We have covered idleness, so now on to solitude.
In brief, unless you are freaking Socrates – and let’s be honest about this, because it is important, we are none of us Socrates – excessive solitude is bad for you and bad for everyone around you.
This section had me thinking about those pro-introvert comics and memes that have been circulating on the ol’ Interwebs lately. Despite being a person who likes books, cats, and occasional silence, I do not like all this “But I’m an introvert!” business one bit. I wasn’t totally sure why until now. Well, it definitely was clear to me that “introvert” was usually code for jerk-who-is-a-terrible-friend and always flakes on plans and doesn’t speak to roommates or baristas but does likes cats, books, and Netflix. “Introvert” sounds much nicer though.
Anyhow. It turns out Burton agrees with me in his dramatic, overblown way:
Homo solus aut Deus, aut Daemon: a man alone, is either a saint or a devil, mens ejus aut languescit, aut tumescit; and Vae 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. 11, 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 thyself and to the world. Perditio tua ex te; thou hast lost thyself wilfully, cast away thyself,
thou thyself art the efficient cause of thine own misery, by not resisting such vain cogitations, but giving way unto them.”
Either devils or saints, eh, Burton? I am going to be brutally honest. “Introverts” are not saints. If they were, they would be ruminating on mountaintops, dictating philosophy that would be read and misunderstood for thousands of years. They would not be posting introvert webcomics to Facebook after blowing off their best friend’s birthday party.
If that sounds harsh, at least I’m not calling anyone “a traitor to God and nature” or ugly, inhumane Misanthropi. (I am pretty sure that “Misanthropi” is just a funky old Burton-ism that means misanthropes. However in this context it sounds like some kind of grotesque old-timey monster whose defining characteristic is spending too much time alone.)
So anyhow, unless you are an actual saint, you probably need to get out more. Otherwise you risk going mean and squirrelly. God forbid, you might even get into conspiracy theories. We humans have a very human tendency to retreat into our own minds because other people are difficult sometimes. Even the best kinds of other people will at times make small talk about the weather, disagree with your politics, or invite you to weddings. There are worse things in life though, eh? Talking to other people is an important check on getting really into conspiracy theories.
(I love a good wedding. Does that make me an extrovert? GOD I’m annoying.)
Burton gets the final word, because I can’t resist another giant quote. This section on how easy it is to slip into solitude and melancholy is incredibly beautiful:
Voluntary solitariness is that which is familiar with melancholy, and gently brings on like a Siren, a shoeing-horn, 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, et mentis gratissimus error: a most incomparable delight it is so to melancholise, and build castles in the air, to go smiling to themselves… So delightsome these toys are at first, they could spend whole days and nights without sleep, even whole years alone in such contemplations, and fantastical 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 fantastical 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, melancholising, and carried along, as he (they say) that is led round about a 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, 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, haeret lateri lethalis arundo, (the arrow of death still remains in the side), they may not be rid of it, they cannot resist. (246-7)
This post is part of a long, tedious, and very illustrated read-along of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. More info here and follow along on Facebook here. Illustrations posted via devon_isadevon on Instagram. Page numeration follows the 2001 New York Review of Books edition.