There is no man alone, because every man is a microcosm, and carries the whole world about him: Nunquam minus solus quam cum solus, though it be the apophthegm of a wise man [Publius Scipio: Cic. de Off., lib. iii.], is yet true in the mouth of a fool; for indeed, though in a wilderness, a man is never alone, not only because he is with himself and his own thoughts, but because he is with the devil, who ever consorts with our solitude, and is that unruly rebel that musters up those disordered motions which accompany our sequestered imaginations: and to speak more narrowly, there is no such thing as solitude, nor anything that can be said to be alone and by itself, but God, who is his own circle, and con subsist by himself; all others, besides their dissimilarity and heterogeneous parts, which in a manner multiply their natures, cannot subsist without the concourse of God, and the society of that hand which doth uphold their natures.
When we withdraw from human intercourse into solitude, we are more peculiarly committed in the presence of the Divinity; yet some men retire into solitude to devise or perpetrate crimes. This is like a man going to meet and brave a lion in his own gloomy desert, in the very precincts of his dread abode.
The satisfaction derived from surveying the most beautiful scenes of nature or the most exquisite productions of art is so far from being complete that it almost turns into uneasiness when there is none with whom we can share it; nor would the most passionate admirer of eloquence or poetry consent to witness their most stupendous exertions upon the simple condition of not being permitted to reveal his emotions.
To explain how I kept up my courage, I must not tell either my religion or my character; but I can tell what means I employed besides to overcome the dreaded horrors of confinement. The first rule is to throw away, as soon as possible, every hope:
Hope, eager hope, the assassin of our joys,
All present blessings treading under foot,
Is scarce a milder tyrant than despair.
One comes only to a settled state, which permits even a kind of enjoyment, when all is done with hope. Accepting, then, the years of solitude as perfectly inevitable, one must consider how to pass them, how to keep oneself occupied and amused. Recollections of the past will very soon be exhausted as a means of killing time. Sometimes, however, one is not disposed for any other thing. In such a frame of mind I wrote down more than four hundred names of young men who had been with me in the cadet-house, and was absorbed in this occupation for several weeks. Very often I rose in the midst of the night to write down with chalk any name which I had been endeavouring for days to recollect. This will only do for a short time; and one must needs try to create little joys where great ones are denied.
It may be laid down as a position which will seldom deceive, that when a man cannot bear his own company there is something wrong. He must fly from himself, either because he feels a tediousness in life from the equipoise of an empty mind, which, having no tendency to one motion more than another but as it is impelled by some external power, must always have recourse to foreign objects; or he must be afraid of the intrusion of some unpleasing ideas, and, perhaps, is struggling to escape from the remembrance of a loss, the fear of a calamity, or some other thought of greater horror.
In early youth, if we find it difficult to control our feelings, so we find it difficult to vent them in the presence of others. On the spring side of twenty, if anything affects us, we rush to lock ourselves up in our room, or get away into the streets or the fields: in our earlier years we are still the savages of nature, and we do as the poor brute doesthe wounded stag leaves the herd, and if there is anything on a dogs faithful heart, he slinks away into a corner.
Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton: The Caxtons, ch. xxxvii.
Solitude seems to me to have the best pretence, in such as have already employed their most active and flourishing age in the worlds service, by the example of Thales. We have lived enough for others, let us at least live out the small remnant of life for ourselves; let us now call in our thoughts and intentions to our selves, and to our own ease and repose; tis no light thing to make a sure retreat, it will be enough to do without mixing other enterprises and designs: since God gives us leasure to prepare for, and to order our remove, let us make ready, truss our baggage, take leave betimes of the company; let us disentangle our selves from those violent importunities that engage us elsewhere, and separate us from our selves: we must break the knot of our obligations, how strong soever, and hereafter love this, or that; but espouse nothing but our selves: that is to say, let the remainder be our own, but not so joynd and so close as not to be forcd away without slaying us, or tearing part of the whole piece.
Michel de Montaigne: Essays, Cottons 3d ed., ch. xxxviii.
My retirement was now become solitude: the former is, I believe, the best state for the mind of man, the latter almost the worst. In complete solitude, the eye wants objects, the heart wants attachments, the understanding wants reciprocation. The character loses its tenderness when it has nothing to love, its firmness when it has none to strengthen it, its sweetness when it has nothing to soothe it, its patience when it meets no contradiction, its humility when it is surrounded by dependants, and its delicacy in the conversations of the uninformed.
There is no such thing as perfect secrecy, to encourage a rational mind to the perpetration of any base action; for a man must first extinguish and put out the great light within him, his conscience: he must get away from himself, and shake off the thousand witnesses which he always carries about him, before he can be alone.
It has been from age to age an affectation to love the pleasure of solitude, among those who cannot possibly be supposed qualified for passing life in that manner. This people have taken up from reading the many agreeable things which have been written on that subject, for which we are beholden to excellent persons who delighted in being retired, and abstracted from the pleasures that enchant the generality of the world. This way of life is recommended indeed with great beauty, and in such a manner as disposes the reader for the time to pleasing forgetfulness or negligence of the particular hurry of life in which he is engaged, together with a longing for that state which he is charmed with in description. But when we consider the world itself, and how few there are capable of a religious, learned, or philosophic solitude, we shall be apt to change a regard to that sort of solitude, for being a little singular in enjoying time after the way a man himself likes best in the world, without going so far as wholly to withdraw from it.