On Misanthropy


I often think about the nature of misanthropy because a) I'm a philosopher and we go through periods of general disdain for everybody, hence our brooding nature b) I've been interested in this topic since I read the book Perfume by Patrick Süskind, and c) I'm surrounded by philosophy students with misanthropic tendencies and it drives me nuts. I think this is a serious topic to be explored! In our (western) culture, as it has been for thousands of years, the misanthrope is an outcast of society, not to be trusted or pitied. This truth is evidenced in old english, epic poems like Beowulf and The Wanderer.

In Western philosophy, misanthropy has been connected to isolation from human society. In Plato's PhaedoSocrates defines the misanthrope in relation to his fellow man: "Misanthropy develops when, without art, one puts complete trust in somebody thinking the man absolutely true and sound and reliable and then a little later discovers him to be bad and unreliable...and when it happens to someone often...he ends up...hating everyone." According to Socrates, the misanthrop develops as a result of a constant disappointment in society. Misanthropy, then, is presented as the result of thwarted expectations or even excessively naive optimism, since Plato argues that "art" would have allowed the potential misanthrope to recognize that the majority of men are to be found in between good and evil.

Further down in the Greek tradition, Aristotle provides an ontological approach: the misanthrope, as an essentially solitary man, cannot  be a man at all: he must be a beast or a god. This reasoning begets the mystery of the Misanthrope. Society ascribes to the idea that the misanthrope exists, but I would agree with Aristotle that no man/woman can ever truly be a misanthrope. Though Aristotle insinuates that desiring friendship is a quality natural of a virtuous person, he does not fully articulate the nature of a virtuous person who does not desire companionship. “Now, if he is solitary, life is hard for him; for it is very difficult to be continuously active by one’s self, but not so difficult along with others and in relation to others.” (N.E. IX 1170b) Again, there is a level of truth to this statement, but it can also be said that there exists people who do not wish to interact with others. Meaning, that some people consider solitude a virtue of man, not solely an attribute of beast of god. Aristotle may have chosen not to delve deeper into this criticism because, misanthropic individuals were, and still are, considered outcasts of society (both out of their own will and through the “othering” of society). Consider contemporary, infamous misanthropes: Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, and even Moliere’s Alceste. Society is deeply skeptical, distrustful and abhorrent of misanthrops as much as misanthrops are skeptical, distrustful and abhorrent of society and other humans.


What's your take on the elusive misanthrope?