One of the axioms that philosophers tend to point to about mankind is that mankind is a social animal. Indeed, for centuries, the sociability of mankind has furnished a great deal of the interest of certain novels that strive to explore humanity when coping with the problem of isolation. Rather than taking the sociability of mankind as something that can safely be assumed, mankind’s status as a social being is something that can rather be proved, sometimes in ironic ways.
One of the most poignant ways that one can examine the sociability of mankind is by exploring the fate of orphans. It has been shown through painful observations that orphans whose survival needs are met but who are resolutely deprived of their emotional and social needs suffer terribly as a result. Those who, like Abraham Maslov, have posited the existence of social needs are not speaking speciously when they say that some kind of social relationship is a need for humanity. One of the principal vectors for suffering for humanity is precisely those harms that result when the desire to belong in a community and the desire to receive honor and respect from one’s fellow human beings is denied, and this damage can be quite serious. Even the disapproval of that small group of human beings we happen to be around can do great harm to us.
The various stories of human isolation that have been current for centuries often themselves presuppose some sort of social reality that human beings are a part of, even those human beings who are cut off from the company and succor of their fellow human beings. Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf, at least for a while, because of the political conditions of their birth, and Romulus himself became the founder of a particular society. Robinson Crusoe ordered his island life and sought a return to society based on his own English upbringing. The Swiss Family Robinson’s orderly life in isolation represented them as a small society, tellingly organized in part because it was Swiss. The lonely young woman of the Island of the Blue Dolphins still operated in her life based upon the ways she learned as part of her previous society. Even Tarzan sought society among animals and was himself embedded, however uncomfortably, as part of English society despite the privations of his childhood. Examples can be repeated indefinitely for how the sociability of mankind has been explored and deeply mined as a rich source of dramatic heft in a story.
As is often the case, the power of the social nature of mankind is simultaneously a source of both vulnerability and strength. That it is a source of vulnerability is something that is learned by every bully and tyrant that seeks to attain power at least in part in order to abuse their fellow man and exploit their own need for society to provide them a means of power over others. The refusal to go along with a given society’s characteristic social evils can lead to serious and drastic consequences for those who live with integrity, including a denial of a social identity and even a threat to survival that results from such social exclusion. Yet we need not see the social aspects of humanity only as something that makes us vulnerable to being taken advantage of by our fellow human beings, although this happens often enough. Simultaneously, it is a source of great strength, in that the social nature of human beings lies at the base of equitable trade and any genuinely philanthropic behavior that seeks to provide aid and comfort to those in need. When we recognize someone’s needs, and our own, our result need not be a desire to exploit that need for our own power, but it can lead us to relate all the more to those around us.
Even people who may feel isolated still leave a large social footprint on this world. Our desires to connect through technology, to bridge the distance of physical and social distance, is testament to the strength of our longings to connect with others even in conditions that are less than favorable. Our desire to live comfortably often carries with it a great deal of connection with others–the goods we consume have supply chains that connect us with a great many other people, and the services we use and provide connect us to many more, sometimes personally. Not all of our connections with other people are of the nature that brings us happiness and joy in life, but there is perhaps a great deal more happiness that could be found in such connections as we all possess if we had the right attitude to reflect on it and act on it.