Epictetus (55-135 CE): What is Solitude
The Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who composed Discourses and a short philosophical manual called Enchiridion, includes this brief essay as Book 3, chapter 13, of his Discourses. The translation is adapted from George Long.
Solitude and the solitary person
Solitude is a condition of a helpless person. Just because a person is alone does not mean that he is solitary; just as when one is among many people, he is not therefore accompanied. When we have lost either a brother, or a son, or a friend on whom we were accustomed to repose, we say that we are left solitary -- though we are often in Rome, though a crowd meet us, though so many live in the same place, and sometimes we have a great number of slaves.
Thus the person who is solitary, as it is usually understood, is a helpless person and exposed to those who wish to harm him. For this reason when we travel, we say that we are solitary when we fall among robbers. It is not the sight of a human creature which removes us from solitude, but the sight of one who is faithful and modest and helpful to us. For if being alone is enough to make solitude, you may say that even Zeus is solitary in the conflagration and bewails himself saying, "Unhappy am I who have neither Hera, nor Athena, nor Apollo, nor brother, nor son, nor descendant nor kinsman." This is what some say that he does when he is alone at the conflagration.
For they do not understand how a person lives when he is alone. They assume a certain natural principle: the natural desire of community and mutual love and the pleasure of conversation. But none the less a person ought to be prepared to be able to be sufficient for himself and to be his own companion. For as Zeus dwells with himself, and is tranquil by himself, and thinks of his own administration and of its nature, and is employed in thoughts suitable to himself; so ought we also to be able to talk with ourselves, not to feel the want of others also, not to be without the means of passing our time; to observe the divine administration and the relation of ourselves to everything else; to consider how we formerly were affected toward things that happen and how at present; what are still the things which give us pain; how these also can be cured and how removed; if any things require improvement, to improve them according to reason.
You note that Caesar appears to furnish us with great peace, that there are no longer enemies nor battles nor great bands of robbers nor of pirates, and that we can travel at every hour and sail from east to west. But can Caesar give us security from fever also, can he from shipwreck, from fire, from earthquake or from lightning? Indeed, can he give us security against desire? He cannot. From sorrow? He cannot. From envy? He cannot. In a word, then, he cannot protect us from any of these things. But the doctrine of philosophers promises to give us security even against these things.
And what does this doctrine say? "If you will attend to me, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, you will not feel sorrow, nor anger, nor compulsion, nor hindrance, but you will pass your time without perturbations and free from everything." When one has this peace, not proclaimed by Caesar (for how should he be able to proclaim it?), but by God through reason, is he not content when he is alone? Is he not content when he sees and reflects, "Now no evil can happen to me; for me there is no robber, no earthquake, everything is full of peace, full of tranquility: every way, every city, every meeting, neighbor, companion is harmless.
Someone supplies you with food; another with raiment; another with perceptions, and preconceptions. And if that person does not supply what is necessary, God gives the signal for retreat, opens the door, and says to you, 'Go.' Go whither? To nothing terrible, but to the place from which you came, to your friends and kinsmen, to the elements. To what there was in you of fire goes to fire; of earth, to earth; of air, to air; of water to water. There is no Hades, nor Acheron, nor Cocytus, nor Pyriphlegethon, but all is full of Gods and Demons. When a person has such things to think on, and sees the sun, the moon and stars, and enjoys earth and sea, he is not solitary nor even helpless. "Well then, if some man should come upon me when I am alone and murder me?" Fool, not murder you, but your poor body.
What kind of solitude then remains? What want? Why do we make ourselves worse than children? And what do children do when they are left alone? They take up shells and ashes, and they build something, then pull it down, and build something else, and so they never want the means of passing the time. Shall I, then, if you sail away, sit down and weep, because I have been left alone and solitary? Shall I then have no shells, no ashes? But children do what they do through want of thought, and we through knowledge are unhappy.
Every great power is dangerous to those who have just begun to reflect on these things. You must bear such things as you are able, but conformably to nature. Practice sometimes a way of living in a healthy manner. Abstain from food, drink water, abstain sometimes altogether from desire, in order that you may come to make desire consistent with reason. Consistent with reason, when you have anything good in you, you will desire well. "No, we wish to live like wise men immediately and to be useful to others." Useful how? What are you doing? Have you been useful to yourself? "But, I suppose, you wish to exhort them." You exhort them! You wish to be useful to them. Show to them in your own example what kind of person philosophy makes, and don't trifle. When you are eating, do good to those who eat with you; when you are drinking, to those who are drinking with you; by yielding to all, giving way, bearing with them, thus do them good, and do not scorn them.
Translations of the Discourses of Epictetus include Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Classics Club), W. A. Oldfather (Loeb/Harvard), George Long (various), Robin Hard (Everyman), and Robert F. Darbin (Clarendon). For electronic texts, the Long translation can be found at the Internet Classics Archive ( http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/discourses.html) and at http://www.4literature.net/Epictetus/Discourses.