Solitude and Hope07-25-2020
Jennifer Stitt finds herself turning to Hannah Arendt amidst the pandemic, protests, and democratic danger. In such “dark times,” Stitt writes, Arendt’s meditations on the relations between isolation, loneliness, and solitude are meaningful. Above all, Stitt is attracted to Arendt’s idea of solitude, “the thinking activity” that “made moral judgments—the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, “right from wrong, beautiful from ugly”—possible.” Insofar as solitude frees one from the world and initiates an inner dialogue with oneself, it provides the space for me to think for myself and thus is the necessary prerequisite for all action, action in which I act to insert myself into the public world. It is in the active and political potentiality of solitude that Stitt finds hope amidst the despair of the present moment.
Today, in the midst of a global pandemic, we have found ourselves physically cut off from one another, forced into varying degrees of social distancing and isolation. Many of us have felt helpless, unable to act to alter our circumstances. Many of us have felt uprooted from our regular routines and alienated from our shared world. Many of us are lonely. And what Arendt illuminates for us in this moment ought to serve as a warning: in non-totalitarian societies, it is loneliness that prepares people for totalitarian domination. When loneliness becomes an everyday experience, when loneliness is no longer a “borderline experience . . . suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age,” then the possibilities for solitude and collective action slowly begin to disappear.
As Arendt reminds us, efforts to escape from the grimness of our current moment into nostalgia for a still-intact past are useless. Perhaps we would do well to follow Jaspers’s advice: “Succumb neither to the past nor the future. It is important to be present.” Perhaps we might take this moment to remind ourselves of our rootedness in the world, to stop and really think in the way that Arendt encouraged engaged thought in others. Perhaps we might enlarge our mental landscapes and begin to inhabit different terrain: perhaps we might use this time alone to resist loneliness by participating in a solitary dialogue with ourselves. Perhaps we might use this time to contemplate the live questions, to ask: “What do you mean when you say . . . ? What do you mean when you do . . . ? How can we build a more compassionate, more democratic post-pandemic society—how can we ensure the survival of a world held in common?”
What is most frightening about Arendt’s thought is also what is most hopeful: totalitarianism itself is the result of the human capacity for creating something new. But so is representative democracy. The future isn’t determined yet. Only by confronting and facing up to the present, in solitude, can we resist the paralyzing forces of reckless optimism and reckless despair. Perhaps the most radical thing we can do is to turn off social media, turn off the news, end that lengthy Zoom call, and consciously cultivate space for solitary contemplation. Arendt reminds us that if we can learn to keep company with ourselves, we can free our minds and our bodies from the terror of not being seen or heard. We can learn to love human plurality in all of its complexity. Through the practice of solitude, we can learn to love our common world.