Obligatory Note on “Misanthropy”

It seems there has been a flurry of pieces coming up recently on the topic of misanthropy from the circles I find myself running in. The most recent was a blog post put out by the editor of the Atassa journal (much love, fam) on their blog Wandering Cannibals. It’s a topic that I’ve explored personally as well given the ubiquity of the term in the material that I engage with. The recent post from the editor of Atassa brought to mind some of the thoughts I had taken down in my notebook on the notion of “misanthropy” and motivated me to take some time to revisit and expand on them more fully here. 

When it comes to the issue of misanthropy I find that I have to echo the words of the Atassa editor’s recent post, “I am a bad misanthrope,” at least as far as the term is commonly used. I should also note that I find that my own reasons don’t line up perfectly with those of their original author. Nevertheless, if I am perfectly honest with myself and set aside the entertaining bombastic rhetorical flourishes for perhaps a more sober and theoretical analysis, it’s true that I don’t really find myself aligning with the ranks of the misanthropic, again at least not as they understand it.

For me the issue has more to do with what strikes me as the emptiness of the term “misanthropy” itself, and the consequences of a rejection of what the term means when understood in that sense. Etymologically the word misanthropy is derived from a combination of the Greek misein (“to hate”) or miso- (“hatred”) and the Greek anthropos (“man, humankind, humanity, etc.). This gives us the Greek misanthropos, and our misanthropy. The hatred of “mankind,” “the human,” “humanity,” etc.. For simplicity and space we’ll just stick with understanding misanthropy as a “hatred for humanity.” The signifier we use to denote the totality of man isn’t a difference that makes a difference in this case.

The problem for me is rooted in a rejection of the meaningfulness of the term “humanity” or any other kind of universalizing notion that expects to treat the staggering complexity of human beings as some kind of monolithic subject. To be fair, I will grant you that the homogenization of the world into endless repetitions of the same hyper-civilized archetype makes this less of a stretch but that’s not really the point. The point is that if we reject the abstraction “humanity” when it is sanctified at the alter of progress by humanists and their ilk then we don’t get to just turn around and use the same abstraction because it fits our own anti-humanist predilections. If there is no “humanity” for the social anarchist or communist then there is no “humanity” for the hatred of the misanthrope except within the spectral confines of our noetic faculties. One cannot hate a wispy abstraction, only real individuals. And so if it’s not possible to actually hold hatred of a universal, or perhaps I should say it isn’t really reasonable given the vacuity of its content, then the term is at the very least questionable. Rather than a thought that actually signifies something real it ends up being more like a rhetorical flourish used to signal ones deep-seated hatred for the existing order (a feeling I don’t disagree with even if I find its “misanthropic” expression questionable at times) in a kind of sloppy tout court rejection which refuses to address the actual subtlety and nuance of the world by hanging its negation on a meaningless abstraction.

And so for me the term “misanthropy” doesn’t mean much. I don’t put much stock in it as it doesn’t really seem to express something that resonates with me, much in the same way that I am often ambivalent toward the usage of the moniker “nihilism.” It is something that just doesn’t mean much to me or seem to describe the way I actually think or feel in a very careful or nuanced way. I don’t find myself wandering the world hating every human being that I come across or even everything that the human being is, and so I find the thought of just accepting a totalizing narrative of hatred like “misanthropy” intellectually lazy and unacceptable. I don’t buy that something as complex, varied, and nuanced as the human being can be so easily dealt with, cast aside after such broad strokes. And so I guess this makes me “a bad misanthrope,” but whatever.

All this having been said, though, is there a place for “misanthropy,” understood in a different way? After all, I myself have written things which make use of the concepts like “Man,” “humanity,” “the human being,” etc.. All of which could probably be read as misanthropic in the sense that I rejected above, and to be perfectly honest I am probably guilty of leaning on abstractions for the sake of impassioned flourishes in the heat of writing. But the short answer is yes. I do think there is a place for misanthropy as a form of philosophical reflection, analysis, or critique which recognizes that “humanity” is a conceptual abstraction and which remains aware of the fact that one is dealing with “humanity” not as a concrete reality, since it has none, but as that moving abstraction of the humanist ideal, that (ig)noble, modern idealism which has arrogantly set its narcissistic self-made idol “Man” atop the grand beauty of the whole and desecrated the great beauty of the earth in the ceaseless service of this empty abstraction. It is a rejection of “Man” couched in a larger set of epistemological and metaphysical postulates that run counter to the philosophical assumptions of the enlightenment, modernity, humanism, etc.. This is probably the only sense in which I find myself marginally involved in the circles of “misanthropes.” Not because I hate every human being that I come across, since I don’t, but because I have come to reject the humanist ideal of the arrogant debasement of the whole in the service of one being, “Humanity.” Even as a hollow and empty abstraction it is disgusting to me and opposed to everything that I find beautiful in the world (and I dare to include here even the human being in its more complicated beauty). Where my hatred is most prominent is where this wretchedness is most flagrantly manifested. In the broken forests destroyed for decadent dwellings of a narcissistic ape, in the flattened mountains and all their life destroyed for superfluous, luxurious toys.

And of course this wretchedness does manifest itself in the actions of individual human beings, and so I understand the hatred of men and I share the sentiments often expressed in the writings of the ranks of the nihilists and misanthropes. I suppose at the end of the day my philosopher’s upbringing means that I often think the issues are more complicated than we admit and are often deserving of a bit more nuance and complexity than I find in most treatments. And so this often means I don’t necessarily sit so easily with the Nihilists and Co. without a heavy dose of ambivalent side-eye even though in my heart I feel deeply the very same sentiments that they do. But that’s alright, it’s all love.

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