“A wise man is never less alone than when he is alone.” – Jonathan Swift.
In the first two parts of this segment, we saw how Michel de Montaigne and Arthur Schopenhauer viewed solitude in the search for lasting contentment and a meaningful life. Today we consider thoughts of one of the foremost contemporary experts in this area, Lars Svendsen. In his book, A Philosophy of Loneliness,1 Svendsen addresses at length loneliness as the negative pole of being alone especially towards a goal of eradicating some of the stereotypical narratives coming out of the media.
Being alone, he tells us, is by nature entirely neutral; rather one’s subjective experience distinguishes loneliness from solitude, the positive pole. Loneliness is to some extent an emotion which has little to do with proximity to others; perhaps the worst loneliness occurs in the most crowded cities. His thesis is divided into eight chapters – covering psychology and social science, the nature of loneliness as an emotion, who tends to be lonely and why (distrust being a key reason), the value of friendship and love, distinguishing features with respect to modernity, and amelioration through assuming responsibility for one’s experience of being alone. But the chapter which interests us here is the seventh, ‘Solitude’ especially as it relates to contentment.
Svendsen begins with a review of perspectives on solitude by Western philosophers from ancient Greece through modern existentialism. We hear again that Aristotle believes the best life is one of contemplation and self-sufficiency. Petrarch is more cautious; “solitude alone cannot guarantee the desired tranquility however since it also requires a clear mind.”2 Rousseau considers solitude “a condition where one is present entirely in the moment, thereby achieving an almost mystical unity and harmony with the earth.”3 Emerson thinks solitude is where one knows oneself and is best when alone with nature. Nietzsche believes one must leave society to find the ‘higher self.’ Sartre argues solitude relieves one from the incessant ‘gaze of others.’
There is of course much more, but two key points emerge: (1) loneliness is being one alone with oneself while solitude is being one together with oneself (Nietzsche), and (2) philosophy in solitude is a matter of being together with oneself (‘I am two-in-one’) not the division of oneself (Hannah Arendt). These conditions depend on maturity which Odo Maquard says “is above all the capacity for solitariness.”4 However, Svendsen adds healthy solitude requires a way back to others.
(continued next post)
1Svendsen, Lars, A Philosophy of Loneliness. Reaktion Books, Ltd., London, 2015. ISBN 978-1-78023-747-3.
2Ibid., page 111.
3Ibid., page 118.
4Ibid., page 125.