Monday, February 10, 2020

Human Porcupines And Their System Of Civil Association

On a cold winter day, a colony of porcupines, so Schopenhauer tells us, wanted to huddle together so that they may bask in the communal warmth and escape from being frozen. But the pricks from the quill’s on each other’s bodies forced them to draw apart—at the same time the cold forced them to huddle together. At some point of time, the porcupines discovered that if they maintain an optimal distance, they can enjoy a moderate amount of communal warmth while avoiding the pricks form each other’s quills. The porcupines didn’t realize it, but they had discovered a system of civil association in which an individual (a human porcupine) can preserve his individuality while taking advantage of the warmth and security that can only come from existing in a community. Here’s the excerpt from Schopenhauer’s Parerga and Paralipomena:

“A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.”

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