“It is in your power to withdraw yourself whenever you desire. Perfect tranquility within consists in the good ordering of the mind, the realm of your own.”
Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome and one of my favorite historical figures, wrote this and many other tidbits on the virtues of solitude in his Meditations, a collection of journals he kept (which was never intended to be published). While there have been and will continue to be writers who praise loneliness as the font of all wisdom or being somehow nearly divine in nature, I prefer the treatment given to the subject by Aurelius. Thoreau, for instance, writes, “If I have had a companion only one day in a week, unless it were one or two I could name, I find that the value of the week to me has been seriously affected.” Rather than casting aspersions on the character and influence of others, Aurelius simply states the importance of solitude to order the mind and cast away unnecessary mental burdens before delving into his constant pursuit of being a good man.
This distinction between solitude as a time of mental consolidation and re-focus and solitude as refuge from human influence is an important one, but it’s not the only way to chop solitude into different shapes. In this and our next few tangents, we’re going to take a look at loneliness, isolation, solitude, hermitage, confinement and all the other ways to march to your own drum.
There are people like Alex Thomson, who possess the right kind of “mental instability” to undertake an adventure like solo sailing circumnavigation. There are the approximately 80,000 American prisoners in solitary confinement, a routine punishment despite the UN’s warning that such confinement is a “harsh measure contrary to rehabilitation.” There’s Christopher McCandless and Everett Ruess, young men many decades apart but alike in their attempts to find the uncharted. Then there are the cases that are all the lonelier in their normalcy. Many over-65s find themselves “often” or “always” lonely, which evolutionary psychology suggests could be shortening lifespan due to how contrary isolation is to human survival. On the other hand, the Hindu practice of Mauna, or a vow of silence, is said to clear the mind and rid its practitioners of distracting thoughts, bringing them closer to enlightenment by separating them from the minutia of the material world.
More to follow on the many ways we find ourselves apart from others, for better or for worse. Until then:
“Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul.” – Marcus Aurelius
A Tangent to Solitude and Contentment.