The Misanthrope: the man who loved humanity too much

Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

Do misanthropists really hate mankind? Rather, Molière’s play highlights an ambivalent character, torn between idealism and disappointment — something that psychology research will find three centuries later, through a double vicious circle in which they lock themselves.

Do you think most people are immoral, ungrateful, disrespectful, hypocritical, stupid, and incompetent? Politics disgusts you, crowds repel you, you can’t stand the presence of others, and you see the history of humanity as an uninterrupted series of destruction, wars, massacres and inequalities, without any hope. of redemption? So you are probably a misanthrope.

Generally defined as the hatred of humanity as a whole, misanthropy is immediately striking for its excessive and unusual character. After all, humans are social beings who seek companionship, forge friendships, collaborate to improve their well-being… And how can you evenly hate the species you are a part of? There is definitely something strange and illogical about misanthropes. A mysterious side that had not escaped Molière, creator of Alceste, the best known of them. Of course, the ridiculous aspect of this character is also central to the comedy.

Evolving in the court society of Louis XIV, where norms, appearances and etiquette reign, the misanthropist Alceste is fed up by the factitiousness of the behavior of all those around him. From the first scene, we discover a character extraordinarily astride ethics and virtue, who complains that others do not follow the same standards of moral rectitude as his own. In short, everyone except him lies, schemes, flatters, takes advantage and insincerity, and the atrabilary hero is deeply upset by the play of social conveniences, which he perceives as contrived and detestable. On the surface, Alceste simply has no faith in humanity, and does not shy away from making it known.

The science of misanthropy

In fact, research in psychology also observes in misanthropes this tendency to vituperate against the whole earth. The first work on the subject emerged in political science, when in 1956 political scientist Morris Rosenberg studied the effects of what he called “faith in humanity.” In a series of surveys, he asked participants very general questions, such as: “Do you think people help each other? That they want to take advantage of you? That they care about you? His aim was to find out whether faith in humanity was more left or right, but on this point the results showed no difference between progressives and conservatives. In contrast, the tendency towards misanthropy has been shown to correlate with a form of generalized political cynicism, in the form: “all rotten!” “, As well as positions very unfavorable towards freedom of expression and frankly hostile towards respect for minorities. For misanthropists, freedoms are suspect, in that they are likely to give free rein to individual negative instincts.

“Misanthropists believe human nature is fundamentally good from a moral point of view, study finds”

But do these people really think that everyone has a bad background, beyond these instincts? More than an innate hatred towards humanity, which is reflected in Alceste in the quoted excerpt, it is a disappointment, a bitter disillusion, forged over unhappy experiences. And indeed, using the same questionnaire as Rosenberg, psychologist Julian De Freitas and colleagues have shown that even the most extreme misanthropists tend to think that people are morally good internally, as their “real selves.” »Does not correspond to what they show on the outside. More specifically, when a good person does something bad, most of us think that it doesn’t reflect their true nature, but when someone who passes for bad is doing something good, we think that this is his true face. This also seems to be the case with misanthropes. This character trait therefore emerges not as the tendency to perceive humans as hopelessly evil, but rather as a reproach for their failure to express their true and good nature. It is therefore understandable that Rousseau, also a great misanthrope, wanted to rehabilitate Alceste against Molière himself: “Alceste is an upright, sincere, estimable man, a true man of good”, he writes in his Letter to d ‘ Alembert on shows (1758), but “the author gives him a ridiculous character”.

How to make oneself obnoxious

If misanthropists ultimately believe in human goodness, why do they focus so much on the negative aspects of their contemporaries? In his play, Molière puts his finger on an insidious mechanism, which swells and maintains their attitude. Alceste makes no secret of seeking conflict through his behavior (“All men are so hateful to me / I would be sorry to be wise in their eyes”). However, this is what creates a vicious circle, as the numerous studies carried out by psychologist Olga Stavrova of Tilburg University in the Netherlands have shown: not only do misanthropes hate their fellow human beings, but they also hate their fellow human beings. so that the latter return it to them. By their very attitude, they attract the disrespect of others, which comforts them in the idea that others are disrespectful, and thus makes them even more misanthropic. It is actually about creating obstacles and constraints for oneself to convince oneself that things cannot improve precisely because of these obstacles and constraints. Initially, it is possible that these grieving people received more or less harmless bullying, and that was enough to set this vicious cycle in motion.

Extract: “I hate all men”

ALCESTE
[…] I will spare no one on this point.
My eyes are too hurt, and the yard and the city
Offer me nothing but objects to heat my bile:
I go into a black mood, into a deep sorrow,
When I see the men living among themselves as they do.
I find nothing but cowardly flattery everywhere,
That injustice, interest, betrayal, deceit.
I can’t stand it anymore, I’m enraged, and my purpose
Is to break in visor to all mankind.

PHILINTE

[…] Such a great anger against the mores of the time
You ridicule a lot of people.

ALCESTE

So much the better, morbleu! so much the better ! this is what I ask,
This is a very good sign to me, and my joy is great;
All men are so hateful to me
How sorry I would be to be wise in their eyes.

PHILINTE

You want great harm to human nature!

ALCESTE

Yes, I conceived a terrible hatred for her.

PHILINTE

All the poor mortals, without any exception,
Will be enveloped in this aversion? […]

ALCESTE

[…] It is general, and I hate all men,
Some because they are wicked and evil,
And the others to be with the complacent wicked […]
Tetebleu! they are fatal wounds to me
To see that with vice we keep measures,
And sometimes it takes sudden movements from me
To flee in a desert the approach of humans.

The misanthropes then lock themselves in a destructive attitude, also highlighted by the work of the Stavrova team: their married life is fleeting and stormy, they have few friends, do not earn very well, lose often their jobs, rarely succeed in what they undertake… and are in poor health. In medicine, cynicism — a concept related to misanthropy, in that it implies a negative appreciation of other individuals, perceived as corrupt and immoral — is one of the best studied psychosocial risk factors: it is associated with a high rates of inflammatory biomarkers, metabolic syndromes, cardiovascular disease, arteriosclerosis, ulcers, diabetes and even dementia. In fact, mortality in general, regardless of the cause, is related to the rate of cynicism.

If we ignore the exact mechanisms of these associations, which inevitably involve multifactorial bio-psycho-social, and probably cultural and historical aspects, misanthropy would therefore have many negative consequences. Worse: Stavrova also found that poor health, as such, induces misanthropy, which obviously doesn’t help. It is therefore a second vicious circle that traps misanthropists: their hatred of others degrades their health, which reinforces their hatred of others.

Living together, despite everything

And they don’t even have the choice to flee into a desert, no matter what Alceste says. Because in the end, misanthropy is an expression of hurt pride, a deliberately failed quest for recognition. “I want to be distinguished,” admits the character of Molière. The point is, Alceste needs to show his misanthropy, and for that to live in society. It must feed on injustices, affronts, scandals and fools in order to realize itself, to prove its superiority over the world. In other words, he has to live among humans, if only to say to them: “Since among humans like this you live as real wolves, / Traitors, you will not have me with you in my life.”

Why I liked this work

Although Le Misanthrope was one of Molière’s least successful plays during his lifetime, it is today recognized as one of his greatest achievements, if not his greatest. Among the character studies of the famous playwright, Alceste stands out. He certainly gives rise to epic fits of anger and bad faith that make people laugh, but the character is not as easily readable as the hypocrite Tartuffe or the grotesque M. Jourdain du Bourgeois gentilhomme. Where in the play, other despisers of human vices actually adapt perfectly to them, we can sense a certain fragility in the misanthrope. This is what makes all its richness and humanity.

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