Online Courses (English)
This just in:

State PCS

Drishti IAS Blog

The Modern Roots of Solitude

  • 19 Jan 2019

“Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are but to refuse what we are.”1

Loneliness is the existential feature of the twenty-first century. As we speak, history is dissecting a digital age while accepting wholeheartedly that alienation is intrinsic to a capital-driven society.

A society where competitive success is the only measure of a successful life tends to regress to a social system where capital becomes the sole indicator of the social status of a person; and values like ‘social involvement’ tend to become more and more objective and targeted. In this context, ‘solitude’ takes the meaning of a social boycott or disillusionment rather than an essential condition to introspect and realize one’s self.

Solitude is a multilayered experience produced through the combination of grief, shame, anger, fear anxiety, among other emotional triggers. Research indicate higher risks associated with lonely people, be it their likeliness to develop2 or deal with diseases3, or the fact that loneliness is even associated with early mortality4, more drastically (and therefore more importantly) than factors like obesity or smoking. If we take to the political dimensions, we will be introduced to the commissioned ideas of self, world, God, and the encompassing episteme5. One has to look: loneliness is a historical situation.

Until the early nineteenth century which popularized the term 'loneliness', the concept of being alone was free from the imprints of an emotional lack.

The case of solitude was seldom undesirable, and people often required to be alone to practice a form of Socratic reflection, whether with oneself or God. With an omniscient God around, it could be argued that no one really felt alone as such.

The age of reason bought with it a direct violation of faith, just as it systemized modernity as an evolved behavior,and also placed itself as the ideology of progress. This idea of modernity imbibed within itself a simpler model of society. The social relations became way more linear and the complexity of emotions held no more social meaning - other than being found in some gross philosophical discourse. Even today, the sheer mention of a need of solitude in human lives holds the risks of you being labelled as a “geek” or a “depressed” or as someone "out of league"! This trend began from what we call the age of Enlightenment, where the need for organizing and establishing an order in the society became so crucial that we lost the subtle, and yet beautiful nuances of a more thoughtful life. We can say that we compromised it for the sake of a more ordered and a more defined social structure.

Two centuries later: God appeared to be a myth, rituals became the occupation of primitive societies, and ‘loneliness’came to be associated with a vacuum of emotional support and a certain failure of social relationships. The age of reason had come, and with the concepts of ‘abstract value employed’ and with the rise in production capacities, much of the European societies were seen shifting towards a consumer-society. From marketing to taxation to healthcare, the ‘individual’ became the center of all planning and policies. The individual also became the only source for understanding all humans beings. As much as the consumerist system focused on targeting individuals, it also emphasized on labelling certain behaviors as anti-social, abnormal or even psychotic - annihilating the diversity that exists in the world. All the failures and successes of a system, howsoever small it may be, were being ascribed to the faults of single individuals.

Jung's personality types serve as a typical case study in medical approach that linked introversion with loneliness and extroverts with sociability. It is this social stigma of associating loneliness with neuroticism or an abnormality, in the least,is that which sells the American dream of go-getter extroverts, a thingthat ultimately accords special status only to the expressive and outwardly focused individuals of the society.

Throughout history, thinkers have tried to unveil the connections between community living and man's welfare. The sociological model: "it is the division of labor itself that pulls people together by forcing them to be dependent on each other... a society characterized by organic solidarity is held together by the differences among people, by the fact that all have different tasks"6. Taking the division of labor as the necessary axiom, perhaps with an optimism asserting how all arts and craft “have profited from the division of labour”7, the modern intellectuals announced: 'True self-love and the social are the same'8. Not hard to see, how through the prism of structural-functionalism, loneliness is nothing but a social function, that which threatens the community, or is perversely an outcome of tribal exclusion.

The concept of loneliness hasn't gone uncontested though. Arguments came in various forms to question the ‘emotional lack’ often associated with loneliness as a social failure. Consider Philosophy amateurs like Schopenhauer ('What now on the other hand makes people sociable is their incapacity to endure solitude and thus themselves.'), Edgar Allan Poe on the other ('He refuses to be the type and the genius of deep crime … He is the man of the crowd.’) or Emerson (‘In the morning, – solitude; … that nature may speak to the imagination, as she does never in company.’); each ascribes a higher virtue in solitude, and increasingly, as if continuing the escape of Plato's philosopher from the cave and the company of men, into the illuminations of contemplative thought.

Again, for the purpose of historical placements, we can look at the New Poor Law9 that created an impersonal bureaucratic process towards managing help to the elderly people, thereby increasing a class of retired and isolated people, while significantly doing 'away with personal feelings and connections'. The Victorian rise of urban settlements would then soon uproot the village economy and direct the population drift towards an industrial setup characterized by alienation. Moral laws reversed, Man's time would no longer remain bereft of action, or to say: cases of melancholy and loneliness erupted in the magnitudes of production cycles that contained the original consumer society.

This doesn't, mean that the case of solitude did not exist in pre-modern societies. However, loneliness and in general, human emotions, can only be understood in the economic and cultural contexts through which they are translated into behavior. Fair enough to believe then is that the approach towards dealing with loneliness is different in individualist countries (UK, Germany, US etc.) than the collectivist ones (India, Brazil, Japan, China etc.), suggesting that the state of loneliness cannot remain invariant to space-time contexts. Just as guilt or shame is unimagined in societies with no definite value-system, loneliness can be afforded only in a system which allows the individual to exist apart from the social fabric. Not so hard to see why the term individualism gained popularity in the 1830s and has been since, the focus for all social sciences.

‘In man's struggle against the world, bet on the world’ Kafka would conceive - we have entered a post-modern age which privileges in descriptive critiques of modernity without realizing that culture is equidistant to individual experience. This postmodern age is characterized by critiquing the essentials of modernity, however it doesn't account for the fact that (today's) culture is seldom created by individual experiences. Regardless of benefits of division of labor, loneliness has crept in our lives, thanks to a class of experts and professionals be it school doctors, law enforcers. Even when literary works portray a lonely person, they do so by attaching personal attributes to the situation of loneliness, conveniently avoiding the social situations that triggered this state.

Going forward, if society wants to have more Nietzsches, Kafkas or Camus-es, it must learn to accommodate the diversity of individual experiences and thought processes, and refrain itself from labelling a particular type as “normal”. Moreover, also therefore, solitude should be thought of more as an intellectual transcendence on a personal front, rather than being the physical manifestation of an emotional deprivation.

   Mohini Singh is a prolific reader, writer, poetess and an independent researcher  

  1. The Subject and Power, Michel Foucault, 1982,
  5. Durkheim (1893/1964:17)
  6. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of morals 1785, Kant
  7. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man (1734)

Image Credits

SMS Alerts
Share Page