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  • Misanthropology
  • Gary Saul Morson (bio)

I have only found the key to the cipher of the Christian religion . . . theology is anthropology.

Ludwig Feuerbach

It’s a jolly thing that there always are and will be masters and slaves in the world, so there will always be a little maid-of-all-work and her master, and you know, that’s all that’s needed for happiness.

Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov

Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what has it to do with thee or me? Mine hour is not yet come.

John 2:4

The idea that the self is fundamentally social does not sound at all paradoxical in the context of Russian thought. From the Slavophiles and Dostoevsky to Bakhtin and Vygotsky, the fundamental sociality of the self has been so widely accepted, and so much a part of “the Russian idea,” that it has been a source of wonder how Westerners could think otherwise. Freud’s assumption that socialization has to take place almost by brute force applied to an inherently asocial psyche constituted a serious obstacle to his acceptance in Russia. When a Russian liberal movement developed at the end of the nineteenth century, it justified pluralistic institutions and derived the rights of the individual not from Western utilitarianism or individualism but from a social and religious concept of humanity. Even Russian Darwinists typically rejected the struggle of individual animals against each other and stressed instead their tendency to “mutual aid” for the benefit of the species.

In many respects, therefore, Todorov’s overall argument seems to me both familiar and convincing. But from a Russian perspective, I would offer a few qualifications. If there is one thing the Russian experience demonstrates, it is that essential sociality offers no grounds for optimism. [End Page 57]

A structuralist might construct a grid of possible positions from the intellectual history Todorov provides. Generally speaking, one can believe that selves are primordially either asocial or social. If the first possibility is chosen, then society forms for specific advantages but at a cost to our nature, which is expressed in vice, violence, and other antisocial behavior. If the second possibility is favored, one may, following Aristotle and Adam Smith, point to all the features of human behavior indicating that our need for others’ regard is supreme. The social position tends to be a rather sunny one, because social characteristics are usually imagined as benevolent: we have “social sensitivity,” “the faculty of attaching our affections to beings who are strangers to us” (Rousseau), a need “to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency and approbation” (Smith), and a conscience (Mead’s “generalized other” and Bakhtin’s “superaddressee”). From this perspective, human vice seems almost an accident.

But if we are all fundamentally social, and the social is the benevolent, why is there so much evil in the world? This problem evidently resembles theodicy in another form: if God is all good and all powerful, why is there evil? Logically, the answer can only be that God, or the social nature of man, is not quite all good and all powerful, and so some vice leaks through. For example, we may be fundamentally social insofar as we are human, but we are also animal, and some atavistic behavior is bound to occur. Or, if one wishes to think historically, our fundamental sociality is an unfolding potential, which requires time to be disclosed or fully realized. Thus the Soviets, who claimed to be realizing true humanity for the first time, attributed crime either to foreign influences or to what they charmingly called “belches from the accursed past.” Communism, the fulfillment of our true nature, lies ahead of us.

In general, the idea of the essentially social nature of humanity has been connected (in my view, illogically) with one or another form of utopianism. Vice is somehow accidental, a matter of temporary bad qualities, and can be overcome by the right social forms or at the end of history. That highly influential literary form, the literary utopia, offers a catalogue of variations on this idea. Thus a typical event in these works is what I have elsewhere called “the self-implicating question.” The traveler from our world...

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pp. 57-72
Launched on MUSE
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