Time on your own means time to tell the difference between right and wrong.
In 1840, Edgar Allan Poe described the ‘mad energy’ of an ageing man who roved the streets of London from dusk till dawn. His excruciating despair could be temporarily relieved only by immersing himself in a tumultuous throng of city-dwellers. ‘He refuses to be alone,’ Poe wrote. He ‘is the type and the genius of deep crime … He is the man of the crowd.’
Like many poets and philosophers through the ages, Poe stressed the significance of solitude. It was ‘such a great misfortune’, he thought, to lose the capacity to be alone with oneself, to get caught up in the crowd, to surrender one’s singularity to mind-numbing conformity. Two decades later, the idea of solitude captured Ralph Waldo Emerson’s imagination in a slightly different way: quoting Pythagoras, he wrote: ‘In the morning, – solitude; … that nature may speak to the imagination, as she does never in company.’ Emerson encouraged the wisest teachers to press upon their pupils the importance of ‘periods and habits of solitude’, habits that made ‘serious and abstracted thought’ possible.
In the 20th century, the idea of solitude formed the centre of Hannah Arendt’s thought. A German-Jewish émigré who fled Nazism and found refuge in the United States, Arendt spent much of her life studying the relationship between the individual and the polis. For her, freedom was tethered to both the private sphere – the vita contemplativa – and the public, political sphere – the vita activa. She understood that freedom entailed more than the human capacity to act spontaneously and creatively in public. It also entailed the capacity to think and to judge in private, where solitude empowers the individual to contemplate her actions and develop her conscience, to escape the cacophony of the crowd – to finally hear herself think.
In 1961, The New Yorker commissioned Arendt to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi SS officer who helped to orchestrate the Holocaust. How could anyone, she wanted to know, perpetrate such evil? Surely only a wicked sociopath could participate in the Shoah. But Arendt was surprised by Eichmann’s lack of imagination, his consummate conventionality. She argued that while Eichmann’s actions were evil, Eichmann himself – the person – ‘was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions.’ She attributed his immorality – his capacity, even his eagerness, to commit crimes – to his ‘thoughtlessness’. It was his inability to stop and think that permitted Eichmann to participate in mass murder.
Just as Poe suspected that something sinister lurked deep within the man of the crowd, Arendt recognised that: ‘A person who does not know that silent intercourse (in which we examine what we say and what we do) will not mind contradicting himself, and this means he will never be either able or willing to account for what he says or does; nor will he mind committing any crime, since he can count on its being forgotten the next moment.’ Eichmann had shunned Socratic self-reflection. He had failed to return home to himself, to a state of solitude. He had discarded the vita contemplativa, and thus he had failed to embark upon the essential question-and-answering process that would have allowed him to examine the meaning of things, to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, good and evil.
‘It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong,’ Arendt wrote, ‘because you can remain the friend of the sufferer; who would want to be the friend of and have to live together with a murderer? Not even another murderer.’ It is not that unthinking men are monsters, that the sad sleepwalkers of the world would sooner commit murder than face themselves in solitude. What Eichmann showed Arendt was that society could function freely and democratically only if it were made up of individuals engaged in the thinking activity – an activity that required solitude. Arendt believed that ‘living together with others begins with living together with oneself’.
But what if, we might ask, we become lonely in our solitude? Isn’t there some danger that we will become isolated individuals, cut off from the pleasures of friendship? Philosophers have long made a careful, and important, distinction between solitude and loneliness. In The Republic (c380 BCE), Plato proffered a parable in which Socrates celebrates the solitary philosopher. In the allegory of the cave, the philosopher escapes from the darkness of an underground den – and from the company of other humans – into the sunlight of contemplative thought. Alone but not lonely, the philosopher becomes attuned to her inner self and the world. In solitude, the soundless dialogue ‘which the soul holds with herself’ finally becomes audible.
Echoing Plato, Arendt observed: ‘Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business; solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company. Loneliness comes about … when I am one and without company’ but desire it and cannot find it. In solitude, Arendt never longed for companionship or craved camaraderie because she was never truly alone. Her inner self was a friend with whom she could carry on a conversation, that silent voice who posed the vital Socratic question: ‘What do you mean when you say …?’ The self, Arendt declared, ‘is the only one from whom you can never get away – except by ceasing to think.’
Arendt’s warning is well worth remembering in our own time. In our hyper-connected world, a world in which we can communicate constantly and instantly over the internet, we rarely remember to carve out spaces for solitary contemplation. We check our email hundreds of times per day; we shoot off thousands of text messages per month; we obsessively thumb through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, aching to connect at all hours with close and casual acquaintances alike. We search for friends of friends, ex-lovers, people we barely know, people we have no business knowing. We crave constant companionship.
But, Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in’ – no longer able, in the cage of thoughtless conformity, to distinguish ‘right from wrong, beautiful from ugly’. Solitude is not only a state of mind essential to the development of an individual’s consciousness – and conscience – but also a practice that prepares one for participation in social and political life. Before we can keep company with others, we must learn to keep company with ourselves.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
You might think philosophy is a boy's club. We are here to correct that misconception.
While a great idea can come from anybody anywhere, sometimes a different perspective is needed for progress to be made. In that mindset, today we have ten of the greatest female philosophers of all time.
1. Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)
As a French existentialist, Marxist, and founding mother of second-wave feminism, there are few philosophers who can hold a candle to Beauvoir, though she never thought of herself as being one. She wrote dozens of books, including The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity, and is noted for having a very accessible writing style. Her work is often focused on the pragmatic matters of existentialism, as opposed to that of her life partner, Jean-Paul Sartre. She was very active in French politics, as a social critic, protester, and member of the French resistance.
"The curse which lies upon marriage is that too often the individuals are joined in their weakness rather than in their strength, each asking from the other instead of finding pleasure in giving."
2. Hypatia of Alexandria (Born c. 350–370, died 415 AD)
A Greek philosopher and scientist, she was regarded by many of her contemporaries as the greatest philosopher of the age. Her fame was such that prospective students traveled great distances to hear her speak. While it remains uncertain as to the scope of her writings, a common problem for ancient authors, it is agreed that she at least co-wrote several surviving works with her father, including extensive commentaries on Greek science and philosophy. She was killed by a Christian mob as part of larger riots in the city, though there is some evidence to suggest that she was assassinated over controversial astronomical work.
“There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time.” – from Socrates of Constantinople
3. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)
Another great philosopher who didn’t consider herself one. The German born Arendt, who escaped Vichy France for New York, wrote extensively on totalitarianism during her life. Her magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism, analyzes and explains how such governments come to power. Likewise, her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, considers how the most average of men can be made evil in the right conditions. She also wrote on other political subjects, such as the American and French revolutions, and offered a critique of the idea of human rights.
“Under conditions of tyranny it is far easier to act than to think.”
4. Philippa Foot (1920-2010)
An English philosopher working out of Oxford and UCLA, she is often credited with sparking a revival in Aristotelian thought. Her work in ethics is extensive and well known: she wrote the trolley problem. Over her lifetime she worked with many philosophers (including our next entry), and heavily influenced many living philosophers. A collection of her essays, Virtues and Vices, is a key document for the recently revitalized interest in virtue ethics.
“You ask a philosopher a question and after he or she has talked for a bit, you don’t understand your question anymore.”
5. G.E.M Anscombe (1919-2001)
A British philosopher working out of Oxford who wrote about everything she could lay her hands on, including logic, ethics, meta-ethics, the mind, language, and war crimes. Her greatest work was Intention, a series of papers showing how what we intend to happen has a great effect on our ethical standing. Her groundbreaking work Modern Moral Philosophy, has influenced modern ethical work extensively; it was here that she invented the word consequentialism. She also debated many famous thinkers, including Phillipa Foot. She was also a notable firebrand, protesting both Harry Truman and local abortion clinics.
“Those who try to make room for sex as mere casual enjoyment pay the penalty: they become shallow.”
6. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
An English philosopher and popular writer, she was the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Men, a defense of the French Revolution against Burke; and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, an answer to those who argued against the education of women. She was, in some ways, the first feminist philosopher. She also wrote several novels, travel guides and a children’s book. She died from complications of childbirth at age 38. That birth gave us her daughter, who was also a noted writer: Mary Shelly, author of Frankenstein.
“Virtue can only flourish amongst equals.”
7. Anne Dufourmantelle (1964-2017)
Image: Librairie Mollat
A French philosopher and psychoanalyst, her philosophy was based on risk taking. Particularly, the notion that to truly experience life we must take risks, often considerable ones. She discussed the notion of “security” which frowns on risk while also leaving a void in our existence. She was the author of 30 books, has many interesting lectures, and died as she lived.
“When there is really a danger to be faced, there is a very strong incentive to devotion, to surpassing oneself.”
8. Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-1858)
Wife of John Stuart Mill, Harriet Mill was a philosopher in her own right. Despite publishing few works during her lifetime, her influence on her husband’s work is undeniable. Her essay The Enfranchisement of Women is a precursor to Mill’s later work The Subjection of Women and makes many of the same points. John Stuart Mill’s masterpiece On Liberty is dedicated to her, and by his admission partly written by her.
“All my published writings were as much my wife's work as mine; her share in them constantly increasing as years advanced.” — J.S. Mill
9. Kathryn Gines (Born 1978)
A Philosopher working out of Pennsylvania State University, Gines has written a book on Hannah Arendt’s philosophy. A continental philosopher, she has written extensively on Africana philosophy, black feminism, and phenomenology. A collection of her work can be found here.
10. Carol Gilligan (Born 1936)
The founder of the school of care ethics, Gilligan’s work In a Different Voice has been called “The little book that started a revolution.” Her work questions the value of universal standards of morality, such as fairness or duty, seeing them as impersonal and distant from our problems. She instead proposes that we consider relationships and our interdependence in moral actions.
"I've found that if I say what I'm really thinking and feeling, people are more likely to say what they really think and feel. The conversation becomes a real conversation."