Popular media today, including book popularizations, describe the atomization of people in modern urban technological culture, lamenting a lost — perhaps conjured — community and conviviality of the past. The image of young people burying their faces into their smartphones while ignoring peers and others around them is common — as if young people made the world of today what it is and somehow steer its authorities and powers. But stereotypes of alienation cannot be so recent. Any close reading of history and culture will suggest otherwise.
Loneliness is social alienation, a more specialized product of modern culture, but not just historically modern. Sue Halpern, in her book Migrations to Solitude, described lonely people as suffering “involuntary solitude.” The emphasis must be on volition; most will understand solitude as being away from people or unable to connect authentically with others. Truly lonely people are made, not self-willed. Lonely people suffer imprisonment, bereavement, grief, disease, abuse, addiction, mental illness. These factors alienate them from others and themselves, creating their cycle of psychological entrapment, which is also social. Foucault remarked that “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” Society and its powers build the structures of loneliness for their own purposes of control and impose “involuntary solitude” upon as many as it can.
This is why individuals who prefer solitude are described, even by sympathetic media, as lonely and in need of friendship and socialization, if not rehabilitation. The popular route for recovery is simply to imitate how others carry on a social life, engage in social activities, consume the products of society in order to feel part of society, in order not to feel alienated. Other approaches, more serious psychological approaches to rehabilitating lonely people, may attempt to mainstream lonely people or sufferers of mental illness by using pharmaceuticals to suppress their depression. Usually no authority will recommend a transition to what may be called “voluntary” solitude because such a state does not or should not, in their estimation, exist. Loneliness is conflated with solitude in order to stigmatize historical solitaries and their modern versions. Those who fail to rehabilitate themselves from loneliness are returned by society, in one way or another, to involuntary institutionalization, a built-in social recidivism.
Like the classic introvert, the solitary personality derives its self-image from intuition and perception, not from external people and events. The ability to tolerate the erratic values of society through a crafted self-discipline that is blessed in part by an innate or congenital center of calm allows the solitary to become a keen observer of self and others, at least to the point of a self-knowledge that alerts the individual to danger, hostility, guile, deception, or unsavory motive.
As Oldham’s personality scale shows, the solitary faculty can deteriorate to dysfunctional paranoia. But, then, all personality types have a dysfunctional counterpart on a spectrum. Thus, indubitably, the solitary who is guided by a religious, spiritual, or philosophical motive remains most balanced or focused, as does the wilderness solitary who closely identifies with nature and larger natural cycles, rhythms, and harmonies. Historically, most hermits were so characterized. People suffering from mental illness and exaggerated or exacerbated their solitary intuitions with visions and mad behaviors were often made to be representative of all solitaries, whether by church, state, or other authorities. This was a useful device for generalization: to make all solitary behavior suspect and dangerous. The medieval church as much as the Enlightenment rationalist opposed unregulated solitaries, who symbolized the opposition to the barracks, prisons, hospitals, and institutions mentioned.
Despite media attention to the virtues of solitude and silence, the goal of such pieces is often to co-opt the power of authentic solitude and silence in order to further hone the skills of defeating rivals, overthrowing groups, and grasping more power for self and organization. Such presentations are made to those who otherwise belittle too much solitude and too much silence — the caveat revives, signalling bad motives. The exploitation of solitude and silence parallels the business and corporate uses of meditation, yoga, and other spiritual-mental practices in the way that athletes and soldiers cultivate the body and mind to more effectively harm others.
There can be no substitute for the authenticate wellsprings of solitude and silence found in the historical hermits East and West. There can be no transition from involuntary solitude but to a rehabilitation or reconciliation with a mad society. Lacking original malice, lacking no loss of original volition, the true solitary can bypass the devices of society and reach a self-discipline that is not compatible with those devious arts derived from social and commercial products and promises.