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On Solitude

We’ll muse on solitude today with scattered thoughts. By solitude we mean the state of living alone and a bit secluded from society. We prefer the Latin term to loneliness because it sounds less negative and more neutral to us.

Can solitude be a positive choice? In a world where singles are growing, it doesn’t seem such an absurd question. Well, one should first know if the majority of those who live without a partner (which doesn’t imply seclusion from society, of course) are willing singles or not.

In any case, and apart from singles who are a special case, what we see are people who can live a good or decent life alone, while others just can’t. It’s like there were a creative solitude and a destructive one. Another point is that some people seem capable of governing their solitude while others do not. Complicated (and interesting) topic, in any case.

The symbol of extreme solitude seems to me that of the hermit, of a person who confines himself to a hermitage. Nikos Kazantzakis went to visit various hermitages where monks lived alone and he noticed that some looked serene, while others instead were like destroyed by their loneliness. They were not human beings any more. They were like larvae. It was as if their brain had been digested by its own juices.

Well, solitude exerts its charm on us, no doubt. It could be an inclination, it could be the myth of self-sufficiency, the myth of the sage of antiquity who has everything he needs within himself, of the wise old man who has “like unsinkable goods in his soul that can float out of any shipwreck”, like Antisthenes said. According to Roman Seneca, a certain Stilpo, a philosopher, lost his family and all his goods and, when asked if he had suffered any harm, he replied: no, I haven’t.

Well, this strength seems inhuman to us and it is not by chance that in Antiquity such cases were cited as examples, and in any case belonged to a minority of supermen who were members of the upper classes.

So, even though we have chosen not to live alone, we are kind of fascinated by solitude and this is probably also why we are fond of Michel de Montaigne who in 1571 retired from public life to his lands living in the tower of his château which had a library with 1,500 books. There he wrote down all his musings, seeming to him that “the greatest favour I could do for my mind was to leave it in total idleness, caring for itself, concerned only with itself, calmly thinking of itself.”

So he let his mind dance and care for its dancing only, which can be a dangerous thing indeed. I think though he clearly perceived this danger, since in fact he wrote that our mind is like a garden, with thousands of different weeds that we have to subdue “with seeds specifically sown for our service”, for, “when the soul is without a definite aim she gets lost”: being everywhere is like being nowhere (I:8. On idleness).

In other words, I would add, a good aid in governing our solitude could surely be one or more projects, one or more goals. This is why people who retire and live in slack inertia die sooner (or become lunatics).

People around me say: « Je-sus, cut out this fable about solitude, will you for Chrissake? Aren’t love, affection and company always better than living alone? ».

Well, yes, of course, and yet … darn, what I’m sure about is that, in a city like Rome, where everybody is sociable, loners do not have a place in truth and are seen like weird birds. Even just eating alone in a restaurant makes you sometimes a freak. This doesn’t happen in Germany or in the UK.

Magister kept saying we need to fight against any anti-social impulse that we have in us. I can agree, but loads of things can be achieved only if we retire to our own shell: writing, reading, composing music, meditating etc. And these are things on whose positiveness everyone agrees.

Solitude however must be a free choice. If we are often alone because we are afraid of others, because of complexes or any possible feeling of inadequacy, this falls back within the ambit of those mentioned anti-social impulses we’ve got to fight against.

Cutting All Ties

Living alone can be furthermore associated with the idea of a departure from all, with the idea of cutting any tie we have. Here comes back the archetype of the sage, of the wise man who leaves family and friends in order to go on a spiritual journey. See Herman Hesse‘s Siddhartha; or Jesus’ disciples, whom he called to leave their families and follow him.

However, cutting all ties and going on our own can sometimes mean an escape from our problems and responsibilities. We leave in search of enlightenment though deep inside we are only running away from our obligations, from our fears and anxieties.

We decide to live hundreds of miles from home without thinking that, as Roman Horace put it, post equitem sedet atra cura, “behind the departing horseman sits black care.”

Montaigne refers that Socrates thus replied to a person who told him that a man had not been improved by travelling away: “I am sure he was not: he went with himself.”
(I:39 On Solitude – where we found inspiration and quotes, though our mind took different paths.)

Wherever we go, we cannot flee from ourselves. Only when we set our heart free from any burden or problem (or obligation) are we free to decide whether to live alone or not; whether to stay or to leave on a journey for a new life.

Selfishness and cowardice are always to be condemned.

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