The Value of Solitude

“The Value Of Solitude: The Ethics And Spirituality Of Aloneness In Autobiography” by John D. Barbour [University of Virginia Press, 2004]
value of solitude
“Most people feel ambivalent about solitude, both loving and fearing it depending on how they experience being alone at certain points in their lives. In The Value of Solitude, John Barbour explores some of the ways in which experiences of solitude, both positive and negative, have been interpreted as religiously significant. He also shows how solitude can raise ethical questions as writers evaluate the virtues and dangers of aloneness and consider how social interaction and withdrawal can most meaningfully be combined in a life.
Barbour’s work differs from previous books about solitude in two ways: it links solitude with ethics and spirituality, and it approaches solitude by way of autobiography. Barbour ranges from the early Christian and medieval periods to the twentieth century in examining the varieties of solitary experience of writers such as Augustine, Petrarch, Montaigne, Gibbon, Rousseau, Thoreau, Thomas Merton, and Paul Auster. For many authors, the process of writing an autobiography is itself conceived of as a form of solitude, a detachment from others in order to discover or create a new sense of personal identity. Solitude helps these authors to reorient their lives according to their moral ideals and spiritual aspirations.
The Value of Solitude both traces the persistence and vitality of the theme of solitude in autobiography and shows how the literary form and structure of autobiography are shaped by ethical and religious reflection on aloneness. This work should appeal to scholars in the fields of religious studies and theology, to literary critics and specialists in autobiography, and to readers interested in the experience of solitude and its moral and spiritual significance.”

“John D. Barbour’s The Value of Solitude bears a passing resemblance to a number of classic works on autobiography—James Olney’s Metaphors of the Self (1972), Karl Weintraub’s The Value of the Individual (1978), Robert Elbaz’s The Changing Nature of the Self (1987)—that wend a chronological way from canonical precursors to roughly contemporary examples. (Like many of his predecessors, Barbour visits the familiar voices of Augustine, Montaigne, and Rousseau, after which he charts a more personal course that takes him up to writers such as Annie Dillard, Thomas Merton, and Paul Auster.) For Barbour, however, this layout is not meant to trace a historical trajectory—of selfhood, of the genre of autobiography, or of the central concept invoked here, solitude. The author recognizes, certainly, that solitude has a history, and that its many incarnations are linked to cultural developments and given social needs; nodding approvingly toward Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, he notes that solitude’s history cannot be separated from that, say, of individuality or authenticity (9). But if Westerners have experienced solitude differently, in accordance with their temperament and historical moment, what most interests Barbour is the existential or spiritual condition of solitude. This condition is unchanging, and the autobiographical records of solitary experience under study add up to a kind of tool kit any reader can use; the texts, Barbour writes, thus illustrate “how solitude and social interaction can best be combined within a life, and . . . the advantages and disadvantages of different kinds and amounts of aloneness” (7). The Value of Solitude bears, then, some resemblance to a self-help book; questions of history, or of genre, take a back seat to a conception of literature as a vehicle for “insights and wisdom” that we may integrate into our own lives (10).”

“Barbour shows what solitude is and where the confusion lies with other terms equated to solitude such as loneliness, isolation, alienation, and privacy. The author shows there are broader terms for solitude than being physically isolated to experience solitude and that solitude could encompass time spent alone while mentally engaged with others. And one can experience aloneness while in the background presence of other persons.
“Aloneness may help one find contact with what lies beyond social routines and conventions, beyond the repetitiveness and superficiality that often characterize interactions among people. Solitude may be a way to resist the pressures of socialization, an attempt to create a time and space for self-transformation. This may be important even if one’s experiences with others are primarily positive. Solitude is more than an antidote or corrective for negative social interactions; it offers its own distinctive blessings. Solitude allows a person to focus on certain experiences and dimensions of reality with a fuller attention, a more complete concentration, than is possible when one must also attend to the reactions of other people.”
Barbour richly writes within and without the ethics and spirituality of solitude with the autobiographies; as well as his thoughts covering history, those who had written about solitude, questions about solitude, the mystery of the inner world, criticisms and possible harm, secularization of solitude, self-teaching, values of solitude, images of solitude and, authenticity and true self, and shared solitude.”

1. Christian Solitude
2. Bounded Solitude in Augustine’s Confessions
3. The Humanist Tradition: Petrarch, Montaigne, and Gibbon
4. Rousseau’s Myth of Solitude in Reveries of the Solitary Walker
5. Thoreau at Walden: “Soliloquizing and Talking to All the Universe at the Same Time”
6. Twentieth-Century Varieties of Solitary Experience
7. Thomas Merton and Solitude: “The Door to Solitude Opens Only from the Inside”
8. Solitude, Writing, and Fathers in Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude
Conclusion: The Value of Solitude
Works Cited

Parts of the book are available for reading on-line at
John D Barbour, Professor of Religion and Boldt Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities at St. Olaf College, is also the author of “The Conscience Of The Autobiographer: Ethical And Religious Dimensions Of Autobiography” (1992), “Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith” (1994), and “Renunciation: A Novel” (2013).


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