Fisherman, c. 1350, by Wu Zhen (Chinese, 1280–1354)
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
“All the unhappiness of men,” wrote Blase Pascal, the 17th-century French philosopher, “arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.” The statement rings true especially in today’s hyperconnected world. Many people hate to be alone. They feel a constant need to be in the company of others, even if only virtually through their smartphones and social media.
Is solitude becoming passé? In the contemporary shipping world, the craving to be with the crowd manifests itself in the never-ending series of conventions; in the giving out of maritime awards; and in fund-raising dinners, company anniversasry parties and other social events. One would think that seafarers would get used to being away from their families. But no. They fret about poor wifi connection at sea.
Hence it comes that play and the society of women, war, and high posts, are so sought after. Not that there is in fact any happiness in them, or that men imagine true bliss to consist in money won at play, or in the hare which they hunt; we would not take these as a gift. We do not seek that easy and peaceful lot which permits us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the labour of office, but the bustle which averts these thoughts of ours, and amuses us.
— Blase Pascal, Pascal’s Pensées, with an introduction by T.S. Eliot (1958)
The vain man is the loneliest of human beings. He is constantly longing to be seen, understood, acknowledged, admired and loved.
— Berthold Auerbach, On the Heights (1907)
The really sociable man, who is only happily himself when he is in company, is to me a very mysterious figure. That people should be able to live without privacy and solitude strikes me as extraordinary.
— Aldous Huxley, Proper Studies (1927)
But little do men perceive what solitude is, and how far it extendeth; for a crowd is not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures, and talk but a tinkling cymbal where there is no love.
— Francis Bacon,”On Friendship”, Essays, XXVII (1612)
Le sage quelquefois évite le monde, de peur d’être ennuyé. (The wise man sometimes avoids the world, for fear of being bored.)
— Jean de La Bruyère, Les Caractères (1688)
I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
Solitude, though it may be silent as light, is, like light, the mightiest of agencies; for solitude is essential to man.
— Thomas De Quincey, “The Affliction of Childhood”, Suspiria de Profundis (1845)
Solitude is a silent storm that breaks down all our dead branches; yet it sends our living roots deeper into the living heart of the living earth.
— Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam (1926)
Landscape with Figure, from an album of Landscapes and Calligraphy for Liu Songfu, 1895/96
Xugu (Chinese, 1823-1896)
Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion; in order to serve men better, one has to hold them at a distance for a time.
— Albert Camus, The Myth Of Sisyphus And Other Essays (translated from the French by Justin O’Brien, 1955)
It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”, Essays: First Series (1841)
I need to be alone. I need to ponder my shame and my despair in seclusion; I need the sunshine and the paving stones of the streets without companions, without conversation, face to face with myself, with only the music of my heart for company.
— Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (1963)
By all means use sometimes to be alone. Salute thy self: see what thy soul doth wear. Dare to look in thy chest; for ’tis thine own: And tumble up and down what thou find’st there.
— George Herbert, The Temple (1899)
No se puede hacer nada sin la soledad. Me he creado una soledad que nadie sospecha. Pero el reloj dificulta hoy la soledad. ¿Ha visto usted algún santo con reloj? (Nothing can be done without solitude. I have created a loneliness that no one suspects. But the clock today makes solitude difficult. Have you seen any saints with a watch?)
— Pablo Picasso, as quoted in the Madrid newspaper ABC, 15 June 1932
It isn’t necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can do no other, it will writhe before you in ecstasy.
— Franz Kafka, The Zurau Aphorisms (translated from the German by Michael Hofmann, 2006)
I myself am best when least in company.
— William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene 4