The Value of Solitude

John D. Barbour “The Value of Solitude: The Ethics and Spirituality of Aloneness in Autobiography” [University of Virginia Press, 2004]
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.

“Professor Barbour teaches ethics and religion at St. Olaf College in Minnesota (U.S.A.) and is the author of “Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith” (2004) and “Conscience of the Autobiographer: Ethical and Religious Dimensions of Autobiography” (2002). This book is a logical extension of his previous work.

From the earliest pages, Barbour demonstrates not only his command of the literature on aloneness and spirituality but also his empathy with the subject of solitude. His ability to make careful analyses of motives adds depth to his book, for it is not a popular survey in the style of Peter Frances’s more intimate “Hermits: The Insights of Solitude”, much less a miscellany like Isabel Colegate’s “A Pelican in the Wilderness: Hermits, Solitaries and Recluses”. Barbour’s book is scholarly but entirely readable, full of information, insight, and erudition.

In the Introduction, Barbour indicates why his book is significant:
This book differs from previous studies of solitude in two main ways: my focus on the links between solitude, ethics, and spirituality, and my approach to the topic by studying autobiographies.
All the subjects of the book are autobiographers of one sort or another: Augustine, Petrarch, Montaigne, Gibbon, Rousseau, Thoreau, Merton, and others. These are familiar names to anyone interested in the history of solitude. Barbour’s framework is the philosophy text of Philip Koch’s “Solitude: A Philosophical Encounter” and the psychology text of Anthony Storr’s “Solitude: A Return to Self”. By anchoring his work between philosophical and psychological treatments of solitude, Barbour is able to use new tools that extend the treatment of autobiographies reflecting solitude.

The author is not distracted by literary style or historical context. His resources are not just the more frequently cited works of his autobiographers but take in the whole context of their output, the most comprehensive way to understand how these writes value solitude. Barbour then overlays this research with an investigation of ethics and spirituality. New facts and insights greet the reader, even when presented with familiar writers like those mentioned. A lively sense of personality emerges from the treatment of each subject.
Here is the table of contents, with notes on some highlights.

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.”

For a review at Hermitary:


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