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  • Introduction:"Suffocation in the Polis"
  • Jeffrey M. Perl (bio), Michael Seidman (bio), Simon Richards (bio), Daniel Juan Gil (bio), Gordon Marino (bio), Daniel Cottom (bio), and Jeffrey J. Kripal (bio)

However problematic the idiom or rhetoric of those who say "man is a social animal," it is hard to name an idiom that has been more successful.1 As Isaiah Berlin once observed in these pages, "no argument seems" any longer "needed to establish this proposition, for it is evidently something that all sane men believe without question, it is part of the general notion of man. Solitude can be endured only by a god or a beast: it is subhuman or superhuman."2 If so, the ideas entertained in Common Knowledge lately have not been those of "sane men" and sane women. "The only satisfactory life is lived by keeping out of the sight of those who can do you damage, by creeping into a corner of your own choosing" (208)—uncommon lives lived in accordance with that principle have been the subject of this symposium until now. [End Page 33]

A life lived out of sight or in a corner may seem quietist or eremitic, hence vaguely Christian. But this passage about the "only satisfactory life" is Berlin's summary of teachings attributed to Antiphon, a Sophist of the fifth century BC. Standard histories represent such teachings as emerging later, rather suddenly, in the Hellenistic schools of the Stoics and Epicureans. But Berlin suggested that the ancestry of these ideas—among the early Sophists, Cynics, Skeptics, "and other so-called minor sects" that may well have been major in their time—had been erased from history because their opinions had been "violently anti-political" (212).3 Questioning if we should take for granted that, after Aristotle's time, "an age of decadence" followed the "decline of the city-state," Berlin wondered if, on the contrary, political decline had "had a liberating effect" on Greek philosophy. Intellectual historians tend to ascribe the unsocial values of Hellenistic thought to "men's loneliness in the new mass society." Berlin, on the other hand, asked if "perhaps what they felt was not loneliness, but a sense of suffocation in the polis?" (213–14).

"Suffocation" is, to say the least, evocative diction. The response to being choked or stifled is liable to be fierce. To imagine anarchists, misanthropes, antinomians, Scrooges, the chronically unemployed, nonvoters, and a range of criminals (from hackers and black marketeers to draft dodgers and tax evaders) as victims of asphyxiation may be an experiment worth enduring. For is it right to hold accountable for havoc those who have been deprived of air?

* * *

Antisocial is an adjective applied to forms of life each of which merits its own full description. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe, Joseph Cornell, Glenn Gould, and Pascal Quignard—previous subjects of discussion here—should not have to share an adjective with hooligans. Excusing themselves from company they saw as indelicate, each went up- or downstairs to a different safe haven. Etty Hillesum and Simone Weil present more problematic cases: what could antisocial mean if applied to Jews in the Nazis' stranglehold? In Europe, in the forties, would not antisocial be effectively an accolade (and social, a synonym for "inane")? Essays in this third and last collection of uncommon lives in Common Knowledge reflect positively on even harder cases: assorted chiliasts, adventurers in "uncanny psychic domain," and more routine saboteurs of public order; a theologian of caritas and agape who despised and offended nearly everyone he met; an aesthetic theorist who defined art as "the destruction of commonality through violence"; an architect who designed buildings and planned cities that impede social interaction. To feel empathy with these characters is not essential. But it is worth considering that the enduring desire to disrupt or outfox society may be evidence of what Berlin called "suffocation." [End Page 34]

Societies do as a rule smother instinctive (along with distinctive) behaviors, but in the process they also as a rule incarnate the least respectable instincts with greater force than individuals can do independently. Freud depicted the work of society in the most repellent terms: "to help make everyone...


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