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« Voluntary solitude » or the art of belonging to oneself

Although solitude is not only a contemporary consideration, its understanding really makes sense in our modern hyperconnected society.  Voluntary solitude would invite us to live “the experience of freedom and criticism“. That, at least, is what philosopher and director of research at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales Olivier Remaud explained linking up society and solitude in his essay « Voluntary Solitude ». Why and how to enjoy being alone? How to rethink solitude as an expression of absolute freedom? What are we looking for in solitude? What does it mean? Many issues that the text raised questioning ourselves about our relationship to this desire of being alone, and even sometimes of disappearing.

Most of the time we associate this desire of being alone to the desire of escaping from society, but Olivier Remaud considers it to be the perfect opposite. This would be indeed the desire of participation in a social community, a need for participation in the social community to recreate a social link. Or the art of being alone and all together at the same time. This paradoxical link between solitude and society (social life is made possible by the possibility of withdrawing and solitude is made possible by the possibility of returning to social life) reflects the same link it exists between solitude and freedom. Through this paradox are expressed our freedom and our deepest dreams. “Having a dialogue with oneself” would lead us to serenity, to the “conversation of the soul” dear to ancient philosophers.

Most of Olivier Remaud’s work’s is based on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Thoreau decided in 1845 to leave his home town of Concord to live in a wooden hut in the woods. The purpose?  “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. » But Voluntary Solitude demonstrates that Thoreau’s thoughts are paradoxical as he advocates as much for connected than disconnected life in his approach.

In solitude, society does not take distance to individuals but individuals take distance to society. « We enjoy being alone only when we know we are not really alone », summed up Olivier Remaud. But even with this distinction, the author underlines that our relationship to the greatest solitary explorers going away alone for months is ambiguous: locked up in our « insane lives », we envy them as much as we mistrust them because they do not « play the same role than we all do ».

Solitude would be a means to discover ourselves. No need to run away far ahead: by changing our habits and turning ourselves to interior spaces, Thoreau invited his fellow citizens to consider themselves as strangers in their own countries and follow the spirit of a traveler who does not travel. Physical or mental travel would be the absolute experience of absolute freedom then. Montaigne said that “the greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.” We should reserve a storehouse for ourselves… altogether ours, and wholly free, wherein we may hoard up and establish our true liberty, the principal retreat and solitariness, wherein we must alone to ourselves[…] » Let’s learn to live at home as a traveler…

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