J. Brierley: The Solitaries
From Religion and Experience by J. Brierley. London: James Clarke, 1906. From http://www.oldandsold.com/articles27/religion-experience-22.shtml, The Old and Sold Antique Digest, from whom this artile is reprinted.
"Solitaries": that is a suggestive word of Charles Lamb where, in a letter to Coleridge, he speaks of
the silent thoughts arising in a good man's mind in lonely places." For truly it is life's lonely places "that have been among our chief formers and teachers. It is the men who have loved solitude and understood it --the true solitaries -- who have been the mediators to humanity of its most precious things. Nature, one might think, had taken this into special account in fitting up the earth for our dwelling-place. She has made provision for the solitaries. The race grows with amazing rapidity, and we talk of our overcrowded world. But there are silent spots in it yet, and will always be. And how immense is their attraction! The great mountains draw us partly because, in their aloofness and upward pointing aspiration, they are the image of our own soul. Do our readers know that view of Mont Blanc from Sallenches ? We have gazed upon it time and again with an indescribable fascination; and always with those words of Michelet in mind: " From a close view-point one sees it in all its loftiness, alone, an immense white monk, buried in its cloak and hood of ice, dead, and yet standing erect. Mont Blanc leads nowhere; it is a hermit apparently, wrapped up in its solitary musings.
The sense of solitude, so far as Nature can give it, reaches its highest point at night among the mountains. The present writer will never forget the sensations of a moonlight ride through a lonely valley in Norway. Beyond the rock wall that enclosed us we caught glimpses of interminable wastes of ice and snow, gleaming high up there in the cold rays of the moon. The imagination flew into the far recesses of these inaccessible heights, and drank its fill of their awful silence. We seemed to feel here
The wind that shrills all night
In a waste land where no man comes,
Or hath come since the making of the world.
But these far retreats of mountain and of wilderness are not the only silent places of the world. It is not on glacier or snowfield merely that life offers us the sense of solitude. Men and women who never stirred from home have tasted the full flavour of it. It is a part of the human education that none of us misses. But it requires a special taste to appreciate it. To some the training is entirely irksome. Pascal is perhaps right in his remark that "there are so few persons capable of enduring solitude." Certainly he is in that other world : "The man who lives only for himself hates nothing so much as being alone with himself."
But a countryman of his, a century before, had had an education in this line of which he knew the value. How admirable is that chapter of Montaigne on solitude! Florio, in his quaint translation, gives us the pith of the old Gascon:
We should reserve a storehouse for ourselves, altogether ours and wholly free, wherein we may hoard up and establish our true liberty and principal retreat of solitariness, wherein we must go alone to ourselves, there to meditate, discourse and laugh as without wife, children, and goods, or train of servants; that if, by any occasion they be lost, it seem not strange to us to pass it over. We have a mind moving and turning on itself ; it may keep itself company. In solis sis tibi turba locis. ("In lonely places be to thyself the crowd.")
The old essayist was evidently of the mind of Scipio Africanus, of whom Plutarch records that " he was never less alone than when he was alone."
There are all kinds of solitaries -- good, bad, and indifferent, and that in the degree in which they have learned their lesson. But the lesson, as we have said, is thrust upon us all. It is marvelous, considering how naturally gregarious, social, chattering a being the average human is, to note the extent to which he is a solitary. Observe our race as a whole. Humanity is surely the loneliest thing in the universe. Shut off by its height from the lower animals, it looks upward and outward for companions and finds none. There is no inter-stellar communication. If the shining orbs yonder have inhabitants they have, so far, had no speech with us. The silence of the heavens has been in all ages man's baffling mystery. Lucretius made it the argument of his scepticism. Our own day has been weighted with the same thought. One poet, in two pregnant lines, suggests the entire modern query:
When the sky which noticed all makes no disclosure,
And the earth keeps up her terrible composure!
Another finds here his doubt of Providence:
Rather some random throw
Of heedless Nature's die,
'Twould seem that from so low
Hath lifted man so high.
Through untold eons vast
She let him lurk and cower ;
'Twould seem he climbed at last,
In more fortuitous hour,
Child of a thousand chances 'neath the indifferent sky.
There is, indeed, nothing more striking in modern thought than this sense of this human loneliness, of our apparent isolation in the universe. It has obsessed all classes of thinkers, who have expressed the feeling in their several ways. Lamennais, a solitary if ever there was one, speaks of man as the most suffering of creatures, because torn asunder between two worlds. Taine, sceptic and hopeless, bemoans humanity "dragging its incurable hurt along the roads which Time opens to it." Schopenhauer, destroyer that he is, is yet sure that the mystery has some deep solution behind it. "If this existence were the ultimate goal of the world it would be the most senseless ever contrived, whether it were ourselves or any other who fixed it."
But this apparent isolation of the race as such, so baffling to the human intellect, so trying to its faith, does not complete the statement of our solitude. On the life journey there come to us varieties of it, each with a flavour of its own. We doubt if there is ever a keener sense of it than some children have. The world is so much stranger to them than to us, its unknown so much more terrifying. The agonies endured by voiceless little souls left in the dark form indeed one of the tragedies of unwritten history. Lamb's statement of his own terrors is, we are sure, not overdrawn. "And from his little midnight pillow this nurse-child of optimism will start at shapes, unborrowed of tradition, in sweats to which the reveries of the cell-damned murderer are tranquility."
And who, but those who have experienced it, can sound the depths of desolation opened in the heart of the timid schoolboy, who, away for the first time in his life from home, awakes in the night to know himself alone in a stranger world! It is a different species of solitariness which awaits us at life's farther end. The sensation of age is that of a world which becomes ever fuller in itself and yet ever emptier for us. There are more faces in the street, but "the old familiar faces," where are they ? Steadily that front rank thins, and we ourselves, who aforetime gazed upon it from behind, pushed now into the vacant place, have nothing henceforth to look at but empty space and the coming end.
But before that stage is reached there await many of us special solitudes of the spirit, painful, pleasurable, never explainable to our fellows, but always, we discern, fruitful in their results upon life. The great minds, the leading spirits, are by the law of their nature solitaries. To ascend is to put a distance between ourselves and the crowd. Summits are cold, lonely places. The penalty of greatness is to be out of touch with the non-great -- humanity's larger half. And the isolation is at times terrible. "I felt for her," said Tennyson once of the Queen, "all alone on that height. It is dreadful."
The true gods sigh for the cost and the pain
For the reed which grows nevermore again
As a reed with the reeds in the river.
Then, beyond the loneliness of genius, the loneliness of high station, is that of the elect spirits to whom has been committed some high fate of doing or suffering. The path to Calvary has never wanted for its Man of Sorrows. The mid-night shadows of Gethsemane have, in every age, fallen upon some soul bowed there, heavy with the weight of a world.
What an example of this, of a Gethsemane of lonely suffering, have we in John Knox's account of his beloved Wishart, when close to his martyrdom!
He passed forth into a yard a little before day. When he had gone up and down in an alley for some time, with many sobs and deep groans he fell upon his knees, and remaining thus his groans increased. From his knees he fell upon his face, and then the persons forenamed heard weeping and an indistinct sound as it were of prayers. Afterwards questioned about this, he said, I tell you I am assured that my travail is near an end. Therefore call to God with me, that now I shrink not when the battle waxes most hot.
In the human race as a whole, in its separate stages of life, in the experiences of elect and suffering souls, and, as if sympathising with all this, in the very configuration of our globe itself, we are, then, met at every point with this mystery of solitude, as an essential part of life. What is its meaning ? Is it by chance that it happens so, or is there a purpose here ? Are we really alone when we seem so ? These are the questions.
And it is precisely when we study the action of solitude upon the individual soul that we obtain there a glimpse into what man's solitude in the universe really means. He is left to himself that he may grow. It is precisely in this condition that he does grow. Gregory of Nazianzen realised that, when he "retired into himself, deeming quiet the only safety of the soul." Wordsworth realised it, "retired in the sanctuary of his own heart, hallowing the Sabbath of his own thoughts." It is thus indeed that all his great thoughts, all his revelations, have come to man. And so his very isolation is evidence that he is guided. His guide keeps out of sight, remains a Deus absconditus, but not the less surely does He open up and indicate the road.
We have, then, to comprehend and to accustom ourselves to the Cosmic habit. It is not enough for us
Without resentment the Divine reserve.
We have to understand it and to achieve in ourselves all that it designs for us. It is studies such as these, of the mere facts of life, that show us faith in the New Testament sense of it, as the only rational solution of our riddle. Our isolation is an insulation. We are shut off from visible signs that there may develop in us the sense and certitude of the invisible Reality.