The Case for Solitude

Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Henry David Thoreau is something of a poster child for solitude. In his essay “Walking,” published just after his death in our June 1862 issue, Thoreau made the case “for absolute freedom and wildness … to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society”:

We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man—then you are ready for a walk.

Thoreau himself was “a genuine American weirdo,” as Jedediah Purdy recently put it, and solitude suited him: His relentless individualism irritated his friends, including Atlantic co-founder Ralph Waldo Emerson, who described Thoreau’s habit of contradicting every point in pursuit of his own ideals as “a little chilling to the social affections.” Emerson may have had Thoreau in mind when, in our December 1857 issue, he mused that “many fine geniuses” felt the need to separate themselves from the world, to keep it from intruding on their thoughts. Yet he questioned whether such withdrawal was good for a person, not to mention for society as a whole:

Thoreau in his second and final photographic sitting, August 1861 (Wikimedia)

This banishment to the rocks and echoes no metaphysics can make right or tolerable. This result is so against nature, such a half-view, that it must be corrected by a common sense and experience. “A man is born by the side of his father, and there he remains.” A man must be clothed with society, or we shall feel a certain bareness and poverty, as of a displaced and unfurnished member. He is to be dressed in arts and institutions, as well as body-garments. Now and then a man exquisitely made can live alone, and must; but coop up most men, and you undo them. …

When a young barrister said to the late Mr. Mason, “I keep my chamber to read law,”—“Read law!” replied the veteran, “’tis in the courtroom you must read law.” Nor is the rule otherwise for literature. If you would learn to write, ’tis in the street you must learn it. Both for the vehicle and for the aims of fine arts, you must frequent the public square. … Society cannot do without cultivated men.

Emerson concluded that the key to effective, creative thought was to maintain a balance between solitary reflection and social interaction: “The conditions are met, if we keep our independence, yet do not lose our sympathy.”

Four decades later, in our November 1901 issue, Paul Elmore More identified a radical sympathy in the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, which stemmed, he argued, from Hawthorne’s own “imperial loneliness of soul”:

Hester Prynne, the lonely protagonist of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (Wikimedia)

His words have at last expressed what has long slumbered in human consciousness. … Not with impunity had the human race for ages dwelt on the eternal welfare of the soul; for from such meditation the sense of personal importance had become exacerbated to an extraordinary degree. … And when the alluring faith attendant on this form of introspection paled, as it did during the so-called transcendental movement into which Hawthorne was born, there resulted necessarily a feeling of anguish and bereavement more tragic than any previous moral stage through which the world had passed. The loneliness of the individual, which had been vaguely felt and lamented by poets and philosophers of the past, took on a poignancy altogether unexampled. It needed but an artist with the vision of Hawthorne to represent this feeling as the one tragic calamity of mortal life, as the great primeval curse of sin … the universal protest of the human heart.

Fast-forward a century, and what More described as “the solitude that invests the modern world” had only gotten deeper invested—while “the sense of personal importance” gained new narcissistic vehicles in the form of social-media tools that let us “connect” online while keeping our real, messy selves as private as we choose. Which is not a bad thing: In some ways, the internet looks like the perfect way to achieve Emerson’s ideal balance between independent thought and social engagement.

In our May 2012 issue, however, Steven Marche wondered if the rise of social media is making us lonely:

A considerable part of Facebook’s appeal stems from its miraculous fusion of distance with intimacy, or the illusion of distance with the illusion of intimacy. Our online communities become engines of self-image, and self-image becomes the engine of community. The real danger with Facebook is not that it allows us to isolate ourselves, but that by mixing our appetite for isolation with our vanity, it threatens to alter the very nature of solitude.

The new isolation is not of the kind that Americans once idealized, the lonesomeness of the proudly nonconformist, independent-minded, solitary stoic, or that of the astronaut who blasts into new worlds. Facebook’s isolation is a grind. What’s truly staggering about Facebook usage is not its volume—750 million photographs uploaded over a single weekend—but the constancy of the performance it demands. More than half its users—and one of every 13 people on Earth is a Facebook user—log on every day. Among 18-to-34-year-olds, nearly half check Facebook minutes after waking up, and 28 percent do so before getting out of bed. The relentlessness is what is so new, so potentially transformative. Facebook never takes a break. We never take a break.