HISTORY OF IDEAS Loneliness – Free Ebook

When we think of what might have been lost
on the way to becoming modern, we’re liable

to think about mealtimes: how seldom they
now take place communally, how rare it is

for whole families to gather, how much technology
can intrude. In paintings of communal meals

that reflect the older way of doing things,
we can appreciate how all ages used to come

together around a table and how welcoming
the atmosphere seems to have been. Even the

family horse might have been invited to join

The modern condition appears so bleak by comparison.
Rather than a family around the hearth, the

emblematic image is of a single person with
a tray on their trees in front of the television.

It was the Swanson Corporation, originally
a poultry producer in Omaha, Nebraska, that

launched the frozen TV dinner in 1954, the
same year colour television was introduced

in the United States. It is a short distance
in time, but a long way in spirit, from Norman

Rockwell’s laughter-filled family Thanksgiving
celebration to Swanson’s industrially produced

turkey meal for one (‘Just heat and serve’).

Modernity is surely a lonelier place than
the world that preceded it. The question is

why. It isn’t ultimately technology (cities,
cars or screens) that have made us lonely;

it’s an identifiable set of ideas. We have
rendered ourselves lonely first and foremost

because of certain stories we have started
to tell about what loneliness means.

Most eras before our own knew that solitude
did not – per se – have to be a sign of wretchedness

or deficiency. In the fourth century, the
greatest saint of early Christianity, Saint

Anthony, was said to have spent more than
forty years by himself in Egypt’s Western

desert, not saying a word, eating only bread
and salt, communing with God. So impressed

were some with St Anthony’s life, they came
to join him in the desert,

and became collectively known as the Desert
Fathers, and their philosophy of solitary

piety would go on to have a decisive influence
on the founding of monasteries. At the height

of monasticism in the Middle Ages, a million
people across Europe and north Africa had

chosen to forego the bustle of family and
commerce in order to dwell, in some of the

most rugged and remote terrain in the world,
in silent contemplation of God

However, in the wake of the Reformation and
the destruction of the monasteries that accompanied

it, solitary piety began to lose its prestige
and recede as a practical option. Those who

had previously lived alone at the tops of
mountains were now encouraged to serve God

by remaining in the community, finding a suitable
spouse – and starting a family.

To this newly social religious impetus was
added the influence of Romanticism, a movement

of ideas that – with different ends in view

  • similarly encouraged people to give up on

thorough commitments to their own company
and questioned the honour of solitude. For

the Romantics, happiness lay in identifying
one exceptional soulmate to whom one could

surrender one’s independence and with whom
one might fuse mind and body.

In the process, the Romantic movement turned
solitude from a respectable choice, to evidence

of pathology.

When the Beatles released Eleanor Rigby in
1966, the song that more than any other defined

what loneliness meant for the modern age,
it was at once clear why Eleanor was a lamentable

figure. The famous face that she kept in a
jar by the door had been intended for the

enchanting partner that, like all single people,
she must have longed to find. Only with romantic

love could there be a decent life, so ran
the philosophy of the song, of all the Beatles’

works and in fact, of every modern pop song
every written. Fail to fall completely in

love and, Romanticism warned, one would soon
enough be picking up rice in the church where

a wedding had been – or rivalling for strangeness
the comparably odd Father Mackenzie, around

whom there seemed so little of the glamour
that had once attended the Desert Fathers.

The modern world not only made it mandatory
to have a partner. It made it feel essential

to have a vibrant gang of friends – and to
enjoy seeing them regularly at parties. An

empty diary became an emblem of deformity.

But there was not

the slightest admission that it might, all
things considered, be a distinctly curious

thing to stand in a crowded room full of status-panicked,
socially-anxious people, every one of them

terrified of honesty or failure.

In 1921, Carl Jung – in his book Psychological
Types – introduced the terms ‘extraverted’

and ‘introverted’ to divide humanity.
The former referred to a sort of person who

could best realise their potential in the
company of others; the latter were those who

needed to move away from crowds and idle chatter
in order to regain their integrity. ‘Everyone

possesses both mechanisms,’ wrote Jung – but
it was evident where the spirit of the age


It’s been the achievement of a few, often
at the time ignored artists of the modern

period to make a case for introversion, to
try to coat solitude in glamour. In a painting

by Caspar David Friedrich, we are invited
to trust that the lonely figure in the landscape

is privy to insights that would be lost in
the crowd down in the lowlands, he has needed

to travel up to the mountains in order to
put the bluster and envy of humans into perspective;

We should dare to follow him in his trajectory.

Separated by many decades, Gwen John’s young
woman doesn’t seem to belong to any official

religion. But if there were one dedicated
to the appreciation of solitude, she would

be one of its saintly and legendary figures.
Her expression – kind, gentle, melancholy

and lost in profundity – is an advertisement
for all that modernity has neglected in its

promotion of active, cheery lives.

Isolation isn’t a particular malediction;
it’s where good people tend to end up.

We should dare to believe that we are in solitude
not because we are ill but because we are

noble of spirit. We don’t hate company;
it’s just that we would prefer to stay home

rather than accept the counterfeit tokens
of community presently on offer.

The way to make people feel less alone isn’t
to pull them out of their musings in the forest

or in the diner, in the library or the desert

  • and force them to go bowling. It’s to

reassure them that being alone is no sign
of failure. To lessen modernity’s crisis

of loneliness, we need for solitude to be
rehabilitated and for singlehood to regain

its dignity. There is nothing catastrophic
about eating dinner, many dinners, on our

own. The Swanson TV dinners might have been
capable of improvement, but it is ultimately

far better to be eating a basic meal in peace
than to be in a ballroom surrounded by false

smiles and oppressive judgements. When we
do so, we aren’t in fact on our own at all.

We are – as modernity has failed to remind
us – dining with some of the finest, most

elevated spirits who have ever lived. We are,
though ostensibly by ourselves, in the very

best company.

One of the trickiest tasks we ever have to face is that of working out who we really are.

This book is designed to help us create a psychological portrait of ourselves with the help of some unusual, oblique, entertaining, and playful prompts. Click the link on screen now to find out more.

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