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Self-Knowledge: Mood


Reasons to Give Up on Human Beings

It’s peculiar to think that there might be a word like ‘misanthropy’ in our language: ‘a dislike of humankind.’ For a phenomenon to become a word, it needs a sufficient number of people to identify with it; it has to be an idea that we recognise in ourselves and others and then want to name and, in some cases, wear with pride. 

That we have such a stark and straightforward word in so many languages suggests that, whatever our apparent allegiance to our species, it isn’t very uncommon for a human being to look at who we are collectively – what we get up to, how we behave, how our thoughts run – and in the end want to give up at the sight of our limitless violence, wickedness and folly and wish that we had never evolved, homo sapiens having ultimately proved an unending and undignified plague upon the earth whose reign should end without regret.

Misanthropy isn’t bias or prejudice or snobbery. The misanthrope isn’t singling out or prioritising any one group. They’re treating everyone equally, even themselves. They’ve just reached the unfashionable view that we are a disgrace; that we don’t deserve life. It is a supreme movement of the imagination: to be human and yet to settle on the considered judgement that humans might be a cosmic error, a moral mistake.

What thoughts underpin the misanthrope’s convictions? What is so appalling about us? A true list would be very, very long; a beginning might look like this:

– We are ineradicably violent. We keep justifying our recourse to brutality through an appeal to a higher goal (we are fighting for a little while for the sake of the motherland, for justice, for God) but so regularly and gleefully do we erupt into cruelty that something more basic seems to be at play: we are violent because we have an ingrained taste for blood, we destroy because without a chance of a rampage, we would be bored, because it’s in the end a lot of fun to fight.

– We are unavailingly vindictive. Someone does us wrong, but rather than being spurred on to a little more tolerance and humanity, our wounds charge us up to smite others back with even greater force the moment we have the chance. An eye for an eye is for weaklings; we’d rather just kill outright when it’s our turn.

– We are immeasurably self-righteous. A part of our mind is constantly spinning a story about why it’s right for us to do what we do – and erasing the slightest doubts as to actions or any possible need for self-examination or apology. It’s always the others’ fault, there’s always a reason why we don’t need to say sorry; why we are victims rather than perpetrators. Placed end to end, our moments of guilt and atonement might amount to no more than half an hour across a lifetime. We are shameless. 

– We are fatefully inaccurate in who we punish. We are hurting, but the person who hurt us isn’t in the room, or we can’t get to them, so we redirect our rage onto the closest available defenceless target. We kick the dog on a grand, planetary scale.

– We do eventually learn and improve. There’s a higher chance of having good sense after some decades on the planet, but there are always newer, hungrier, more ferocious types coming on the scene, ready to refuel humanity’s reserves of vehemence and savagery. We can’t hold on to our insights; the wisdom painfully built up through wars, divorces and squabbles gets reliably erased every few years. We return back to primal rage with every generation. Our knives get sharper and our weapons keener, but moral progress eludes; the gap between our power and our acumen widens ineluctably. We’re as dumb as we ever were.

– We’re entirely uncurious as to why people we dislike made mistakes. We gain far too much pleasure from calling them evil. We adore never for a moment having to imagine that they too might simply be worried or sad or operating under compulsions they regret. We thrive on a sense of our rectitude. 

– We are jealous of all the perceived advantages of others; but rather than admit to our feelings of inadequacy and impotence, we turn our sorrow into fervour. We attempt to destroy those who unwittingly humiliated us. We turn our feelings of smallness into sulfurous cruelty.

– We loathe compromise. We only want purity. We can’t accept that something might be ‘good enough’ or that that progress might come slowly. We’d rather burn the whole house down now than patiently fix a wall.

– We find gratitude intolerably boring; we’re sick of having to appreciate what we have. Grievance is so much more interesting.

– We can’t laugh because we don’t, despite everything, find ourselves ridiculous. We hire professional comedians, as though finding ourselves stupid were a possibility someone else had to explore for us.

– We’re obsessed by justice; we think so little of kindness. Justice means giving people what they are owed; kindness – a far more important quality – means giving someone something they’re not owed, but desperately need anyway. It means knowing how to be merciful.

Misanthropists love people of course – or they did once upon a time. What high hopes one has to have started with in order to end up feeling so sad at the state of our species. How much one would need to love humanity in order to conclude that we’re a cosmic error. Misanthropes aren’t mean: they’re just casting around for a few solid reasons to keep faith with the human experiment. And, for the moment at least, they’re struggling.

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