Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Love of Solitude
By Robert Burton (15771640)
From the Causes of Melancholy
COZEN german to idleness, and a concomitant cause which goes hand in hand with it, is nimia solitudo, too much solitarinessby the testimony of all physicians, cause and symptom both; but as it is here put for a cause, it is either coact, enforced, or else voluntary. Enforced solitariness is commonly seen in students, monks, friars, anchorites, that, by their order and course of life, must abandon all company, society of other men, and betake themselves to a private cell; otio superstitioso seclusi1 (as Bale and Hospinian well term it), such as are the Carthusians of our time, that eat no flesh (by their order), keep perpetual silence, never go abroad; such as live in prison, or some desert place, and cannot have company, as many of our country gentlemen do in solitary houses; they must either be alone without companions, or live beyond their means, and entertain all comers as so many hosts, or else converse with their servants and hinds, such as are unequal, inferior to them, and of a contrary disposition; or else, as some do, to avoid solitariness, spend their time with lewd fellows in taverns, and in ale-houses, and thence addict themselves to some unlawful disports, or dissolute courses. Divers again are cast upon this rock of solitariness for want of means, or out of a strong apprehension of some infirmity, disgrace; or, through bashfulness, rudeness, simplicity, they cannot apply themselves to others company. Nullum solum infelici gratius solitudine, ubi nullus sit qui miseriam exprobret.2 This enforced solitariness takes place, and produceth his effect soonest, in such as have spent their time jovially, peradventure in all honest recreations, in good company, in some great family or populous city, and are upon a sudden confined to a desert country cottage far off, restrained of their liberty, and barred from their ordinary associates. Solitariness is very irksome to such, most tedious, and a sudden cause of great inconvenience.
Voluntary solitariness is that which is familiar with melancholy, and gently brings on, like a Siren, a shooing-horn,3 or some Sphinx, to this irrevocable gulf: a primary cause Piso calls it; most pleasant it is at first, to such as are melancholy given, to lie in bed whole days, and keep their chambers, to walk alone in some solitary grove, betwixt wood and water, by a brook side, to meditate upon some delightsome and pleasant subject, which shall affect them most; amabilis insania, and mentis gratissimus error. A most incomparable delight it is so to melancholize, and build castles in the air, to go smiling to themselves, acting an infinite variety of parts, which they suppose, and strongly imagine they represent, or that they see acted or done. Blanda quidem ab initio,4 saith Lemnius, to conceive and meditate of such pleasant things sometimes, present, past, or to come, as Rhasis speaks. So delightsome these toys are at first, they could spend whole days and nights without sleep, even whole years alone in such contemplations, and phantastical meditations, which are like unto dreams; and they will hardly be drawn from them, or willingly interrupt. So pleasant their vain conceits are, that they hinder their ordinary tasks and necessary business; they cannot address themselves to them, or almost to any study or employment: these phantastical and bewitching thoughts so covertly, so feelingly, so urgently, so continually, set upon, creep in, insinuate, possess, overcome, distract, and detain them, they cannot, I say, go about their more necessary business, stave off or extricate themselves, but are ever musing, melancholizing, and carried along, as he (they say) that is led round about an heath with a Puck in the night. They run earnestly on in this labyrinth of anxious and solicitous melancholy meditations, and cannot well or willingly refrain, or easily leave off, winding and unwinding themselves, as so many clocks, and still pleasing their humours, until at last the scene is turned upon a sudden, by some bad object; and they, being now habituated to such vain meditations and solitary places, can endure no company, can ruminate of nothing but harsh and distasteful subjects. Fear, sorrow, suspicion, subrusticus pudor,5 discontent, cares, and weariness of life, surprise them in a moment; and they can think of nothing else: continually suspecting, no sooner are their eyes open, but this infernal plague of melancholy seizeth on them, and terrifies their souls, representing some dismal object to their minds, which now, by no means, no labour, no persuasions, they can avoid; hæret lateri letalis arundo;6 they may not be rid of it; they cannot resist. I may not deny but that there is some profitable meditation, contemplation, and kind of solitariness, to be embraced, which the fathers so highly commendedHierom, Chrysostom, Cyprian, Austin, in whole tracts, which Petrarch, Erasmus, Stella, and others, so much magnify in their booksa paradise, an heaven on earth, if it be used aright, good for the body, and better for the soul; as many of those old monks used it, to divine contemplations; as Simulus a courtier in Adrians time, Diocletian the emperor, retired themselves, etc., in that sense, Vatia solus scit vivere; Vatia lives alone; which the Romans were wont to say, when they commended a country life; or to the bettering of their knowledge, as Democritus, Cleanthes, and those excellent philosophers, have ever done, to sequester themselves from the tumultuous world; or, as in Plinys villa Laurentana, Tullys Tusculan, Jovius study, that they might better vacare studiis et Deo, serve God and follow their studies. Methinks, therefore, our too zealous innovators were not so well advised in that general subversion of abbeys and religious houses, promiscuously to fling down all. They might have taken away those gross abuses crept in amongst them, rectified such inconveniencies, and not so far to have raved and raged against those fair buildings, and everlasting monuments of our forefathers devotion, consecrated to pious uses. Some monasteries and collegiate cells might have been well spared, and their revenues otherwise employed; here and there one, in good towns or cities at least, for men and women of all sorts and conditions to live in, to sequester themselves from the cares and tumults of the world, that were not desirous or fit to marry, or otherwise willing to be troubled with common affairs, and know not well where to bestow themselves, to live apart in, for more conveniency, good education, better company sake; to follow their studies (I say) to the perfection of arts and sciences, common good, and, as some truly devoted monks of old had done, freely and truly to serve God: for these men are neither solitary, nor idle, as the poet made answer to the husbandman in Æsop, that objected idleness to him, he was never so idle as in his company; or that Scipio Africanus in Tully, numquam minus solus, quam quum solus; numquam minus otiosus, quam quum esset otiosus; never less solitary, than when he was alone, never more busy, than when he seemed to be most idle. It is reported by Plato, in his dialogue de Amore, in that prodigious commendation of Socrates, how, a deep meditation coming into Socrates mind by chance, he stood still musing, eodem vestigio cogitabundus, from morning to noon; and, when as then he had not yet finished his meditation, perstabat cogitans; he so continued till the evening; the soldiers (for he then followed the camp) observed him with admiration, and on set purpose watched all night; but he persevered immoveable ad exortum solis, till the sun rose in the morning, and then, saluting the sun, went his ways. In what humour constant Socrates did thus, I know not, or how he might be affected; but this would be pernicious to another man; what intricate business might so really possess him, I cannot easily guess. But this is otiosum otium; it is far otherwise with these men, according to Seneca: omnia nobis mala solitudo persuadet; this solitude undoeth us; pugnat cum vitâ sociali; tis a destructive solitariness. These men are devils, alone, as the saying is; homo solus aut deus aut dæmon; a man, alone, is either a saint or a devil; mens ejus aut languescit, aut tumescit;7 and væ soli! in this sense; woe be to him that is so alone! These wretches do frequently degenerate from men, and, of sociable creatures, become beasts, monsters, inhumane, ugly to behold, misanthropi; they do even loathe themselves, and hate the company of men, as so many Timons, Nebuchadnezzars, by too much indulging to these pleasing humours, and through their own default. So that which Mercurialis (Consil. II.) sometimes expostulated with his melancholy patient, may be justly applied to every solitary and idle person in particular; natura de te videtur conqueri posse, etc., nature may justly complain of thee, that, whereas she gave thee a good wholesome temperature, a sound body, and God hath given thee so divine and excellent a soul, so many good parts and profitable gifts, thou hast not only contemned and rejected, but hast corrupted them, polluted them, overthrown their temperature, and perverted those gifts with riot, idleness, solitariness, and many other ways; thou art a traitor to God and Nature, an enemy to thy self and to the world. Perditio tua ex te; thou hast lost thy self wilfully, cast away thy self; thou thy self art the efficient cause of thine own misery, by not resisting such vain cogitations, but giving way unto them.