Barbour, John D. The Value of Solitude: The Ethics and Spirituality of Aloneness in Autobiography. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, 2004.

Professor Barbour teaches ethics and religion at St. Olaf College in Minnesota (U.S.A.) and is the author of Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith (2004) and Conscience of the Autobiographer: Ethical and Religious Dimensions of Autobiography (2002). This book is a logical extension of his previous work.

From the earliest pages, Barbour demonstrates not only his command of the literature on aloneness and spirituality but also his empathy with the subject of solitude. His ability to make careful analyses of motives adds depth to his book, for it is not a popular survey in the style of Peter Frances's more intimate Hermits: The Insights of Solitude, much less a miscellany like Isabel Colegate's A Pelican in the Wilderness: Hermits, Solitaries and Recluses. Barbour's book is scholarly but entirely readable, full of information, insight, and erudition.

In the Introduction, Barbour indicates why his book is significant:

This book differs from previous studies of solitude in two main ways: my focus on the links between solitude, ethics, and spirituality, and my approach to the topic by studying autobiographies.

All the subjects of the book are autobiographers of one sort or another: Augustine, Petrarch, Montaigne, Gibbon, Rousseau, Thoreau, Merton, and others. These are familiar names to anyone interested in the history of solitude. Barbour's framework is the philosophy text of Philip Koch's Solitude: A Philosophical Encounter and the psychology text of Anthony Storr's Solitude: A Return to Self. By anchoring his work between philosophical and psychological treatments of solitude, Barbour is able to use new tools that extend the treatment of autobiographies reflecting solitude.

The author is not distracted by literary style or historical context. His resources are not just the more frequently cited works of his autobiographers but take in the whole context of their output, the most comprehensive way to understand how these writes value solitude. Barbour then overlays this research with an investigation of ethics and spirituality. New facts and insights greet the reader, even when presented with familiar writers like those mentioned. A lively sense of personality emerges from the treatment of each subject.

Here is the table of contents, with notes on some highlights.

1. Christian Solitude
2. Bounded Solitude in Augustine's Confessions
3. The Humanist Tradition: Petrarch, Montaigne, and Gibbon
4. Rousseau's Myth of Solitude in Reveries of the Solitary Walker
5. Thoreau at Walden: "Soliloquizing and Talking to All the Universe at the Same Time"
6. Twentieth-Century Varieties of Solitary Experience
7. Thomas Merton and Solitude: "The Door to Solitude Opens Only from the Inside"
8. Solitude, Writing, and Fathers in Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude
Conclusion: The Value of Solitude


In chapter one, Barbour quickly establishes the link between asceticism and solitude. This link became a source of tension and one of the earliest sources of controversy in Christianity after the conversion of the empire in the early fourth century: the contradiction between worldly power and asceticism that rejects the world. But as Barbour admits in the conclusion of the book,

The main stream of Christian tradition discerns a combination of benefits and dangers in solitude. ... My focus on autobiography may bias my conclusions about solitude toward certain kinds of value, ones that stress benefit to others.

Barbour does not explore the irony of cloistered priests opposing hermits when the modern observer might rather lump both hermits and monks with those not fulfilling a societal role and "crucial duty" demanded by Reform Christians who abolished the monk and monastery. By moderating the forms of solitude, the author's voice falls between the institutionalized Christian and the skeptical modern, striking a tenuous balance between solitude and society. He concludes that

in much of monastic tradition there was no sharp either/or choice between solitude and living with others, but a varied practice shaped by awareness of individual needs and the relative advantages and disadvantages of various amounts of contact with others.

For Augustine, solitude has a practical function promoting introspection, but Barbour notes that Augustine "would never choose solitude at the expense of community." Through autobiography, confession, introspection, and a solitary engagement with God and conscience, Augustine made his leap of faith. But he then effectively left solitude behind him.

Petrarch is "the first autobiographer for whom solitude is a central concern." Montaigne finds solitude a solace for the world-weary but wise elder. Montaigne's writing oscillates between solitude and society as much as he did in daily life, evolving into what another writer has called "Epicurean Christianity." Gibbon considered solitude to be the "school of genius," but his solitude lacked an ascetic and spiritual dimension to the degree that it had a strong psychological dimension.

With Rousseau, a strong religious element, however contrived, is reintroduced to the idea of solitude. In Rousseau's skillful hands, autobiography and the confessional genre is perfected. Rousseau faced a lifetime of threatened arrests and banishments, so that his sense of solitude, if not isolation, was genuine. While hardly an ascetic, he championed a gentle Epicurean appreciation of the small pleasures of life, especially forests, gardens, sunlight, and reminiscence. His was a positive if illusory sense of solitude and self-sufficiency.

Thoreau presents  a unique sense of Jeffersonian ethos and agrarian interests as an alternative to the collectivist and religiously inspired utopian societies of his day. His notion of freedom was extrapolated from an anti-war and anti-slavery sentiment. The experiment at Walden was a conscious decision to prove his theses against conformity. Furthermore, Thoreau was the first to link his experiences of solitude to a myriad of related concerns ranging from environment and animals to burning social issues of his day.

Barbour rightly notes that "No one has made so compelling a case for the religious value of the solitary life as Thomas Merton," so chapter seven is a key chapter in demonstrating the efficacy and spiritual justification of solitude. Barbour covers the entire opus of Merton, from Seven Storey Mountain through the posthumously published journals. Though much has been written about Merton, Barbour's objective treatment and thorough links to solitude in Merton's writings are very useful.

The book also touches on a number of other writers from Annie Dillard and May Sarton to Admiral Richard Byrd and Edward Abbey to Paul Auster, who completes the author's presentation of the role of solitude in the formation of individual and creative persons who wrote about themselves. Barbour then delineates five central issues concerning the ethical foundations of solitude, some of which he has addressed and some which are avenues for exploration:

  1. the nature of the spiritual and ethical values discerned in aloneness
  2. the links between autobiography and involuntary solitude
  3. the differences between chosen and involuntary solitude
  4. the question of for whom solitude is valuable
  5. the question of how to integrate solitude and engagement with others in rhythmic alternation.


Barbour's book is useful both as an introduction and as a pointer to more complex treatments. That the standard set of famous solitaries should reappear here is not surprising, but it does not mean that the author has nothing new to say. The integration of autobiography, ethics, and spirituality is a solid approach to understanding solitude, and this useful approach gives the book its value.