Emerson on Solitude

On the topic of solitude, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) has been largely overshadowed by his protégé Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), whose practical experiences in nature and the outdoors gave Thoreau a rich store of material for musing and writing. But while Emerson was strictly a writer and lecturer, his command of literary sources and observational skills make for a comprehensive  treatment of the topic of solitude, especially in three works: Society and Solitude, Self-Reliance, and Nature.

Emerson's essays are constructed on aphoristic reflections; he is not a system-building philosopher but relies on intuitive faculties in his readers. A masterful stylist, Emerson conveys his arguments in multiple and cumulative perspectives. This was the method of Transcendentalism, of which Emerson was the chief representative.

Society and Solitude

Emerson approaches the notion of society with a practical sense of association: being "in society" means, at this introductory level, being among people. Similarly, Emerson takes "solitude" to refer, first, to a sense of being alone or the acting and thinking conducted within the self. But these are practical uses which will spiral into deeper senses in reading his entire works.

The essay opens with an anecdote. Emerson has encountered a "humorist" of imminent intelligence who has lost faith in his abilities to succeed in society, that is, among people.

He left the city; he hid himself in pastures. The solitary river was not solitary enough: the sun and moon put him out. When he bought a house the first thing he did was to plant trees. He could not enough conceal himself. Set a hedge here; get oaks there -- trees behind trees; above all, set evergreens, for they will keep a secret all the year round. The most agreeable compliment you could pay him was to imply that you had not observed him  in a house or a street where you had met him. ...

[He claimed that he was] "only wanting only to shuffle off my corporal jacket to slip away into the back stars, and put diameters of the solar system and sidereal orbits between me and all souls -- there to wear out ages in solitude, and forget memory itself, if it be possible."

Emerson's confidant is eccentric and reclusive but not all unsocial or misanthropic, a person of philosophical bent, not unlike Emerson himself. Emerson empathizes with the project of solitude, owning that "genius feels the necessity of isolation." He quotes Swedenborg that "There are also angels who do not live consociated, but separate, house and house. They dwell in the midst of heaven, because they are the best of angels." Solitude is contrasted with "consociation," and genius assigned the loftiness of heaven.

When Emerson calls solitude a "disease," he intends to contrast it to what society proposes as health. He remarks that there are only two cures or paths for those who have seen through society: "either habits of self-reliance" or else a "religion of love."

Emerson thus unravels a concept of solitude that begins in the mundane, in social relationships, and evolves into something deeper, depending on the individual and the capacities of the individual. "The necessity of solitude is deeper ... and is organic." But Emerson does not expect everyone to catch on to this, only those with a sufficient degree of eccentricity and genius.

Thus, says Emerson, "We begin with friendships, and all our youth is a reconnoitering and recruiting of the holy fraternity they shall combine for the salvation of men." But friendship is elusive. Friends separate as they know themselves better. Cooperation among friends changes from voluntary to involuntary. A "moral union" is possible between two people, be it friendship or love, but never an "intellectual union."

Reflection reveals to us that we are ultimately alone and in solitude. "Ultimately, how insular and pathetically solitary are all the people we know!" says Emerson. It is the isolation and pettiness of others that mirrors to us the realization that we are alone and in solitude. Nor is it that others are fickle and wrapped in their ways and thoughts. We know that we are, too.

Emerson has begun his exploration of solitude with the psychological and social interrelations between people. He realizes that we are "clothed with society," that we are products of the society and culture in which we grew to adulthood. This culture is not conveyed just in books and learning but in people encountered in our daily lives. And because we are dressed in society, "dressed in arts and institutions," as he puts it, it is easy to feel functional, to feel whole and self-sufficient by flowing with society's standards.

Those who are sensitive to their inner difference from society and other people will feel like "bystanding witnesses." Even practically speaking, "people are to be taken in very small doses. If solitude is proud, so is society vulgar." Emerson compares society to a dinner party, where it is clear who gets along and who does not. In the world, "solitude is impractical and society fatal." Indeed,

We require such solitude as shall hold us to its revelations when we are in the streets and in palaces; for most men are cowed in society, and say good things to you in private, but will not stand to them in public. But let us not be the victims of words. Society and solitude are deceptive names. It is not the circumstances of seeing more or fewer people but the readiness of sympathy that imports; and a sound mind will derive its principles from insight with ever a purer ascent to the sufficient and absolute right, and will accept society as the natural element in which they care to be applied.

Emerson strives for a necessary balance, a realistic solution for the solitary who must function in the world. He will offer no radical advice to recluse oneself. Rather, by becoming conscious of the components of what today would be called psychology, one can know oneself sufficiently to "perform" social functions while safeguarding that core of self in solitude.


In the essay Self-Reliance, Emerson pursues more vigorously the virtues that the person must exercise in spite of society's demands. The realization of the self must begin with the application of inner power or will, available to anyone, while understanding the context of our lives.

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age.

We must not wish that we were someone else or lived somewhere else or in another era. This is the first  step to maturity and personhood. The facticity of being an individual is a  subtle distinct from this mature personhood. From this realization we ascend to a new level of observation and a new consciousness.

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

Understanding the society and culture of our time enables the person to examine what the virtues of his or her society and culture are or purport to be, to test whether these values are true, wise, and good. Inevitably we will conclude that they are not. So we will be in our own way a nonconformist, even if this way is only to opt for simplicity and solitude, let alone to oppose all that society and power does. The integrity of our mind, as Emerson puts it, will be the validating criterion for our virtues.

What we discover in our selves becomes compelling because it constantly reinforces our strengths,  abilities, and will.

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule  equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

Emerson thus links self-reliance to a mature attitude toward solitude -- and not just a solitude wherein we relish our thoughts and interests but a mature and informed solitude that we retain while "in the midst of the crowd."

How we manage this balance will determine our "integrity of mind." Emerson owns that "for nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure." We can expect the reaction of others to be negative. Such reaction will test our own thorough self-knowledge. We have the solace of knowing that society and its reactions are historically conforming to power, authority, and pleasure, all to the destruction of individual will and those who respond to worldliness by dropping out of it psychologically, materially, or literally -- all degrees of exercising solitude. "Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times," writes Emerson, for ultimately, "The world has been instructed by its kings." Not by its sages or solitaries.

At this point, the individual is on the brink of recognizing the power of intuition, which Emerson calls "primary wisdom." Because intuition is an individual criterion of moral and other judgment rather than a social one, the majority of people, unable or unwilling to develop their intuition, fall back on external authorities. Emerson argues that even sages and saints are such authorities. He wants individuals to carry the burden or responsibility of maturing their will and their intuition independently.

Nature is this model of primary wisdom. Nature does not refer back to authority or precedent.

But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

Hence, intuition and individual exercise of self-existent virtues are to Emerson "divine fact." Only with maturation of these virtues can our solitude be truly functional. At that point, "your isolation must not be mechanical but spiritual, that is, must be elevation." Here is a near-definition of Transcendentalism. The individual will manifest to others a higher ethic, "eternal law" versus social conformity.

Emerson concludes Self-Reliance with a number of aphorisms. First he presents that which is opposite to self-reliance: discontent, regret, creeds (which he calls "a disease of the intellect"), superstition (a "fool's paradise"), travel to seek enlightenment, property or a government to protect it. Rather,

Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half-possession. ... Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.


We have seen how Emerson considers Nature a model for living in the present. He elaborates on the topic in the essay of the same title. Here Emerson sees nature as wilderness, a setting distinct from both self and society. But he sees it from the point of view of solitude.

To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches.

Thus Emerson now progresses from solitude as the absence of socializing to solitude as the confirmation of the individual with the attributes identified in Self-Reliance.

In nature one feels rightfully placed, and can rightly place self and the world. But it is not an automatic revelation. The receptivity within the self accomplishes this sense of harmony between nature and self, of nature as process and result. While nature provides commodities to serve human needs, nature must be subtly appreciated in order to see its beauty as a spiritual expression of virtue allied against perverse human will.

Nature is an object of our intellect when we seek out meaning and are prompted to creativity. "Nature is a discipline of the understanding in intellectual truths," writes Emerson. Nature's objects provide a discipline in cognition, in utility, in our own will. Rightly understood and appreciated, "Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us." Not understood, nature seems hostile and violent, projections of our own immature minds. Only a thoughtful solitude, outside chamber and society, will give us these essential insights.

Solitude and Friendship

Many more essays of Emerson reveal insights on solitude rightly understood. On the vital issue of friendships and degrees of intimacy, Emerson writes observantly.

He begins by noting that because each individual experiences a "calling in his character," and bears a particular constitution of mind and body, each person's amenable faculties are appropriate for a certain kind of work. The sum of faculties constitute a talent. The individual thus comprehends possibilities and ambitions. These ambitions must be exactly proportional to the person's powers, both as skills and psychological and physical constitution. Proper work thus creates an unfolding of self, an expression.

So far this is a good summary of the individual on the brink of the world, on the cusp of society. Emerson now takes the individual into the potential for social relations, specifically friendships.

The criteria for friendship must be implemented when this process of self-realization is reached.

Only that soul can be my friend which I encounter on the line of my only march, that soul to which I do not decline and which does not decline to me, but, nature of the same celestial latitude, repeats in its own all my experience.

 Thus, Emerson concludes: "I chide society, I embrace solitude, and yet I am not so ungrateful as not to see the wise, the lovely and the noble-minded, as from time to time they pass my gate.

How fruitful our social relations depends on the integrity of the self. Fortunate are those who have friends, even while understanding and cultivating their solitude, which is to say, cultivating their selfhood.

For "in the solitude to which every man is always returning," notes Emerson, "he has a sanity and revelations which in his passage into new worlds he will carry within him." And these new worlds will be fresh encounters with society and other people. The nobler sentiments of society and culture will not be shunned by the solitary but sensed as a refreshment and a tonic to misanthropy., a correction of individual tendencies to egotism.


Guided by intuition and inspiration, and by what Emerson calls a "sad self-knowledge," we will be able to summon solitude wherever we are and under whatever circumstances we are thrust. Even "the poets who have lived in cities have been hermits still. Inspiration makes solitude anywhere." Emerson constantly juggles the necessities of life with self and others, favoring a solitude that is refined, mature, enlightened, and transcendent.


Many anthologies of Emerson's writings are available; the most comprehensive source is the seven-volume The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Cambridge, Printed at the Riverside Press and Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903-04, conveniently available on the web at