“I hate mankind,” said Dr Johnson, “for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am.” Whether or not Johnson was being serious, such dislike is certainly common. It is also a view that tends to be mocked and ridiculed. Misanthropic characters in film or literature, for example, are often comic (even Shakespeare depicts the “melancholy” Jaques in As You Like It as absurd), and misanthropic friends will be given affectionate names like “the grouch” or “the grump.” But misanthropy can also be a symptom of depression, and may even presage an imminent psychological breakdown.
The Nature of Misanthropy
First, it is important to distinguish misanthropy from social discomfort. Many people assume that a friend or neighbor is misanthropic because they keep their distance, avoiding eye contact, never coming to barbecues or parties, and so on. In fact, they are probably just shy and socially awkward. Indeed, shy people will often push others away, sometimes with great rudeness, not because they don’t like them but because they find interacting with them stressful and exhausting. Misanthropes are different. A misanthrope may be shy of course, but he may also be confident, even arrogant. Shy people often like others and long for their company. Misanthropes do not.
Of course, not every misanthrope is the same. Some became that way through bitter life experiences. They may, for example, have been abused and ill-treated as children: neglected at home and bullied at school. This in turn makes them aggressive or unpleasant, which provokes others and thus deepens their bitterness and sense of rejection. And misanthropes are often extremely sensitive and perceptive; they don’t miss a thing – not a sarcastic comment or petty act of spite. Whereas their friends either shrug off, or simply fail to notice, people at their worst, the sensitive find this impossible.
Some misanthropes have simply become jaded and bored. This is especially true of intelligent, talented, or witty people. Aesthetes and the well-educated can also become a little misanthropic, particularly when they find themselves among people who do not share their interests or cannot match their learning. Such people also tend to enjoy a rich inner life and simply find books and art galleries more interesting. The time they must spend talking to people at work or dinner parties is then resented. After all, this is time they could be spending with Rembrandt or Dickens!
Then there are those who hold extreme political or religious views. If they are convinced that they know “the truth,” other people’s indifference, boredom, or outright refusal to agree can enrage them and convince them that everyone else is foolish or blind. This sort of egomania is common among misanthropes. They often go out into the world expecting praise, fame and adulation; instead, they meet disinterest and contempt – or even fellow egomaniacs!
The romantic and idealistic can feel a similar disappointment, especially when their childhood was happy and sheltered. For example, a girl who grows up reading Jane Austen novels may be shocked to discover that most adolescent boys do not behave like 18th century English gentlemen! A boy who takes an early interest in Karl Marx and utopian communism may be equally shocked to discover how cynical, selfish, and anti-social some people can be.
Signs That You May Be a Misanthrope
Obviously, there is no such thing as a typical misanthrope. There are, however, certain traits that recur. For a start, they find other people’s dramas irritating. That does not mean they are callous or indifferent. On the contrary, they may feel intense sympathy for the bereaved or unwell. It’s more the petty dramas that irk them: when people go into great detail about their row with a neighbor, their unreasonable boss, their friend’s possessive jealousy etc. When such dramas occur and their partner tells them, the misanthrope will usually reply “just don’t get involved.”
Another common sign is fury at incompetence or disorder, especially when it keeps them trapped somewhere. And their anger will usually be out of proportion. So, for example, a misanthrope cannot bear being stuck in a Post Office queue or on a coach that has broken down. Imagine you go on a trip to Russia and the return flight is delayed because of snow. You are told you will have to wait in the airport for the night. The people you are with treat the whole thing as a joke, or even an adventure, setting up a sort of tent in the departure lounge and organizing a sing-along. To you, this is purgatory. Misanthropes will often claim to hate “fake fun” or “fake bonhomie” – and they see it everywhere.
Unsurprisingly, they hate big get-togethers like Thanksgiving or Christmas as well. And they also hate weddings. In part, this is because such events are full of noisy, over-excited children. And a general dislike of children is another common giveaway. Children are noisy, spontaneous, and unguarded. In many cases, they are what adults would be without the social restraints. Misanthropes will often say things like “children are too spoilt nowadays,” or “we make too much fuss of them.” And this intense dislike of small children tends to be counterbalanced by an excessive love for animals. Misanthropes often adore animals and will go into raptures over a puppy or a kitten. Show them a newborn baby, on the other hand, and they will probably react with polite boredom, even distaste.
You may think that you cannot possibly be a misanthrope since you often enjoy discussing politics or art with a friend. But this in itself can be a sign. Misanthropes often say “I enjoy intelligent conversation,” when what they really mean is they cannot stand trivial chit chat about the weather or vacations. Some people crave company and do not care what form that takes, often enjoying a chat about mundane and trivial things. They love drama and will talk about quite literally anything so long as they have people around them. A shy person or an introvert may find such talk difficult, but they won’t necessarily dislike it. Misanthropes do. They cannot see the point of all this and cannot understand why people become so animated by trivial topics, not realizing that it isn’t the conversation people seek but the opportunity to share and bond.
Overcoming Your Misanthropy
So let’s say you are tired of being labelled a “grump,” a “grouch,” and a “hermit” and would like to do something about it. Begin by trying to understand when and why you became this way. Often, misanthropes just need to update their view of people. This is especially true of those who were bullied or abused when young. Remember, human nature is pretty raw and nasty during the teenage years. Many of the people who so viciously and gleefully bullied you are probably parents now and either cannot remember what they did or feel ashamed and guilty. Maybe they were being bullied themselves. Very often, it is a way of deflecting attention rather than a wish to inflict pain.
If you tend to be misanthropic, you have probably got into bad habits. Just as depression skews your perception, making everything seem dark, so misanthropy trains you to seek out the worst in people. Try focussing on the good instead. This is true not just of individuals but of humanity en mass. Even in the darkest situations there are moments of light.
Above all, you must understand why people behave badly. Some are fundamentally rotten: spiteful, sadistic, and insensitive to the core. They were unpleasant children and will no doubt be unpleasant retirees. But they are the minority. Most people behave badly because they are frightened, desperate, lonely, or damaged. In other words, they were made bad. Even arrogance and aggression often mask deep insecurity and fear. Had they been treated with more tenderness and sympathy, they may have been different.
It is also important to remember that the vast majority of people you meet love someone. If you could see your odious, tyrannical boss playing with his little daughter, no doubt your opinion of him would change. And it should also be remembered that this capacity for love makes people fragile and vulnerable. As C. S. Lewis famously wrote, “to love at all is to be vulnerable, love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.” People know this. And not only do they love, most people also yearn to be loved, which again makes them vulnerable and frightened.
Misanthropy blinds you. As Oscar Wilde wrote to his lover in De Profundis, “hate so blinded you that you could see no further than the narrow, walled-in… garden of your common desires.” And it is nothing to be proud of. Misanthropes, like cynics, often take a perverse pride in their distaste. They seem to consider it a sign of intelligence and depth, as if they see things more clearly than the shallow, deluded herd. In fact, hatred and contempt are easy; and they reveal shallowness rather than depth. People with true depth, with what literary critics call “sympathetic imagination” (or the ability to imagine how others are feeling), may not love or even like everyone, but they do pity them and do care how they feel. In any case, hatred is a form of dependence rather than freedom.
Of course, misanthropy is perfectly understandable. And obviously not everyone has the same experiences. Some are spectacularly unlucky in the people they meet: born to awful parents, abused by their siblings, bullied at school, thrown from one dysfunctional relationship to another, and so on. Recognize your common humanity. And cut people some slack. Finally, as someone once remarked (in a line that should be taught to every child), “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”