Isolation, Loneliness, and Solitude: Hannah Arendt’s Triumvirate
Is it still I that burns there all alone?
Unrecognizable? memories denied?
O life, o life: being outside.
And I in flames—no one is left—unknown.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Komm Du (1926), trans. by Walter Kaufmann (1975)
The only possible metaphor one may conceive of for the life of the mind is the sensation of being alive. Without the breath of life the human body is a corpse; without thinking the human mind is dead.
—Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (1977)
After months of collectively weathering crisis after crisis, so many of us have felt unmoored. There’s so much uncertainty surrounding our current moment. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and scientists don’t yet fully understand the novel coronavirus. America is mired in an ongoing economic crisis. Mass protests over racial inequality and state-sanctioned violence have swept the nation, drawing public attention to our broken political systems and institutions. We’re grappling with the erosion of American democracy itself. The only certain outcome appears to be mass illness and death from Covid-19. We are indeed living in what the German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt called “dark times.”
In dark times, there are certain writers I return to as a source of solace. Their words reach from the past into the present to crystallize what William James called the “live” questions—questions that force us to face up to reality, questions that help us comprehend and find meaning in the fleeting moments between past and future. Arendt is one of those writers, someone who offers no easy answers or overarching frameworks but who simply reminds us to stop and “think what we are doing.” If, as she put it, “even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination,” then her ideas about solitude, loneliness, and the human condition of plurality help shed light on our common world.
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Hannah Arendt knew what it felt like to be lonely.
For eighteen years, Arendt was a stateless person. In 1933, she was arrested by the Gestapo and detained for eight days for conducting illegal research for a Zionist organization. After her release, she immediately fled Nazi Germany. Unanchored, seeking safe harbor, Arendt drifted around Europe for eight years, spending time in Prague, Geneva, and Paris. She was held for nearly six weeks in an internment camp in Gurs before narrowly escaping to Montauban, then Lisbon, and ultimately to New York City in 1941.
Arendt finally found refuge in the United States, but it would be another ten years before she received American citizenship. Her itinerant existence was, at times, isolating and lonely. But she maintained “a little solidarity” with others who had experienced exile from Europe, and in a letter to her mentor and friend, Karl Jaspers, she wrote that without that solidarity, “every last one of us would simply have gone under.”
Objecting to the term “refugee,” Arendt preferred the language of “statelessness,” “uprootedness,” or “homelessness.” From her perspective, refugees were people “driven to seek refuge because of some act committed or some political opinion held.” But while Jews and others persecuted by the Nazis were indeed forced to seek refuge, they had “committed no acts,” as she put it, nor “dreamt of having any radical opinion”—they were persecuted, in other words, not for what they said or did but for who they were. With a great deal of grit and good fortune, she escaped with her life, but she lost nearly everything. “We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life,” she lamented in “We Refugees” (1943):
We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.
Those experiences fundamentally shaped Arendt’s ideas about isolation (Isolation), loneliness (Verlassenheit), and solitude (Einsamkeit)—the triumvirate that would be at the heart of much of her subsequent thinking.
In one of her formative essays, “Ideology and Terror” (1953), Arendt distinguished isolation from loneliness. Isolation was a kind of paralysis that threatened political life by making it impossible for individuals to come together, to act in concert, to pursue a common concern. “Destructive of power and the capacity for action,” isolation was pre-totalitarian, a state of aloneness that prepared the soil for the growth of tyrannical government. “Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it is always its result,” she wrote. Feeling helpless was a distinctive feature of isolation, since “power always comes from men acting together” and “isolated men are powerless by definition.” Once isolation took root, terror alienated the helpless individual from the shared world, from her fellow human beings, by using lies and propaganda to remake reality and rewrite history and by preventing collective action. Isolation and terror transformed the public sphere into an unrecognizable, unmapped wilderness.
Loneliness was an even more extreme state of “uprootedness” and “superfluousness” that shattered private life and the individual’s capacity for thought altogether. “Deserted by all human companionship,” deserted even by herself, the lonely individual was left bereft, feeling that she “had no place in the world.” If isolation concerned only the political sphere, loneliness concerned “human life as a whole,” and was the hallmark of totalitarian government. The peculiar thing about totalitarianism, as Arendt understood it, was that it destroyed both public and private life, leaving the lonely individual politically and existentially homeless. Verlassenheit can also be translated as “abandonment,” which is what she meant when she said that loneliness leaves the individual with no one—not a single person, not even herself—to recognize and guarantee her “unexchangeable” identity, or to verify her perceptions and experiences of the world. As a stateless person, she learned that lonely people are abandoned people who don’t belong “to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.”
Unlike isolation and loneliness, solitude created space for what Arendt called “the thinking activity,” for the inner dialogue that made moral judgments—the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, “right from wrong, beautiful from ugly”—possible. In solitude, one never felt abandoned, longed for companionship, or craved camaraderie: “Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business,” Arendt remarked. “Solitude,” she said—in a volume simply titled Thinking—“is that human situation in which I keep myself company. Loneliness comes about . . . when I am one and without company” but desire it and cannot find it.
In her Denktagebuch (thought diary), Arendt suggested that Einsamkeit was the state of being “alone with myself: thinking.” She began to develop this concept in “Ideology and Terror” (1953) when she wrote:
All thinking, strictly speaking, is done in solitude and is a dialogue between me and myself; but this dialogue of the two-in-one does not lose contact with the world of my fellow-men because they are represented in the self with whom I lead the dialogue of thought. The problem of solitude is that this two-in-one needs the others in order to become one again: one unchangeable individual whose identity can never be mistaken for that of any other. For the confirmation of my identity I depend entirely upon other people; and it is the great saving grace of companionship for solitary men that it makes them “whole” again.
In solitude, then, the private and public worlds were distinguishable even if they weren’t entirely separate. In private dialogue with herself, the solitary individual was alone but never lonely; solitude allowed her the freedom to stop and think, to practice slow deliberation and careful debate with herself, to discover within herself truth and meaning about the public, shared world. The inner self was a friend with whom one could carry on a conversation. Such a friend finally makes the soundless inner voice audible and poses the vital Socratic question: “What do you mean when you say . . . ?” The self, Arendt declared, “is the only one from whom you can never get away—except by ceasing to think.”
For Arendt, solitude was inseparable from the thinking activity, which required active engagement with the self and the world. It was distinct, in her view, from a passive state of daydreaming or “being lost in thought,” which she tended to equate with a state of speechless “wonder” at the world as it is (Thaumadzein). She claimed that wonder was the idle beginning of thought, a state of astonishment that became dangerous when the professional philosopher attempted to take up “wondering as one’s permanent abode,” becoming cut off from all others and the shared world. The state of solitude, however, was a state of plurality, of being and living with—not just with oneself, but others. “Speaking with myself I live together with myself,” she noted. In the dialogue of the two-in-one, she continued, “I am not altogether separated from that plurality which is the world of men and which we call in its most general sense humanity.” The thinking activity, that dialectic with oneself, that Socratic questioning and answering process, constituted a conversation “between friends.” It enabled understanding of other ideas and other perspectives by cultivating what Arendt called (after Kant) an “enlarged mentality,” which made it possible to “think from the standpoint of somebody else.” Arendt believed that, “by the force of imagination,” the thinking activity made others present, even in solitude; “to think with an enlarged mentality” meant that “one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.”
Visiting is an apt image: solitude, according to Arendt, could not be sustained permanently. It was a practice that allowed one to temporarily exit the public world of appearances, where citizens are seen and heard by others and where they have the capacity for spontaneous action; it allowed the individual to visit herself, to dive into her inner depths, to take stock of her own opinions, apart from the crowd, and to pry loose the pearls of thought that crystallized into comprehension of her moral and political worlds. “Examining and bearing consciously” the burdens of the past—no matter how difficult, no matter what they may be—enabled one to attentively face up to reality and resist the threat of conformity. And for Arendt, this kind of solitary contemplation was necessary in order to reenter society. “Be as you would like to appear to others,” she wrote, “that is, appear to yourself as you would want to be seen by others. . . . Men attain their full humanity, their full reality as men, because they not only are (as in the privacy of the household) but appear.” She thought that ability to appear—to be seen and heard “by others as well as by ourselves”—was what constituted reality itself.
According to Arendt, solitude was reciprocally constitutive with the ability to act, to be seen and heard in the public political sphere. By reentering the world of appearances, one reentered the shared world held in common with her fellow citizens. By engaging in political deliberation and debate in the public sphere, a plurality of diverse individuals with diverse perspectives could come together to act in concert to pursue a common goal, to resolve their disagreements through the free exchange of ideas, and to reach a democratic consensus. “By talking about what is between them,” Arendt asserted, “it becomes ever more common to them. It gains not only its specific articulateness, but develops and expands and finally, in the course of time and life, begins to constitute a little world of its own which is shared in friendship.” The public realm, she explained in The Human Condition, was “the only place where men could show who they really and inexchangeably were. It was for the sake of this chance, and out of a love for a body politic that made it possible to them all, that each was more or less willing to share in the burden of jurisdiction, defense, and administration of public affairs.” Arendt’s conception of citizenship as an ongoing conversation among friends rooted her to the world held in common. It guaranteed her unexchangeable identity, gave her a sense of belonging in and to the world, and served as a democratic antidote to the loneliness of totalitarian tyranny.
Arendt’s version of solitude, then, paradoxically had significant political implications. It allowed the solitary individual to see the world from another point of view, which she thought was “the political kind of insight par excellence.” She went as far as to say that solitude was “the necessary condition for the good functioning of the polis.” In other words, “living together with others begins with living together with oneself.”
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Arendt was immune to a blind faith in the democratic promise. She had lived through the Weimar period, she had witnessed the rot and ruination of Western institutions, and because of that experience, she understood that even democracies like America were not inoculated against totalitarian temptations.
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.
Photo Credit: Sasha Freemind, via Unsplash.