The Double-Edged Sword Of Solitude

On the dilemma between solitude and society

Harry J. Stead
Nov 25 · 6 min read

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau built a small cabin near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, amidst woodland owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. He moved into it as an experiment in the practice of self-reliance and solitude, and as a sacred space in which to read and write — as he famously explained , ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.’

The small cabin was ‘tightly shingled and plastered’, ten by fifteen, with enough room for only a bed, a desk and three chairs — ‘one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society’ — and a brick fireplace. It was not too far from Concord, about a half hour walk; but it was far enough to be left alone and out of sight of civilisation — as he writes, ‘My nearest neighbour is a mile distant, and no house visible from any place but the hill-tops within half a mile of my own.’

As far as one can tell from his writings, this life of solitude was natural and healthy for Henry Thoreau. He was an extremist and carried his virtues to their logical conclusions. This extremism made him more solitary than he wanted to be. But he recognised that those who are ahead of society in one way or another will always to an extent be lonesome, and he accepted his fate as a nonconformist. Everything has to be learned and experienced, and Thoreau was never content merely to contemplate upon eastern philosophy and the Bhagavad-Gita, rather he had to prove it in his own life — ‘Let the yogi seated in solitude and alone having mind and senses under control and free from desires and attachments for possessions, try constantly to contemplate on the Supreme Self.’(6.10, Bhagavad-Gita)

He experienced for himself that amidst nature, there is no loneliness, only wholeness, an infinitely increasing completeness; and thus solitude is an practise defined by being alone in the present with nature and God, and sensitive to the details and fragrances of the outside world. Only in a state of complete isolation and abandonment do we witness the cosmic powers which unite man with nature.

In describing the experience of being alone there are those who use the word ‘loneliness’ and those who prefer ‘solitude’ — it is a matter of perspective, and the difference is that of perpetual solitary confinement and that of liberty and nature. I sometimes wonder if the desire for solitude is a reserve of a certain sort of person, of those who, like Thoreau, are solitary and extraordinary by design — artists, poets, musicians, scientists. For such people, solitude is a necessity in much the same way as exercise is a necessity, for it works as a cleanse and restores one’s creative powers beyond their original capacity.

Though the artist and the poet might dream that the world will someday embrace him and take him home and out of his loneliness, in the end he finds himself alone. Alone but sustained by his art. How could it be any other way if he wishes to live by his talent? This is a sacrifice which the true artist believes to be worthwhile.

In solitude we have only our original imagination, feelings, and music to accompany us. There is freedom and opportunity in the silence which shows itself in a sense of vastness, open space, possibility, in rivers and valleys, and one never knows where to begin and what to think of it all. The seconds slow down and become heavier, until the weight becomes difficult to endure; but these seconds belong to you and are yours to waste. It is simultaneously so blissful and frightening and boring that one feels he is swaying between life and death, between abject loneliness and absolute freedom — somewhere between these pillars one can discover his creativity, and if he finds it then he is caught and enchanted, born anew as an individual with an appetite for expression; he shall forever go on hunting for that dearest experience again and again, even at the cost of friendships and happiness, and, in extreme cases, sanity.

But I do not know to the what extent one can take instruction from such people as Henry Thoreau who have lived alone in the forest in search of their soul; I am sceptical that his solitude is the answer which ordinary people care for — as Nietzsche writes, ‘Supposing I have the key to your chains, why should your lock and my lock be the same?’

It is quite against nature for one to be alone for a long time; only those extraordinary few can endure it — and it is usually those who make great decisions in the realms of thought and discovery. Most of us are not saints, mystics, or geniuses — and if we are honest, we genuinely do not want to be these things either. But even these men of genius do not make solitude their existence, and only live alone now and then for the purposes of work and creation.

However, somehow we decided to model ourselves on these gods of self-reliance and aloneness, to the extent that nowadays everyone makes sure to keep his individuality in tact and as apart as possible from others; he makes himself special and superior, and separates himself into sects and fashions, and secures himself from the approaches of outsiders, hoping in the end to achieve complete independence — this end he mistakes for success or enlightenment. Today there is no meaning in the group — none in the wider world; everything has been given to the individual.

Meantime he has split himself in two, and finds himself in total loneliness, starving for conversation and company. In bitter loneliness the need to talk is the greatest of all needs; it is as worthwhile as achieving any personal ambition or dream, or any amount of money or fame.

Perhaps we will not admit it, and perhaps we will continue to lie to ourselves that we are independent individuals — but the truth is, we are as dependent on society as we were dependent on our mothers when we were children. The vast majority of us have to engage and involve ourselves with our people and community, however tiresome it can be, else we feel a certain austerity and poverty, as of an outlaw or a prisoner.

The impracticality of solitude is obvious, but it is also clear that the influence of society takes away what is best in each man; so as usual it is healthy to position ourselves between the two extremities and pass through the middle road. If this can be achieved at all then it is with ‘he who in the midst,’ as Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, ‘of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.’

The most attractive and charismatic amongst us are those who keep their own space, their own solitude outside or within the system, who have not been intimidated by society, but who keep their independence, and though subtle and delicate in their manner, exhale power from their core; this is a natural power, like sunlight, which charms those who are nearest. Such people are islands, safe, peaceful, beyond description; they stand firm in their opinion and prove themselves not in their history or credentials, but in their stature and manner.

They take society as a natural element in which they contribute their time and sympathy for the greater good, but they are firmest in their refusal to lose their self and character in this cause. They are a part of a group, but the group does not limit them; they are outside of the circle looking inwards, or rather, they have their own circle within the circle of society; they are the centre, the original, the purest, and as such, nobody can imagine them being replaced or disposed.


Thank you, Harry J. Stead

Harry J. Stead

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Watch my video essays here — https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCox0arNMck5WJeUVCE0AXiQ

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