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.