A third positive aspects of strangers is the opportunity for exposure to diversity. It appears it is human nature to settle into routines where we feel most at ease typically with family, friends, and acquaintances, but strangers offer us the opportunity to get out of our comfort zone, and experience novelty and difference. All of my life I have been intrigued by people from foreign countries – their languages like secret codes, their contrasting lifestyles, their different experience of life, their alternative thinking. We return to Santayana’s thesis that civilization offers us three advantages – greater wealth, safety, and variety of experience.2 Thus one purpose of strangers and foreigners in a meaningful life is their contribution to the variety of our experiences.
The fourth value of encounters with strangers is the potential for new acquaintances and friends. The logical necessity – future acquaintances and friends must be current strangers – should further open us to meeting new people given all the possible benefits that derive from some of these encounters as have been outlined in earlier essays and magnificently described by Emerson in his essay on friendship.3
The obverse side of the stranger coin begins with unsociability or a propensity to evade meeting new people. This seems to me to be a psychological rather than philosophical issue, though I confess to limiting my own social activities in order to pursue what are mostly solitary activities such as reading philosophy or writing these blogs. The philosopher likely adopts an Aristotelian moderation to prudently limit access to strangers preferably to those of the most propitious nature. Ultimately, closing oneself off to all new people is detrimental to one’s own growth and happiness.
One step beyond unsociability is xenophobia – dislike or distrust of foreigners. This inclination may be biologically based, that is, survival in the wild is enhanced by wariness of other animals and by territoriality. However primitive human groups benefit from mixing with outsiders via the exchange of information and knowledge and by the exchanging of members for mating purposes, so it seems equally true that we are racially programmed to accept others. Personal discomfort regarding differences in appearance and custom must be overcome in order to benefit from the different perspectives, and experiences outsiders bring to our society and our individual lives.
(further continued next post)
2See the blog titled Societal Virtue – Service, 1/25/2021 on this site.
3Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Essays and English Traits. Grolier Enterprise Corp., Danbury, Connecticut, 1993 (The Harvard Classics). Pages 106-119.