The Early Modern period (roughly 15th to 18th C) saw a significant growth in the idea of solitude in nature and an interest in the State of Nature. For pioneering Natural Philosophers such as Francis Bacon the revolutionary idea that observation of nature itself, rather than reliance on ancient authorities provided the best foundation for knowledge was starting to gain ground.
Although nature was not essential to the subsequent Romantic Movement (late 18th to early 19th C), it was so widespread as to be normative. This strong belief and interest in the importance of nature was particularly in the effect of nature upon the artist when he is surrounded by it, preferably in solitude. This was in contrast, even in reaction, to the usually very social art of the Enlightenment. Romantics were distrustful of the human world, and tended to believe that a close connection with nature was mentally and morally healthy. What characterised the movement was its interest in nature and man ‘without society’. The noble savage of Rousseau and the ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’ of Wordsworth clearly articulated aspects of this.
Self-understanding was an important aspect of Romanticism. It had less to do with proving that man was capable of understanding nature through his budding intellect and thereby controlling it, and more to do with the emotional appeal of connecting himself with nature and understanding it through a harmonious co-existence. The English scientist Sir Humphry Davy, a prominent Romantic thinker, said that understanding nature required “an attitude of admiration, love and worship, […] a personal response.” He believed that knowledge was only attainable by those who truly appreciated and respected nature. As with other exponents of the Romantic movement it was the experience of man in nature rather than man thinking about nature that was key.
The Nature or Nature Study Movement in America, with its mantra “study nature, not books” can be seen as another articulation or evolution of the relationship between science and Romanticism insomuch as it was a part of a growing recognition society had put a distance between our authentic selves and nature.
The Romantic movement also gave rise to New England Transcendentalism (early 19th C), which portrayed a less restrictive, non-conformist, relationship between God and Universe. This new philosophy presented the individual with a more intimate relationship with God. Transcendentalism and Romanticism appealed to Americans, for both feeling over reason, individual freedom of expression over the restraints of tradition and custom. It often involved a rapturous response to nature. It encouraged the rejection of harsh, rigid Puritanism, and promised a new blossoming of American culture.
The roots of many of today’s environmental movements also share a part of this lineage. These thinkers believed in the premise that we were originally on our own, our population density was low and as such we did not compete for resources. However we moved from that state and this one-ness with the world to one in which we are more closely packed and come into conflict over fewer resources. Nature as the original place we came from is set against the urban setting very much as solitude is set against society with previous philosophers.
Although Thoreau might have laid claim to initiating the American tradition of Environmental Philosophy it is Ralph Waldo Emerson, although largely overlooked because of the popularity of Thoreau, provides an earlier understanding of how Transcendentalists perceived the value of solitude and how nature provides a framework for this to play out the development of Self and the reliance in Self.
Emerson, like the ancients, Socrates and Aristotle, saw that the existence of society was a necessary counter-point for solitude which in turn helped develop a mature, self-reliant mind which could go on to live healthily in society. Emerson agreed with the principle that we are fundamentally social animals: ‘clothed with society’, produced by the environment within which we have grown up. This social environment tries to sustain us by providing for our needs. Part of which we have to conform to in order to meet its needs too.
However, this ‘sustaining’ transaction has left an increasing number of people with little ‘space’ to reflect upon themselves because of the suffocating ‘sufficiency’. It simply does not allow us to go onto develop a sense of our authentic place within it. This increasing inability of society to give us this space means that “solitude is impractical and society fatal.” This suffocation of Self has huge psychological implications. This might be an ‘in vogue’ thinking today but as far back as Emerson it was being strongly articulated.
Emerson recognised that there was a fundamental need to find a way of removing, albeit temporarily, from society in order to find the space to see ourselves for who we are with a distinct sense of self and identity, to be able to reflect on this and also give ourselves the opportunity to resource ourselves directly instead of being reliant on society to do this for us.
Emerson thus links self-reliance to a mature attitude toward solitude — and not just a solitude wherein we relish our thoughts and interests but a mature and informed solitude that we are able retain and sustain while “in the midst of the crowd.”
One of the most powerful propositions by Emerson was the relationship between solitude and non-conformity. Solitude (in nature) enables one to place some distance between ourselves and society thereby giving us a chance to examine what the virtues of our society and culture are purported to be, to test whether these values are true, wise, and good. According to Emerson, we will inevitably conclude that they are not. In this way we start to recognise ourselves more as an individual and separating from the conformity of society’s standards.
Today there is plentiful discussion around trying to solve some of society’s most intransigent issues and challenges through highly creative and non-conformist approaches. The central tenet to this is that Old Thinking will always yield old thinking (and never new thinking). It takes New Thinking to create new thinking, and conformity is the mainstay of old thinking. Whilst Emerson recognised that “for nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.” Seeking solitude, outside society will enable space to establish and develop the non-conformist mindset.
Emerson sees nature as wilderness, a setting distinct from both self and society. But he sees it from the point of view of solitude. “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches.” Nature is the tool by which we create solitude that in turn opens the door to reflection, acceptance and self-realisation.
Thoreau, a disciple of Emerson, published the seminal work Walden some 18 years after Emerson’s Nature. It was to be one of the most influential texts on Environmental Philosophy.
In Walden, Thoreau describes a “delicious evening” in which he feels at one with nature, “a part of herself.” Thoreau states that although his closest neighbour is barely a mile away he might as well be thousands of miles, so great is his feeling of solitude. Paradoxically, this removal from society does not mean that Thoreau is alone, for he continually asserts that nature offers better society than humans do. What Thoreau means by “solitude,” we discover, is not loneliness or isolation, but rather self-communion. Solitude means that he is on his own spiritually, confronting the full array of nature’s bounty without any intermediaries.
Thoreau counsels a simple frugality in his living at Walden’s Pond. However he also counsels a kind of extravagance, a spending of what you have in the day that shall never come again. True economy, he writes, is a matter of “improving the nick of time”. Sometimes this journey is laboriously slow but solitude in nature not only allows us to unpack our closely held regrets of the past and fears of the future in order to be present with our true self : it often commands it. Solitude therefore, within the application of Nature, is key to learning to live life in the Present.
For Thoreau, his appearance in nature, was not so much about the interpretation of natural things and their meaning (he even starts to empty his thoughts of the significance of the scream of the train, the peel of the church bells and the hoots ‘of regret of ever being born’ of the owls) he just starts to accept them for what they are. Its just sparrow’s chirping. He is starting to just be present, to accept, not to judge. And returning to what Emerson states that under normal societal conditions:
“man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.” We have been so programmed to on progress that we don’t often experience our lives as they are here and now. Yet the world will always be exactly as it is in each moment – no matter how much time and energy we expend denying this simple fact. If our plans for the future are not grounded in joy in this moment, our lives go unlived. And this, the Transcendentalists believe, is a source of our great unhappiness.
For the likes of Emerson and Thoreau, nature was not a place of purgation (as with earlier Christians, including John the Baptist, the Hermits and the Anchorites). Nor was it a place of knowledge, intellect or dominion seen in the Early Modern period. It was a place of Being, where sitting within Nature will provide what is necessary to lose our societal tarnish and find a more authentic self again.
Whilst Socrates might have cleared the philosophical ground for the solitaries: he argued for replacing the approval of society as the spur to human activity by the individual conscience. Emerson and Thoreau became direct descendants of this non-conformity. The aim of the wise man was no longer the plaudits of the masses but autarkeia, or self-sufficiency.
This article is a follow up to a previous paper: Wild About Solitude. A PDF of this can be accessed by clicking here