Society and Solitude

THERE are many things which differentiate human beings sharply, and relegate them into one of two classes. According to Charles Lamb, the view that a man took of the merits or demerits of minced veal as an article of food was one of these; again, a great philosopher has said that every one is either an Aristotelian or a Platonist, whether he knows it or not; or again, there is the distinction of Tory and Liberal, which, if analyzed, consists in whether you wish to regulate the present. with reference to the past, or with reference to the future. But I would propound a still more radical differentiation. Suppose a man, walking along a familiar road in unfrequented country, looks over a hedge and sees a crowd of people assembled in a field, all peering, we will say for the sake of picturesqueness, over the shoulders of the inner circles of the throng, at something which is going on in the centre. What really differentiates people is the question whether one sees this wholly unexpected throng with a pleasing and delightful excitement and interest, or with a shock of disgust and horror; whether one desires eagerly to join the crowd, and look on at whatever may be proceeding, or to fly swiftly to the ends of the earth. The difference is partly a question of class, and depends mainly upon a simple wonder, a thirst for experience, which is so largely gratified in the lives of the upper and more leisured class that it tends to diminish with advancing age. People who can afford it have so often looked over the shoulders of crowds and have seen nothing particularly interesting within! But apart from this, a considerable majority, both of men and women, would at once wish to join the crowd, and they are the people with a sociable instinct; the minority, who wish for the wings of a dove to flee away and be at rest, are the definitely and inveterately solitary people, the people who would always prefer empty rooms to full ones, small congregations to large ones, vacant compartments in trains to tenanted ones, wildernesses to towns, fields to thoroughfares.

I would not maintain that either instinct is superior to the other; they are both harmless, both easy to gratify. The only mistake one makes is, if one loves the one, to condemn or despise those who love the other. The solitary man would submit to great inconvenience to avoid a race-meeting, a ball, a cricket match; but yet I have a pleasant friend who, in praising to me the merits of a place where he had taken a house for the summer, mentioned that he had been privileged to attend as many as five garden-parties in one week!

The result of this difference of temperament is that when people come to philosophize, or to advance religious views, they are either social or individualistic. The man of social temperament will speak of the hopes of humanity, the ideals of the race, the corporate sense of union; while to the individualistic philosopher these are merely dusty and uninteresting phrases, meaning nothing in particular. The individualist has no idea how a person sets about loving humanity, or how he develops his corporate sense. It is, of course, an instinct, like the instinct which makes people desire to be one of a great congregation, of a procession, of a regiment; to enjoy moving in step with a thousand other persons, to like shouting out the same words at the same moment; all of which things the individualist sincerely dislikes. A large crowd is to him a painful and oppressive sight, because it means simply the presence of an immense number of people whom he does not know, and most of whom he does not want to know. A friend of mine had an interesting dream the other day, which exactly illustrates what I mean; she thought that she was describing with great gusto the arrangements for some religious service to a grave and dissatisfied person, who said, at the end of her statement, “Well, do you know, I do not much believe in people being inspired in rows.” The individualist agrees most cordially with that comment. It is merely distressing to him to reflect that he is one of millions of painfully similar beings. He is no more inspired by the thought, than he can conceive of a cabbage in a cabbage-field being inspired by the thought that it was one of twenty thousand cabbages. The individualist can imagine the cabbage being uplifted by the thought that it was fearfully and wonderfully made; that it imbibed the dews of the kindly earth, and sent them running through a hundred pale veins; that it had a tender relationship with wandering winds and flying bursts of sun, and a secret understanding with the God who made it; he can even imagine the cabbage having a gentle and affectionate interest in the cabbages on each side of him. So, too, the individualist may have many very close and dear relationships with other men and women; but, if he loves humanity at all, it is because he loves A and B, and believes that among the unknown millions there are many whom if he knew he could also love, and who would love him in return; but he also very much dislikes D and E, and his tendency is to believe that the great majority of the world would be hostile to him rather than affectionate; and this in spite of the fact that he has probably never been brought into close relations with any one without finding him more interesting and lovable than he had expected. But to have corporate relations with people is a thing that the solitary man cannot even dimly conceive; to have direct and immediate relations with people is easy enough ; but as the individualist grows older, he tends to be inclined not to multiply relationships, partly because of the strain involved in making and maintaining a new friendship, and partly also because, limited as we are by space and time, a new relationship practically means a certain weakening and neglecting of the old.

The purely gregarious instinct is difficult to sympathize with or analyze if one does not possess it. I find that, as a rule, my friends like attending a cricketmatch, or a school-gathering, or a festivity at their old college, because, as they say, it is so pleasant to meet old friends. To me, on the other hand, such gatherings are oppressive and painful; I see a number of people with whom I exchange a brilliant smile, a fervent handshake, and a few conventional and so-called humorous remarks, with whom I should like to have a long and quiet tête-à-tête. But to see them in that brief and scrappy manner is no satisfaction to me ; it only assures me that they are alive, and older than when I saw them last; and of those facts I do not require to be assured; what I should like is to revive old memories with them at leisure, to see whether their point of view is altered, whether they have achieved their ambitions, whether they are content, whether they find life more or less interesting than they expected. I feel indeed on such occasions like the parrot who had been kept in a public-house behind a bar, and had picked up the tapman’s polite phrase. “ One at a time, please, gentlemen; one at a time!” The ingenuous bird was transferred to the country, and contrived to escape from its cage; it was discovered in a field hard by, surrounded by rooks who were pecking it viciously; though bleeding from several wounds and denuded of half its feathers, it was still ejaculating in tones of cheery constancy, “One at a time, gentlemen, please; one at a time.”

But, quite apart from one’s private feeling, there is also the undoubted fact which meets one on every side, that people in the company of others are almost invariably less interesting, less individual, less tolerant, more conventional, more tiresome, less sincere, less unaffected, than when they are alone with one; they are less themselves, in fact. The serious, quiet, suggestive person, who is delightful when he is tête-à-tête with one, when he talks easily and simply of all that is in his mind, becomes feebly jocular, mildly cynical, given to anecdote, given to reminiscence, when in company. The bluff man becomes rude, the laughing philosopher becomes a screeching Platitudinarian, the weeping philosopher becomes a gloomy poseur, the shy man becomes silent or, still worse, voluble, the talker becomes a chatterer, the sympathetic man becomes unctuous. It is the natural result of an audience. In a tête-a-tête one has only one person to think of; but when the listeners are multiplied, one feels obliged conscientiously to try and hit the taste, not of the individual, but of the type; and the type is always duller, and generally lower, than the individual. And in any case prudence warns one to abstain from any originality, and not to commit one’s self.

Probably the wise thing for the solitary man is to cultivate at all risks a certain gregariousness. It is a dangerous experiment to isolate one’s self from one’s kind; one tends to begin to despise other people for being fussy and trivial, while at the same time one becomes fussy and trivial one’s self. Moreover, one begins to acquire the dangerous habit, productive of much priggishness, of trying to estimate things by their intrinsic worth instead of by their ultimate worth. The intrinsic worth of human labor in any department is very small. Much of every day is taken up, and necessarily taken up, with actions which have no value. I had an old friend who was very great on the subject of “redeeming the time,” and very hard on what he called unprofitable occupations. Yet he took an hour to dress in the morning and an hour to undress at night, duties which he performed with a good deal of rectitude. I suppose he never calculated the somewhat appalling fact that in the course of a long life he had spent in all some six entire years in the process of dressing and undressing! If one once begins these gloomy calculations, it is shocking to reflect how very small a portion of our life is really given to what may be called serious things. The truth really is that a man’s life is the expression of his temperament, and that what eventually matters is his attitude and relation to life, his hopes and aspirations, and not only his performance. The solitary man ought to be very careful not to drift too far away from the normal point of view. He ought to be very careful not to acquire a sense of superiority in the matter. He ought to realize that it is his fault or his misfortune, due, perhaps, to a certain deficiency of nervous force, which makes him disposed to shun his fellows. He ought to be in the frame of mind of the American of whom Mr. Moncure Conway writes, who praised America as the only place for a man to live in. Mr. Conway pointed out to him that he was not consistent, because he was to be met with in Europe, — at Rome, at Vienna, at Paris, — but never appeared in America. The orator was silent for a little, and then he said, “What I said about America was true, nevertheless. It is the only place for a man to live; if I do not live there, it is that I am not worthy; I am not fit to live in America.” The solitary man ought to feel this about the world at large; and he should resolutely endeavor not to absent himself from it; he does it at his peril.

So, too, the gregarious man ought to practice and cultivate a little solitude. He ought to read and even to meditate. Otherwise he tends to become wholly conventional, and in intellectual things to live from hand to mouth. He ought to imitate in some degree the old lady in one of Mr. Quiller-Couch’s stories, who said pettishly, when conversation began to grow interesting about her, “You interrupt me; I don’t want to talk; I want to think of my latter end.”

The fact is that people, as a rule, do more or less what they like; and there is little danger of the solitary man spoiling himself for reflection by a little medicinal gregariousness; and there is little danger either of the gregarious man losing his hold upon the world owing to the intermixture of some remedial solitude. It is a great puzzle, after all, what we are put into the world for. The philanthropist would say that we were there to help other people; but if every one lived on that theory it would be like the community that lived on taking in one another’s washing. The individualist would say that it was to develop himself, and probably that reason does lie in the background of it all, though self-development is not the same thing as self-absorption. We have, most of us, good reason to wish ourselves different from what we actually are; and one of the mysteries of life is that we seem to be able to do so little towards effecting the change. The one thing that both the gregarious and the solitary man can do is to determine that, so far as in them lies, they will not allow their chosen mode of life to be fruitless; that the world shall be somehow a little better for the life that they have lived in it. The world is slowly transformed, and the transformation seems to have been effected by abnormal rather than by conventional people; that is perhaps the most that we can say.

And then perhaps we turn our thoughts onward, and wonder dimly what shall be hereafter. If we believe that identity and consciousness survive, even though memory perish, which of us has foreseen the possibilities that may be beyond us after that change which awaits us, perhaps so soon ? We think of ourselves as wandering hither and thither, wearing some outward semblance of humanity, conversing in happy leisure with those we have known and loved. Who has dared to conceive of himself as forever solitary, lost, and isolated, a sentient point in some intolerable abyss, moving through interminable space, in endless ages, in vain search for companionship ? Yet who can tell whether this may not be ?

I suppose it is the gregarious instinct that leads so many unimaginative people to conceive dimly of heaven as the scene of a vast musical performance, an act of united and continual worship, conducted under golden arches, by the side of a sea of glass. Personally I rather conceive of it as a vast and sheltered garden, full of woods and waters, where one may be alone with pleasure, and reflect without interruption. Better still, if one could spend long hours, if hours there be, in quiet intercourse with one whom one has loved and trusted in the old sad days, under the dark skies; and perhaps one might even meet the Lord of the place, walking in the garden in the cool of the day; and receive a smile, or a sign, or a few words which should make one laugh to think that one had ever doubted his perfect love.