• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On The Salubrity Of Solitude

March 2020


“Let us leave aside those long comparisons between the solitary life and the active one”. In the opinion of Montaigne and, therefore, of all men before him and since, such length of comparison and measurement is an unnecessary exertion on the limited resources of one’s brain. That, after all, which can be assessed with greater pith and celerity, with greater terseness of tongue and completion of thought, ought to be done so whenever it can. And, as for that “fine adage used as a cloak by greed and ambition, ‘That we are not born for ourselves alone, but for the common weal,’ let us venture to refer to those who have joined in the dance: let them bare their consciences and confess whether rank, office, and all the bustling business of the world are not sought on the contrary to gain private profit from the public weal”.


Montaigne, never reticent to express the peculiarity of his brilliance, nor the idiosyncrasy of his scorn, treats rather dismissively the notion that man—a naturally political and sociable animal, if we’re to take as unchallenged the conclusion at which the great Aristotle arrived—is an inherently society-seeking beast. Indeed, the “cloak” of the aforementioned adage (of which the eloquent Cicero and, before him, the eminent Plato are said to have been the original authors) succeeds deviously in concealing from the public’s view his private vice. By speciously professing our good intentions toward exalted and praiseworthy ends, among whose lofty ideals we number such attributes as universality, empathy, fellowship, and a shared concern for our neighboring man, we present ourselves as being more selfless than truly we are. While outwardly we may appear to the world perfectly magnanimous and liberal, our interior story tells of a different tale. This adage, then, gives us the requisite cover to pursue our private interests in the name of the public’s weal.


Perhaps, based on that sobering and rather pessimistic consideration (with which, speaking for myself, I’m rather loath to agree), man really isn’t as affable as once he was thought to be. Perhaps the society of other men, among whom, at least in his outward profession, he counts himself a brother, isn’t a community for whose intermingling and acceptance he very eagerly strives. Rather, it’s simply one by which, at the depths of his cupidity in the private interest of his mind, he hopes to profit. Thus, that Ciceronian and Platonic adage to which we made reference might be very easily amended to comport with a Montaignean worldview. It would require of us the simple transposition of the word “not” from the first to the second clause, leading to our new pronouncement that, “we are born for ourselves alone, but not for the common weal”. This, it seems, is the formulation in whose mirror the real world is reflected—an image far more faithful to its original source, as opposed to that depicted by the artistic hand and genius of a Cicero and a Plato.


Montaigne, more than any other thinker, not only acknowledged, but accepted this rather unprepossessing feature that is, in every way, unique to man. But he saw in this species among whom he was (in accordance to the merit of which his grand and beautiful essays are so deserving) an unquestionably superior member, the ambivalence, quite deeply buried at the source of its root, that exists between his want of society and his need for solitude. Persistent is this tension between the two, and it’s a strain against which he’ll forever struggle. After all, “There is nothing more unsociable than man, and nothing more sociable: unsociable by his vice, sociable by his nature”.


On the one side, he burns with a desire for society and its intercourse. As if magnetically compelled, his want for familiarity, for the frequent and reciprocal exchanges of looks, emotions, and words cannot be stopped. He yearns for blandishments, friendships, offices, and ranks. Commensurately strong, though tugging from the other pole, is his compulsion to flee behind the wall of his own introspection. He needs to shutter himself behind his own gate. He needs nothing better than to revert to himself, to be with himself. But which end of this rope is more strongly to be pulled?


It’s Montaigne’s tendency to put his weight behind the latter. The preference of this universal and timeless man is, we’re surprised to learn, isolation. Unlike his countryman Voltaire, in anticipation for whom one century of French bon mots still had to wait, Montaigne was a more insular individual. Voltaire, for much of his early and even his adult life, pursued as his pastime the sport of controversy and wit. From regents to despots, philosophers to paramours, Voltaire courted hostility in every parlor through whose musty entrance he stepped foot. That said, he quite lived for the company by whom he was surrounded.


Be it in the presence of Frederick the Great, his beloved Lady Châtelet, or the hundreds of Ferney inhabitants of whom he was the enlightened and doting landlord, Voltaire very seldom resigned himself to the iron chambers of his own mind. Perhaps his imaginative capacity simply couldn’t be bound by the human cranium’s narrow limits. When he did, though, he retreated there only with an overwhelming sense of hesitancy, always with the expectation of a swift and glorious return. As John Milton, a near contemporary, would claim, “Solitude sometimes is best society, and short retirement urges sweet return”. Voltaire, delicious as candy to the thinking and gossiping world, wouldn’t dare withhold his sweet brilliance from France’s insatiably hungry salons. Montaigne was different. He made of this same mental place—a grove of equal fertility and production—a haunt to which, with the most feverish precipitancy, he fled as soon as he could. The longer the retirement, in his opinion, the sweeter the taste—as if a marinade left upon an entrée overnight.


And so, he retreated with happiness, equanimity, and peace. He embarked on the voyage, an invagination of his self into himself, and savored every inch of the journey. It was, as a practitioner of the long and deep meditative acts, a path from whose coordinates he never failed to stray.


Yet, in doing so, he recognized that the success of the venture was fully dependent upon himself, and on no one else: “Since we are undertaking to live, without companions, but by ourselves, let us make our happiness depend on ourselves”. Ultimately, our happiness—irrespective of the countless troubles by which we’re encumbered on this and every day—is a state of being for which we, and we alone, are responsible. At once a sobering and a liberating thought—this recognition that our attainment of happiness rests solely within our grasp—one’s made to grapple with the thought and endeavor toward his end. But, that said, success is far from guaranteed. After all, “there are ways of failing in solitude, as there are in society”. Should you be so unlucky as to lose yourself in the pursuit of the former, that dainty happiness—about whose ethereality so much, by so many, has been spoken—might just slip away. It’s no question which of the two failures would be the more destructive. By change of place, carriage, or even occupation, one can survive a failure in society; a failure in solitude, on the other hand, can often be fatal.


Thus, to avoid so dreary an end, a bit of cultivation is required: “You should no longer be concerned with what the world says of you, but with what you say to yourself. Withdraw into yourself, but first prepare yourself to welcome yourself there. It would be madness to entrust yourself to yourself, if you did not know how to govern yourself”. Madness, indeed. Although “yourself” is a spirit beside whom you’ve developed since birth, a quiet specter on whom you’ve always relied, you’re likely to have done so unknowingly. Yourself, then, is not necessarily a form of whom, through the passage of your inattentive years, you’ve taken careful notice. As such, charting its terrain risks you suffering a fall. As for the form of governance one’s self imposes upon itself, I think it would have to be monarchical. Either that, or it would be a benevolent dictatorship, one constructed in the guise of Marcus Aurelius or Antoninus Pius. Only under so stoic, gentle, and contemplative a leadership would yourself, as a political unit, be fortified and positioned at ease.


As if further to guide us by the hand as we seek, for ourselves, our self, Montaigne gives us a very useful set of instructions. “We should set aside a room, just for ourselves, at the back of the shop, keeping it entirely free and establishing there our true liberty, our principal solitude and asylum. Within it our normal conversation should be of ourselves, with ourselves, so privy that no commerce or communication with the outside world should find a place there”. Can so undefiled and holy a place actually exist? And, if so, would it not be too self-indulgent for our habitation therein? Would it not be too unbecoming and solipsistic of us to enter its space, stretch out our legs, and recline on its couch? Perhaps so, but one’s own garden must be tended, before another’s can be tilled.


Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American “Montaigne” by whom all of the latter’s eloquence and insight seems to have been bequeathed, held a slightly more positive view of society. Still, though, his preference was for its alternative. In expounding upon his Transcendental philosophy, by the scale of whose grandeur, syncretism, and ideal-seeking scope we’re still quite taken aback, Emerson declared that “Society is good when it does not violate me, but best when it is likest to solitude”. Society, then, is only to be appreciated in a conditional manner; to one’s predilection toward solitude, nothing more is attached. More than that, society, for all the good it’s done us, is only valuable in reference to that to which it’ll always be inferior—namely, to solitude.


As did Montaigne, Emerson provides for us a manual of instruction, a map of navigation, for the attainment of ourselves by ourselves. “To go into solitude”, says he, “a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars”. The inextricable, indeed the divine connection by which man is bound to nature was a fact of life by which Emerson was forever passionately moved. He would, in this sense, abandon the room set aside for him at the “back of the shop” built by Montaigne, and instead flee into the deep and abiding expanses of the natural world. There, outside the confines of human artifice and daily life, somewhere on a nurturing hillside on which he might repose, from which he might gaze, he’d enter a state of solitary bliss and be once again one with himself.

Solitude, then, mustn’t be dismissed as an unsocial and boring way of life. It is, in the opinion of at least Emerson and Montaigne and so many more, not only a life-fulfilling, but a salubrious state of being. As our experiment in “social distancing” continues, and as this virus by which we’re assailed proceeds to chase us down, we’d do well, if only every now and again, to check into that room at the back of the shop, or to gaze at the stars from that hill. There, one will find solitude—one will find himself.

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