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  • Living Alone Together
  • Tzvetan Todorov (bio)
    Translated by Marilyn Gaddis Rose

If we look at definitions of the human in the mainstream of European thought, we are led to a curious conclusion: the social dimension, the fact of living with others, is not generally conceived as being necessary. This “thesis,” however, is not presented in so many words. Rather, it is a presupposition which remains unformulated and for that very reason, its author has no occasion to build a case. We accept it all the more readily. Moreover, this thesis forms the common denominator of theories which, in other respects, are in opposition. Whatever side we take in such debates, we perforce accept a definition of man as solitary and nonsocial.

Still it would be an error to say that this asocial vision corresponds to all the concepts of humanity present in the Western psychological tradition. This vision is dominant, to be sure, but it is not the only one. We can enumerate the “solitary” tendencies of classical philosophy and Christian religion, but both have “social” tendencies also. Even if autarchy remains the ideal of the wise, Greek philosophers believed also that man is a social animal, that he must live with his fellow men, that he flourishes in the city-state. The tension between the two claims is often resolved by accepting several “lifestyles,” all praiseworthy, even if they can still be hierarchized: a practical or active life, accessible to the common man and spent in society, and a contemplative, solitary life, suitable especially for the wise. But even while acknowledging the primary fact of human plurality, Greek philosophers do not see, as a general rule, the various you different from the I, yet nonetheless necessary for its completeness. The difference of position between self and other is not thematized. The natural sympathy existing among men is that of like for like. The self needs others, not because each particular subject is incomplete without them, but in order to display virtue (Aristotle, Eudemean Ethics 1245 b: “For us, the good implies a relationship to the other”). Friendship also is a merit rather than a need. Cicero is still more explicit: “Nature gave us friendship as an aid to virtue. . . . It was her hope that since virtue when solitary cannot arrive at the highest kind of life, it might do so when joined and shared with a companion” (On Old Age and Friendship, 81). [End Page 1]

Aristotle likewise has left this well-known formulation: “The man who is incapable of being a member of a community or who feels no need for it because he is sufficient unto himself, does not in any way belong to the city-state and as a consequence is either a brute or a god” (Politics, 1253a). Animals and gods are self-sufficient. We can imagine them alone. As for man, he is irremediably incomplete and needs others. But we certainly see that these others are necessary as the individual’s natural milieu, not to serve any specific function. The relationship that Aristotle had in mind is that of companions at the heart of a city-state, not the complementarity of one person gazing at another and the other person who is the object of that gaze. In Aristophanes’ myth, related by Plato in The Symposium, a human being has a real need of “the complementary half” (symbolon) of another being (191d). He is therefore intrinsically incomplete. But this complementarity explains sexual attraction more than it establishes life in common: the imbrication of the male sex organ into the female sex organ becomes here the image of desired completeness. Plato himself postulates the presence of ardor as an element of the soul, and represents it as attached to the passion for honors and to the love of triumph. But he does not claim that only others can grant us this recompense. As for the Stoics, they find vanity ubiquitous, but think individuals can free themselves from its thrall.

Passing over some other signs that presage further development, we can say that we witness a veritable revolution in the middle of the eighteenth century when Jean-Jacques Rousseau first formulates a new concept of man...

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