The Virtues of Solitude
In Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the titular protagonist spends over two decades isolated on a small island. He names it “The Island of Despair.” By his own account, he considered this solitary period of his unfortunate life the “most miserable of all conditions in the world.” Well, this is how he felt at the beginning. The early years were particularly dreadful. In an especially depressing passage, Crusoe describes how his feelings of utter hopelessness would occasionally assail him at random:
“…the anguish of my soul at my condition would break out upon me on a sudden, and my very heart would die within me, to think of the woods, the mountains, the deserts I was in; and how I was a prisoner, locked up with the eternal bars and bolts of the ocean, in an uninhabited wilderness, without redemption. In the midst of the greatest composures of my mind, this would break out upon me like a storm, and make me wring my hands and weep like a child.”
And yet, on certain days, I am jealous of Robinson Crusoe.
Yes, believe it or not, I wish I too could be shipwrecked on an island.
Just imagine all you could learn and achieve if you were to spend several years in perfect isolation. Don’t you ever feel like the daily demands and distractions of modern society prevent you from accomplishing your greatest aspirations? That book you’ve been meaning to write? That instrument you’ve always wanted to learn? Those coding skills you’ve been meaning to pick up? With just two years of blissful solitude, I’m sure I could write at least two novels, learn the French horn, and master SQL, Python, and Java.
But maybe you disagree. Perhaps after only a week alone you’d end up like Tom Hanks in Castaway talking to a volleyball. But, before you panic, first consider what happens to Robinson Crusoe.
To begin with, he cultivates impressive practical skills: he becomes an expert builder and carpenter, constructing a complex fenced in shelter, a cottage home, as well as canoes and a sailboat; he becomes a master of agriculture, planting a farm consisting of diverse crops including corn and grapes; he becomes a handy craftsmen, making tables and chairs as well as pottery out of clay; he becomes adept at animal husbandry, taming goats and training a parrot to speak; finally, he becomes a skilled hunter and marksman.
The philosophical and theological realizations he achieves are even more outstanding. He tackles metaphysical questions about being and cosmology; he reads and rereads the Bible, contemplating the existence and nature of God; he confronts the problem of evil; he muses on the psychology of fear and desire; he learns the virtues of gratitude and forgiveness; in the absence of company, he comes to truly understand and appreciate the value of human relationships; and, when he finally does receive unexpected visitors to his island, he saves several lives and makes a lifelong friend in Friday.
Indeed, once Crusoe learns to overcome his initial feelings of loneliness and despair, he embraces his solitude and ultimately achieves incredible personal and philosophical breakthroughs. In a word, he becomes wise.
When Crusoe finally manages to leave from the island and return to society, he finds that he has amassed a massive fortune. What is interesting, however, is rather than settle down and never travel again — Crusoe, like Odysseus after his Odyssey, actually decides to continue journeying and even decides to return to what he previously called the Island of Despair.
The archetypal message at the core of this story, I think, is two-fold. First, the story tells us that tremendous riches (both literal and figurative) await he or she who is willing to suffer in solitude. Second, there is more to be learned in taking risks and journeying than in remaining conservative and static.
Some of you might have the following objection in mind: Robinson Crusoe is just a story. The real life implications of such an ordeal would drive most people insane. Maybe. But, think of all the other examples in myth, history, and fiction that vindicate a similar ideal:
Moses, for starters, had to journey up Mount Sinai alone in order to receive the Ten Commandments from God.
Zarathustra, in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, needed to spend ten years alone in a cave atop a mountain before descending to tell the world about the Übermensch.
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero (though not entirely alone), learns his magic while marooned on the island where he is shipwrecked. Through patience and cunning he is able to achieve both redemption and deliverance.
Descartes had to first deny all his senses and be like “a man who walks alone in the darkness” before he could formulate his Cogito and ultimately arrive at epistemological certainty.
In composing Walden, Henry David Thoreau had to first retreat into the woods in order to learn how to “live deep and suck out the marrow of life” — as he remarks: “I learned to love to be alone. I never found the companion as companionable as solitude.”
All of these examples validate Schopenhauer’s claim that, “A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.”
As I near toward a conclusion, I think it’s necessary to concede that the one thing Robinson Crusoe never ceases to desire is someone to talk to. On a less flippant note, I obviously don’t think permanently removing oneself from society and shutting yourself off from all family and friends is wise or desirable — the point I’m trying to make, however, is that solitude is a virtue, but in the modern era it is an art that is increasingly difficult to practice. I guess I just I wish I had superior discipline so that I could enjoy more of the benefits that brief bouts of solitude can offer. More importantly, for those of you who think loneliness and solitude are the same thing, I would encourage you to learn to enjoy being by and with yourself.
Finally, I forgot to mention that the only book Crusoe had was the Bible. His ink and paper also ran out in less than year. So, if I were to be shipwrecked on an island, I would prefer it to be one that happened to have a massive library and ample writing materials. I also wouldn’t mind having a large store of booze and cured meats. And … if it’s not too much to ask … maybe a WIFI connection once a year wouldn’t hurt either.