Symphilism et al.
Bill Long 12/04/04
Learning to Live Together
We really do not have many terms in English to describe the degree of harmony which people who live together share with one another. We say things like, 'people live in harmony or in tension or in indifference' or something like that. However, in the late 1890s an entomologist, M.E. Wasmann, invented three terms that captured the way that bugs or insects lived among themselves. My desire is to recapture these terms and apply them to human communities. In this mini-essay I will introduce Wasmann's terms and then apply them to human communities.
The three words Wasmann used to describe degrees of harmony in the insect kingdom were symphilism, synoekete and synechthry. He defined symphilism as follows: "a term for a kind of friendly symbiosis or commensalism existing between ants or termites or certain other insects which they feed and tend as guests, and which in some cases yield a sweet substance as food for them." Note Wasman's anthropomorphic use of language. We can see, in the mind's eye, the ants or termites seating other insects at table, caring to their needs, treating them as favored "guests" in their homes. They provide a "sweet substance" for them.
It is almost as if a harmonious community is produced, a kind of community worthy of imitation by a seemingly far more troubled human community. Why not apply Wasman's term to human community? "Their careful planning of all details of the weekend contributed to a most refined symphilism among the guests." Symphilism is a stronger word than "camaraderie" or even "sympathy" or "harmony." It suggests a common love, a shared charity that permeates the atmosphere of the gathering. I remember many times speaking in the past of Christian virtues, in which I tried to distinguish and develop the ideas of sympathy and empathy. But symphilism is a strong addition to this dyad. Instead of a "common feeling" or a "inner sympathy" we have a "common love" among people. It is a word toward which we may want to aspire.
Far more communities partake of synoekete, which Wasmann defined as "an insect that lives with ants or other social insects without either benefiting or harming them." Here the watchword of the insect society is indifference and, if we applied the term to human socieites today, it is really the mark of a liberal Western society. That is, I believe that the society toward which we are aspiring or moving is really one of indifference to the neighbor, not wishing to harm or, in fact, help. Technology is making us more and more independent of people, except the people with whom we choose to interact regularly. Coupled with this technological message of independence/indifference is a political philosophy called public choice theory, which denies that there really is anything such as a "common wealth" that we share, opting to consider the basic impulses of our societies as competing desires for economic or political advantage over our neighbors.
Thus, I believe that the great (and mostly unspoken) ideological battle today is a competition between synoekete and symphilism. Do we as a society aspire to either a feeling or a reality of symphilism or is it really sufficient for our needs to establish a synoeketel society? Do we have ethical guidance for our answers? That is, does the parable of the Good Samaritan inform some of our values? the Golden Rule? or do we see ourselves adopting a synoeketism that seeks not the neighbor's benefit? I think that the myth of America is bound up with the former, but the reality of life is moving toward the latter.*
[*Another word that actually is used in academic discourse, especially in classical studies, is synoecism or synoicism. The word means "living together." This is a form of organization applied to ancient city Greek states coming together which differed from federalism in that the connection was more intimate than in federalism. However, I think that the contours of the leagues brought together through synoecism cannot be as precisely drawn as we would like. The term, however, stresses a degree of mutuality that is absent in "federalism."]
Under all circumstances, however, we hope we can avoid synechthry, which Wasmann defined as "the hostile relationship between ants and certain other insects which maintain themselves in the ant-colonies as unwelcome guests; hostile commensalism." An insect that lives in such an environment is a synechthran. While we might like to confine the meaning of the term to insect communities, we know that human communities descend into hostility ever so rapidly and ever so disastrously. The Greek word for enemy is "ekthros," and synechthry literally means to be with one's enemy.
Wasmann's triad of terms has never really caught on, though symphilism has at least appeared in a few instances in the last century. But I can see a good use for all three. They represent places along a continuum that all human institutions occupy. They provide a helpful way to categorize, to classify the institutions with which we come into contact. Is it symphilan? Embrace it. It is a life-giving place for us? Is it synechthran? Yikes. Can it be redeemed? Can it be reformed into something symphilan or is it so dysfunctional that synoeketism is the best we can hope for? Do we contribute to an institution's being one of the three? How can we bring about a symphilism that we know we would like to enjoy? These words stimulate our mind and heart to understand and even to improve the lives we share with the rest of humanity.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long