Nietzsche and Loneliness
“Soon go back to the mountains” — Stormzy
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:
You great star, what would your happiness be had you not those for whom you shine? For ten years you have climbed to my cave: you would have tired of your light and of the journey had it not been for me and my eagle and my serpent
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:
I no longer feel as you do: this cloud which I see beneath me, this blackness and gravity at which I laugh — this is your thundercloud. You look up when you feel the need for elevation. And I look down because I am elevated. Who among you can laugh and be elevated at the same time? Whoever climbs the highest mountains laughs at all tragic plays and tragic seriousness
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:
They do not understand me: I am not the mouth for these ears. I seem to have lived too long in the mountains; I listened too much to brooks and trees: now I talk to them as to goatherds. My soul is unmoved and bright as the mountains in the morning. But they think I am cold and I jeer and make dreadful jests. And now they look at me and laugh: and as they laugh they even hate me. There is ice in their laughter
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:
Slow is the experience of all deep wells […] I flew too far into the future: dread overcame me. and when I looked around, behold, time was my sole contemporary. Then I flew back toward home, faster and faster; and thus I came to you, O men of today
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:
Alas, now I must face my hardest path! Alas, I have begun my loneliest walk! But whoever is of my kind cannot escape such an hour — the hour which says to him: “Only now are you going your way to greatness! Peak and abyss — they are now joined together […]”
There is a parable, related by Carl Jung, that is pertinent to this topic and worth quoting in full:
There was once a queer old man who lived in a cave, where he had sought refuge from the noise of the villages. He was reputed to be a sorcerer, and therefore he had disciples who hoped to learn the art of sorcery from him. But he himself was not thinking of any such thing. He was only seeking to know what it was that he did not know, but which, he felt certain, was always happening. After meditating for a very long time on that which is beyond meditation, he saw no other way of escape from his predicament than to take a piece of red chalk and draw all kinds of diagrams on the walls of his cave, in order to find out what that which he did not know might look like. After many attempts he hit on the circle. “That’s right,”he felt, “and now for a quadrangle inside it!”—which made it better still. His disciples were curious; but all they could make out was that the old man was up to something, and they would have given anything to know what he was doing. But when they asked him: “What are you doing there?”he made no reply. Then they discovered the diagrams on the wall and said: “That’s it!”—and they all imitated the diagrams. But in so doing they turned the whole process upside down, without noticing it: they anticipated the result in the hope of making the process repeat itself which had led to that result. This is how it happened then and how it still happens today.