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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 5. Close to Oneself

Extract

Chapter 5

Close to Oneself

Rousseau: otherness and alienation

The preceding chapters dealt with people who felt that they were ‘others’ or strangers without experiencing their otherness as a problem. Those strangers by choice voluntarily maintained a distance from others in order to remain where they felt they really belonged. Some wanted to live according to Reason, others strove towards their Heavenly Abode; one stranger longed to be close to deified Nature, another was bent on discovering its secrets without sanctifying it. For those strangers, keeping a distance from people is not a high price to pay – perhaps it is no price at all, because their existence at a remove from others and their values allows these strangers to live according to their own principles. In contrast to the strangers discussed in the previous chapters, Rousseau discovered a strangeness that goes hand in hand with alienation – a state in which one is not where one belongs, and therefore never at one with oneself. He realized with surprise that this state is a rather common one, that it is indeed the natural state of civilized people, regardless of their place of birth or social status. Rousseau sees this type of strangeness as a problem. To him it represents humanity’s fundamental predicament, so much so that in order to gauge a society’s alienation we only need to examine if the majority of people still notice that they are alienated, or if only a few ‘beautiful souls’...

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