There are names and there are things. A name is a spoken sound which designates a thing and acts as a sign for it. The name is not part of that thing nor part of its substance: it is a foreign body attached to that thing; it is quite outside it.Michel de Montaigne, ‘On glory’, The Complete Essays
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We often mistake the very things that enable us to be free — context, meaning, facticity, situation, a general direction in our lives — for things that define us and take away our freedom. It is only with all of these that we can be free in a real sense.Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café, p.155
A deserted street is not one along which no one walks, but a street along which people walk as if it were deserted. (Fernando Pessoa)
This story in The Guardian about Christopher Knight is incredible. He parked his car and disappeared into the woods in Maine, USA at the age of 20. He’s been living there for 27 years.
What interests me the most, however, is this section:
Knight said that he couldn’t accurately describe what it felt like to spend such an immense period of time alone. Silence does not translate into words. “It’s complicated,” he said. “Solitude bestows an increase in something valuable. I can’t dismiss that idea. Solitude increased my perception. But here’s the tricky thing: when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for. There was no need to define myself. I became irrelevant.”
The dividing line between himself and the forest, Knight said, seemed to dissolve. His isolation felt more like a communion. “My desires dropped away. I didn’t long for anything. I didn’t even have a name. To put it romantically, I was completely free.”
Virtually everyone who has tried to describe deep solitude has said something similar. “I am nothing; I see all,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Lord Byron called it “the feeling infinite”. The American mystic Thomas Merton said that “the true solitary does not seek himself, but loses himself”.
For those who do not choose to be alone – like prisoners and hostages – a loss of one’s socially created identity can be terrifying, a plunge into madness. Psychologists call it “ontological insecurity”, losing your grip on who you are. Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire, a chronicle of two six‑month stints as a ranger in Utah’s Arches National Monument, said that being solitary for a long time “means risking everything human”. Knight, meanwhile, didn’t even keep a mirror in his camp. He was never once bored. He wasn’t sure, he said, that he even understood the concept of boredom. “I was never lonely,” Knight added. He was attuned to the completeness of his own presence rather than to the absence of others.
“If you like solitude,” he said, “you are never alone.”
It’s a tenet of Stoicism (as exemplified by the discourses of Epictetus and Seneca, for example) that one needs to learn how to be comfortable in your own skin — that possessions or a change of location can’t make you happy in and of itself. Knight’s experience, and that of others who have spent a long time by themselves without going mad, seems to be a step even beyond that.
What I like about Stoic philosophy is that it emphasises the responsibility we all have towards civic society. Secreting yourself away and cutting off ties with society, at the end of the day, feels a little selfish, to be honest.
Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own. Unless we are very ungrateful, all those distinguished founders of holy creeds were born for us and prepared for us a way of life. By the toil of others we are led into the presence of things which have been brought from darkness into light. We are excluded from no age, but we have access to them all; and if we are prepared in loftiness of mind to pass beyond the narrow confines of human weakness, there is a long period of time through which we can roam.Seneca, ‘On the Shortness of Life’