True Solitude Is Not Retreat

I’ve been thinking about this insight from the French philosopher Montaigne (quoted here by philosopher James K. Smith) on the false belief that solitude can be found through mere isolation or retreat:

In ridding ourselves of the courthouse and marketplace we do not rid ourselves of the principal worries of our life. Ambition, covetousness, indecisiveness, fear, and desires hardly abandon us just because we change address. They pursue us into the monasteries and schools of philosophy themselves. Neither deserts nor caves nor hair shirts nor penance can extricate us from them. That is why it is not enough to remove oneself from people, not enough to go somewhere else. We have to remove ourselves from the habits of the populace that are within us…. We keep returning our gaze to the things we have left behind; we fantasize about them constantly. Our malady grips us in the soul, and the soul cannot flee itself. So we must bring and draw it back into itself. That is true solitude: it can be enjoyed in towns and royal courts. 

No matter how far you drive, no matter how many doors you close, you can’t escape the restlessness, the sheer busy-ness in your heart that has been deeply ingrained via immersion in a frenetic culture (especially a digital culture whose most valuable commodity is your individual attention). The way of true solitude is quite different: a certain type of discipline through which you enter into a state of concentrated fascination, with the ultimate goal of doing / making something for the common good. I like this way of framing it because I think it makes solitude a little more widely accessible. Rather than being restricted to those with the time and money and ability to get away, true solitude is available to anyone who is curious enough about the world around them to eschew distraction and engage in creative endeavors which are solitary by definition.

At least, I think that’s what Smith is getting at. The rest of his article, though quite dense, is well worth reading—especially if you’re an artist who’s been reflecting on the purpose of solitude and indeed art itself. The question I have is, how does one cultivate the discipline required for solitude when there are so many powerful forces—TV, smartphones, social media, good old-fashioned peer pressure—conditioning us in the opposite direction even though we’re home more than we ever have been before? Fascination with the world helps; but what happens when your fascination fades?

Brief thoughts on the
The cloister is a common image for solitude. Yet even there, you cannot escape the one thing that is always with you: yourself. Image Credit: