- Solitude: A Philosophical Encounter
A professor of philosophy at the University of Prince Edward Island (an attractively solitary spot, I should imagine), Philip Koch divides his book into two parts, asking in Part I: what is solitude? and in Part II: what role does solitude play in our lives? At the beginning of his inquiry, Koch identifies two primary modes of human experience: solitude, the core definition of which is social disengagement, and encounter, that is to say, interaction with others. Both are essential for human completion; indeed, the inescapable link between solitude and encounter is illustrated in the book’s full title, which contains both words. Still, in today’s society solitude is probably less understood and appreciated than encounter, for we tend to stress the supposed primacy of relationships and bonds. Calling himself a partisan of solitude, Koch sets out to correct the imbalance he discerns between solitude and encounter by focusing on how solitude (different, he insists, from loneliness, isolation, privacy, or alienation) contributes to our physical, moral, and emotional well-being.
Koch is a philosopher; he defines his terms and then, as he moves along, makes subtle distinctions in his original definitions, rendering each term ever more precise and accurate. Conscious of the slippage of meaning that often occurs in language and of the mischief that can be caused by using terms improperly, Koch points out how Tillich (p. 164) and Mijuskovic (p. 173) go astray by gliding confusedly from one term to another, the result being that their arguments drift into muddle. Koch’s own thinking is pellucidly clear. The major part of his book is a discussion of the value of solitude. He identifies five primary virtues linked to solitude: freedom, attunement to self, attunement to nature, reflective perspective, and creativity. After discussing each of the virtues, Koch answers the objections that have been raised throughout the centuries to the claims he has made for the positive tole of solitude in our lives.
Ranging over the whole history of human thought, Koch draws on a vast array of writers, including Tao Tze, Plotinus, Seneca, Augustine, Petrarch, Saint Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, Montaigne, Descartes (always a key figure in any discussion of the evolution of Western thought), Goethe, Wordsworth, Hugo, Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman, Proust, Lawrence, Rilke, Sartre, Eiseley, Woolf, and Sarton. A meticulously learned book, Solitude is also a deeply meditative and an intensely personal one. In this, it resembles the work of Montaigne and of Loren Eiseley, where philosophical or (in the case of Eiseley) scientific knowledge is inseparable from imaginative vision; inseparable, too, from the distinctive voice of the author, for Koch, like Montaigne and Eiseley, moves easily from meditation to recollection, recounting moments of joy or sorrow in his own life. Even Koch’s prose bears some resemblance to that of Montaigne or Eiseley for, like theirs, it vibrates with the peculiarly poetic [End Page 155] intensity that a great writer can find in plain, unadorned speech. Indeed, what remains with the reader of this book, beyond the philosophical arguments and the erudite explanations, relegated wisely to the footnotes at the back of the volume where they are available to serious students without intimidating casual readers, is the seductive charm of the author’s voice, the sense of being addressed directly and intimately. To encounter this marvelous book, written in solitude, read in solitude, is to move beyond solitude and to experience, in the strange way that only a good book can provide, intimacy with another mind, another spirit that is engaged—it, too—in the process of encountering other minds, other spirits.