Thinking requires solitude. It is a simple fact that it is impossible to think – deeply at any rate – while interacting with others. Add another mind and right away, the path ahead becomes tortuous. Human minds tend to diverge. Opinions seem always to vary. Except when they are trying hard to get along, minds agree on precious little. Inevitably, discussing any topic will lead to disagreement and the taking up of positions. This can be interesting and enlightening, but conversation definitely will not take one where one would go on one’s own. To think anything through to one’s own fully developed conclusions, one needs to be alone.
We are walking a lightly trod, yet millennia-old path here. The thinking tradition is illustrious and those given to habitual thinking have left us a fine legacy of insights into the nature of solitude.
French Jesuit preacher and author Gustave Delacroix de Ravignan claimed that “Solitude is the homeland of the strong; silence is their prayer.”
It is true that one must be strong to spend time alone. When lacking adequate stimulation, the human mind tends toward psychic entropy. Only those capable of developing rich inner resources can keep their minds afloat in solitude. Being alone also requires the inner strength to tolerate one’s own company. Those who suffer self-dislike – a dreadful form of inner weakness – do not enjoy being with themselves. Instead, they have a powerful need for constant exposure to the affection and regard of others. Since these emotional supports are impossible to get when alone, such people cannot abide being solitary.
In these highly secular times, praying sounds old-fashioned to many. The word conjures images of judgmental morality and outdated prohibitions. Yet prayer is not the same as religion. It is a religious practice, to be sure, but one might think of it as a form of quiet meditation upon a particular topic. Ravignan has something like this in mind when he compares silence with prayer. He means that only by being silent can one receive wisdom. In his case, that wisdom comes from God, in the case of the more secular, it comes from within.
French philosopher and spiritual writer Antonin Sertillanges believed that thinkers should live quiet lives and keep to themselves. He writes that intellectuals should remain, “Out of sight, near the heart.” He is using Pascal’s idea of “the heart,” namely: the whole man, with all his experience, perceptions, and intuitions; that which Jung might well call the Self. Sertillanges means that by leading a solitary life, free from the distractions so often presented by others, we come closer to our own true Self with its rich array of resources. Sertillanges also knew that to Pascal’s way of thinking, “Great thoughts come from the heart.” In other words, using Pascal’s unique notion of “the heart,” great thoughts come from the Self.
In a similar vein, English historian Edward Gibbon writes, “Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.” Here, the one sentence embodies the complete idea. It needs no elaboration. Talking with others can only take one so far. To plumb greater depths, to move beyond mere comprehension to the acquiring of brilliant new insights requires much time alone.
Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke agrees with Ravignan that solitude is not easy: “It is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it.” Rilke’s standards were high. He saw difficulty not as something to avoid but as a challenge to meet and overcome. Solitude is not only the school of genius; if one finds it hard to be alone then solitude can also be the academy of self-knowledge. For Rilke, “The only journey is the one within.”
German-Swiss author Hermann Hesse maintained, “Solitude is independence. It had been my wish and with the years I had attained it. It was cold. Oh, cold enough! But it was also still, wonderfully still and vast like the cold stillness of space in which the stars revolve.” When he uses the word, “independence,” Hesse means freedom from personal entanglements and emotional dependence on others. He saw himself as an artist-thinker and used his hard-won independence to develop Jung’s then-new idea of individuation. Hesse quite literally adopted the concept and lived it out, writing novels as he worked his way through the individuation process. The string of novels beginning with Damien and culminating with The Glass Bead Game is the product of his ten-year odyssey. He spent most of those years living a somewhat solitary existence. His repeated use of the word “cold” and the reference to “the cold stillness of space” reveals that this was a challenge.
English poet William Wordsworth saw a gentler more comforting side to solitude. Wordsworth was a proponent of the Romantic Movement, a pleasing yet notably unrealistic way of looking at life. Notice his casual assumption that we all may find solace in being solitary:
When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude;
How potent a mere image of her sway;
Most potent when impressed upon the mind
With an appropriate human centre–hermit,
Deep in the bosom of the wilderness…
[The Prelude: Book Fourth: Summer Vacation, lines 354-361]
The sentiment is lovely. The insight that the bustle of life can alienate us from our true selves is sound. But in reality, a great many people have little tolerance for being alone and will go to great lengths to avoid ending up that way – self-alienation notwithstanding. The restorative quality of solitude is only available to the strong.
Thomas Merton, the famous American monk, combines a romantic perspective on solitude with a dark view of modern life: “Solitude is a way to defend the spirit against the murderous din of our materialism.” As a Cistercian (Trappist) monk, Merton at first lived a communal life with the other monks in his monastery. Finding the arrangement constraining, he persuaded the Abbot to allow him to become a hermit in a little-used building on the religious order’s large rural property. He wrote some of his most insightful books there. However, his much-desired solitude proved as big a challenge for Merton as it had for Hesse. Merton inappropriately encouraged visitors and often slipped away from the monastery grounds to visit friends in a nearby town.
Anyone who has had to spend a great deal of time alone knows the truth of Rilke’s assertion, “solitude is difficult.” Humans are not by nature solitary creatures. The thinking portion of our minds is a recent evolutionary development. Tolerating long stretches of solitude requires a lot of fortitude.