Powys, John Cowper. A Philosophy of Solitude.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1933.

Although usually remembered -- if at all -- for his voluminous and eccentric novels, the Welsh-born John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) created an attractive and congenial meditation in his best non-fiction book: A Philosophy of Solitude.

Writing in the early 1930's in his adopted United States, where he was living and working as a free-lance lecturer, a popularizer of intellectual themes barnstorming the country, Powys' book is prompted by his experiences, his insights, and his disappointments. He sees the United States as a slave of modern technology -- of megalopolis, pandemonium, noise, of "the Gargantuan monstrosities and Dantesque horrors of our great modern cities."

The situation, he declares, is too far gone for the inspiration of American writers like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, with their facile optimism and their confidence in the virtues of an American character now lost in the twentieth century.

The only thing that can really help us is a much more definite and drastic philosophy ... a real, hard, formidable, unrhetorical introspection ..."

And this is the philosophy of solitude that Powys sets out of construct.

To Powys, solitude is the necessary social, psychological, and intellectual state of the individual. It is social in pulling away from the life and tumult of the crowd (Powys lived for decades in New York City, finally moving to a small town in upper-state New York before returning to Wales a few short years after this book's publication). It is psychological in the sense of identifying and pursuing a frame of mind for the personal pursuit of solitude. And it is intellectual in offering a philosophy calling upon a variety of classic thinkers and using the tools of plain everyman logic.

Admittedly, Powys might have cut the book in half and covered twice the field. But his turns of phrase and flourishes of rhetoric are worth lingering in the parlor and listening to him expound his thoughts. He is ultimately a popularizer whose audience is literate and reflective but not the scholar or professional. In this regard, Powys hopes to create a new level of discourse that will appeal to the common person, that person who desperately needs a philosophy of life, a means of comprehending the world around him or her, while at the same time being a person who is receptive and curious.

Powys makes few demands on his reader. Occasionally he is rhetorical to the point of caricature, driving home his points with overwhelming enthusiasm for new-found ideas, a "eureka" of discovery he wants to share with all of us. There is no fault in this. A treatise can be pruned but not an apologia.

If my procedure, when it comes to my own attempts to simplify the basic aspects of self-consciousness, seem too childish and too ignorant of the latest technical phraseology, the reader must remember that this book is intended to be a modern "Enchiridion," or "Handbook of Contemplation under Difficulties," and that for this reason the more primitive and concrete, and the less abstract and logical my metaphysic is, the better for my purpose.

The books of this era often listed topics under the chapter title, perhaps to clarify their content. Thus, chapter 1, entitled "The Self and the Past," adds these sub-topics:

Past Sages of Solitude -- The Doctrine of the Tao -- The Weeping Philosopher -- The Stoic Philosopher -- The Philosopher-King --Rousseau and the Voluptuousness of Solitude -- The Elementalism of Wordsworth -- Summary

The rest of the chapters and sub-topics are listed at the end of this review.

Powys creates a philosophy of solitude drawing on the inspiration of Laotze (Lao-tzu), Kwang Tze (Chuang-tzu), Heraclitus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Rousseau, and Wordsworth. In the first chapter, he points out their shortcomings but seizes on their strengths and extrapolates them throughout the book while referring to, among others, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Spengler. He acknowledges the grim fatalism of Stoicism and the social self-consciousness of Rousseau. Powys likes the absence of sentimentality or "pietizing" in Wordsworth's view of nature, what Powys calls "elementalism." This is the term he uses to describe his own philosophy of solitude. With regard to Wordsworth, he calls it an animism and an "almost Red-Indian grimness," quoting from the first sonnet of Wordsworth's "Personal Talk:"

I am not one who much or oft delight
To season my fireside with personal talk ...
Better than such discourse doth silence long,
Long, barren silence square with my desire;
To sit without emotion, hope, or aims
In the loved presence of my cottage-fire
And listen to the flapping of the flame,
Or kettle whispering its faint under-song.

This elementalism Powys identifies as coming from the part of our human nature tapping animal passivities and "moods of vegetative quiescence, a region that is neither subconscious nor yet rational, a region which might be called ... Stupid Being." (Today, of course, we might draw lines from Wordsworth and Powys on this empty-mindedness to Eastern meditation. But this was the 1930's.)

Powys sees this simplicity of mind and desire as a key to self-control and understanding. His elementalism is based on the solitude that is evoked by this self-knowledge, which allows a person to make and define a life for themselves based not upon the tempo and rhythms of the crowd and technology but on the unspoken wisdom that wells up from solitude itself.

As models of living, Powys gives us "the teachings and examples of the Christian Saints," who offer psychological and mystical insight, if not the faith that moderns can no longer embrace. Elementalism is a profound identification with the universe as it is, not imposing anything on it but not accepting the imposition on it of ourselves.

The grand metaphysicians of the past, notes, Powys, are "too abstract and technical for simple minds to use. They are also too moral, too ideal, too pure-minded." They are of little help in our diurnal difficulties. They provide no solace to us who have to work, suffer privation, insecurity, poverty, malice, jealousy, cruelty, ambition, physical discomfort and pain, anxiety about the future. Powys knows that all of these concerns must be addressed by philosophy just as they were by religion.

Powys recommends a kind of forgetting, really a sense of transcendence, which will push out all but that inkling of mystery and connectedness that reassures, calms, uplifts. Powys calls it a "premeditated ecstasy," wherein we consciously and deliberately identify with the cosmic elements and the eternal force that animates them. This consciousness detaches self from every distraction, placing necessities of life and labor into a Stoic dispensation, while the soul waits to breathe the rarified air of solitude.

Here are random quotations that illustrate Powys in style and substance.


We need, just now, a certain fierce, bitter, indignant philosophy, a philosophy that is neither too easy-going towards the gods for the world they have made, nor towards ourselves for the folly with which we make the bad worse.

The soul that has re-created itself in isolation has gained something of the humility of the grass, the rocks, the winds. All that lives is holy unto it; and it realizes, taught by the innumerable voices of Nature, a certain ultimate equality in everything that draws breath.

We need to create substitutes for all the spiritual satisfactions that the old mythologies gave us.

Glimpses of sky, motions of leaves, flickerings of sunlight and shadow, voyagings of clouds, roof-edges against infinite space, it is upon these things that we fix our eyes -- consciously as well as unconsciously -- while we are struggling to take a grim and stoical rather than self-pitying view of our particular tragedy.

All the nobler instincts of our race are born in solitude and subdued by silence.

This whole secret movement, in favour of a contemplative, spiritual anarchism, is no mere return to a life of sensation against a life of action. It is a sinking back upon the one thing, in this brief moment of Being between two impenetrable Silences, which possesses an authentic and majestic grandeur worthy of the noblest traditions of our race.

Simplify! Simplify! That is the escape from our present imbroglio.

Close this book and release your soul upon the rain that streams against your window. You are within walls, but there is rain upon the journeying wind; rain that brings a sense of moss-covered stones, of blind, dark turf, of vast rondures of drenched horizons.


  1. The Self and the Past
    Past Sages of Solitude -- The Doctrine of the Tao -- The Weeping Philosopher -- The Stoic Philosopher -- The Philosopher-King --Rousseau and the Voluptuousness of Solitude -- The Elementalism of Wordsworth -- Summary
  2. The Self Isolated
    "I Am I" -- The Modern Distrust of the Soul -- Why Take Life for Granted? -- Create an Original Self -- The Herd-mind -- Evolving the Lonely Self -- Alien Minds
  3. The Self Realized
    The Ancient Mysteries -- A Fresh Start -- The Art of a Solitary Life -- Our Life-Illusion -- Ourselves and the Past -- A New Birth -- "Premeditated Ecstasy" -- The Will to Happiness -- An Example
  4. The Self at Bay
    Outwitting the First Cause -- The Eternal Wind -- The Absolute -- The Eternal World -- Forgetting -- The Illusion of Possession -- The Calm of Contemplation -- "Intimations of Immortality" -- The Self at Bay
  5. The Self and "The Something that Infects the World"
    We Must Bring Back Philosophy -- A Philsophy of Our Own -- A Static View of Life -- Forgetting Our Real Selves -- Psychoanalysis -- A Philosophy of Walking -- Nature the Refuge -- Nature the Avenger -- The Influence of the Inanimate -- Animal-Vegetable Consciousness -- Malaise -- Religion and Lust -- Twilight -- The Ultimate Mystery
  6. The Self and Its Loves
    Our Link with Others -- The Secret Revolution -- Simplify the Individual Life -- Love -- The Tyranny of the Heap -- The Bed-rock Floor -- Three-Quarters of an Hour
  7. The Self and the Bitterness of Life
    A "Formula" -- Thinking of Our Skeletons -- What Can "Elementalism" Do For You? -- Our Wickedness -- The Contempt of Fate -- Simplifying Happiness -- The Art of Self-Transformation -- The Mind as a Magician