Thomas Merton's Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude

Merton's 30-page essay, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, appeared in his book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960). The essay is arranged into three parts: 1. The Tyranny of Diversion (9 numbered sections), 2. In the Sea of Perils (22 sections), and 3. Spiritual Poverty (12 sections).

The Notes is Merton's clearest articulation of his thoughts on solitude, representing a refinement of earlier arguments defending monasticism and eremiticism (Dans le desert de Dieu, the preface to Jean Leclerq's book on the Renaissance hermit Paul Giustianiani, and the books The Solitary Life and Thoughts in Solitude). Notes extends the philosophy of solitude to lay people, that is, to all his readers. A footnote to the title indicates that while this essay might have been entitled "Philosophy of Monastic Life," Merton is extending the etymological sense of monachos as solitary:

I am deliberately discarding everything that can conjure up the artificial image of the monk in a cowl, dwelling in a medieval cloister. In this way I intend obviously, not to disparage or to reject the monastic institution, but to set aside all its accidentals and externals, so that they will not interfere with my view of what seems to me to be deepest and most essential.

Merton tells us that he is thinking of the solitary layperson of the sort as "Thoreau or Emily Dickinson."

PART ONE: The Tyranny of Diversion

The premise of the Notes is that everyone is a solitary in the existential sense, never fully conscious of their aloneness because they allow society to fill their minds and hearts with "diversion, systematic distraction, borrowing Pascal's term, 'divertissement.'" 

The function of diversion is simply to anesthetize the individual as individual, and to plunge him in the warm, apathetic stupor of a collectivity which, like himself, wishes to remain amused. The bread and circuses which fulfil this function may be blatant and absurd, or they may assume a hypocritical air of intense seriousness.

Our own society prefers the absurd. But our absurdity is blended with a certain hard-headed, fully determined seriousness with which we devote ourselves to the acquisition of money, to the satisfaction of our appetite for status, and the justification of ourselves as contrasted with the totalitarian iniquity of our opposite number.

This passage is quoted here at length because it sets the stage for the layperson's view of not so much solitude but of society itself and the role of the individual in contemporary (Western) society. The individual is a product of society and its values, a cog in a wheel. The individual is alienated not in the sense of failing to fit into society -- for in fact he fits in all too well -- but in the sense of alienation from himself, from the virtues and content that make a human being a distinct person, not an individual atom in a collectivity.

Merton further asserts that interior solitude will not automatically resolve the dilemma of the modern individual. Nor is solitude itself without its difficulties. The first of these difficulties is "the disconcerting task of facing and accepting one's own absurdity." When the mask of organized and normal society, the mask of diversion,  is removed, the individual is confronted with "an abyss of irrationality, confusion, pointlessness, and ... apparent chaos."

Only at this point is faith possible, real faith contrasted with the faith that was a spiritual amusement, another diversion. Without society's illusions, the profoundness of the mystery of God can appear, the oneness of reality, of not thoughts or things "but the unspeakable beauty of a Heart within the heart of one's own life."

We all die alone, yet we are all united by the mystery of death. Likewise, the aloneness itself which is where we discover our true self, unites us in the solitude of all.

The solitary must not merely withdraw from society ("a sick solitude") but transcend it. He renounces the group, defined by society's "aspirations, fictions and conventions," to unity with all persons in transcendence, supernaturally, precisely through the solitariness of each of us. Where society makes  each individual useful -- to its own fictions -- solitude makes the individual authentically useful to society, and, therefore, ready to transcend it. The solitary thus rejects everything that is contrived, everything that does not transcend. In this process, the solitary

must renounce the blessings of every convenient illusion that dissolves him from responsibility when he is untrue to his deepest self and to his inmost truth -- the image of God in his own soul.

The price of fidelity in such a task is a complete dedicated humility -- an emptiness of heart in which self-assertion has no place.

Merton insists that "non-conformity" cannot be rebellion, for this sets up new illusions, subjective ones  instead of social ones. This can be worse than accepting the social myth. But to guard against a false religion or a narcissistic mythology -- "a world of private fictions and self-constructed delusions" -- means becoming "fully awake," fully conscious.

Hence, solitude must be characterized by "emptiness, humility, and purity." The solitary pulls free of the diversions that alienate him from self and from God to live in transcendent unity.

His solitude is neither an argument, an accusation, a reproach or a sermon. It is simply life itself. It is. ... It not only does not attract attention, or desire it, but it remains, for the most part, completely invisible.

Merton stresses the distinction between the solitary and the individualist. The individualist does not seek transcendence, only a heightened self-consciousness, a higher form of diversion. He does not reject the social myth but maintains it as a backdrop to his own myths. He seeks not the hidden and metaphysical but the smugness of self-congratulations. In short, the individualist's model is not the desert but the womb.


For Merton, the true solitary is "one who renounces ... arbitrary social imagery." The true solitary is united to others precisely by values that transcend nation-state, class, group, or other arbitrary social structures that serve to separate the family of humankind.

The first of these unifying values is the solitude of each individual, the uniqueness and profound mystery of the person, the self. This paradoxical  uniqueness  in unity makes solitude "the foundation of a deep, pure, and  gentle sympathy with all other men, whether or not they are capable of realizing the tragedy of their plight." Empty of self, solitude becomes the path to God.

In this solitude and emptiness of his heart there is another, more inexplicable solitude. Man's loneliness is, in fact, the loneliness of God.

The realization that the loneliness of the self reflects the loneliness of God yields the conclusion that faithfulness to solitude is fidelity to God. Without fidelity to the true self, a person negates his whole life, which is God, alone in him.

The hermit, then, (Merton specifically refers to the "Christian hermit") is a witness to a profound truth. He remains hidden in order to reflect the transcendental character of this mystery. Yet he is, in the Christian context, outwardly professing this solitude and therefore has a serious function in the community.

The hermit remains to put us on our guard against our natural obsession with the visible, social and communal forms of Christian life which tend at times to be inordinately active and often become deeply involved in the life of secular, non-Christian society.

Though the hermit is not only not of the world but may be not even in the world, functionally speaking, it is curious that the desert hermits of ancient Christianity were recalled not only for their extreme asceticism but also for their depth of charity and discretion. Merton makes the point of noting that they did so without benefit of institutional liturgy or functions. But this was only successful because the hermit was completely empty of self. Hence the vocation of solitude is a vocation to "silence, poverty and emptiness."

The purpose of the solitary life is, if you like, contemplation. But not contemplation in the pagan sense of an intellectual, esoteric enlightenment, achieved by ascetic technique. The contemplation of the Christian solitary is the awareness of the divine mercy transforming and elevating his own emptiness and turning it into the presence of perfect love, perfect fulness.

This is a passage that Merton would not have had to revise, even as his interest evolved towards the classic Christian  mystics and Eastern, especially Zen, thought. It distinguishes Greco-Roman philosophy from the spiritual philosophies east and west where a transcendent element is built into the psychology and metaphysics. It carefully extricates this spirituality from the excesses of ritual, activism, and even society. Its form of enlightenment does not depend on a rational, intellectual element or extreme asceticism. It is at home with Merton's later pursuits already mention: Christian mysticism and Zen Buddhism.

Merton anticipates the chief objection to withdrawal from the world, that "we must do something about [the human] predicament." Love of humanity cannot be overtly a particular help or particular social action. Instead solitude manifests love by pointing to God. Merton fears that "visible symbolic forms" of public effort inevitably lose their purity because they must be executed with others in the realm of others. Withdrawal is itself a strong witnessing and deliberate action that points to a clearer vision of how the world should be -- of the kingdom of God on earth (but not in Merton's words, however!).

Such a statement to the world must be an expression not of rebellion (as Merton states earlier) but the fruit of a rigorous spirituality.

Such men [that is, solitaries], out of pity for the universe, out of loyalty to mankind, and without a spirit of bitterness or of resentment, withdraw into the healing silence of the wilderness, or of poverty, or of obscurity, not in order to preach to to others but to heal in themselves the wounds of the entire world.

Again, Merton attempts to refine his concept of the ideal solitary, who is not the non-conformist who begrudgingly adapts to the world. The essential point is that the solitary deliberately leaves his life behind and goes into the desert, physical or otherwise.

There have always been solitaries who, by virtue of a special purity, and simplicity of heart, have been destined from their earliest youth to an eremitical and contemplative life, in some official form.

Merton refers to the Carthusians and Camaldolese. He notes, however, that even these are not his ideal solitaries. His ideal solitaries are, rather,

the paradoxical, tormented solitaries for whom there is no real place; men and women who have not so much chosen solitude as been chosen by it. And these have not generally found their way  into the desert either through simplicity or through innocence. Theirs is the solitude that is   reached the hard way, through bitter suffering and disillusionment.

In retrospect, we can correctly count Merton himself among these.

To such as these, solitude seems to choose them rather that the other way around, and they accept or live in torment and alienation. They are not solitary because they withdraw within a crowd or walk blithely through it. Instead, their solitude is born of an inner unity of which the mass of humanity is ignorant, a unity that is

secret and unknown. Even those who enter it, know it only, so to speak, by "unknowing." It is the one vast desert of emptiness which belongs to no one and to everyone. It is the place of silence where one word is spoken by God. And in that word are spoken both God Himself and all things.

Merton's sentiments here are firm and unreserved. He speaks of the hermit's strong sense of honesty and integrity. He compares the hermit to a stranger and a wanderer. The hermit is bound to have his eccentricities and notions about solutions to problems, his own and others'. The true solitary's life is "an arid, rugged purification of the heart," where lies the spiritual core, beyond speech and logic. The awesome loneliness of the hermit reminds us that each of us must confront God, alone.

The solitary is not automatically a mystic. Solitude is humility, or, spiritual poverty. It is physical and social insecurity. It is "material and physical poverty without visible support."

The hermit remains there to prove, by his lack of practical utility and the apparent sterility of his vocation, that cenobitic monks themselves ought to have little significance in the world, or indeed none at all. They are dead to the world, they should no longer cut a figure in it. And the world is dead to them.

And, by extension, the coenobitic life which is in a way the life of the common person in society, is dead to those who are true solitaries. For life in modern society leaves no room for contemplation or compassion, not for that universal compassion which the solitary embraces.


Merton's conclusion from part two introduces part three: "The life of the hermit is a life of material and physical poverty without visible support." The hermit is not automatically a more spiritual person, a person without worries, cares, or frustrations and insecurities. The image of Robinson Crusoe is "the myth not of eremitical solitude but pragmatic individualism," which has a secure and clever reply to every practical dilemma. The hermit is not so convinced. The hermit experiences (and this is not Merton's analogy but could have been) not the paradisiacal oasis of Crusoe but the arid desert and dryness of soul described by St. John of the Cross, though more modestly, more ridden with angst.

Merton uses the strong vocabulary of existentialism to emphasize the strong doubt, the "unknowing of his own self," of the solitary reduced to silence, with only one certitude: "The presence of God in the midst of uncertainty and nothingness." Here is an excellent description of the paradox of solitude:

The solitary life is full of paradoxes: the solitary is at peace, but no as the world understands peace, happy but not in the worldly sense of a good time, going but unsure of the way, not knowing the way but arriving, arriving but likewise departing. The solitary possess all riches but of emptiness, embracing interior poverty but not of any possession. The solitary has so many riches he cannot see God, so close to God that there is no perspective or object, so swallowed up in God that there is nothing left to see.

Overarching these reflections is Merton's assumption that the solitary life is God's will. This interpreting of God's will is too facile among monastics, he avers, for whom the path is

not human words but sacramental gestures of God. But with the solitary there is only one way, for others are not yet aware of their own solitude. This realization of one's solitude being the only way to find others, to have compassion for others, to see the common humanity of all in the loneliness of all and of God -- this confirms the solitary path, at the same time dissolving "all distinction between mind and thine."

Merton concludes by speaking of the "I" which solitude and the deep self reveal. Whereas the "I" of individualism can be cultivated and pampered, the deep "I" of the spirit can only be and act. (emphasis his). It comes from God and is the most universal element. In the "I" the solitude of each of us meets the solitude of God; "beyond division, beyond limitation, beyond selfish admiration." Indeed, for Merton, this "I" is Christ himself, it is God.


Surely the Notes is Merton's boldest articulation of a philosophy of solitude, challenging church, monasticism, society, and the individual. Moreover, the essay reflects the heartfelt anguish of Merton's own personal path, and many references to the solitary are references to himself and his difficult experience both in articulating a vision of eremiticism and in wrestling with his personal desire for solitude. Despite some circuitous arguments and repetitions, this melding of cerebral and experiential makes the Notes one of Merton's more compelling works and one of the more interesting treatments of solitude anywhere. Only with his "full-time" status as a hermit after 1965 do we see the flowering of this essay's trajectory, incorporating mysticism and Eastern thought in Merton's public writings. Truly this essay is the epithet Merton chose to preface it, a line from a poem of St. John Perse: "un cri d'oiseau sur les recifs" -- the cry of a bird over the reefs.

SOURCE: Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude in  Disputed Questions, by Thomas Merton. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960, pp. 177-207. See also William R. Shannon: "Reflections on Thomas Merton's Article: Notes for Philosophy of Solitude" in Cistercian Studies Quarterly. 29, no. 1, (1994).