The Needs of Strangers

The Needs of Strangers

by Michael Ignatieff

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This thought provoking book uncovers a crisis in the political imagination, a wide-spread failure to provide the passionate sense of community "in which our need for belonging can be met." Seeking the answers to fundamental questions, Michael Ignatieff writes vividly both about ideas and about the people who tried to live by them—from Augustine to Bosch, from Rosseau to Simone Weil. Incisive and moving,The Needs of Strangers returns philosophy to its proper place, as a guide to the art of being human.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312281809
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 06/02/2001
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.37(d)

About the Author

Michael Ignatieff is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, among other publications, and the author of many acclaimed books, including Blood and Belonging, Isaiah Berlin, Virtual War, The Warrior's Honor, and The Russian Album. He lives in London and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

The Needs of Strangers

By Michael Ignatieff


Copyright © 1984 Michael Ignatieff
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8906-4



Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.


Questions about human needs are questions about human obligations. To ask what our needs are is to ask not just which of our desires are strongest and most urgent, but which of our desires give us an entitlement to the resources of others. This natural pairing of the idea of need with the idea of duty and obligation is what distinguishes need from desire. Need is bounded by the idea of the necessary or the essential. Desire is unbounded even by the idea of utility. It is possible to specify the duties which would follow from an obligation to meet someone's needs. But the duty would be boundless, and therefore meaningless, if it extended to a person's desires.

Need is a vernacular of justification, specifying the claims of necessity that those who lack may rightfully address to those who have. Without a language of need, and the language of right that derives from it, the human world would scarcely be human: between powerful and powerless only the law of hammer and anvil, master and slave would rule. The pathos of need, like the pathos of all purely verbal claims to the justice or mercy of another, is that need is powerless to enforce its right. It justifies an entitlement only if the powerful understand themselves to be obliged by it.

What is it then which binds those who have more than enough and those with less than enough in the ties of obligation? For most people, obligations are a matter of custom, habit and historical inheritance as much as a matter of explicit moral commitment. But might there not be something more than custom, habit and inheritance? Whatever the customs of a country, it would seem 'unnatural' for a father to deny his duty towards the needs of his children, unnatural for a daughter to refuse to give shelter to her homeless father. Beneath all these, there is nature: the natural feeling which ought to exist between father and children and more mysteriously between human beings as such.

The language of human needs is a basic way of speaking about this idea of a natural human identity. We want to know what we have in common with each other beneath the infinity of our differences. We want to know what it means to be human, and we want to know what that knowledge commits us to in terms of duty. What distinguishes the language of needs is its claim that human beings actually feel a common and shared identity in the basic fraternity of hunger, thirst, cold, exhaustion, loneliness or sexual passion. The possibility of human solidarity rests on this idea of natural human identity. A society in which strangers would feel common belonging and mutual responsibility to each other depends on trust, and trust reposes in turn on the idea that beneath difference there is identity.

Yet when one thinks about it, this is a puzzling idea. For who has ever met a pure and natural human being? We are always social beings, clothed in our skin, our class, income, our history, and as such, our obligations to each other are always based on difference. Ask me who I am responsible for, and I will tell you about my wife and child, my parents, my friends and relations, and my fellow citizens. My obligations are defined by what it means to be a citizen, a father, a husband, a son, in this culture, in this time and place. The role of pure human duty seems obscure. It is difference which seems to rule my duties, not identity.

Similarly, if you ask me what my needs are, I will tell you that I need the chance to understand and be understood, to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven, and the chance to create something which will outlast my life, and the chance to belong to a society whose purposes and commitments I share. But if you were to ask me what needs I have as a natural, as opposed to a social being, I would quickly find myself restricted to those of my body. I would abandon the rest as the work of my time and place, no less precious for all that, but not necessarily a universal human claim or entitlement. Yet even the natural identity of my body seems marked by social difference. The identity between such hunger as I have ever known and the hunger of the street people of Calcutta is a purely linguistic one. My common natural identity of need, therefore, is narrowed by the limits of my social experience here in this tiny zone of safety known as the developed world.

Why bother with the natural then, so long as the social tells us what we ought to do? The problem, of course, is that the social does not always tell us what to do. We may know what our obligations are to our families and friends and our fellow citizens, but what are our obligations to those strangers at our gates? Take one step outside our zone of safety – the developed world – and there they are, hands outstretched, gaunt, speechless or clamouring in the zone of danger. There is no claim of kith and kin to connect us together: there is only the indeterminate claim of one human being upon another.

What these claims from strangers make so painfully clear is the asymmetry between natural and social obligation. The lives of a father, a daughter, a son are precious to us; the lives of strangers count for little. If we have the same needs, the same natural identity, this should not be so. Why does our natural identity count for so little, why does difference count for so much?

The natural identity of need helps one to understand why the new language of universal claims – the language of universal human rights – makes so little headway against the claims of racial, tribal and social difference. The needs we actually share we share with animals. What is common to us matters much less than what differentiates us. What makes life precious for us is difference, not identity. We do not prize our equality. We think of ourselves not as human beings first, but as sons, and daughters, fathers and mothers, tribesmen, and neighbours. It is this dense web of relations and the meanings which they give to life that satisfies the needs which really matter to us.

There is no deeper reflection on the claim of need, on the role of the natural and the social in the grounding of the claim, than King Lear. It is a play that sets out to show us why we must take the needs of others on trust, by showing how murderous and pitiless a place the world can become without such trust. The claim of need makes the relation between the powerful and the powerless human, but the nightmare of the powerless is that one day they will make their claim and the powerful will demand a reason, one day the look of entreaty will be met with the unknowing stare of force. This is the nightmare which Lear begins to endure in Act II, Scene 4:


Hear me, my lord:
What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?


What need one?

Lear: O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's. Thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need –
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need.

Kings in the fullness of their power do not have to speak the language of need. Theirs can be the pure and unjustified language of desire: 'Do it, for it is my wish.' Kings do not have to justify their desires. The most inconsequential of their whims has the force of a command.

All his life Lear had been addressed in the supplicating language of need. Now, for the first time, he must use the language himself. Its taste is bitter. He discovers that need may seem reason enough when spoken to the self alone, but when spoken to the pitiless and powerful, it must indeed be reasoned. His daughters' demand for reasons is so stinging an intimation of his new powerlessness that he cannot avow or accept it. He veers uncertainly between the usages of a king and the entreaties of a subject. Like a king, he says he has a claim that brooks no argument, and yet, like a subject, he is obliged to call his claim a need; thus he is entrained against his will to justify it, to offer reasons.

In what does the force of his claim reside? You are my daughters, he says, and a daughter does not reason her father's needs; to do so would be to deny the reality of familial obligation. To ask for reasons is not merely insulting or disobedient; it puts into question the plain meaning of family duty.

What Lear says he needs – a retinue of knights – counts as a need only within a given time and place, a given zone of safety guaranteed by a history of obligations and commitments. To call this need into question by the standards of some abstractly equal conception of what all humans might need is nonsensical. If all of us were to be judged by the standards of our common natural identity, Lear says, few of the needs we have in social life would survive examination: only those people prepared to go around like animals would escape censure. The social world, he insists, is a world of difference where each person's needs depend on their rank, position and history. Daughters who question a father's needs are doing much more than displaying ingratitude: they make their greed and pride the only standard of what shall pass as need in the world under their power.

Lear reasons not only as a father but also as a man. To reason any man's needs, he says, is to presume that he lacks the capacity to know his own mind. It was exactly this which his daughter Regan had just done:

O, Sir, you are old;
Nature in you stands on the very verge
Of her confine. You should be rul'd and led
By some discretion that discerns your state
Better than you yourself.

Such is the revenge that youth takes for its years of tutelage. Fathers tell daughters what they need, whom they must marry, but when fathers begin to falter, daughters seize the reins and dictate the terms to age. The father is made child again.

The irony of these reversals is made more painful for Lear because it was the wilfulness of his initial generosity which convinced both Goneril and Regan that he had ceased to know his own mind. Alone on stage after the chilling love-auction of Act I, Scene 1, in which they, against all their expectations, receive half the kingdom each while the loved Cordelia is banished, Regan and Goneril reason shrewdly that their good fortune must signify their father's incipient dotage:

'Tis the infirmity of his age; yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.

It is a recurrent theme of the play that there is a truth in the brutal simplicities of the merciless which the more complicated truth of the merciful is helpless to refute. The truth of the merciless – Goneril, Regan and Edmund – is that the fulcrum of family relations is power, not obligation. For them, it is power which is at issue in Lear's insistence on a retinue. A band of armed knights within their house but not under their command would threaten the sovereignty of their household. As Regan says:

How in one house
Should many people under two commands
Hold amity? 'Tis hard; almost impossible.

The issue they understand is command, not need: who shall rule in their house, not what is due their father. They realize clearly enough that a king dispossessed of his retinue will be nothing more than a child in their house.

The vision of the merciless does have a certain clarity. After all, does Lear really know what he needs? In their eyes, at least, his needs seem to be contradictory: to renounce the throne while keeping the name and equipage of a king; and to reside with his daughters yet rule in their house. And there may be a 'darker purpose' beneath even these contradictions: to set his rest upon the 'kind nursery' of Cordelia, to be a king and to be free of care, to be a father and to be a child again. To the merciless, these contradictions seem to signify only senility.

But contradictions cease to seem so strange when viewed with the eyes of pity. A tender heart would know how to be both mother and daughter to an old man. In a house ruled by love, the question of command would never arise – a man could be both master and servant, father and child. Only in a house without pity do needs seem irreconcilable. Power allows a man only one of two possibilities: to be either the father or the child, either the king or the slave, either the master or the servant. But the beseeching register in 'reason not the need' invokes a house where needs are not reasoned because love knows how to reconcile their antinomies.

The register of Lear's speech is beseeching rather than peremptory because he has already begun the dolorous process of self-awakening. Where once he might have responded with outrage to Regan's implicit questioning of his needs, Lear now replies querulously. The centre of his self is beginning to crack. We have already seen him battering his head with his fists and crying,

O Lear, Lear, Lear!
Beat at this gate, that let thy folly in
And thy dear judgement out.

We have already heard him, in the midst of the Fool's frantic efforts to distract him, suddenly recall his banishment of Cordelia and moan in remorse, 'I did her wrong ...' If he now stands before his daughters beseeching them not to reason his needs, it is only after drinking the gall of his own self-deception. His claim now is not that men always do know their needs. It may even be true, he would now say, that others sometimes see us more clearly than we can see ourselves, that in our impetuosity towards others and our terror towards ourselves we can never fully encompass the contradictions in our own needing. But in a human world, love and pity must take needs on trust. Human beings must be trusted to know themselves, however imperfect we admit self-knowledge to be, for without trust, there is no limit to oppression. If the powerful do not trust the reasons of the poor, these reasons will never be reason enough. A rich man never lacks for arguments to deny the poor his charity. 'Basest beggars' can always be found to be 'in the poorest thing superfluous'. Whether on grounds of concealed wealth, idleness, or self-neglect, beggars can always be found wanting. The demand that the poor give reasons is the demand that they show themselves 'deserving'. But as the playwright had said elsewhere, if we were to give every person what they deserve, 'who would 'scape whipping?' (Hamlet, II, ii). The claim of need has nothing to do with deserving; it rests on people's necessity, not on their merit, on their poor common humanity, not on their capacity to evoke pathos.

Once the rich begin to demand reasons, once they cease to take claims on trust, Lear asks, what obligations will survive? Will the entreaty of utter starvation be reason enough for the hard-hearted? Why stop there? 'Man's life is cheap as beast's.'

There is method in Lear's consideration of a beggar's claims. Once already, in full view of his court, he had played the pauper's part, kneeling and whispering between clenched teeth:

I am old;
Age is unnecessary; on my knees I beg
That you'll vouchsafe me raiment, bed and food.

In this grimly self-punishing attempt to shame his daughters, he bade them acknowledge that he ought not to be treated like a beggar. Now, in 'O, reason not the need!' he begins to realize that this is precisely how he is to be treated. The daughters will give him only what any old beggar needs – food, shelter and clothing; they will not give him his due – a retinue.

Let us contrast these claims. What a man needs he does not earn or deserve. He does not have to justify his entitlement, only the extent of his necessity. His entitlement inheres not in his person but in his humanity. The ground zero of human obligation is that this common humanity is reason enough for a claim on another's superfluity. This claim is strictly egalitarian: each is entitled to the necessities of life, no more, no less.


Excerpted from The Needs of Strangers by Michael Ignatieff. Copyright © 1984 Michael Ignatieff. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Tragedy and Utopia
1. The Natural and the Social: King Lear
2. Body and Spirit: Augustine, Bosch, Erasmus, Pascal
3. Metaphysics and the Market: Hume and Boswell
4. The Market and the Republic: Smith and Rousseau
Conclusion: Homelessness and Belonging

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