Nietzsche and Loneliness

Winter is the season of retreat. To avoid the cold, we withdraw into our homes in voluntary isolation. For many, it can be quite a lonely time. But seclusion need not be a negative thing — especially if it is framed correctly.

I remember during the first lockdown, many voices were attempting to assuage those suffering through isolation by encouraging them to increase their productivity, pick up hobbies or take inventory of their lives. Although these are all worthy pastimes, in many cases, these suggestions were met with derision. The problem is, without an overarching narrative, isolation is not a motivating condition. For it to be so, it needs to be framed in appropriate terms — that is, in terms of the re-emergence. We retreat in order to improve, to rejuvenate. This is the principal of delayed gratification; or as the Roman Cicero puts it, ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’.

For me, one of the greatest examples of retreat and re-emergence is found in Nietzsche’s philosophical fiction, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In this text, which Walter Kaufmann calls ‘the work of an utterly lonely man’, the prophet Zarathustra redeems his self-imposed seclusion by framing it in terms of a greater good; namely, his return to the people bearing the fruits of his contemplation.

According to the tale, at the age of thirty, Zarathustra leaves his home and goes into the mountains. ‘Here he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not tire of it’. But one morning, ‘a change came over his heart’. He stood before the sun and said:

Likewise, Zarathustra grows weary of his wisdom and seeks ‘hands outstretched to receive it’. For that, he must ‘descend to the depths’, as the sun does in the evening. ‘Like you, I must go under — go down, as is said by man, to whom I want to descend’.

Nietzsche deliberately depicts solitude as an ascension. He could have easily used another revelatory/ hermetic setting (like the desert). Instead, he chose the sun and the mountain as his primary metaphors for enlightenment. For him, solitude is a higher state, or allows for higher states of mind — one that sees the light through the clouds:

This is an acknowledgement that while solitude is an ascension, it is also fraught with ‘blackness’ and ‘gravity’. It is not easy to be alone (hence his longing to descend), but with the right perspective, with the clouds beneath you, you can laugh at anything.

Of course, Zarathustra spent a long time alone in the mountains. When he returns, he is unable to deliver his wisdom:

Part of the problem is that, in isolation, one’s senses change. When he enters the marketplace, he laments: ‘I am still far from them, and my sense does not speak to their senses’. The bustle of the marketplace jars with the slow rhythms of the mountain:

After his initial return to the people, he retreats to the mountain once again and considers what went wrong. In his own words, he ‘committed the folly of hermits’: ‘I stood in the market place. And as I spoke to all, I spoke to none’. Instead of addressing the masses, he begins gathering acolytes. He realises that what he has learned cannot be taught, it must be endured. His followers must climb the ‘lonely mountain’ for themselves:

There is a parable, related by Carl Jung, that is pertinent to this topic and worth quoting in full:

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