Reflections on Self-Isolation

Simon Blackburn was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge until his retirement in 2011. His most recent publication is On Truth (2018). He reflects on solitude.

I rather enjoy occasional solitude. Of course, such enjoyment, for only a time, is a very different matter from feeling lonely, isolated, estranged, or forgotten. To feel like that is to suffer from a need for something that is missing, and by itself solitude need not imply that. In fact, when there are fears that our current self-isolation may impair our mental health, I imagine that while it may be the absence of company that is supposed to do the damage, it might also be the malaise of too many people, too close and too inescapable.

Nevertheless it may surprise people how often philosophers and other writers have applauded solitude itself. From the ancient Stoics (Seneca, Marcus Aurelius) past Montaigne to the Romantics (Rousseau, Byron, Thoreau) there has been a constant chorus counselling that solitude is good for us.

Unfortunately some of the greatest exponents of solitude have scarcely lived up to their ideal. Wordsworth is a good example. Although he hymned solitary roaming in nature as a necessary part of his education, somewhat paradoxically enabling him better to connect with those forlorn, isolated old souls who populated his Lake District, he tended to return from his ramblings to a cottage crammed full of wife, sister, children and servants, and throughout his long life his great sociability was often remarked upon. Thoreau described his hideout at Walden Pond as though it was way out in the wilderness, but in fact it was under a mile from Concord, his home town, and only a mile or so from his mum, who fed him and did his laundry every week. Sartre (“l’enfer, c’est les autres”) pronounced such things daily in the crowded cafés of Paris. A monkish retreat from the world is more often a flight to a relatively comfortable community than to a solitary hermitage. At the Church of St. Simeon Stylites in northern Syria I learned that although the saint indeed lived on a platform on his pillar he received food (and hygiene) from devoted acolytes, not to mention the adoration of crowds of pilgrims.

I suppose he might have embraced the idea later voiced by Rousseau (and then many Romantics) that you are never so alone as when in a crowd. There is nothing especially difficult to understand about that. I remember the loneliest period of my life being my first few weeks at boarding school, thrown into the foreign ways and vocabularies of my strange contemporaries. In the wrong kind of crowd, when you cannot share the tastes or enthusiasms or interests of those around you, you can especially ache for understanding, sympathy, and communication. And for the thin-skinned or even paranoid Rousseau every crowd was the wrong kind of crowd. I suspect however that St. Simeon thought that his acolytes and pilgrims were the right kind of crowd.

In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle writes a great deal about the way human beings are social and political animals, and about the value of friendships, especially between virtuous equals. But in the final book he draws back, arguing that complete happiness can only be found in the pure exercise of reason, which implies study and reflection – essentially solitary activities. They are also, as it happens, godlike, since the only activity Aristotle allows to the Gods is the pursuit of understanding. They cannot spend their lives asleep, and have no cause to exercise any other abilities or virtues. As an aside I think this is surely a better conception of divine life than one that has Them, or Him or Her, endlessly bothering and bothering about the sins of human beings. It also implies self-sufficiency, which was a major plus in the eyes of the later Stoics, although Aristotle sensibly recognizes that in human life we are not self-sufficient.

I often wish that people who like that appalling song ‘I did it my way’ would similarly recognize that it is not true. We speak languages we had to learn from people around use, we eat foods and use utilities and devices provided by the labours of others, we conform with and benefit from countless social growths, including the conventions that sustain the institutions of law, property, and money. Fortunately one of the lessons of the current situation is that we do all depend upon each other, and there is indeed such a thing as society.

 

The entire series of Reflections by Trinity Fellows can be viewed here.

 

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