The Virtues of Solitude

by Abiola Lapite | 11/15/96 6:00am

I wish to speak today about the virtues of solitude. It is a state of being that is beneficial to the state of the imagination and makes self discovery possible. Solitude helps us find ourselves, and is conducive to the search for coherence and balance.

Mine is an unusual thesis and requires some defending, as most of us today are not used to the idea of solitude as a positive experience. Contemporary life, with its instantaneous communication and unending variety of distractions, is not conducive to isolation, and so few of us know what it really is like to be on our own for more than brief periods at a time. We are taught to value personal relationships above all else, and are constantly told that we are only truly alive to the extent that we are involved with others.

But there is life outside of company, and it is a life which is capable of great richness. There is no better state than isolation for the stimulation of aesthetic sensibilities, and virtually all truly creative activities must be carried out in solitude. Few Divine Comedies are written in company, nor do many Fallingwaters bear the stamp of the crowd. Those we recognize to have been creative giants have in the main been solitary types, and even with those few who have been fond of company, their best works have usually been born of long, intense periods of solitude and concentration.

It would be absurd to imagine an appreciation of the glories of nature while in the midst of a large company. It is simply not possible to appreciate the beauty of a spring shower or the sound of waves while one's attention is being demanded by a multitude, and, in as far as we are able to enjoy music and the arts in the midst of others, we are successful only when we shut everyone else out. When one is engrossed in a piece of music, then is one most completely isolated from one's fellows. There is mass music, to be sure, music for the stimulation of crowds to patriotism or frenzy, but the very greatest music is of a supremely personal nature. Chopin's piano pieces are of this kind, as are most of Beethoven's works.

And so I come to another benefit of solitude, namely its importance in the search for personal identity. In isolation we are able to look into the depths of our own psyches, without needing to make ourselves understood or appreciated by others. Freed of the need to convince others, our thoughts turn to the exploration of remote aspects of our experience. We are free to dream, and to speculate. I am reminded at this point of Henry David Thoreau's famous words: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." It is precisely this kind of careful deliberation which isolation is particularly conducive to.

There are those individuals who are by nature dreamers, the visionaries of every age. The prophet, the artist, the man with a great passion, is by definition set apart from the common run of men, possessed as he is by his one magnificent obsession. He knows, and wishes to know, nothing else. Says William Alger, "Conversing with their thoughts, toiling at their plans, devising methods, or imagining the results of success, they walk up and down, deaf to every foreign solicitation and every impediment. Come what will their task engrosses them, their fate cries out, and all else must give way. Such men are essentially alone."

In Dante, we find an example of this type of individual. Again, to quote Alger, "Dante was made lean for many years by the exactions of his supreme poem. Devouring his time, thought, feeling, soul, in his wanderings and poverty, it made him passing solitary among men, and kept him stern, sad, and serene on a wondrous fund of tenderness and vehemence."

It would be a mistake to imagine the solitary visionary to be lonely, for loneliness and isolation are different things, while one can feel alone amidst a multitude. Employed as the visionary is with his conceptions and their realizations, he is, if anything, the least lonely of men, while there are few things more disheartening than to walk the streets of a great metropolis, to see the great waves of humanity wash by, and to realize that in all that sea of humanity, not one other person cares for oneself.

These, then, are some of the benefits of solitude. It fosters imagination, sharpens the sensibilities, gives room for free inquiry, and is beneficial in the search for self-understanding. For every man who strives for contact with the true heart of things, it would pay for him to follow the advice of De Quincey, and to "checker his life with solitude."

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