Strangers by Choice

An Asocial Philosophy of Life.- Translated by Tul'si Bhambry and Agnieszka Waśkiewicz. Editorial work by Tul'si Bhambry.

by Andrzej Waskiewicz (Author)
©2015 Monographs 297 Pages
Series: Modernity in Question, Volume 4


Strangers by Choice explores voluntary otherness as a philosophy of life. This philosophy is asocial in the sense that its followers tend to privilege separateness over belonging, and yet it does not lead to alienation or isolation from society. Building on Simmel’s notion of the stranger, the author sheds light on the experience of spiritual idealists, both real and fictional, who maintain a distance from mainstream society in order to live by the laws of their transcendental homelands. Waśkiewicz addresses representations of strangeness from a broad spectrum of Western culture, including Stoic philosophy, Augustine of Hippo, Henry David Thoreau, the physicist Richard Feynman, and finally Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Highlighting how these writers and thinkers have negotiated individuality and community, this interdisciplinary study contributes to debates on identity in both practical philosophy and the history of ideas.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction. Alien without Alienation
  • Yearning for the ‘true homeland’
  • The stranger according to Georg Simmel
  • Simmel on social distance
  • The stranger and individualism
  • Inspired by Simmel
  • Chapter 1. On the Threshold of the Cave
  • A philosopher in the polis
  • The sage: a god among people
  • The Cosmic City
  • The wise man and the philosopher in the earthly state
  • Rational brotherhood
  • Chapter 2. Towards the Heavenly Abode
  • A Christian in times of trouble
  • Christianity as a refined practical philosophy
  • Life as a pilgrimage
  • The Church as an imagined community
  • On the way and out of the way
  • A Christian on the margins of a post-Christian world
  • Chapter 3. Somewhere between Nature and People
  • Thoreau and his legend
  • Thoreau and his vocation
  • Humankind in the shackles of civilization
  • Friendship without friends?
  • Communion with Nature?
  • In the cabin and in prison
  • Walking beyond the town boundaries
  • Chapter 4. Between People and Elementary Particles
  • Feynman: passion versus fortune
  • Playing at finding things out
  • Taking science seriously
  • The pros and cons of institutions
  • Passion, play, theories and institutions
  • Chapter 5. Close to Oneself
  • Rousseau: otherness and alienation
  • The unity of the body politic
  • Clarens: a church without transcendence
  • Emile, a savage in the city
  • Individualism, otherness and solitude
  • Closing Remarks. Masters without Servants; or: Aristocrats on the Margins of Social Life
  • Strangers by choice among other strangers
  • Transcendental strangeness
  • An absent idea
  • Bibliography
  • Introduction. Alien without Alienation
  • Chapter 1. On the Threshold of the Cave
  • Primary sources
  • Secondary sources
  • Chapter 2. Towards the Heavenly Abode
  • Primary sources
  • Secondary sources
  • Chapter 3. Somewhere between Nature and People
  • Primary sources
  • Secondary sources
  • Chapter 4. Between People and Elementary Particles
  • Primary sources
  • Secondary sources
  • Chapter 5. Close to Oneself
  • Primary sources
  • Secondary sources
  • Closing Remarks. Masters without Servants; or: Aristocrats on the Margins of Social Life


Alien without Alienation

Yearning for the ‘true homeland’

The book before you is about a certain sense of strangeness. I adopt a sociological perspective to confront the feeling that one’s true homeland is not of this world. But even though the notion of unbelonging brings to mind the words of Jesus Christ, ‘my kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18: 36), this is not about religiosity. The strangeness I am concerned with derives from a person’s spirituality in the broadest possible sense. What’s more, rather than being located in the beyond, an individual’s true homeland often lies just outside their Lebenswelt, in a place that is within easy reach even though it somehow transcends the everyday. The key figures of this study tend to distance themselves from their communities and take on the role of strangers. But even while they share a keen sense of the vanity of earthly existence, they do not reject ‘this world’ for ‘that world’. They do not respond with Weltschmerz or frustration, even if they feel despised or misunderstood by their fellows. Thus their position of strangeness has nothing to do with eschatology, a concern with the last things, but is related to axiology – a preoccupation with values which their neighbours do not share. The strangers discussed in this book are alien, but not alienated. They are strangers by choice.

The sense that true living is really about something other than our everyday lives should be familiar to many of us – sailing enthusiasts, Harley riders or Harlequin readers, and perhaps even workaholics forced to take a holiday. Many of us feel we have a private or imaginary homeland where we can be ourselves. But this private homeland is different from what I call a true homeland in this book. A private homeland can be as tiny as the seat of a motorbike or as boundless as a passionate reader’s imagination. Tolkien’s Shire, the home of the hobbits, probably has more inhabitants than the author’s native Warwickshire, and to the millions of New Yorkers scattered all over the world, as viewers of the television series Northern Exposure will remember, the Big Apple is a state of mind rather than a geographical place in New York State. Private homelands are sometimes based on real memories. Emigrants who keep putting off their visit to the old country, even if they refuse to admit it to themselves, know full well that they can never return to the places of their childhood. While these homelands remain ← 9 | 10 → frozen and unchanged in the memories of those who left a long time ago, they have long ceased to exist in the real world. Unlike true homelands, these private or imaginary homelands are rooted in nostalgia or escapism.

In all likelihood, the key figures in this book would protest if their true homelands were labelled ‘private’ or ‘imaginary’. True homelands may not be empirically verifiable, but they are public nonetheless. Besides, they are in a sense more real than earthly communities, as they rank higher in the metaphysical chain of being and will continue to exist even when uninhabited. That said, however, the true homeland cannot be experienced with the senses, and the handful of privileged individuals who have glimpsed this unfathomable reality have failed to express their vision in human language.

While it is possible to live in society and in a private homeland at the same time, true homelands have more exclusionary rules. This does not mean, however, that members are free to withdraw into some kind of comfortable indifference toward other people. Even the most a-social of strangers are required to fulfil their obligations towards the community. This question of social responsibility is best understood by comparing the demands of a true homeland to those of a religious community. Just like nations on earth, religious communities – let’s call them spiritual homelands – have policies that restrict belonging and regulate integration. Some spiritual homelands officially allow for dual citizenship, some tolerate it tacitly, some call for a formal renunciation of previous allegiances. True homelands resemble churches and sects in that members are required to meet certain conditions. These usually include some measure of proselytism (in some cases extending to armed struggle) and purity (an apparently modest requirement that can, however, go as far as martyrdom).

But while spiritual homelands of the kind presented by many sects can require its members to live like hermits or like revolutionaries, a true homeland in the sense of this book poses no such extreme demands, and privileges neither reclusion nor militant activity. It requires only a relative – not a radical – disengagement from the world. Members are encouraged to remain involved in worldly affairs, as long as they do not waste their energies on attempts to change the world. Only where a conflict arises between the laws of the true homeland and those of the physical world, will they be advised to withdraw from the public sphere and live a worthy life in private. Strangers have written stacks of books on how to maintain a proper balance between distance and responsibility, and these books, as we will see, can help reconstruct the ethos of this special kind of strangeness.

In this study I discuss a range of diverse source texts, including philosophical treaties, sermons and pastoral letters, academic lectures, works of fiction, diaries and correspondence. It is my hope that they will reflect the theory of strangeness as well as its practice, which in some cases is not grounded in theory but arises, ← 10 | 11 → almost spontaneously, from the stranger’s personality. Nearly all of these texts were written by strangers. Some were designed to guide the reader in the process of becoming a stranger, others aim to explain the condition or simply to bear testimony to the experience. While these texts focus on whatever was closest to their author’s heart, for the purpose of this study their arguments have been brought to bear on the central idea of strangeness.

I have selected fictitious and real-life figures to cover the key domains of the mind and spirit: philosophy, religion, art and science. Georg Simmel, whose notion of strangeness I am about to discuss in this Introduction, stands as a sort of patron in this study, but each chapter forms an independent entity and can be read in separation from the theoretical framework. In the first two chapters I explore two older models of strangeness, namely the Roman Stoic philosopher and the Christian pilgrim as presented by Augustine of Hippo. The next two chapters discuss the lives of two strangers, the nineteenth-century writer Henry David Thoreau and the twentieth-century physicist Richard Feynman. The final chapter turns to the model of strangeness proposed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his novel Emile, where the titular character yearns for a state that is lost when the individual enters society, and whose notion of ‘true human nature’ has much in common with the concept of a true homeland. A great deal has been written about this type of stranger, but neither empirical nor critical social scientists have examined them as a social condition. I conclude this study by considering why this strangeness has been overlooked in the history of ideas.

For sociologists, strangers are simply people who do not fully belong to the dominant group, though they may belong to another. Colloquially, however, words like ‘other’, ‘foreigner’ or ‘stranger’ have decidedly negative connotations. Strangeness can be a tough position to maintain; no one, after all, wishes to experience rejection, or for their children and grandchildren to experience it. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that strangers tend to assimilate into the mainstream community over time, perhaps without consciously intending to do so. Empirical studies of the acceptance of strangers in private and public spheres, which are, needless to say, as revealing about the strangers as they are about their environment, usually focus on the distance between the strangers and members of the dominant group, as measured by studying the welcome given to foreign tourists, or the likelihood of accepting one’s child’s decision to marry a person of a different (ethnic) community. To study the concept of strangeness as defined in this book will not be as straightforward a process, and yet, ethnic others have something in common with our type of strangers: they all must find a modus vivendi in a community that is more or less hostile. That said, however, our strangers are far less concerned with belonging and assimilation than they are with preserving their special identity, their belonging to a community that is somehow not of this world. ← 11 | 12 →

The stranger according to Georg Simmel

The social condition of the individuals discussed in this book has been most suggestively presented in Georg Simmel’s essay, ‘Excursus on the Stranger’. Part of his manifesto of sociology, this text was published in 1921, that is to say at a time when the discipline was still searching for its subject and method. The German sociologist defines strangeness in a purely formal way by drawing on categories of physical and emotional distance. Introducing the stranger as a unique sociological category, Simmel argues that ‘being a stranger is an entirely positive relationship, a special form of interaction’.1 He compares the stranger to a wanderer who, having settled, still feels that the journey has left an indelible mark on his mind. At the same time, the stranger belongs to a larger group of other strangers and feels close to them in the way, perhaps, that expatriate Europeans of different nationalities living in Asia can come to feel close to one another. But there are also such strangers – Simmel calls them ‘absolute strangers’ – who, despite their physical proximity to a given community, cause no emotional response in them whatsoever. This is how ancient Greeks viewed the barbarians: unable to relate to them in any way, they denied them their very humanity.2 Though it seems that the stranger from Camus’s eponymous novel – a man who remains emotionless when his mother dies – also strikes most readers as an absolute stranger.

Simmel argues that rather than being absolutely alien – like the barbarians were for the Greeks – strangers must come into some contact with the mainstream group, or their difference would never become known. The point is that we can only perceive those as strangers about whom we can say something, anything at all, even if we must draw on clichés, as stereotypes can only emerge with at least some sporadic contact. To become strangers to each other, therefore, people must have experienced some physical proximity without becoming emotionally close. This is how Simmel puts it: ‘The distance within the relationship means that the near is far away, but being a stranger means that the distant is near’.3 At the ← 12 | 13 → same time, strangers are bound to the community by certain common or ‘abstract’ ties, similar to the ties that connect the residents of a city, members of the same occupation, social class, nation, religion, or even something as broad as the human race. But the very generality of those ties emphasizes the strangers’ distance from the dominant group. In this sense, strangers are both near and far at the same time.

A special tension arises between those two elements, however, when the consciousness of having only something very general in common nevertheless gives special emphasis to what is not directly common.4

Despite their diversity and uniquely individual situations, for Simmel strangers form a distinct social category.

Donald N. Levine usefully highlights three key aspects of Simmel’s concept of strangeness.5 First, the interactive sense: the stranger’s relations with the group take place without such frameworks as the family, friendship networks or even a professional community – social institutions that impart concrete attributes to human relations. Second, the emotional sense: these relations neither result from nor lead to emotional commitment. Levine’s third point appears at the end of Simmel’s essay and concerns the degree to which people perceive similarities between themselves: the fewer similarities they share, the more distant or strange they come to feel about one another.

These three aspects of strangeness do not exclude one another, but add up to a coherent image. Strangers come into contact on a regular basis, but these moments of contact remain emotionally neutral. As far as their position in society is concerned, their impersonal interaction with the group leaves them in a state of only partial belonging to the community. The group is both near and distant: near enough for the stranger to remain within it, and distant enough to be abandoned: the stranger who was not born to the community needn’t stay with it, either.

The notion of the stranger or wanderer continues to draw the attention of writers of various disciplines. The sociologist Alfred Schutz, for instance, notes that the wanderer may have brought along a few mental habits, but not many family mementoes, and certainly no family graves.6 Yuri Slezkine, a historian, juxtaposes ← 13 | 14 → nomadic or ‘Mercurian’ cultures with settled ‘Apollonian’ cultures. Mercurians, he suggests, depend on Apollonians as herders depend on their livestock and craftsmen on the work of their hands.7 Unlike people who have lived in a place for generations, strangers possess an internal freedom to come and go. They must rely on themselves, and, isolated from the social environment, they must compensate for the lack of a community by joining some larger group and adopt their identities.8

Settled people often regard nomads with suspicion. Simmel, examining the traditionally unfavourable view of nomadism, presumes that settled people will always persecute nomads. Their hatred of wanderers derives from their false belief that they must persecute nomads in the name of self-preservation. Developing this line of thinking it appears that while strangers have historically retained the freedom to leave, the community has maintained the prerogative to deny strangers a place within its territory.

Historically, foreigners were allowed to settle permanently only in communities that had a surplus of food. Forbidden to own land, they would make a living from itinerant trade, or, when an affluent community allowed trade on a greater scale, they might engage in the financial operations related to trade. Thus the stranger has a place in the community – sometimes even a prominent one. This place, however, is not secure. Of course, a shop owner or pawnbroker comes into contact with many people. But contact of this kind does not tend to produce lasting personal ties. The stranger’s assimilation is never complete. Instead, his exceptional status makes him the perfect candidate for a scapegoat.

Economic crises are often blamed on those who do not manufacture goods but, as populists would have it, live off the work of others. Similarly, at times of tension, when each group closes its ranks, internal enemies will be evoked and blamed for the conflict. In these circumstances, the stranger’s ability to leave, usually a privilege, turns out to be the only alternative to outright persecution. And reasons for persecution are never hard to come by. European Jews, Simmel’s model strangers, provide the best example.

Despite all these drawbacks and complications, the stranger has a facility for impartial observation and judgment that is unavailable to the average community ← 14 | 15 → member.9 Though close enough to the community to understand its inner affairs, emotionally she remains remarkably distant. Such a stranger need not stand above the disputing parties in the local hierarchy – in a sense she has no place in the hierarchy at all. As long as she has personal authority she can be appointed to arbitrate disputes even between the community’s most prominent members. To give an example, nineteenth-century Polish peasants, who tended towards antisemitism in many ways, often came to respect their ‘wise Jews’ in this way.

Simmel points out other kinds of privilege unique to strangers: they are free of obligations taken over from their ancestors, in particular the imperative to uphold hostility against enemies of the clan from generation to generation. The distance to others and their affairs also allows strangers to temper emotional extremes and to be guided by reason and moderation.10 It has been noted that even though strangers feel no internal obligation to observe local customs or rituals, they tend to do so tactfully and to the required degree. Freedom from tradition allows for greater liberty – both intellectual and practical. Strangers are free to perform functions that are prohibited to the rest of the community – a considerable advantage. But they also suffer from a side effect of their freedom: as Schutz notes, they cannot intuit the unwritten rules governing everyday situations.11

Simmel never singled out his text on the stranger among his other works; for him it was only an illustration for a certain way of practising sociology. And yet, this apparently unassuming text became one of his most frequently cited works, at least until a new approach to his output, to be discussed shortly, was proposed in the 1990s. Surprisingly, however, Simmel’s theory of social distance in ‘The Stranger’ never enjoyed an enthusiastic reception. Few references to this ← 15 | 16 → concept can be found in recent scholarship. Tackled mostly by sociologists and philosophers with sociological leanings, this theory has come to be viewed as potentially inspiring but of limited use in empirical research.12

Like his theory of social distance, Simmel’s concept of strangeness resists practical application. It is static and non-gradable, and for this reason it cannot be applied to the study of concrete phenomena such as migration. The only successful implementation of his theory of social distance was in studies of privileged white minorities in post-colonial African countries – minorities that were both clearly defined and stable across generations, as they had no intention to assimilate.13 Simmel’s excursus into formal sociology only revealed its potential significance in the 1980s, when concepts of strangeness became central to discussions of what we call the modern experience. It was as a result of these discussions that he became known as the first sociologist of modern society.

According to David Frisby, who in the 1990s spearheaded the surge in interest in Simmel, the German sociologist offers the most adequate account of modernity.14 Frisby argues that The Philosophy of Money, in which Simmel synthesized his main ideas, presents a thoroughgoing diagnosis of a new social reality, confirming that Simmel is not concerned with ahistorical forms, as scholars had insisted in the 1950s and 60s, but with a ‘comparative and historical investigation’ of social phenomena.15 Frisby proposes the term ‘sociological impressionism’ to describe the German sociologist’s somewhat unsystematic approach.16 Such a description may seem to belittle Simmel’s contribution, as today’s sociology again searches for its ‘grand theory’ – just as it had during Simmel’s time. But as Zygmunt Bauman observed, what was considered weak scholarship during the heyday of abstract theorizing, in the 1990s came to be regarded as a virtue. Social reality turned out ← 16 | 17 → to be fragmented, and Simmel depicts it as such.17 In this context it is unsurprising that he often addressed the phenomenon of fashion, but showed very little interest in such powerful unifying or stabilizing institutions as the state and the church.18

Some scholars go as far as to present Simmel as a forerunner of postmodernity.19 Frisby, however, suggests more convincingly that Simmel did not create a theory of postmodernity, his critique of modernity being the only tenable point of reference for later postmodernists .20 Whether Simmel is viewed as a godfather of postmodernity or a visionary of today’s culture, he certainly was the first German sociologist to join the academic rebellion under the motto of the ‘philosophy of life’ initiated by Bergson. He had no doubt that that modern life must fall under the rubble of its own products, about which he wrote in ‘The Concept and Tragedy of Culture’ as early as 1911.21

But Simmel’s stranger in the eponymous essay is neither postmodern nor even modern. His detachment has little to do with the notion of alienation in modern mass societies, which Simmel describes in his essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’. This modern notion of strangeness gained popularity when theorists of modernity identified alienation as the predominant condition of Western civilization. Simmel’s stranger, by contrast, has more in common with today’s immigrant, a stranger in the traditional sense. Crucially, a traditional stranger’s experience can only be understood in opposition to traditional closeness. Such a person is strange because she or he is not ‘close’ to the community. But once all members of the community become strangers to one another, the newcomer paradoxically becomes close to them by entering into their shared experience of strangeness. Geographically, such strangeness exists in the city centre rather than in the suburbs. While the traditional stranger lives on the border of social life, modern big city strangers are ‘carriers of the border’ themselves.22 ← 17 | 18 →

Simmel on social distance

Simmel’s view of society makes it possible for the stranger to belong and not to belong at the same time. Emphasizing the fluidity of social reality and the variable strength of human ties, Simmel does not speak of ‘society’ but of Vergesellschaftung – ‘the creation of society’, ‘becoming social’, or ‘social interaction.’ Society, for Simmel, is neither an organism made up of closely interrelated units, nor a set of individuals who enter into more or less institutionalized interaction. What is more, Simmel remained sufficiently influenced by neo-Kantism to maintain that an object could not exist independently of the perceiving subject, and for this reason society, for him, does not exist ‘objectively’. Simplifying broadly, for Simmel a society comes into existence when a group of interacting people is identified as such by a researcher. But the researcher’s choice cannot in fact be entirely arbitrary, as the individuals in question must already perceive themselves as a group; whatever its size or location, a society is best understood as both performance and representation contingent on its members’ self-awareness and imagination – traits that presuppose a certain level of intellectual development.23

For Simmel, the idea of distance between individuals fully coincides with his concept of society. A measure of distance is even required for the community to function, since too close an emotional engagement, paired with physical proximity, will result in enmity.24 It is this distance between members of any consolidated community, even a relatively tight-knit community, that makes it possible for a newly arrived stranger to find a place. The distance between the stranger and other members of the community may remain greater than average, but according to Simmel it is not different in kind.

In Simmel’s sociology, society is not defined by the bonds between its members, but by their interaction. Society is a multitude of units that come to relate to one another. (To what extent they do so, Simmel adds in a neo-Kantian idiom, depends on the observer, who chooses a focus relevant to his or her study.) Given that individuals do not interact with their entire being, however, Simmel proposes that ‘life is not entirely social,’ and that ‘we form our interrelations under the negative restraint that a part of our personality is not to enter into them’.25 Drawing on this ontology of social life, it appears that while ordinary strangers, ← 18 | 19 → such as immigrants, split their social part between their two earthly homelands, the strangers discussed in this book devote their social part to society and their individual part to their true homelands.

Unlike Durkheim, Simmel did not see religious belief as entirely collective in nature, and yet it would be false to claim that for him spirituality was an exclusively individual phenomenon. In his view, spirituality involves an individual’s private as well as social parts. But the German sociologist also points to a kind of spirituality that, though not asocial, disregards social forms,26 and this concept corresponds to the profiles of the strangers presented here. To put it in the Simmelian idiom, people who are spiritual in the ordinary sense live on the border between heaven and earth and strive to combine these two worlds in themselves; they tend to sanctify the profane. The strangers of this book do the opposite thing – they strive to keep the two domains separate.

Simmel’s stranger is endowed with a natural willingness to associate with others. This willingness does not follow from practical, material or spiritual needs, nor has it anything to do with a desire to dominate; it derives simply from natural sociability. Simmel’s homo socialis is predicated on nothing but the sheer pleasure of participating in social forms; social life serves no purpose other than itself.27 At the same time, individualistic drives run counter to this instinct for social harmony, so that human existence boils down to a perpetual to and fro between individuality and universality. Individual freedom, for Simmel, can be obtained by renouncing the social instinct. Freedom signifies liberation from the responsibilities that come with the pleasures of interpersonal relationships.28

Simmel was fascinated with the quantitative and qualitative changes that occur with the evolution of modern society. Echoing Herbert Spencer’s historical account of the social effects of population growth and diversification and division of labour, Simmel argues that human relations are becoming ever less personal and increasingly ‘objective,’ by which he means not only that anonymous people treat one another like objects, but also that their attitude towards objects becomes ever less subjective or emotional. Both people and objects become interchangeable. And once people cease to be perceived as unique, it is relatively easy to sever all ties to them. An individualistic society emerges as a result of this objectification of the social world.29 The end result of this development, Simmel predicts, is that people in individualistic societies grow increasingly like one another. They may ← 19 | 20 → appear to strive to distinguish themselves and to assert their uniqueness, but in the end they merely represent a dominant type.30 Blending in with the mass they disappear from the gaze of the crowd, which gives them a false sense of security.31

Simmel’s view of individualism implies that individual freedom leads to equality among people. Equality, however, results in voluntary association. Liberated from traditional social ties, an individual is left entirely not without connections to others, but is drawn into a circle of similar individuals. Social circles, which intersect within society, overlap within each individual in an individualistic society. As a consequence, external conflict is internalised and experienced by each person as his or her own. For Simmel, the price we must pay for our freedom in an objectified world is too high, as individualism is underpinned by alienation and results in the loss of our uniqueness and closeness to others.32 Simmel, a proponent of individualism, is sceptical of individualistic mass society, which causes individualism to abolish itself.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (January)
Identität stoische Philosophie Individuum praktische Philosophie
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 297 pp.

Biographical notes

Andrzej Waskiewicz (Author)

Andrzej Waśkiewicz teaches the history of social and political ideas at the University of Warsaw’s Institute of Sociology and the Collegium Artes Liberales (Poland). The Polish original of Strangers by Choice was shortlisted for the Gdynia Literary Prize in 2009.


Title: Strangers by Choice