Solitude: A Return to the Self

Much good in this 1988 book by psychiatrist Anthony Storr, but slightly marred by some unscientific leaps. But for someone who prefers to spend time alone, this is a goldmine of quotes about solitude if nothing else— some of my favorites are at the end of this post.

Storr’s argument is that society currently places way too much emphasis on having several close personal relationships as the key to happiness, completely disregarding the joy and fulfillment people get from their own work/art. Many of the world’s greatest thinkers didn’t raise families or have close personal ties (e.g. Descartes, Newton, Locke, Pascal, Spinoza, Kant, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein). Overlooking the fact that his focus was entirely on white males, I appreciated the callout that none married and most lived alone for most of their lives. Storr works in several quotes from writers who left us evidence of their happy thinking, like Gibbon’s rejoicing in escaping marriage, thankful to still be “in possession of [his] natural freedom.”

Storr explains something that I’ve been unable to understand about my own life, how happy my superficial relationships make me with various people I see each week, like doormen, librarians, etc. “In the course of daily life, we habitually encounter many people with whom we are not intimate, but who nevertheless contribute to our sense of self. Neighbours, postmen, bank clerks, shop assistants, and many others may all be familiar figures with whom we daily exchange friendly greetings, but are generally persons about whose lives we know very little.” From these people we get “mutual recognition, acknowledgement of each other’s existence, and thus some affirmation, however slight, that each reciprocally contributes something to life’s pattern.” And even more comforting: “many people can and do lead equable and satisfying lives by basing them upon a mixture of work and more superficial relationships.”

Being alone encourages your imagination, but “the price of flexibility, of being released from the tyranny of rigid, inbuilt patterns of behaviour, is that ‘happiness’, in the sense of perfect adaptation to the environment or complete fulfilment of needs, is only briefly experienced.” This achievement of joy is fleeting, and Storr has a previous book where he suggests that dissatisfaction with life, or ‘divine discontent’, is an inescapable part of the human condition.

Some people’s dispositions are more suited to finding the meaning of their life in “interests, beliefs, or patterns of thought” instead of interpersonal relationships.

A few quotes about solitude:

  • “Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius; and the uniformity of a work denotes the hand of a single artist.” – Edward Gibbon; History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, volume 5.
  • “No man ever will unfold the capacities of his own intellect who does not at least checker his life with solitude.” – De Quincey, from his collected writings
  • “When from our better selves we have too long / Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop, / Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired, / How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.” – Wordsworth, from The Prelude