Is Misanthropy a Choice or an Instinct?
With philosophical conundrums such as this one, I often look for ground zero. Misanthropy is a belief system that is, at best, burdensome to bear. Flowers don’t grow in that garden. If one does indeed adopt it as a mindset, my guess is that
choice is not made lightly.
What seeds would need to be planted for this weed to grow? The intellectual garden can be a fecund oasis, but watered soil can give birth to almost anything. Does hatred of one’s fellow man grow there, or is the distaste for man arrived at more viscerally?
The mere power of observation will provide any rational, analytical person with overwhelming evidence of “Man’s Inhumanity to Man”, a phrase coined by the Scottish Poet Robert Burns in 1785, and a sentiment rife with regret. And, if misanthropy is a chosen philosophical outlook, wouldn’t Burns’ sentiment be the intellectual premise from which it bloomed?
Man’s instinct for idealism virtually sets the stage for misanthropy, as evidentiary data assaults most idealistic precepts. From there a cynic is likely born. How much further must one progress, or regress, to reach a misanthropic conclusion?
The wolf may be clad in sheep’s clothing, or in man’s case, cloaked in Gold Lame, but upon peeking behind the curtain, is the emperor wearing any clothes at all? Is man like a rose bush, sprouting beautiful flowers for all to see, yet hiding treacherous thorns just beneath the surface? Is the man who deceives, who conceals his true self; the real source of evil, or is the overtly Mephistophelian who wears his cruelty on his sleeve more diabolical?
Where does trust come into the discussion? In the absence of trust, does hatred fill the void? Is that too gratuitous a leap in thought? Without trust, does one not arrive at the definition of ‘enemy’? Someone whom we cannot take at face value, who displays a face to the world built upon disingenuous, faulty bedrock?
Aristotle said, “No one loves the man whom he fears”. Is there room to navigate between love and hate? One would think the gray area between those two most powerful, yet ultimately damaging emotions in the human condition, would be vast. But what lies between the two?
An example of mistaken misanthropy is French Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's quote, "Hell is other people." Perceived as deeply misanthropic, Sartre was actually making the observation that human beings lack self-knowledge. People tend to project their worst fears about themselves onto other people, rather than look inside. Thus, they observe in other people the worst of what is in their own personality. Do we hate those that we fear?
If misanthropy is a choice, a conscious embrace of the concept that all men are to be hated, then one’s environment enters the equation with, obviously, varying degrees of influence.
My father was the powerful icon from my youthful environment that propelled me down the pernicious path toward becoming a misanthrope. A cold, unloving man with a limited range of emotions and intellect, he found my thoughtful, contemplative instincts to be a sign of weakness. He was a doer, not a thinker, and his disapproval of my natural instinct for analytical thought was a constant until the day he died. The main male influence in my life had registered disgust and disappointment with me at almost every turn. One can draw their own conclusion, however, in deciphering what was behind my dad’s taking of his own life. Is the premise for suicide misanthropy, or worse, self hatred? Would all of that make misanthropy inevitable for me?
Socrates 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."
That is clearly not instinctual; it is observational.
Repeated disappointment, or perceived disapproval, can breed hatred. Prompting an emotional response that in many ways is defensible, almost intellectually logical. Such a significant philosophical choice rarely comes down to simple labels like optimism or pessimism. Burns powerful phrase treats the apriorism as a given, as truth, not merely an intellectual construct.
The more I think whether or not misanthropy is arrived at instinctively, as a reflexive, uncontrollable human impulse, the more I lean toward defining the resulting conduct as sociopathic, not philosophical. If hating your fellow man is an atavistic predisposition, not an arrived at intellectual conclusion, you are probably more suited for the jungle than the civilized world.