Ancient Greek Philosophy, Articles, Philosophy

Plato on Misanthropy

The 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson, commonly referred to as Dr. Johnson, once wrote: “I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am.”

Misanthropy is defined as a general dislike or distrust of humankind. Such a word originated in Ancient Greece (misanthropos: misein (to hate) + anthropos (man)). The Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus (535-475)BC was perhaps one of the most notable ‘ancient misanthropes’.

Plato was aware of such a view, and thought that misanthropy was misguided. As he has Socrates explain in the Phaedo, a misanthrope is one who misunderstands the nature of human beings.

“Misanthropy comes when a man without knowledge or skill has placed great trust in someone and believed him to be altogether truthful, sound, and trustworthy; then, a short time afterward 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.” (Socrates)

Plato thought that one could be ‘cured’ of their misanthropy if they merely understood the truth that “the very good and the very wicked are both quite rare, and that most men are between those extremes.” (Phaedo) In other words, while an individual can cheat, lie, and deceive, such instances of immoral actions do not automatically imply that they are a horrible and utterly evil individual. It merely means they are human, and thus most likely also capable of love, compassion, and kindness.

An idea Plato did not espouse, but which follows from his analysis of misanthropy, is that the misanthrope could dislike human beings as a result of being an idealist. That is, the misanthrope could believe that the average human being should be ‘very good’. And when he observes that, as Plato noted, most individuals aren’t, he could come to the conclusion that human beings in general are pitiful and not to be trusted.

While one could take Plato’s advice and not become a misanthrope through the recognition that most human beings are capable of both goodness and evil, one could also take the view of the 20th century comedian and social critic Bill Hicks, who thought that human beings in general should be better:

“I believe that there is an equality to all humanity. We all suck.” (Bill Hicks)