The word misanthropy is derived from the Greek words meaning “hatred” and “man” or “human being.” It is a hatred or contempt for the human species or human nature. It may also refer to a generalized distrust or dislike of people. A person who has these feelings and/or withdraws from society because of them is termed a misanthrope. Misanthropy is similar to but distinguishable from concepts like philosophical pessimism and nihilism.
Misanthropic attitudes can be based on an intense alienation from or disgust with human society. A sense of the feelings that engender misanthropy can be found in a misanthrope’s definition of the term. One such entry likens misanthropy to an intelligent person having an "allergic reaction" to a more common, simple-minded person.
These kinds of ideas can arise from genuine repulsion at what human beings have done with the world. By their withdrawal from it, misanthropes may actually be exercising a form of elitism. They may still form relationships with select individuals, even while maintaining a hatred of human beings in general. Intimate relationships, however, may be rare and of short duration.
Misanthropy is sometimes mistakenly ascribed to writers of social satire. Misanthropic statements in literature are often simply a literary device. Extreme comedy and satire can make us think about what human nature really is, as well as examine our own behaviors.
Related to misanthropy is philosophical pessimism which also takes a dark view of mankind. It is not based on hatred for mankind, however. It stems from the conclusion that the very nature of being human leaves humanity in a hopeless state, in which there can never be progress.
German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer famously declared, “Human existence must be a kind of error.” He likened the human intellect to a lame man who can see but rides on the shoulders of a blind giant, his will. Reason only makes us suffer, because it enables us to understand that it is no match for our will. The human condition is that we will always remain prisoners of our defective biology.
Nihilism and existentialism share in common the conclusion that the human condition has no meaning. There is no proof of a higher being. There are no actions that are preferable to any others, because there are no “truths” on which to base our actions. French existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre declared that there was no need to speculate about hell since man already lived in it.