Question for the coronavirus era: What’s the opposite of loneliness? It’s not company.


Arendt had the best company: herself

The business of being a writer is necessarily solitary. I’m used to it. In fact, with the current coronavirus “shelter in place” in  California and elsewhere in the country, little has changed in my work routine. One good adjustment: the rest of the world is on “pause,” so I don’t have the usual intrusion of emails, phone calls, and other interruptions.

Nevertheless, should all those fail, I have shelves of books I’ve never read. And it’s always a good day when you can reread Jane Austen, or explore The Divine Comedy again. Revisit Proust, or Stanisław Barańczak. Or finally get around to reading something by Michel Houellebecq, or the unopened novel by Ismail Kadare.

Yet all over the social media I hear complaints about loneliness and boredom during the coronavirus crisis. But the antidote to loneliness isn’t society – it’s solitude.

Hannah Arendt wrote that the ability to tolerate the solitariness of an internal space, in which one can commune with oneself and think for oneself, is central to personal responsibility. In an essay on “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” she argued such “being-with-oneself” is connected with the sustained practice of examining issues, weighing contradictory thoughts, making up one’s own mind. She observed that those who resisted the Nazi call had the habit and experience of daring to judge for themselves:

“The precondition for this kind of judging is not a highly developed intelligence or sophistication in moral matters, but rather the disposition to live together explicitly with oneself, to have intercourse with oneself, that is, to be engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself which, since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking.”

It’s what  Stanford professor Robert Pogue Harrison said a decade ago at a Stanford conference on Arendt, when he made the event’s most spirited remarks in a talk on “passionate thinking.” Read the whole article here. A relevant excerpt:

Stanford’s Gerhard Casper, Robert Harrison at back (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

[Harrison] considered Arendt’s notion of friendship and thought as rooted in solitude and the ability to commune with oneself – that “plurality begins with the individual.”

The “overwhelming question” in the humanities, he said, is: “How do we negotiate the necessity of solitude as a precondition for thought?”

“What do we do to foster the regeneration of thinking? Nothing. At least not institutionally,” he said. “Not only in the university, but in society at large, everything conspires to invade the solitude of thought. It has as much to do with technology as it does with ideology. There is a not a place we go where we are not connected to the collective.

“Every place of silence is invaded by noise. Everywhere we see the ravages of this on our thinking. The ability for sustained, coherent, consistent thought is becoming rare” in the “thoughtlessness of the age.”

So do take some time to talk internally with yourself during this unusual time. We hope it will be over soon! And if you want to read what Arendt wrote to James Baldwingo here.

Postscript from George Dunn of Zhejiang University: Ursula LeGuin has a powerful story that addresses issues of injustice and scapegoating, titled “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” I’ve used it in my Ethics class more times than I can count. The title refers to the very small minority of citizens in the imaginary city of Omelas who walk away from the hedonic paradise this city represents because they are unwilling to partake of a joy that’s purchased through the torture of a child. There is one line in the story had that always struck me as somehow key to what LeGuin wants us to understand, though it is spoken so causally that its import can easily be missed. Most of the citizens of Omelas are reconciled to the horror on which their happiness is built, though some leave in their youth the moment they come face to face with that horror. Yet, reports LeGuin, “Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home.” The phrase “falls silent” stands out for me, indicating as it does a retreat into deep introspection. Such a retreat into silence would be quite conspicuous in Omelas, whose citizens are depicted by LeGuin as highly gregarious. LeGuin then recounts how these few leave the city, three times using the word “alone” to underscore the solitude of those who walk away. Reading these passages always puts me in mind of Arendt’s essay on “Responsibility,” also assigned a few times, with its reminder that ethics is predicated on our ability to resist the crowd, which in turn depends on having cultivated an inner space for reflection. Being highly intelligent, articulate, and quick-witted in debate is no guarantee of a capacity for reflection. To the contrary, as we’ve both seen, those with the greatest intellectual gifts will also often display the greatest ingenuity in making excuses for themselves.

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2 Responses to “Question for the coronavirus era: What’s the opposite of loneliness? It’s not company.”

  1. G.K. Dowler Says:

    Everyone seeks answers to questions
    that cannot be answered.
    Yet accept answers
    when there are no questions.
    Why contemplate the logic
    of philosophers?
    They create the questions
    only they can answer.
    Why pray to gods and ancestors?
    They have no tongues that speak.
    Are we not like branches
    of a willow tree
    who yields its draping boughs
    to the wind?

  2. Diana Senechal Says:

    Thank you for this piece. I agree that solitude is really more about thinking alone than being physically alone. The physical separation, the quiet surroundings, can make room for the thought, but the thought itself is the solitude.