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Strangers by Choice

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

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Andrzej Waskiewicz

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.
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Chapter 1. On the Threshold of the Cave

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Chapter 1

On the Threshold of the Cave

A philosopher in the polis

Socrates’s hemlock has come to symbolize the sombre fate that a city can impart on lovers of wisdom who dare to challenge dominant opinions, even though soon after his death palestras and gymnasia were closed in a public display of mourning and a bronze statue was erected at the Pompeion to honour the city’s great teacher.1 But Socrates’s persecution is an extreme case. Even outsiders who do not contribute to the production of food or goods within a community (Yuri Slezkine’s ‘Mercurians,’ to recall the concept presented in the Introduction) rarely face such violence – mostly when the community falls on hard times. Philosophers, who thrive on relative isolation from the community, tend to cope well enough with its indifference, as neutral relationships with the community allow them to forgo the arduous task of writing for two distinct audiences, one contented with a literal reading and one able to grasp implicit messages.2

Aware that their teachings and behaviour might spark antagonism in the polis, philosophers of various schools have sought to work out a modus vivendi with the non-philosophising majority. As the French historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot writes:

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