With the erosion of the community, people are spending more and more time alone and enjoying it less. To be sure, we value our privacy, but being truly alone with ourselves is something different, something that unfortunately inspires unease, if not fear.
In our solitary moments, the forbidden threatens to surface--when the vigilant forces of socialization let down their guard. And then we become prey to feelings of the inadequacy and meaninglessness of our lives, or destructive thoughts of revenge.
No wonder, then, that many people work hard to avoid being alone, anesthetizing their minds with the constant rumble of media noise. Radio, television, movies, books all distract them from being alone, from reflecting on who they are, where they are going and why.
The solitary person is suspect from the standpoint of society as well. Since the community is based on the willingness of people to give up a part of their privacy, not surprisingly, perhaps, society distrusts those who refuse to hand it over.
This distrust of solitude was already fully articulated in antiquity. Aristotle viewed humans as social animals who come to know and fulfill themselves only in society. One of the worst fates for a Greek or Roman citizen was to be exiled, cast out of the polis , the city, for to be alone is to lose one’s identity as a person.
Solitude found its most passionate and original defender in Rousseau. Working from the premise of humankind’s natural asociality, he argued that only in solitude can humans achieve an unobstructed, undiluted awareness of their truest self.
Growing out of this Rousseauian tradition, both Alice Koller’s “The Stations of Solitude” and Jeffrey Kottler’s “Private Moments, Secret Selves” seek to rescue solitude from scorn, showing how it helps us to get in touch with our most authentic being.
Alice Koller speaks as a philosopher, having earned a Ph.D in philosophy from Harvard in 1960. When she found herself unable to get a job, she decided to exile herself from the city and spend the winter of 1962 completely alone, except for her dog Logos, on Nantucket Island to examine her life. She sought to strip away the borrowed layers of her being to discover what, if anything, is beneath it all.
Her first book, “An Unknown Woman” (1976) invited us along on her inward journey towards the unknown depths of herself, a journey both courageous and compelling in its self-analysis.
Her second and most recent book, “The Stations of Solitude,” goes back over much of this same terrain, recounting her experiences on Nantucket as well as similar attempts to live completely alone in other locations. While this book does not add much that is new, it is more ambitious in its attempt to present itself as a model of “philosophical inquiry into what it is to be a person and how one becomes a person,” and more radical in its understanding of the conditions for this inquiry.
The goal is to find our own purpose, our truest desire, so that we may ultimately shape who we are. This journey of the soul can be accomplished only in solitude. But what Koller means by solitude involves nothing less than radical surgery--cutting oneself off from all that is familiar and comfortable: our system of beliefs, assumptions and habits that help us to make sense of the world; not only friends and loved ones but also any human being; memories of the past; hopes for the future. In this detached state, we can uncover what is uniquely our own.
Koller presents herself as a model, having separated herself from the world and worldly values to such a degree that she had to go on welfare and accept food stamps. But this hardship was more than compensated by (and was indeed the necessary condition for) the discovery of her authentic self--a self that playfully revels in the “fierce beauty of nature.”
After her great promise of a brave journey to follow the trail of personal truth to its bitter end, one might wonder just what is the self that she finds. In the end, what she claims as her genuine, natural self looks a lot like a construct, borrowed from our cultural grab bag of commonplaces about the self. The posture of the solitary, nature-loving individual is a cultural cliche of the disaffected, American intellectual.
Since Koller’s philosophic inquiry relies on the radical questioning of all beliefs and assumptions, I would have liked to see her question the most basic of her assumptions: We find our natural self by stripping away what is acquired. Or does such a self even exist? This distinction between the natural and the acquired is not as simple as Koller would have us believe. What is most natural to us is to acquire learning. (Even birds learn to sing.) If we could cling to a purely natural state, what we would find is a retarded being.
What is most striking and troubling about Koller’s book is its almost total rejection of human relationships and society. Even Rousseau, for whom solitude was an obsessive, central concern, was keenly interested in politics. Koller feels little need to integrate her self-in-solitude with her self-in-society. Here again, she might have done well to question another assumption, namely that her solitude implies a quest for self. Is it not possible that the longing for solitude can grow out of fear and flight from self?
Jeffrey Kottler, Ph.D, a practicing psychotherapist and professor of counseling, has written a book which by definition of its self-help genre is less ambitious, but is very satisfying within these limits. One of its great strengths is that it realizes that the goal of inner peace is best achieved by bringing together the private and the public. It shows us how private moments can allow us to function in the social world without losing ourselves in the process.
We spend up to one-third of our lives alone, Kottler observes. But whether we experience that time negatively as loneliness or positively as solitude depends on whether we view it as the product of our free choice. Kottler seeks to reframe loneliness as active solitude by teaching us how to take control and will our own solitude. Our internal dialogue is intimately bound up with our beliefs about aloneness and what meanings we attach to it. Much of this book thus analyzes contemporary attitudes towards aloneness to foster the transformation to solitude.
Loneliness results not only from lack of choice but also from not knowing how to occupy ourselves when alone. Time can seem to stretch out endlessly like the monotonous tick-tocking of a clock, without meaning or purpose. Kottler examines accounts of prisoners, as well as the average citizen, to see how they create activities and goals to give order and interest to their time alone.
For Kottler, solitude offers us the opportunity to gain a stronger sense of who we are and what we are capable of becoming. But unlike Koller, Kottler believes that this self-understanding comes through the acquisition of learning in society, through stretching ourselves in activity.
To this end, Kottler spends a great deal of time analyzing how in solitude we may find creative outlets for all the energy that is unleashed in private.
More significantly, Kottler presents ways for the reader to direct these more personal and creative energies to some productive use. Kottler argues that it is through the creative process that we are able to bring together our drive for solitude, independence and autonomy, on the one hand, and the need for companionship, love and society on the other.
In the tradition of the self-help genre, this book is somewhat formulaic and predictable. But the formula exists for a good reason. It works.
This book is one of the best of its kind. It tells us what we need to hear in an inventive and powerful way.