William Rounseville Alger.

The solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life online

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around in vain for a hand to clasp, or a heart to quicken
his by its responsive beatings. This loneliness is so
sharp and profound because of the contrast between the
memory of the past and the consciousness of the present
What was stands in sunlight there, what is rests in shad-
ow here ; and the opposition of the pictures makes the
lonesome soul doubly lonesome. It is thus with the ruins
of abbeys ; these are so intensely solitary from the con-
trast which haunts the imagination of the pilgrim, between
the former show of. processions, chants, church-banners,
bells, censers, and hymns, and the present scene of silence
and decay, roofless walls, ivy-grown arches, great trees
growing in the aisles, foxes burrowing in the refectory,
rooks and daws perched on the mouldy brackets.

More appalling, however, to the spectator, than this
solitude of bereft old age, or any experience of physical
dissolution, is that solitude of madness sometimes exhib-
ited, a death-in-life existence, the virtual destruction of
the mind, the temporary suppression of the soul. There
are patients in asylums of the insane, who are so shut up
in one mood, so possessed by one thought, that nothing
else can reach them. The convulsion of some tremen-
dous moment has petrified the before flexible mechanism
of the brain so as to allow the forces of consciousness
to operate only in one way and to one result. They
turn their faces to the wall, taking no interest in anything
more, never looking up, never speaking again. In a
dumb, impassive, fearful solitude they abide, till death,
the great deliverer, comes. Then, at length, they go


forth, like all the rest of us, each one alone, to encoun-
ter the dark secret which both repels and invites, and is
at once unavoidable, insoluble, and eternal.

What other solitariness is conceivable so unrelieved as
that of the unhappy lunatic who was convinced that he
should never die, but as a punishment of his demerit
should be kept forever alone in the world when all other
men were dead ? Ah ! lonely and dread as death appears
to many, it is unspeakably sweet and welcome when it
comes at last to one weary of the hubbub, and sick of
the insufficiency, of earth. It is easy for such an one to
sympathize with what the dying Howard said when seized
by an infectious fever at Kherson, in the midst of his phil-
anthropic labors, far from home and friends. " Lay me
quietly in the earth, place a sundial over my grave, and
let me be forgotten." Such was the trustful resignation
of the mind, such the complete weariness of the flesh,
that he shrank from the effort of the thought of fame.
This desire to cease and be forgotten is the divinely
natural preparation for our transition into futurity. The
passion for life sinking parallel with the failing force of
the organism, the two go quietly out together, so that
there is no rebellion. If the theologians, with their su-
perstitions and artificial horrors, will but let him alone,
man is competent to death as well as to life, and dies in

Death is a new thing to every one who experiences it.
Neither is it the same thing to any two persons ; for each
brings to it his own special qualities and accumulated
experience. What a different thing death is to one whose
thought includes and whose sensibility overspreads the
whole world, and to one whose consciousness is commen-
surate with little more than his own person and the sensi-
ble facts closely about . him ! To the latter it is as the
mere physical expiration of an animal ; to the former it
is as the collapse of a solar system. It has been said
that murderers have met their doom on the gibbet with
more fortitude than Christ on the cross. Not with more
fortitude, but with more insensibility. The ruffian dies
like a wild beast at bay. The infinitely diffused and in-


tense sensibility of Jesus made his death like the sepa
ration of a universe.

It is an affecting peculiarity of man that he shrinks
with strong antipathy from the thought of dying alone or
among strangers. He would have friendly eyes look on
him, feel the clasp of a familiar hand, in that silent im-
mense passage of his being. All things but man, when
fatally hurt or spent, retreat to die in solitude ; they are
afraid of being attacked in their weakness. If a wolf
so much as limps, the other wolves tear him in pieces.
Instinctively, therefore, the dying animal seeks a secret
corner. But man, with a few abnormal exceptions, never
wishes to die without some one near to count his sighs,
watch his ebbing moments, and mark his last gasp. It
is a pathetic proof of his natural sociality. Sympathy is
deeper than fear, and in the final failure of his own force,
in the upheaval of the bottom of his soul, he puts distrust
and hate aside, and clings to his kind with a loving ex-
pectation of help. But no companionship of other wis-
dom or love can avail or endure there. Personal insight
and trust of the truth, personal surrender to the Abso-
lute Spirit, these only can stay and comfort then.
Though outwardly girt by the fondest comrades, in-
wardly alone, each one casts his material investiture,
eludes their grasp and their gaze, and slips separately
into his curtained fate. The loneliness of dying is like
the loneliness of the sea, whereon many ships cross and
pass without speaking. So do many human beings die
simultaneously, but make no signals to each other as the
wonted shores recede, and the breath of the Infinite
swells the unseen sail, and the gray waste looms in the
silence of its immemorial mystery.



The Dangers of Solitude.

THE topic next to be treated is the perversions and
dangers of solitude. In attempting a general survey and
application of the lessons of this part of the subject,
scrupulous care is needed to avoid errors and exaggera-
tions. At the start it should be understood that there is
no magic in seclusion itself to make any one strong or
wise or good. A man may keep by himself because he
is a fool or a knave, and become the greater fool or knave
by doing so. The benefits of retirement are not the re-
sults of a charm, but the fruits of a law faithfully ob-
served. The secrets and blessings resident in solitude
must be wrung from it by our energy ; they will not spon-
taneously drop into our laps as we approach, any more
than the arrow-headed inscriptions in the desert yielded
the ancient history locked up in their cipher to the car-
avans and armies that for so many ages ignorantly trav-
elled by them. Solitude works on each one and con-
tributes to him after his own kind. It may make a
prophet or an idiot. It excites, concentrates, and forti-
fies the faculties of a strong and studious soul, but bewil-
ders and dissipates those of a weak and wandering one.
The great argument against the system of solitary con-
finement in penitentiaries is that it destroys the minds of
those subjected to it. Solitude has imbecility for one of
its handmaids. It was found, when the separate and
silent system was introduced into the Pennsylvania
prison, almost impossible to prevent the convicts from
climbing up to the windows to salute each other, and


from conversing through the walls of adjacent cells by
signals, so fierce was the demand of nature for sympa-
thetic communication. We must not let the philosophic
and poetic side of the subject fascinate us, and prevent
our seeing that all depends on the kind of solitude, the
kind of soul, the kind of activity between them. We
should remember that there is the solitary worm as well
as the solitary eagle. One is more likely to prefer to be
alone because he is too poor or too bad to furnish the
conditions for agreeable company, than because he can-
not find company worthy of him. It is so much easier
to get along where there is no one to thwart, contra-
dict, or irk. Wisdom is given to deep reflection, and
lonely reflection makes wise. Fools chatter; the gods
are silent. Though this is undeniable, there is truth on
the other side too. A sage is not unfrequently as talka-
tive as a gossip. Ripe experience is fondly apt to teach.
Earnestness is as much akin to oratory as it is to reverie.
A busy tongue may be the vehicle, as well as the substi-
tute, for a busy brain. If geese fly in a flock, while the
condor preys alone, the moral qualities of the goose are
better than those of the condor, and, undoubtedly, it is
the happier bird. The portentous gravity of the hermit
owl covers not so much wisdom as the frolics of the so-
cial swallow. There is no virtue in mere loneliness to
dignify the fop or regenerate the fool, to purify a rake or
make a soulless hunks a generous lover. And when such
as these affect it, the affectation is but another vent of
their folly, a trick of vanity. The solitary often occupy
themselves with trivialities instead of grandeurs. A fa-
mous pillar-saint was observed, on the top of his column,
to touch his forehead to his feet twelve hundred and
forty-three times without intermission. The emperor
Domitian, whose congested vanity made him ostenta-
tious of courting sage retirement, was discovered in his
seclusion stabbing flies with a bodkin.

Solitude is the retreat of the defeated as much as it is
the home of the self-sufficing. Ignatius Loyola once said
to a young member of his order, who, on account of his
great susceptibility to anger, was accustomed frequently


Co avoid his companions and remain apart : " Irritability
and choler are not to be conquered by flight, but by com-
bat ; solitude will not destroy them, it will only conceal
them." How these words must thrill through the ranks
of congenial souls ; a blast from the trumpet of the sol-
dier of eternity ! He adds, " You will sacrifice more to
God, you will gain more for yourself, by acts of mortifi-
cation in your intercourse with your brethren than if you
were to bury yourself in a cavern and to pass a whole
year in complete silence." One of the dangers of a re-
treat is the fallacy of believing that we are destroying,
while really we are only hiding, our vices. Many find it
an easier art to live alone than with their fellows, because
there they have but one to quarrel with, and that one
the most obsequious of flatterers. It is a higher accom-
plishment to harmonize with all than it is to melodize
alone. The former feat is to the latter as a perfect com-
position in counterpoint is to a good solo. There is
ground for Shenstone's rebuke,

In cloistered state let selfish sages dwell,
Proud that their heart is narrow as their cell.

The truth is, man is both a gregarious and a solitary
animal, as much made for society as for solitude, and as
much for solitude as for society. His true life, in a healthy
state, is an alternation from one to the other, in due pro
portion. To live exclusively in either proves disease,
works ill. The office of each is to fit for the other, and
lead to it There is something wrong in him whose
lonely interviews with nature make him dislike to meet
men ; something wrong in him whose association with
men unfits him to enjoy retirement. The one should
send him to the other with a renewed relish. As Cole-
ridge says in his poem to Charles Lloyd,

If this green mountain 't were most sweet to climb,.
E'en while the bosom ached with loneliness,
How heavenly sweet if some dear friend should bless
The adventurous toil, and up the path sublime
Now lead, now follow, the glad landscape round
Wide and more wide increasing without bound 1


Society and solitude ought to rectify and supplement each
other, somewhat as the states of waking and slumber do.
One is comparatively for observation and comparison ;
the other for rumination and digestion. Among men we
obtain the food of the spirit ; apart from them we assimi-
late it. But it should never be forgotten that we are far
less what solitude makes us than solitude is what we
make it. Its influence on us depends on the character
we carry into it, and the improvement we make of it. Its
vagueness ungirds and empties an aimless soul. But a
man with a mighty purpose finds room and leisure and in-
vitations in it for his imagination to work and react until
all the centres of association, the batteries of his mind, are
charged with magnetic ideas. What is the true zest of
life ? An absorbing object. in the tent with
Achilles, Audubon with his rifle in the wilderness,
Kant buried in thought among his books, Humboldt
climbing the side of Chimborazo, Fenelon chastening
his self-love on the way to perfection, under the differ-
ences in all these there is an identity of joy, namely, the
fruition accompanying the pursuit of an aim. If we re-
treat from observation for the sake of dawdling indolence
or other form of self-indulgence, the retreat is pernicious;
but if we withdraw to cherish a keener and deeper devo-
tion to some noble aim, to prevent our purposes from
being worn down and frittered away by the petty fric-
tions of petty people, it is sanative, holy, inspiring. Grat-
ification, made selfish by isolation, is degraded from the
level it naturally holds when shared with others. Men,
devouring their food in solitude with mere physical greed,
approximate swine swallowing their swill ; men, seasoning
their food with conversation and affection, approximate
the gods taking their ambrosia.

First, solitude is what we make it ; then, we are what it
makes us.' To the poetic and spiritually-minded religion-
ist, solitude is " the voluntary winding-sheet in which he
wraps himself to taste the voluptuousness of being dead
to earth." To the ambitious and carnally-minded world-
ling, solitude is a camera-obscura into which he retreats,
sitting there, himself unseen, to study society, to prepare


his plots and traps ere he sallies out to take it captive.
A neutral mind left alone, with its squandering vague-
ness, legitimately ends in collapse ; a mind intent on a
good aim is benignly strengthened ; a mind intent on a
bad aim is perniciously strengthened. There is, there-
fore, in mere solitude itself, no spell to exorcise and bless
its votaries. All the blessings it is capable of yielding
are to be drawn from it by a faithful observance of the
conditions of its improvement. Beckford, the gifted but
wayward and unhappy author of Vathek, suffered contin-
ually, in his own touching phrase, from " the faint sick
ness of a wounded heart." In vain did he try, with every
outward advantage, first the most brilliant publicity, then
the most profound privacy. Neither could successfully
medicate the~fatal wound which was himself.

Comparatively few can afford to do without the animat-
ing motives of fellowship and publicity. Solitude is the
breeding-place of fear. Nowhere else does superstition
thrive so well. Bentham observed, " Many a one who
laughs at hobgoblins in company, dreads them when
alone." Where one man is brave by himself, twenty are
brave before a multitude; he is a high and powerful char-
acter who is equally brave in both situations. Some when
undisturbed by a foreign presence spontaneously imp
their wings for a flight into the highest regions of romance
and nobleness ; others sink if not incited by the con-
sciousness of being on exhibition. He is of a royal spirit
who can make the holy stimulus of duty perform the ser-
vice usually rendered by the ignoble stimulus of vanity,
and, at the same time, catch fresh inspiration from sym-
pathy. There is something impressive in the fidelity with
which famous public performers, great artists, in their
several departments, keep themselves in training. What
indefatigable pains they take to prevent any falling off in
their skill or power ! With unfaltering devotion, every
day, these celebrated favorites privately practise their
feats, to keep every sense acute, every muscle firm, every
faculty equipped. Most obvious and keen and constant,
though somewhat coarse and low, is the motive that feeds
their purpose and keeps their efforts from flagging j


namely, the lavish returns of personal admiration and
pecuniary gain to be secured from the public. The
wearisome preparatory exercises which seem so heroic,
are less impressive when we see that they are sustained
by an ever-present anticipation of golden guerdons and
intoxicating applause which will be bestowed on them
as they display their accomplishments before delighted
crowds. The motive itself which always decides moral
rank is vulgar enough for the vile to feel ; it is the
power and tenacity with which they respond to the mo-
live that are great But there is a spectacle of devoted-
ness incomparably grander and more beautiful, as author-
itative and sublime as anything known on this earth. It
is afforded by those profound thinkers, exalted believers,
fervent lovers, who never make an exhibition, never re-
ceive human recognition, but toil on in secrecy, unno-
ticed, unthought of, set only on attaining spiritual per-
fection. Winning no social appreciation, asking none,
without even a friend to look reverently and lovingly in
on their aims and struggles, they apply themselves in
their own retreats to the tasks of wisdom and piety.
With supernatural courage and energy they toil to disen-
tangle the webs of sophistry and acquire a knowledge of
the truth, to chasten their passions, and grow pure and
magnanimous and gentle. Though their hearts are pain-
fully full of love and longing, with saintly renunciation
they refuse to purchase the common admiration which
they could easily obtain in over-measure if they would
but so demean themselves as to stoop for it. They suffer
no day to go by without strenuous exercises of their
highest faculties in the rarest feats of human nature, tak-
ing scrupulous care that no sweetness of tone, no preci-
sion of touch, no delicacy of motion be lost. And all
this they do without one public plaudit, without one sym-
pathizing eye to see. Here is pure heroism indeed. It
puts all other bravery to shame. The proudest boasts of
history are contemptible before it. It dwarfs a Caesar in-
to the champion of a village brawl, glorifies a Jesus into
the hero of a universe. These are the saints in the
church of nature, the heroes of solitude, the chivalry of


mind, the elect artists on whose curtained performance
God gazes, an invisible Spectator, distributing his ap-
plause in the functions of their characters.

To live wholly in society, or wholly in solitude, is fatal
to the best prerogatives of the soul. To be healthy and
complete we must live alternately, now with our fellows
and the world, now with ourselves and the universe.
While in each one we shall gain its best advantages by
making the most of its distinctions from the other, ap-
preciating the contrast as vividly as possible. It is an
abuse of either to convey the unqualified conditions of
the other into it ; in company, to notice no one, see noth-
ing, hear nothing ; alone, to be occupied with social van-
ities and heart-burnings. When among men, they have
claims on us, and we have no right to be self-absorbed or
absent-minded. However salutary solitude may be, it is
perverse to make a solitude of society. Yet this state-
ment is susceptible of the modification happily afforded
in a paragraph of Schopenhauer, which as strongly re-
bukes his perverse practice as it exhibits his theoretic
wisdom : " Take a little of your solitude with you when
you visit men. Self-detached, view them in a pure, ob-
jective light, with a noble freedom from prejudice. Then
society is a fire at which the wise man, from a prudent
distance, warms himself, not plunging into it like the
fool who, after getting well blistered, rushes into the cold-
ness of solitude and complains that the fire burns." Mix-
ture with companions, as well as isolation from them,
has its contributions to offer towards our perfect equip-
ment. If power be born in seclusion, art is the fruit
of association. If sentiment be nourished apart from
men, ambition is kindled among them. If principles
grow in the soil of solitude, actions ripen in the air of
society. He who abides overmuch by himself must care-
fully keep an open communication between the in net
meditations and plans that occupy his imagination and
the social motives that would fertilize and apply his
energy. Otherwise he is likely to become an idle
dreamer. The currents of his enterprise are in danger
of turning awry and losing the name of action. The
5 a


ideas of deeds become the substitutes of deeds : the
mental pictures of victories prevent, instead of prepaiing
for, actual victories.

Many persons who keep their wits awake in company
let them lie dormant when alone, as if sharp study were
useless there. But observation and reflection are not
more necessary in society than they are in solitude. If
seclusion by wisdom is divine, seclusion by ignorance is
both vulgar and dangerous. Persons of a rustic and
bashful retiredness are at the mercy of all sorts of impo-
sitions, lures, false estimates. They are often overawed
by the showy and wicked initiates of the world, deferring
to them with such fear and wonder as the gorgeous-col-
ored and quiet forest-birds of Brazil might feel if some
wild gray ocean-fowl flew screaming from his tempests
through their solitudes. While the heart and the spirit
stay at home, therefore, let the eye and the mind learn
good and evil by travelling much abroad beyond the
retreats where virtue and innocence retire to nourish
their energies and to protect their delicacy. The less
we mix with men the greater our weakness and unwis-
dom, unless we fill their absence with something better,
grave thoughts and earnest feelings, faith and study.
Hermits who watch, aspire, and philosophize, become the
truest sages. Then it is not strange

That we, in the dark chamber of the heart,
Sitting alone, see the world tabled to us.
For the world wonders how recluses know
So much, and most of all, how we know them.
It is they who paint themselves upon our hearts,
In their own lights and darknesses, not we.

A clear, powerful, assimilating purpose is the sole ade-
quate safeguard against the exposure of those who are
alone to idleness, triviality, dawdling reverie. Without
this purpose, solitude is a manufactory of vapid vision-
aries. It is absurd to dilate on the advantages of soli-
tude at the expense of the advantages of society. They
aie supplementary rather than contradictory, and derive
their several powers from their mutual contrast.

Goethe has said : " Were there but one man in the


world, he would be a terror to himself." Nay, it may be
added, were there but one man in the world, there
would be no man in the world. In the absence of hu-
manity he could no more remain man than there could
be an island if there were no sea. The single individual
is to collective humanity as the little column of mercury
in the barometer is to the whole atmosphere. They
balance each other although infinitely incommensurate.
A quicksilver sea, two and a half feet deep, covering the
globe, would weigh five thousand billion tons. That is
the heft of the air, that transparent robe of blue gauze
which outsags the Andes and the Alps. Its pressure is
unfelt, yet if that pressure were annulled all the water on
the earth would immediately fly into vapor. Public opin-
ion is the atmosphere of society, without which the forces
of the individual would collapse and all the institutions
of society fly into atoms. With every man mankind, or
some representative of it, is ideally present in almost
every act of consciousness. Often the most important
truths are the ones we are least aware of: we act and
react on them automatically. Scarcely with more cer-
tainty does every movement of a private lung imply the
public atmosphere than every act of our souls presup-
poses the existence of our fellow beings. As Borne said,
" Man can do without much, but not without men." The
self-esteem of the anchorite is sustained by a subtle con-
viction that if they knew it men would admire the supe-
riority that enables him to dispense with their society.
Saint Antony sought out Saint Paul, the earliest of the her-
mits of the Thebais, and after much difficulty succeeded
in gaining admittance to his cave. The first question of
the long-hidden recluse was, " How fares the human

Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 7 of 35)