“Solitude,” wrote Jacques Maritain, “is the flower of life in community.”
That startling assertion sheds light, I believe, on the abandonment or collapse of both community and solitude in our time. It warrants some explanation. Maritain notes, with Aristotle, that man is by nature a political animal, a being who thrives best in the context of a self-governing polis. This is not simply because man needs the assistance of others to provide for something better than mere subsistence—that he needs carpenters, masons, farmers, and so forth. It is also because he is made for friendship. He is meant to rejoice not so much in a private good, like a mansion with a tall hedge around it, but in those things that bind him in love with others. For Aristotle, the polis is the arena for our practice both of the practical virtues—prudence in educating our children, for example, or courage in defending our homes against enemies abroad—and of the intellectual virtues. The deepest friendships are forged when we share with others the truths we have beheld. With respect to this view of man, the pagan philosophers and the Christian theologians and contemplatives were at one.
In earlier times, even when a man seemed to have left the community behind, to retire in solitude to the desert, as did Anthony of Egypt, he was not abandoning social life so much as incorporating it into a way of life that transcends the social. So Maritain cites Thomas Aquinas, who argues that although the solitary contemplative, unlike almost all other men, has attained to a kind of self-sufficiency, his condition presupposes long exercise in virtues he could not have attained “without the help of the society of his fellow beings—with respect to the intelligence, to be taught; with respect to the heart, that harmful affections be repressed by the example and correction of others.” That is why, Maritain says, the ancient Christians used to drag the hermits from the desert to be their bishops. They were the ones who knew best the social and the individual good of man.
Whether that assessment was correct in every case is not the point. I mean rather to ask what happens when the conditions and assumptions that made the assessment possible no longer obtain: when self-government has been absorbed into the machinery of a vast, impersonal state, whose acts and ends are evaluated quantitatively according to a model of industrial efficiency (or inefficiency), and when people are taught that there is no objective moral or metaphysical truth, and no beauty of being, to provide the objects of contemplation. If solitude is the flower of life in community, then perhaps we may say, turning the equation inside out, that the terminus of a life that knows no contemplation, no higher good than the efficient pursuit of quantifiable objects, is isolation.
Here we need not consider the sadness at the heart of pleasure seeking—the profound loneliness that settles upon young people drinking at a party when there is nothing to celebrate, as they warily circle about one another, checking one another out, reckoning and being reckoned. It should be obvious that what is quantifiable is by its very nature finite and therefore—since man is never satisfied by the finite—felt as scarce. Thus the pursuit of such fleeting goods, as if they were the highest ends to which man can attain, is necessarily divisive. Here I mean more than that people compete for eminence in them. I mean that there is nothing in them that unites us; they presuppose that we are not meant for one another in love, but that at best we can get along beside one another, sometimes pursuing a pleasure we have in common, but otherwise acknowledging that people themselves are to be valued only according as they assist us in our own pursuits. And when their condition is such that they cannot do so—a child starving in Somalia, or a grandmother with a disintegrated mind—then we subject them to the merciless calculus of our utilitarian world. We tacitly say, “It will be better, all told, if they were to die quietly,” meaning that it will be more convenient for us, less of a reproach to our lives.
“No man is an island,” wrote Donne, but now we are all islands. That is the meaning of the word isolation—which has nothing to do, etymologically or existentially, with solitude. When the lover of wisdom retreats to the hills, he may commune with Socrates and Phaedrus under the plane tree on the country road from Athens, or he may recite to himself the poetry of Milton. He may open his heart to the fundamental goodness of the creatures around him, the trees, the animals, even the rocks and the dust. Solitude is thus often a retreat into relationship, a quieting of the noise of daily living so that we may live in the world and with one another the more richly.
But isolation—literally, island-making—is altogether different. If we say, “Because there is no transcendent good, we must each pursue what looks appealing to us, so long as we remain within the law,” we might as well invert the wisdom of Donne, affirming that we are not a part of the continent, a part of the main. If we say, “It is good that modern government provides for so many of our needs, so that we need not depend upon our neighbors,” we might as well reconceive our republic as a vast archipelago of individuals, delimited by the only freedom we acknowledge: freedom from one another.
So it is that a moral philosophy of isolation, of the autonomy of the individual pursuing his own pleasures, coincides with a politics of isolation, whereby individuals purchase that autonomy at the price of ceding to the state everything that people as social beings used to do for one another. We see this bargain implicitly in the ancient, apolitical hedonists, the Epicureans. They scorned political ambition, but ultimately for a suspect reason: it troubles a man’s life. Somebody, of course, would have to assume the burden of governing and soldiering, but it would not be the Epicureans. It is true that they wished, like the followers of Pythagoras and Plato and the philanthropic Aristotle, to promote the friendship of truth-seekers as the highest of human goods, but ultimately that hope had no solid foundation. For once one has said, “All things are only the collocation of atoms colliding in empty space,” there is not too much to say that can make the heart leap. Exalting pleasure to the highest good, as Cicero trenchantly noted in his treatise De Amicitia, reduces friendship to utility and the friend to an instrument. Friends do not love one another because they find the love useful to their pleasures—that is a contradiction. They wish rather to be useful to one another because of their love. Thus the Epicureans fail in both regards: their principles isolate people from one another and from any active responsibility for the common good.
It is important that we recognize the affinity between these forms of isolation. We may see it more clearly by imagining the converse. Whenever people unite in their devotion to a good that is not quantifiable, not reducible to pleasure, not deliverable by the state, and not subject to change or the drifts of human opinion, they stand against both the state and the hedonistic isolation it encourages. It must be so. They will affirm, if only implicitly, that there is something greater than the state, and that we are meant for one another, to share the beauty of what we behold, which, since it is independent of our beholding, allows our community to embrace those who came before us and those who will come after. Pleasure is bound to the moment and to the person experiencing it, but this joy beckons to the universal and the everlasting. The state is a fictive union, a faceless collective, but this joy is essentially personal and unitive. It casts land-bridges from man to man, from age to age. It is therefore suspected by statists and hedonists alike.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and Dante’s The Divine Comedy.