Last time we saw how Svendsen decoupled the two antipodes of aloneness into loneliness and solitude, noting solitude is the healthy side which integrates the personality for contentment and contemplation. Svendsen then informs of us of a clinically validated tool for measuring one’s capability for solitude called the Preference for Solitude Scale (available on line; my score was 11 out of 12; norms from a sample of undergraduate college students: 4.87 – 2.57. He thinks the need for distractions is evidence of emotional immaturity, but I am not so sure – it may be people find contentment in different ways (consider the quiet of a church in silent prayer). Some thinkers believe solitude can be learned as a ‘self-doubling’ or creation of a conversant duplicate of oneself, in fact, a filling of the self by the self, that may lead to a richer inner life.
I now draw from two other chapters In Svendsen’s book to incorporate aloneness into the meaning of life. Early on, Svendsen informs us that “it is an established fact that both chronic loneliness and experimentally induced social isolation are connected to lower levels of experienced life meaning.”5 He offers thoughts from William James, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Soren Kierkegaard, Adam Smith, and David Hume to expand this point, drawing ever closer to two conclusions: (1) the effect of seclusion on a person depends on “how the individual relates to that condition,”6 and (2) “for most of us our connection to a limited number of people constitutes the majority of our life meaning.” 7 Later he returns to the effect of aloneness on life meaning proposing that “belonging is essential in order for us to experience our lives as meaningful.”8 However the desirable degree of ‘belonging’ is quite variable, and the urge to privacy and independence is common, even natural, but must not be raised to a point of alienation from society.
So where is the balancing point? Svendsen, following Harry Frankfurt, thinks we must take responsibility for any unwanted loneliness – being alone is not imposed from without but originates from within, by one’s choices and one’s attitude. Nonetheless, he doubts the value of extended solitude and the idea of self-sufficiency. For him, it is up to us to allow someone into our loneliness, thereby erasing it in community while learning to benefit from solitude as well: “…you must learn to live with the fact that every human life will contain loneliness to some degree. That is why it is so critical to learn to tolerate loneliness and to hopefully transform that loneliness into solitude. Loneliness can be reduced by learning to rest in yourself, so that you are not so dependent on other’s acknowledgement of you…”9
I surmise that a wise, mature person pursuing solitude as a means to contentment will always balance it with enough belonging and approachability that loneliness is minimized and serenity is maximized. This likely varies for each of us and so we must travel that road individually. I can only hope that my readers find their Archimedean point for solitude in route to the meaningful life.
5 Svendsen, Lars, A Philosophy of Loneliness. Reaktion Books, Ltd., London, 2015. ISBN 978-1-78023-747-3, page 24.
6Ibid., page 27.
8Ibid., page 131.
9Ibid., page 138.
2 Replies to “THE MEANING OF LIFE – CONTENTMENT – SOLITUDE PART III (continued)”
Interesting distinction,this de-coupling. Still more so that Harry Frankfurt enters the discussion. Certainly, there is a world of difference between loneliness and aloneness. It confused my tablet…many terms do. I, and possibly others, do not make much connection at all between those two states and solitude, rather, solitude connotes, for us, peacefulness and or serenity. Well, this gets metaphysical.
I don’t know anything about Harry Frankfurt – my goal in mentioning his name was to credit him for Svendsen’s thesis as he did. If you are more familiar with him, please share your impressions.
As for the distinction between loneliness and solitude, the difference in meanings may be connotative rather than denotative – and is ultimately subjective so there is a fine line there. I personally find that I perceive voluntary time alone as solitude as opposed to unplanned or unavoidable time alone which feels like isolation or loneliness. In the case of voluntary solitude I also find that my subjective assessment of solitude decreases (and that of loneliness increases) with time in a somewhat exponential fashion. It is for this reason that I suspect Svendsen is correct that healthy solitude requires a ready path back to society and companionship.
Still the benefits of solitude for me far exceed the potential for uncomfortable loneliness even though, for myself, solitude has not served to create lasting contentment to date.