Solitude and loneliness


Hannah Arendt, a Jew who had narrowly escaped from Nazi Germany, was commissioned by The New Yorker magazine to cover the 1962 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. She watched him closely and marveled at how someone who seemed so ordinary could have committed such atrocities. Her accounts of the trial were printed in a book titled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil and now to speak of ‘the banality of evil’ has become commonplace.

Jennifer Stitt writes about the insights that Hannah Arendt derived about solitude from her observations during the trial, and concluded that it was Eichmann’s lack of imagination, that “it was his inability to stop and think that permitted Eichmann to participate in mass murder”. Arendt felt that solitude is an important element in our development because it is that that allows us to stop and think and contemplate.

She understood that freedom entailed more than the human capacity to act spontaneously and creatively in public. It also entailed the capacity to think and to judge in private, where solitude empowers the individual to contemplate her actions and develop her conscience, to escape the cacophony of the crowd – to finally hear herself think.

But what if, we might ask, we become lonely in our solitude? Isn’t there some danger that we will become isolated individuals, cut off from the pleasures of friendship? Philosophers have long made a careful, and important, distinction between solitude and loneliness. In The Republic (c380 BCE), Plato proffered a parable in which Socrates celebrates the solitary philosopher. In the allegory of the cave, the philosopher escapes from the darkness of an underground den – and from the company of other humans – into the sunlight of contemplative thought. Alone but not lonely, the philosopher becomes attuned to her inner self and the world. In solitude, the soundless dialogue ‘which the soul holds with herself’ finally becomes audible.

Echoing Plato, Arendt observed: ‘Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business; solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company. Loneliness comes about … when I am one and without company’ but desire it and cannot find it. In solitude, Arendt never longed for companionship or craved camaraderie because she was never truly alone. Her inner self was a friend with whom she could carry on a conversation, that silent voice who posed the vital Socratic question: ‘What do you mean when you say …?’ The self, Arendt declared, ‘is the only one from whom you can never get away – except by ceasing to think.’

But, Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in’ – no longer able, in the cage of thoughtless conformity, to distinguish ‘right from wrong, beautiful from ugly’. Solitude is not only a state of mind essential to the development of an individual’s consciousness – and conscience – but also a practice that prepares one for participation in social and political life. Before we can keep company with others, we must learn to keep company with ourselves.

I have noticed that I never feel lonely or bored even when, for whatever reason, I have had to be at home alone (or in the car or elsewhere) and did not have direct contact with anyone for as long as a week because I had no reason to go anywhere. Of course, this is nothing like the solitary confinement that some prisoners have been kept in that amounts to torture. I had access to the radio and the internet and could watch TV if I wanted so it was not that I was completely cut off from the sound of human voices. But the fact is that in this lesser degree of isolation I was not directly engaging with another human being, and it did not bother me. I can wait for long periods in cars, airports or elsewhere without getting antsy. What really bothers me is noise that interrupts my thinking, such as when I am in a waiting room or an airport departure area and a TV is on. Then things like the inane chatter that emanates from it really irk me.

In George Orwell’s book 1984, people are tortured using specialized methods based on each person’s individual phobias. If I ever fall into the hands of people who wanted to torture me, there is a quicker way to break me than keeping me in solitary confinement and that would be to put me in a room with non-stop TV commercials or maybe an endless loop of the Dr. Oz show. I would be begging for mercy in a few hours.

Comments

  1. says

    I have noticed that I never feel lonely or bored even when, for whatever reason, I have had to be at home alone (or in the car or elsewhere) and did not have direct contact with anyone for as long as a week because I had no reason to go anywhere.

    Yep, same goes for me. I mean, I can read books, I have access to the internet, so I’m happy. A week like this would be fine for me. It would take several weeks, maybe a month for me to start wanting human company. But such point definitely would come. I have noticed that after spending a few weeks on my own at some point I really want to be with other people.

    What really bothers me is noise that interrupts my thinking, such as when I am in a waiting room or an airport departure area and a TV is on. Then things like the inane chatter that emanates from it really irk me.

    Yes, I agree. It’s impossible for me to go shopping without taking my headphones with me, because nowadays all the shops have radio or some other noise coming from the loudspeakers. I find those unwanted noises immensely irritating.

    there is a quicker way to break me than keeping me in solitary confinement and that would be to put me in a room with non-stop TV commercials or maybe an endless loop of the Dr. Oz show. I would be begging for mercy in a few hours.

    Yes, again it’s the same for me.
    Speaking of confinement, I suspect that I would actually prefer solitary confinement rather than some random roommate. Whenever I start feeling lonely, I cannot just talk with some random person who happens to be nearby. Instead I need somebody with shared interests, somebody I would want as a friend, somebody with whom I can form an emotional connection.
    If I feel lonely and there’s some random person nearby with whom I have little shared interests and don’t want to have a conversation, then the presence of this person won’t make me feel less lonely. The loneliness will remain, but in addition I will also get annoyed, because the other person’s presence will feel like an irritating noise to me.
    Of course, in a prison there would be a small probability that the random roommate I get assigned turns out to have shared interests with me and that the two of us can become friends, but this probability is somewhat small. (So far in my life I have never become friends with a neighbor or a classmate, instead all my friends are people who share my interests and have specific personalities and whom I met in places that attract people with unusual interests.)

  2. Matt G says

    I am also this way -- I can go for long periods without close contact with others. I know many desire the presence of others, or, if that isn’t possible, a TV to keep them company. I haven’t even owned a TV in 20 years. In Myers-Briggs I am way at one end of three of the traits, but dead center on the introvert/extrovert scale.

  3. Heidi Nemeth says

    Solitude is nice. Isolation is horrible.

    I was absolutely alone for 3 days in the wilderness in Northern New Hampshire in January 1972. The temperature was below zero degrees Fahrenheit the whole time. I had no communication with anybody.
    From that experience I didn’t learn to hate winter camping. I learned I never wanted to be truly alone for 3 days ever again in my life.

    Years ago I read in a book on happiness that socializing at least 6 hours a day is very important to happiness, longevity and productivity. Surprisingly, writing or reading a letter was considered socializing. So all the personalized contacts one can make with the internet and a phone count as socializing. The internet, the phone, the radio, reading -- all make my living alone now a bearable solitude instead of lonely isolation. I don’t mind the winter storm raging outside that I don’t want to go out in because I feel engaged with you even though I am alone.

  4. lanir says

    I have felt some inkling of this idea. I’d never put it together in quite this way before reading the above blog post but the whole thing feels like it’s about ignorance. The people who consistently do things I feel are bad either have large blind spots or just don’t think at all about other people or select groups of other people. They aren’t seeing and empathizing with another person, then deciding they think it’s perfectly okay to hurt that person anyway. They just don’t empathize in the first place.

    I’d come to a point where I began associating this with intelligence. I don’t really care if someone has a degree, advanced knowledge of a difficult field, book smarts, loads of practical experience, or expertise at Trivial Pursuit. If they can’t figure out that other people are just like them then they’re the worst sort of ignorant: the willful and deliberate kind. Since everyone has to deal with other people, it felt to me like finding out a geologist is a flat earther or a doctor believes in a literal reading of the christian bible instead of evolution. It’s fairly natural to wonder if they really know what they’re talking about if they’re willing to harbor such basic misunderstandings related to their field.

    If the claims are true that portrayals of homosexuality in mass media gave the general public an understanding of homosexuals as people, then that would be an example of a positive use of this idea. If knowledge can cure a lack of empathy then that would tend to support the idea that a lack of empathy is a form of ignorance.

  5. John Morales says

    lanir:

    If knowledge can cure a lack of empathy then that would tend to support the idea that a lack of empathy is a form of ignorance.

    No more so than the idea that if quinine can cure malaria then a lack of quinine is a form of malaria.

  6. says

    For me, writing fiction is the best solitude I can imagine.

    Years ago I came to believe that writing fiction is a communication with myself; a journey of self-exploration to discover what I think about a subject.