“My hate is general, I detest all men;
Some because they are wicked and do evil,
Others because they tolerate the wicked,
Refusing them the active vigorous scorn
Which vice should stimulate in virtuous minds…
“Betrayed and wronged in everything,
I’ll flee this bitter world where vice is king,
And seek some spot unpeopled and apart
Where I’ll be free to have an honest heart.”
-from The Misanthrope, by Molière
In The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz wrote an essay that begins with a man encountering a recent shipwreck. The dead lay in rough coffins nearby; there were only a handful of survivors. Pieces of the ship were still visible, strewn about. The man remembered his experience, writing, “On the whole, it was not so impressive a scene as I might have expected…I sympathized rather with the winds and waves, as if to toss and mangle these poor human bodies was the order of the day. If this was the law of Nature, why waste any time in awe or pity?”
The man, Schulz writes, is Henry David Thoreau. She goes on to describe him as narcissistic, smug, and self-righteous. She feels that although a venerated description of living close to nature, Thoreau’s well-known work Walden is really just “a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.”
Don’t get me wrong; I am drawn to Walden. In it, Thoreau writes things like, “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.” I want to be a philosopher by his definition.
But Schulz points out that the kind of life described in Walden is not very practical and certainly not ideal. The things that make life worth living (companionship, love, service, growth) are not what he considers necessary or profitable to life at all. He sees human devices of convenience (doormats, canned food, etc.) as moral temptations and his fellow man as generally stupid, weak, and lazy.
In a recent nature book review of Being a Beast, J.B. MacKinnon writes of the author, “I can’t know for sure whether Foster would like you personally, or me, but he certainly doesn’t like us. He has that sharp-toothed hatred of mainstream culture…Dislike for human kind is a time-honoured tradition in nature writing: the Romantics didn’t romanticize smokestacks, after all. The plain fact is that people wreak destruction on that which nature lovers love, so while the longing to inhabit the world of other species can spring from a fascination with the wild, it can also come from a disgust for all things human.”
This attitude of misanthropy, a dislike or even hatred of humankind, is an old concept, but seems to be very prevalent now. Distaste for the mainstream, various “I hate people” memes, social media attacks, etc. seem to be increasing, and increasingly sharp and vicious and not so funny.
Taking a break from technology to enjoy nature, standing up for ideals, wanting to live a moral and upright life, striving to discern what’s healthy and right are all good things. But it’s easy for moral distinctions to create arrogance, and for arrogance to become disdain.
In Strangers Drowning, a book about extreme examples of charity, Larissa MacFarquhar writes,
Do-gooders are eccentrics, but their influence extends beyond themselves, because where there’s a sense that do-gooders are too eccentric, too distant from ordinary people, there is also a sense that doing good may be responsible for that distance. Where there’s a sense that extreme morality conflicts with humanity, there is also a fear that to push yourself morally is to distance yourself from human fellowship. Ambivalence about do-gooders can make trying to live a more moral life seem less appealing, less necessary. You may wonder: do do-gooders understand that it is flawed humans, weak humans, ordinary humans, whom we love? And: if do-gooders are always thinking of how the world is unjust and needs to be changed—if they want to replace our world with another, better one—then do they love the world that we know, the world as it is? (12)
I’ve wondered where I fit on this scale. It is so easy to slip too far to either side. Are my own standards slowly lowering in response to my increasing tolerance and understanding about how others live their lives? Do I dismiss others and distance myself from them because I’m uncomfortable with how different they are from me? Do I generalize among humankind instead of seeing and working to get to know individuals? Yes, all of the above; I struggle with all of it.
One thing I’m pretty sure of: if my attitude prevents or discourages doing good works, I’ve gotten something wrong. Sadly, Schulz believes this is where Thoreau’s ideals led him. She writes, “Unsurprisingly, this thoroughgoing misanthrope did not care to help other people. ‘I confess that I have hitherto indulged very little in philanthropic enterprises,’ Thoreau wrote in Walden…In what is by now a grand American tradition, Thoreau justified his own parsimony by impugning the needy.”
It makes a certain kind of sense, seeing how philanthropy (love of mankind) is the opposite of misanthropy. But it’s also pretty warped that one man’s efforts to live purely lead him to pity himself more than care about anyone else.
So what is a better way? Interestingly, I found that there are two Greek words used in the Bible related to our English word ‘philanthropy.’
The first occurs just once, in Acts 27, when Paul sails for Rome. Verse three says, “The next day we put in at Sidon. And Julius treated Paul kindly and gave him leave to go to his friends and be cared for.” The word ‘kindly’ here is philanthropos, meaning ‘humanely.’ The Matthew Henry Commentary on this verse adds, “…though Paul was committed to him as a prisoner, [Julius] treated him as a friend, as a scholar, as a gentleman, and as a man that had an interest in heaven…” Strong’s Concordance explains that philanthropos means “treating others with courteous respect because each is created in the divine image.” Remembering God’s plan and promises for all mankind do start to put in perspective any differences between us.
The other related word is philanthropia, a noun meaning ‘the love of mankind’ or ‘benevolence,’ and it shows up twice in scripture.
Acts 28 opens in the aftermath of a very different shipwreck than the one Thoreau observed. Here, Paul and the others with him find themselves dumped at Malta. Verse two says, “The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold.” The word ‘kindness’ here is philanthropia, ‘the love of mankind.’
I love the Matthew Henry Commentary here:
These barbarous people, however they were called so, were full of humanity. So far were they from making a prey of this shipwreck, as many, I fear, who are called Christian people, would have done, that they laid hold of it as an opportunity of showing mercy. The Samaritan is a better neighbour to the poor wounded man than the priest or Levite. And verily we have not found greater humanity among Greeks, or Romans, or Christians, than among these barbarous people; and it is written for our imitation, that we may hence learn to be compassionate to those that are in distress and misery, and to relieve and succor them to the utmost of our ability, as those that know we ourselves are also in the body. We should be ready to entertain strangers, as Abraham, who sat at his tent door to invite passengers in (Heb. 13:2), but especially strangers in distress, as these were. Honour all men.
I’m surprised and saddened and even ashamed that these two examples of love for mankind are not followers of Christ. Perhaps it is a statement to how difficult it is to be an ambassador for Christ while on earth, to be ‘in the world’ but not ‘of the world.’ I’m not sure if those aren’t just excuses, though.
Of Thoreau, Schulz concludes, “Ultimately, it is impossible not to feel sorry for the author of Walden, who dedicated himself to establishing the bare necessities of life without ever realizing that the necessary is a low, dull bar; whose account of how to live reads less like an existential reckoning than like a poor man’s budget, with its calculations of how much to eat and sleep crowding out questions of why we are here and how we should treat one another; who lived alongside a pond, chronicled a trip down the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and wrote about Cape Cod, all without realizing that it is on watering holes and rivers and coastlines that human societies are built.”
So what is a better way? Well, Christ is the better way. The second and final instance of philanthropia occurs in Titus three, with Paul writing instructions to Titus in a letter. In verse three Paul reminds Christians of all they have in common with their fellow man, the same struggles and sins, the same tendency toward being “hated by others and hating one another.” Then he goes on to say in verse four, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, He saved us…” That ‘loving kindness’ is philanthropia. It’s an interesting sentence, with “goodness and loving kindness” then being referred to as “He.” Christ is the embodiment of God’s love for mankind, or as the Matthew Henry Commentary puts it, “…the divine philanthropy, or kindness and love of God to man.”
It is easy in the strain of trying to do good and be good to feel society is a drag, that humans are generally frustrating and disappointing, that isolation is easier than interaction. As Schulz puts it, “Few things will thwart your plans to live deliberately faster than those messy, confounding surprises known as other people.” But the other people are exactly the point. And love for mankind is the future for us all.