Helen Small is the current holder of the Merton Professorship of English Language and Literature at Oxford, this distinguished post dates back to 1885 and JRR Tolkien is among Professor Small’s five predecessors.

Before taking up the Professorship, Helen was the Jonathan and Julia Aisbitt Fellow in English Literature at Pembroke from 1996 to 2018. Her commitment to College life included serving as Vicegerent from 2014 to 2016 and she is now an elected Honorary Fellow in recognition of her distinguished contribution to the College.

Helen’s distinguished career in literature has seen her win the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism (for The Long Life, 2007), as well as receiving widespread acclaim for her 2013 book The Value of the Humanities and she was elected to a Fellowship of the British Academy in 2018.

Helen will be talking about her latest book, The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time (published last year, during lockdown).

When critics today complain that cynicism is both ubiquitous and lacks the serious bite it once possessed (in classical antiquity), they are usually expressing concern that it is a corrosively negative thing. The book gives reasons to take a less alarmist view—treating cynicism not as the isolated stance of a radical few but as a widely-employed credibility-check on those promoting moral ideals. It argues that cynicism in modern literature, public moralism, and philosophy has provided, and can still provide, a route by which those wanting to uphold ideals have tested them against what we know (or think we know) about human nature—imagining the challenge from someone disinclined to accept the authority of conventional ways of thinking.

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Professor Helen Small
Professor Helen Small