What is the value of solitude? Is it selfish to treat it as a virtue or should it be stigmatized as a sign of social isolation, unhappiness or mental illness? When pondering about intractable questions that predate one’s own existence, it is always advisable to consider the wisdom of those who came before us. For this reason, I have attempted to answer these questions by combining the biting Victorian wit of Oscar Wilde with the classical wisdom of Aristotle, the metaphysical depth of John Donne's poetry and the immobile beauty of Lorado Taft’s sculpture.
On the merits of solitude, the always quotable and witty Oscar Wilde once said: “I think that it's very healthy to spend time alone. You need to know how to be alone and not be defined by another person.” Unfortunately, Wilde never lived to see the birth of our modern day capitalist society, which generally defines one's identity according to one's occupation and role played in the complex social network created to provide goods and services.
In the modern Facebook era, where social interaction is now digitally globalized, it may seem paradoxical to believe that a measure of solitude and quite contemplation is a prerequisite for the establishment of one's own true personal identity. Despite the undeniable importance of money and social networking in this world of ours, the true measure of a human being cannot be solely determined by a dollar sign, nor by an abstruse number of largely imaginary friends. After all, as any 19th century Romantic would say: the true path of mystery leads inwards. The quiet contemplation that only solitude can provide may go a long way in helping us gain a better sense of our own identity and purpose in this life. That is, if the extremes can be avoided.
On this point, Wilde's wit is best tempered with Aristotle's classical wisdom. The Greek philosopher believed that the inherent value of any virtue lies in the moderation of its real world application, the so-called golden mean. He used courage as an example. A surfeit of courage leads to recklessness, but a paucity of courage leads to cowardice.
The same logic applies to solitude. If one can avoid the extremes, solitude can lead to inner growth, a fruitful contemplation of the meaning of one's existence and, as Wilde suggests, a better understanding of one's own identity. In this sense, it would not be selfish to treat it as a virtue because constructive periods of solitude could better prepare an individual to be a happier, more self-confident and productive member of society.
On the other hand, if taken to any extreme, solitude may result in unhappiness, mental illness and the very destruction of one's own identity, if not spirit. This admonition comes as no special surprise. As John Donne once wrote: "No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main..."
The only aspect of this matter that these three men failed to address was the one considered by the sculptor Lorado Taft in his piece entitled “Solitude of the Soul”, displayed in this photograph taken at the Art Institute of Chicago. As one of Rodin's students in Paris, Taft explained the meaning of his work by saying that "However closely we may be thrown together by circumstances ... we are ultimately unknown to each other." In this sense, Taft disputes the claim that we are social beings. Given our inability to fully know each other, we are inevitably imprisoned within ourselves, hence the importance of at least coming to know yourself.
Personally, I feel the urge to refute Taft’s affirmation because it would undermine my credence in the lasting significance of interpersonal relationships. If his words were taken to their logical conclusion, each individual would be forced to spend his life in an invisible cell of solitary confinement, even when surrounded by the most gregarious of crowds. Experience has taught me that through language, self-expression, love, freedom and sincerity, this need not be so. But I must admit that when I look at this sculpture what I really see is the worst form of solitude imaginable, the one experienced when you're in the company of someone who allegedly loves you and yet, you feel absolutely alone, a matter to be discussed another day.