The Problem of Other People

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The Problem of Other People

Adam Phillips
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In a.d. 64 the Stoic philosopher Seneca pondered friendship. The Stoics’ intellectual adversaries, the Epicureans, had claimed that a man sought friends for purely instrumental reasons, “for the purpose of having someone to come and sit beside his bed when he is ill or come to his rescue when he is hard up or thrown into chains.” But Seneca knew better. A wise man wanted friends “so that he may have someone by whose sickbed he himself may sit, or whom he may himself release when that person is held prisoner by hostile hands.” Kindness was man’s duty but also his joy: “No one can live a happy life if he turns everything to his own purposes. Live for others if you want to live for yourself.”

People need other people, not just for companionship or support in hard times but to fulfill their humanity. This theme ran through all of ancient thought but was strongest among the Stoics, who propounded a moral psychology based on oikeiôsis, the attachment of self to other. Stoics were famously self-reliant, but the self on which a Stoic relied was not singular but communal. Stoics regarded reality as governed by a Logos, a divine principle of rationality, which manifested itself as ­reason in ­every human soul. No man was an island, as John Donne wrote centuries later; all belonged to the great “community of reason” and were precious to each other for their common humanity. The world was but a “single city,” the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius averred, whose citizens were united by reason and “mutual affection.”

Not everyone agreed with this communalism. Epicureans ­certainly did not, describing humanity not as a unity but as an ag­glomeration of individuals, each driven by self-love and the pursuit of personal pleasure. The Stoics by contrast, while acknowledging the existence of self-love, interpreted it in non­individualist terms: each person, they argued, is born with a primary self-attachment which, as he matures into the fellowship of reason, fosters attachments to others. Aristotle had argued that friendship was self-love extended outward. The Stoics developed the idea into a concept of the self as the center point of concentric circles of oikeiôsis, of which the inner­most circles were composed of blood relatives, followed by friends and neighbors, with the circles gradually radiating outward to encompass all humanity. Whether the degree of attachment was the same at all levels was a matter of controversy. Aristotle had described affection for humankind in general as “diffuse” and “watery” and some Stoics concurred, arguing that affective bonds increased in strength the closer the connection, with parents and children experiencing the strongest attachment while goodwill to strangers tended to be more dutiful than affectionate. The Roman statesman Cicero—not a card-carrying Stoic but much influenced by Stoicism—in his great work De officiis (44 b.c.) declared that it was natural to feel more kindly toward your family than anyone else. Yet elsewhere Cicero argued that warm relationships extended throughout human society, and warned that people who cared more for their fellow citizens than for foreigners threatened to “rend apart the fellowship that unites mankind.”

“A man’s true delight,” Marcus Aurelius counseled, “is to do the things he was made for. He was made to show goodwill to his kind.” In a well-ordered personality, oikeiôsis, whether directed at strangers or intimates, was a pleasurable virtue. Stoics were ascetics: the pleasures they endorsed were not appetitive or sensual but “soul states” that enhanced the goodness of the individual by bringing him into harmony with the oneness of nature. The naturalness of kindness, its roots in early childhood affections, made it a font of happiness that “expanded the soul.” (Most Epicureans, despite Stoic claims to the contrary, also believed something like this, with Epicurus writing in extravagant terms about the joys of friendship, “which dances around the world.”)

This joyous element in pro-kindness thought was suppressed by post-Augustinian Christianity. Kindness became linked, disastrously, to self-sacrifice, which made it a sitting duck for philosophical egoists such as Thomas Hobbes, who could easily demonstrate that self-sacrifice was rarely practiced, even by its most ardent proponents. Pagan kindness, by contrast, had no truck with self-sacrifice. The pleasures of kindness, as Enlightenment pagans like ­David Hume and Adam Smith were later to insist, were powerful because they derived from the natural sociality of man. People were kind not because they were told to be but because it made them feel fully human. To “love one another” was a joyous expression of one’s humanity, not a Christian duty.

Yet the transition from pagan society to Christianity was a key moment in the history of kindness. Pagan kindness developed against a background of long-standing distinctions between freemen and slaves, high and low, rich and poor, men and women, citizens and foreigners. Few thinkers, even among the Stoics, challenged these divisions; instead, they incorporated them into a concept of humanity that was not general but exemplary. Only the man who displayed reason and fitness for civilized society—which in turn required wealth and standing—was regarded as fully human. Tensions between this gentlemanly definition of humanness and a more inclusive version were present in ancient thought, although barely acknowledged by its spokesmen. Yet it was these tensions that would make the advent of Christianity so explosive. With Christianity, humanness suddenly belonged to everyone, even women (although the terms on which women possessed it were markedly different from those of men). And kindness, too, became generalized, the prescribed mode of relating across the entire human family.

The development of Christianity from a Jewish sect into a universalist faith was marked by a strong assertion of kindly values. Adopting the Greek word for love, agape, Christian teachers described it as a divine love that, flowing from heaven into the human soul, irradiated the soul with caritas. To “love thy neighbor as thyself” was the great moral law. “But who is my neighbor?” a man is reported to have asked Jesus. Jesus replied by telling him about a traveling Israelite who, beset by robbers and left injured by the roadside, is ignored by all passersby, including some fellow Israelites, until finally a Samaritan takes pity on him and assists him with consummate generosity. Israelites and Samaritans were long-standing enemies, and the parable of the Good Samaritan became, as it remains, the emblematic account of Christian kindness, of sympathies that overleap ethnic barriers and sectarian divisions to turn all people into friends and neighbors. By universalizing kindness, Christianity staked its claim to be a global faith: a theme that reached a pin­nacle in the writings of St. Augustine, who in his City of God (a.d. 426) argued for a “Holy charity” to encompass “the whole world,” ­pagans and sinners as well as God’s faithful: “A man’s friends are [all] with whom [he] is joined by membership of the human society.”

Coupled with Jesus’ attacks on wealth and privilege, this version of kindness was potentially—and sometimes actually—highly inimical to established orders. Throughout its history, institutional Christianity has had to wrestle with the subversive implications of caritas. The growth of ecclesiastical power, from the second century, generated powerful tensions. The paradox of an increasingly hierarchical Church preaching universal brotherhood was not lost on low-ranking members of the faith. A host of movements arose—from the Cathars of medieval France to the Anabaptist rebels of sixteenth-century Münster and the Diggers of Cromwellian England—­determined to build a New Jerusalem of loving fraternity here on earth. The suppression of such movements and the sponsorship of savage campaigns against heretics and infidels often made caritas seem a distant dream. In 1649 the Digger leader Gerrard Winstanley, after being attacked and driven from his home, lamented the “selfish imaginations” of power-hungry men who sought “to teach and rule over” their fellows.

These were difficult contradictions, but there was an even deeper dilemma at the heart of Christian kindness. “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us,” St. John sermonized. But if love derived exclusively from God, what did that imply about man? As the prophet of love, Christ promised a world ruled by caritas. But interpreters of Christ’s message in the centuries after his death reiterated all the old arguments about human nature: Were people naturally generous, or egoistical? Was caritas a human virtue, or a divine bestowal? The Good Samaritan parable strongly implied that kindness was a natural human disposition, and some early Christian thinkers endorsed this. But the claim was vehemently denied by St. Augustine and other Church Fathers who insisted that caritas emanated from God alone; that without God man had no kindness nor any other innate virtue. With the Fall, Augustine argued, mankind had lost all possibility of natural goodness. Augustinian man, sunk in original sin, was incapable of experiencing caritas without divine assistance; left to themselves, Adam’s children were selfish reprobates.

With Augustine, caritas became identified with the transcendence of self. Without self-suppression and self-sacrifice, man’s relationship to man, it was declared, was irrevocably vicious and bestial: a bleak vision of humankind that with the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation became very much darker. Human nature as conceived by the Reformation leader Martin Luther was “wholly spoiled and perverted” by original sin. The corruption of the Catholic priesthood demonstrated how easily individuals were seduced away from true religion by pomp and power until they sank into total depravity. Luther’s disciple John Calvin was even more ferociously antihuman. Man, according to Calvin, was a “satanic creature,” a “vile polluted lump of earth” whose every impulse was selfish and rotten. Who could love such a worm? The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau spent his childhood in Calvinist Geneva. The Christian preacher, he later wrote, shows

all men as monsters to be stifled, as victims of the Devil whose company can only corrupt the heart and cast us into Hell. And what is most peculiar after all of these beautiful declamations, the same man gravely exhorts us to love our neighbors, that is, this whole troop of rascals from whom he has inspired us with such horror.

All men, whatever their virtuous pretensions, deserved to burn. Only individuals elected by God for salvation would escape this judgment, and even these lucky elect were encouraged to look on each other with suspicion, wary of false claims and moral backsliding. The true saint was counseled to trust no one, not even his spouse or close friends. This attitude has left some vicious legacies: the hatred of present-day right-wing Protestants for “liberals” and “secularists” has a very long pedigree with little kindness in it.

The Protestant Reformation demoted kindness from its foremost place in Christian moral self-­understanding. Protestant ­caritas, with some notable exceptions, was institutionalized and limited—charity in its modern sense. Early-modern Protestants made excellent businessmen, as the sociologist Max Weber showed, but the commercial spirit was not a generous one. And the brutal religious conflicts of the seventeenth century did little to enhance the Christian reputation for brotherly love. A secularizing wave began to move through European intellectual circles, and human nature was loosened from its religious moorings. Hobbes’s Leviathan reflected the change of mood. Leviathan was published in the immediate wake of the English Puritan revolution and reverberated with the horrors of civil conflict, portraying the world as a battleground of ruthless egoists competing for “riches, honour, command” in an unremitting “warre of alle against alle.” An avowed materialist, Hobbes depicted human beings not as wayward souls but as pleasure-­maximizing machines driven solely by self-concern and “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power that ceaseth only in death.” To scandalized critics who condemned such a vision as amoral and unchristian, Hobbes’s response was uncompromising: “It may seem strange to some man, that has not well weighed these things; that Nature should thus dissociate, and render men apt to invade, and destroy one another… [but I] do not accuse man’s nature in it. The Desires and other Passions of man are in themselves no sin.” We must take man as he is, was the chilling message: there is no point in protesting against human nature.

With Hobbes, selfishness and aggression were transformed from moral vices into psychological facts. The pursuit of pleasure, so long condemned by Christian moralists, was naturalized into a primary instinct, the engine of all human action. Similar ideas were propounded by enlightened Epicureans in France, and their combined influence was enormous. While Enlightenment thinkers across Europe expressed revulsion at Hobbes’s misanthropy and moral pessimism, most accepted his hedonistic premises. Prophets of the commercial system, such as the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, approved individual pleasure-­seeking while denying that it generated social conflict. The great advantage of capitalism, according to Smith, was that it turned individual desires to public benefit. The businessman looking for high profits, the worker seeking a living wage, the buyer avid for new consumer products: under capitalism, thanks to the operations of the free market (Smith’s famous “hidden hand”), all these individuals, whatever their motives, contributed to each other’s well-being and thus to universal prosperity. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” Smith wrote in Wealth of Nations (1776), yet it was the combined self-love of these traders that guaranteed the nation its dinners. “Sweet commerce,” as its admirers dubbed it, was inherently benevolent.

But if self-love was validated by the Enlightenment, selfishness emphatically was not. Pleasure-seeking was never to be at the expense of others. In the face of the Hobbesian challenge, defenders of kindness rose to insist that true pleasure was always generous. Enlightened Anglicans led the way, repudiating original sin and describing caritas as a natural disposition to gain pleasure from the happiness of others. Christian morality had long been at odds with natural human impulses, but now a new wave of clerics celebrated mankind’s spontaneous generosity. “As all the actions of nature are sweet and pleasant,” one wrote some time before 1720, “so there is none which gives a good man a greater pleasure than acts of kindness or charity.” The theme was taken up by moral philosophers who translated this natural caritas into a kindly instinct or sense on par with the other natural senses. “If any Appetite or Sense be natural, the Sense of Fellowship is the same,” the leading Enlightener Lord Shaftesbury declared. Benevolence—the Enlightenment buzzword for kindness and all its cognates—was a primitive instinct, the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson wrote, against whose delights the pleasures of self-love paled by comparison. “To be kind is the greatest measure of human happiness.”

The idea became hugely popular in the eighteenth century, prompted by unease about the socially divisive effects of capitalist development. In an increasingly profit-driven, competitive world, new sources of social adhesion were needed, and natural kindness—­enthusiastically promoted in sermons, poetry, conduct books, and novels—was well suited to the task. Psychological egoists remained plentiful, but alongside them appeared a veritable army of “benevolists,” their hearts throbbing with “social affection” and “practical philanthropy.” The results were dramatic. A wave of humanitarian activism swept Britain and America, tackling evils—such as slavery, child neglect, and cruelty to ­animals—that long had been ignored or defended. “Friends of mankind” marched across the ­social landscape, leaving in their wake a rich institutional and ideological legacy. This was benevolence at its best. At its worst—and the worst became very evident as the century progressed—it descended into a mawkish cult of tenderheartedness much ridiculed by satirists. “I love to see a gentleman with a tender heart,” the predatory bailiff Timothy Twitch declared in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Good Natured Man (1768). “Moral weeping” became the vogue, especially among women who preened themselves on their extreme softheartedness. Skeptics had a field day mocking sentimentalists who wept over orphaned puppies while paying their servants starvation wages. William Blake captured the hypocrisy perfectly in “The Human Abstract”:

Pity would be no more

If we did not make somebody poor,

And Mercy no more could be

If all were as happy as we.

Were those Hobbesian skeptics right, then, who regarded all acts of kindness as selfishness in disguise?

Enlightenment ideas about kind­ness exposed a dilemma at the heart of Western attitudes to human nature. For most of its premodern history, stretching into the Enlightenment, kindness had been treated as the solution to a problem: the problem of other people. Self and other were seen as separate entities with kindness serving as a bridge between them, modifying the claims of self in favor of the other, and thereby promoting goodwill and social solidarity. But kindness as an individual attribute could never escape the prison of ego. As the property of an insular self, kindness was always going to be a very limited emotion, prone to collapsing into what Thomas Carlyle later derided as the “tumultuous frothy ocean-tide of benevolent sentimentality.” But there was an alternative Enlightenment account of kindness that avoided these dangers, by treating self and other as interdependent. Here the self was seen not as isolated but as inherently social, formed through its kindly relations with others. The origins of this version of kindness lie in the concept of sympathy, as developed by a group of Scottish philosophers (notably David Hume and Adam Smith) but above all by the man who is probably the greatest kindness theorist of Western thought, the wild man of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

“Sympathy” today means pity or compassion, but for all of the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century it was a much larger concept, referring to a mutual sharing of feelings among people—­literally, “fellow feeling.” Where both egoists such as Hobbes and benevolists such as Lord Shaftesbury perceived individuals as self-enclosed worlds, sympathy theorists regarded them as affectively linked, with the emotional life of an individual evolving under the direct influence of the feelings of those around him. Subjectivity was interpersonal, and it was this that made kindness pos­sible. In his Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40), David Hume compared the transmission of feelings between ­people to the vibration of a string instrument, with each individual resonating with the pains and pleasures of others as if they were his own. We are “taken out of ourselves” into the emotional worlds of others, Hume wrote; or, as Adam Smith put it in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), “[We] become in some measure the same person… this is the source of our fellow-feeling.” Psychological egoists had claimed that fellow feeling was merely an offshoot of self-­concern, arising from fear that whatever befell someone else might befall us, too. Smith denied this, arguing that fellow feeling was an imaginative projection of self into other: we “enter as it were into his body.” To egoists who replied that this was just a more complex form of selfishness, Smith’s response was robust: How could any emotion be regarded as selfish that is “not in the least upon my account” but “which is entirely occupied by what relates to you”? People who espoused the egoist position were simply confused about human nature, Smith insisted.

The sympathetic self was an expansive self, one for whom the happiness of others was the sine qua non of its own well-being. Sympathy was a touchstone of humanity; a person incapable of sympathetic identification with his or her fellows was inhuman, a monstrosity. Many Enlightenment thinkers propounded ideas like these, but it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who turned them into a psychology of kindness of unparalleled sophistication and influence.

Rousseau seems an unlikely prophet of kindness. Cantankerous and solitary, Rousseau was notoriously self-absorbed. “He is every­thing to himself,” he wrote of himself. “There never was a man on earth less curious about what doesn’t touch him.” But what in others might be mindless egoism, in Rousseau bred a forensic fascination with his inner life that yielded extraordinary insights. He was easily touched, and everything that touched him aroused profound curiosity. Every experience, every ­encounter—no matter how slight or evanescent—was probed for its meanings and hidden significance. No relationship, including his relationship with himself, was free from inquisitional scrutiny.

Pain was the spur. Other people were always a painful conundrum for Rousseau. In his Confessions (1782–89) he portrayed himself as one whose intensely affectionate disposition made him uniquely susceptible to indifference or cruelty. Narcissism was a flight from pain. “We are never,” Freud wrote many years later, “so defenseless against suffering as when we love.” But it was Rousseau who first anatomized this vulnerability that he felt so acutely. “All my misfortunes come from my need to attach my heart…. It is only when I am alone that I am my own master.” Toward the end of his life, after decades of disappointment and misery, isolation seemed the only viable option, although, as human happiness is ineluctably social, this was no happy choice: “One is never able to enjoy oneself without the cooperation of another.” 

Excerpted from On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, to be published in June by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor. All rights reserved.

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