Tragic Revolutionary Comic Figures: On Joseph Harris’s “Misanthropy in the Age of Reason”

May 26, 2023   •   By Ian Ellison

Misanthropy in the Age of Reason: Hating Humanity from Shakespeare to Schiller

Joseph Harris

“PEOPLE ARE RENDERED ferocious by misery; and misanthropy is ever the offspring of discontent,” wrote Mary Wollstonecraft in her 1794 defense of the French Revolution. What some had condemned as the violent excesses of the revolution Wollstonecraft defended as an extreme reaction by the degraded French population. This was, she argued, a direct result of the actions of the despotic Ancien Régime. At the time, the term misanthropy was a relatively new coinage. It emerged in common usage as an invented word-for-word translation from the Greek μῖσος (mísos, “hatred”) and ἄνθρωπος (ánthrōpos, “man”). Over subsequent centuries, however, misanthropy became almost banally ubiquitous. Do we really hate each other that much?

Europe in the 18th century witnessed a period of vast intellectual development and social progress in numerous respects. In other words—the Enlightenment. Writers at the time increasingly felt that they had a social vocation, a moral obligation to spread certain virtues and ideals of tolerance, humanity, reason, nature, and emotion. But perhaps inevitably—and unsurprisingly—some of these ideas and their proponents came into conflict with each other.

Many writers of the time came to see the theater as a privileged medium for communicating their ideas to a large audience. Plays of this period were often didactic performances that gradually enlightened their audiences, shedding light on the injustices and intolerances of society. This process also occurs on a micro level within the works themselves. Sometimes there are characters who, over the course of the plot, are progressively enlightened. Not only do they become aware of issues surrounding them, but they also possibly grow conscious of the prejudices and intolerances at work in themselves.

Numerous plays from the so-called Age of Reason successfully manage to demonstrate some of the problems inherent in the process of enlightenment itself. Typically, comedies from this period are named after the butt of the joke. But rather than cruelly satirizing the Jewish people, as the title might lead an audience to expect, Gotthold Lessing’s play The Jews (1749), for instance, is in fact a politically motivated attack on antisemitism. Lessing sympathetically argues for religious and societal tolerance, highlighting how antisemitism is harmful to its proponents as well as its targets. In Charles Palissot’s hugely successful and scandalous 1760 play The Philosophes, moreover, public intellectual figures traditionally associated with the Enlightenment—à la Diderot, Rousseau, or Voltaire—come in for a satirical drubbing. Certainly, these plays suggest, it’s a noble idea to try and spread enlightened reason to the masses. But if people aren’t interested, or are too entrenched in their own beliefs, then you might need another strategy of persuasion. Enter the misanthrope.

Here he comes (for it is almost always he), shambling on stage, face a-grimace, fist a-shake, eyes aglare. He seems, from our contemporary vantage point, perhaps little more than a cliché. A proto-online-troll or gammon. Yet, as with Enlightenment theater productions, there are degrees of complexity and nuance. Different forms of misanthropy have shifting relationships to phenomena such as contempt, paranoia, melancholy, and pessimism. Joseph Harris’s new book Misanthropy in the Age of Reason: Hating Humanity from Shakespeare to Schiller considers manifestations of this character—the hater of humanity, of people—in European theater during a period roughly from the late Renaissance up to the turn of the 19th century. The book has a particular focus on the 17th and 18th centuries and brings together what is truly a wealth of insightful material from the English, French, German, and Italian speaking worlds. Citing Thomas Hobbes, Blaise Pascal, Jonathan Swift, Giacomo Leopardi, and a host of other noncanonical writers, Harris reveals how the misanthrope is far from a cliché or stock character in early modern literature. Misanthropy is an attitude, even a pose, that is both emotional and intellectual with its own inherent paradoxes. “While it condemns the vices of others, it also risks becoming the worst vice of all,” Harris notes. Hating humanity comes in many guises, “from philosopher to comic grouch, from tragic hero to moral censor, from cynical villain to disappointed idealist, from quasi-bestial outsider to worldly satirist.” And the story is far from the linear one that the book’s subtitle might imply.

The archetypal misanthropes of this period are Timon of Athens (the subject of a Shakespeare play written around 1606 that turned out to be neither particularly popular nor very successful) and Molière’s play The Misanthrope from 1666. The two characters of Timon and Alceste (Molière’s titular misery guts) serve as figureheads for different models of hating humanity. According to ancient Greek myth, Timon is apparently based on a real person, though this is difficult to confirm. In any case, the story goes that he has retreated from Athens after being fleeced by people who were supposed to be his friends. After they bankrupt him, he goes off to live in the desert, or in the wilderness, or in a forest, depending on which version of the story you read. Subsequently, Timon rejects and shuns all of humanity, hurling abuse—and sometimes rocks—at anyone who dares to approach. Molière’s version of the misanthrope from roughly 50 years later, however, is a far more urbane character, albeit also based on a real person. What is most intriguing is that, for the majority of the play, Alceste elects to remain within a society that he professes to hate.

Shakespeare constructs Timon as a tragic figure, someone who dies by the end of the final act (though it’s never quite made clear what causes him to perish), as his hatred of the world expands until he ends up hating not just all of humanity but the entire cosmos as well. Ultimately, for Timon, the entire universe is a collapsing morass that is debased and savage. Molière, on the other hand, attempts to make the misanthrope into a figure of comedy. In his hands, Alceste becomes a hypocrite who hates society but is far too attached to it to leave it entirely. By doing this, as Harris argues, Molière ends up sundering two dramatic moments that in Shakespeare’s play basically occur simultaneously: a character’s transformation into a misanthrope and their final decision to leave society altogether. Whereas this happens at the outset in Timon of Athens, it’s only at the very conclusion of The Misanthrope that Molière’s character leaves society definitively. What these two plays nonetheless have in common is that they end with—or, at least, they chart the progression of—someone choosing to remove themselves from their society.

By the 18th century, ideals of friendship and sociability were becoming hugely important in theatrical work. Many plays from this time start by following characters who have abandoned their fellow man, characters who live cut off and remotely, as they are brought back into society. Their misanthropy is progressively dismantled or disproved—cured, in certain ways. These works trace the misanthropic character’s reconciliation to society. In fact, as Harris’s study shows, various writers—including Friedrich Schiller and the Marquis de Sade—produced sequels to Molière’s play roughly a century after it was first written and performed. In certain cases, such plays bring the character of Alceste progressively back into having sympathy of sorts, even friendship, with humanity. Some of these sequels even see him married off. Although Molière’s original play was billed as a comedy and audiences would have been expecting a happy ending of marriage (The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Twelfth Night each conclude with not just one but three weddings, after all), it is a fairly bleak example of the genre. Molière instead delegates wedded bliss to some of the secondary characters. The later sequels to The Misanthrope sought instead to offer a more conventional degree of happy closure to Molière’s more unconventional original play.

Speaking of theatrical convention—one of the things that really fascinates in Harris’s study is how misanthropy does not seem to fit into either comedy or tragedy as a genre. This is not unlike the misanthrope character, who “[a]s both critic of humanity and object of critical scrutiny […] challenges straightforward oppositions between individual and society, virtue and vice, reason and folly, human and animal.” Molière’s comedy on the misanthrope is so much darker and more serious than many of his other comedies, and Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens is one of his most satirically biting tragedies as well. There seems to be something richly complex and subtle within misanthropy as a theme that makes it difficult to pigeonhole. This might help to explain why at the very end of the 18th century, when playwrights were exploring new sentimental dramatic genres that were neither tragic nor comic, misanthropy suddenly started to flourish. By the early 19th century, as Harris notes, “the misanthrope re-emerges as a figure of (often unrepentant) savagery and cruelty,” the specter of Timon returning to usurp Alceste’s sophisticated urbanity, yet exceeding the bounds of being a template this time: “[M]isanthropy may still be alive and well, and indeed thriving in various new forms and manifestations, but its two early modern archetypes have finally lost their conceptual stranglehold over it.”

And what about now, a few centuries later? Where are today’s misanthropes? Is it those at the head of multinational corporations, plundering the planet’s resources at the expense of its workers and citizens, that hate their fellow humans? Reclusive, vain, and self-important billionaires blasting themselves towards the stars? Or those denouncing them from below, younger generations who have had the odds stacked against them since before they were born? Those of us who are so wired into our devices that we neglect to realize there is scarcely a society left to retreat from? At times, it can feel like we are all complicit in a collective act of species self-loathing. This isn’t new, though: in the latter half of the 1700s, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that, as Harris puts it, “humans do not only feel an undeserved collective pride over other species; individually too, humans tend to exhibit a similarly undeserved scornful superiority over their peers, in ways that might suggest that misanthropy is actually the norm rather than the exception.”

Following up her diagnosis of misanthropy as the result of the people’s discontent, Mary Wollstonecraft declared:

Let not then the happiness of one half of mankind be built on the misery of the other, and humanity will take place of charity, and all the ostentatious virtues of an universal aristocracy. How, in fact, can we expect to see men live together like brothers, when we only see master and servant in society? For till men learn mutually to assist without governing each other, little can be done by political associations towards perfecting the condition of mankind.

In times like these, this can still seem far off. As Wollstonecraft later acknowledged, “it is perhaps, difficult to bring ourselves to believe, that out of this chaotic mass a fairer government is rising than has ever shed the sweets of social life on the world. […] But things must have time to find their level.” The question for us today is, surely, how much time is needed, or indeed left available? Can hating humanity still be a quasi-theatrical, even performative, form of instruction? Does it get us anywhere?

Speculative fiction author China Miéville seems to think so. In his polemical 2022 book A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto, Miéville calls for misanthropy as a revolutionary force. “Against the rolling eyes of the know-all cynic, we should retain our shock at those litanies of iniquity capitalism throws up,” he writes. “That they provoke in us an appropriate, human, humane response, the fury of solidarity, the loathing of such unnecessary suffering. Who would we be not to hate this system, and its partisans?” These days, misanthropy is on all sides. But to effect change, it must be focused, targeted, no longer the blanket loathing of yesteryear, lest we end up sounding like some kind of politically radicalized Agent Smith (“Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet”). “We should feel hate beyond words, and bring it to bear,” Miéville exhorts his readers. “This is a system that, whatever else, deserves implacable hatred for its countless and escalating cruelties.” Under the savagery of our contemporary misanthropic system, we have forgotten, or elsewise managed to unlearn, how to be relational beings. Perhaps it’s time for hatred to come out of the theaters and into the streets.


Ian Ellison is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Kent and the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt. He was short-listed for the 2023 Peirene Stevns Translation Prize and his book Late Europeans and Melancholy Fiction at the Turn of the Millennium (2022) is out now.