• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On Modern Misology

Great care should be taken that we not become misologues, as we become misanthropes. It is, I fear, too late for us to avoid succumbing to the latter—let us not also submit to the former.

That we’ve become misanthropic, that we’ve come to resent our fellow man qua man, is nothing short of an unconcealed truth. We gaze upon our surroundings and our society and can’t help but notice this discouraging fait accompli, this ineluctable fact against which not even the most sanguine of humanists or optimistic of churchmen can any longer fight. It is, frankly, a sad truth of modern life to which both the religious and secular, the elect and the damned, must jointly resign. They recognize it for what it is: a somber reality by which our inherent neighborliness is stunted, and our affability muted. All we hear, instead, is the hollow silence of our own self-love, and all we feel is a warmth directed inward, a leaping flame by whose heat our fellow man won’t be touched.

Misanthropy, or the general detestation of humankind, that hazy repugnance that our species feels toward itself, has all but consumed us. In speaking of “us”, of course, I mean to speak of Americans, that unique body of people from whom the rest of the world once took its example. Misanthropic one and all, we’ve become impatient with one another’s mere existence, completely intolerant of the different lives and varied opinions of those insufferable fellow beings by whom, for want of a tinier vacuum, we’re uncomfortably surrounded. We exude neither charity nor love to our fellow man, neither empathy nor regard, and withhold from him every consideration of decency, compassion, and the threads by which we once were bound.

Instead, we’re quick to offer him our foulest curse and our vilest hate. He provokes in us an odium of which even our worst enemy, otherwise meriting our disdain, would be undeserving. We receive him with antipathy, and reject him with all possible haste. We gaze upon him with no feeling deeper than suspicion, and expect him to meet the unfriendliness of our eyes with a similarly cold and calculating stare. We are slow to imagine, if even capable of thinking him touched by the same divinity with which we feel ourselves uniquely graced. He hasn’t the same spark of humanity by which our own soul is illumed, to which a greater Spirit funnels a common energy and light.

As such, we think him undeserving of inclusion into the ranks of the human species, a species for which, as noted, our patience has grown increasingly thin.

We have, then, knowledge of the disease by which our society is currently afflicted, but what of its origin? Whence comes misanthropy, and whither is it led? Out of what soil does it flower, and by what noxious nutrient fed?

For this answer, we turn, as always we must, to the work of Plato. To whom, in earnest, if not to the mighty Athenian of the fourth century before Christ, ought we repair for the highest depictions of wisdom and beauty? Succinct yet true, we call to mind the terse brilliance of C.S. Lewis, by whom, so many years ago, it was rightly said, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?” The question, I fear, is one that lingers. Certainly, there’s no appreciable hint of Plato these days in classrooms that are, so far as I can tell, intent on removing every vestige of Classics.

In his dialogue, Phaedo, in which the question of the soul’s immortality is raised, the condemned sage Socrates offers an etiology of misanthropy, a sort of origin story for the strange phenomenon of man hating his fellow man. While awaiting the return of the Delian ship, by whose annual voyage his execution was mercifully delayed, Socrates explains to his eponymous friend that:

“Misanthropy comes when a man without knowledge or skill has placed great trust in someone and believes him to be altogether truthful, sound, and trustworthy; then, a short time afterwards he finds him to be wicked and unreliable, and then this happens in another case; when one has frequently had that experience, especially with those whom one believed to be one’s closest friends, then, in the end, after many such blows, one comes to hate all men and to believe that no one is sound in any way at all”.

Thus, the artless, thoughtless, gullible fool is deceived. Not only once does this occur, but time and time again. Experience, then, proves not the gentlest teacher, but the severest of guides from whom instruction is torn. What is experience, after all, if not a life’s accumulation of missteps and errors, and what is wisdom if not the accretion of such experience? The fault, however, is not his alone. Those people in whom he injudiciously placed his trust took advantage of his credulity and elevated their merit on the blind back of his innocence. Both parties are at fault, but the misanthrope responds despicably. In his rage and embarrassment, he lashes out in anger. He extends his hatred to any man, no matter how distant, by whom he might in the future be hurt.

Misology, or the hatred of reasoning, sober argumentation, or cordial debate, is formed in a similar way. In the words of Socrates, like misanthropy, it is born, “when one who lacks skill in arguments puts his trust in an argument as being true, then shortly afterwards believes it to be false—as sometimes it is, and sometimes it is not—and so with another argument and then another”. Trust, now, is placed rather in arguments than in men. Again, we see a man whose sight is unperceptive to the truth, a subtlety into which, perhaps because of his stubborn ignorance, vanity, or bias, he fails repeatedly to probe. He too is credulous like the misanthrope, but it’s specious arguments, in this case, that hold his attention and incite his wrath.

The trouble with such a person is that, instead of blaming his own intellectual deficits and committing himself to their improvement, or, in the silly fashion as described above, blaming humanity as the misanthrope does, he blames reason itself. He becomes hostile to that which distinguishes us from the beast. He becomes an enemy to rationality and a foe to conversation. He detests the Socratic Method out of which, through the many birth pangs of the dialectic, the joy of wisdom is eventually born.

He who hates rationality and bristles against the free exchange of ideas is a dangerous man. None but the troglodyte or the despot would disagree. All the more is he a danger if, god forbid, he tries to impose upon others his crude feelings and coerce into silence his neighbors. He’s a man for whom civil society simply harbors no patience, by whom a democratic people must remain, if it’s to continue enjoying the label “democratic”, unmolested. He looks not to his own correction and the refinement of the blunt shortcomings out of which his feeble argument is hewn, but to the suppression of dialogue itself, and the inalienable rights of others who enjoy it.

“It would be pitiable”, Socrates says, “when there is a true and reliable argument and one that can be understood, if a man who has dealt with such arguments as appear at one time true, at another time untrue, should not blame himself or his own lack of skill but, because of his distress, in the end gladly shift the blame away from himself to the arguments, and spend the rest of his life hating and reviling reasonable discussion and so be deprived of truth and knowledge of reality”.

Our response, two and a half millennia later, is still best articulated by that awed and assenting Phaedo: “Yes, by Zeus, that would be pitiable indeed”. We should not like to witness so horrible a state of affairs, so unrelenting an assault on reason, yet we in America seem to be nearing exactly this point.

But have we not already stepped out beyond the precipice of reason from which there’s no return? Is there no way to retrieve our balance and exercise a much more cautious gait in treading so fine and essential a line? It’s difficult to say. We’ve already become misanthropes; that we become misologues might be preordained. We’d do well, then, to guard against this possibility. We must, at all cost, avoid this terrible fate.

How so? one might ask. Press your ear to the book; the answer is to be heard in the sound of Socrates’ voice, distant, muffled, yet still somehow echoing through the years: “We should not allow into our minds the conviction that argumentation has nothing sound about it; much rather we should believe that it is we who are not yet sound and that we must take courage and be eager to attain soundness”.

Let us, then, disavow our pretensions to omniscience. We know them to be a front. Let us be relieved of our tyrannical temper, by which our deeper, democratic spirit is both offended and hurt. Let us abandon this high moral certitude and rhetorical haughtiness, to which none but the woke can ascend. This newfound authoritarianism, this revived McCarthyism, this commitment to cancellation becomes us—a fundamentally free and rational people—incredibly ill. It renders our every movement ungainly, and our appearance unattractive. Let us look rather to ourselves as subjects in need of improvement, than to the light of reason and debate in need of being dimmed.

In a word—the fault, dear reader, is not in reason, but in ourselves.

Let us, to conclude, mount our best defense against misology, even if the fight against misanthropy is lost. In the struggle against the former, there yet remains a greater war to be won. The first salvos have been fired. With what sharpened weaponry, with what compelling rejoinders, with what trenchant words will we contend?

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