As Lily Tomlin observed, “We’re all in this alone.”
Stuck in our armchairs and unable to go outside as much as we’d like, many of us have been on our own for a while. Living in a crowded household brings its own set of problems – try quarantining in a place where families live packed in tight, side by side in one room. But a lot of us are alone – old folks, those shielding, even gregarious people somehow stuck in the amber of another pandemic lockdown.
The consolations of philosophy for the lonely have always been there. You can find comrades in the books, famous minds with wise words which might bear on this or that question that affects or interests you. But all this is in an obvious way trying to distract yourself from your loneliness, and you don’t need philosophy for that – read a novel, listen to music, binge watch something, go for a run – these and other strategies are attempts to push the feeling of being alone away by focussing on something else. It works, but it doesn’t last. Are there better uses of philosophy in these lonely times?
Some thinkers recommend being alone deliberately, facing up to it or anyway looking right at it, not away from it. Henry David Thoreau was on the case, “Ah! I need solitude. I have come forth to this hill at sunset to see the forms of the mountains in the horizon — to behold and commune with something grander than man. Their mere distance and unprofanedness is an infinite encouragement.”
Hannah Arendt advocated an internal dialogue – a way of being alone, not by herself, but with herself, in a way. We’re in our third lockdown in the UK, it’s been a month now, and I have found myself having an internal dialogue, worryingly spilling out externally, about toothpaste, pasta sauce … we all talk to ourselves sometimes, don’t we? It’s not that weird. But pace Arendt, it doesn’t feel like I’m facing up to anything.
Paul Tillich had a clearer eye for some things than Thoreau and spotted the difference in language between “loneliness” and “solitude” – loneliness is in its way painful, but solitude is somehow glorious. Superman does not have a fortress of loneliness. You can hear it in expressions like “splendid isolation”, “peace and quiet”, and the positive connotations sometimes bubbling under the surface of “detachment”. Here’s a philosophical question for our troubled times, what’s the difference between loneliness and solitude, and how do we cultivate what’s good about being alone?