In his book, The Intellectual Life, Antoine Sertillanges posits a thoughtful exploration of the notion of solitude.
To stay in one’s study, and to indulge in the interior babble, the solicitations of desire, the exultation of pride, the floodtide of thoughts that introduce within us an absorbing and discordant outside world—would that be solitude? There is a false solitude as there is a false peace (p. 68).
These lines compel us to question the true nature of solitude and how it is associated with intellectual growth and self-awareness.
Most of us would readily perceive solitude as a mere physical state of being alone. We take great strides to organize our environment in such a way that we create an external solitude. We often retreat to the quiet corners of our homes, or maybe even seclude ourselves in the vastness of nature to find that sought-after sense of tranquility and isolation. But, as Sertillanges suggests, is this truly solitude, or are we just silencing the noise around us without addressing the clamor within?
The idea of solitude proposed by Sertillanges is a far deeper and more complex one. He introduces us to the concept of “false solitude” which prompts us to consider that physical solitude does not necessarily lead to intellectual solitude. One can be alone in a room, yet have his mind be a tumultuous arena of thoughts, ideas, and feelings—all fed by our constant engagement with the outside world. This kind of solitude offers no genuine tranquility or room for introspection.
The path to a solitude that leads to intellectual effectiveness, Sertillanges would argue, requires more than just organizing a quiet external environment. It also demands that we explore our inner self and effectively “organize” our internal world. This doesn’t mean suppressing thoughts or desires, but rather understanding them, embracing them, and learning to navigate through them peacefully.
The goal of such an internal journey isn’t just to establish solitude but to cultivate a mindful and sustained inner peace. This kind of solitude is not about exclusion, but inclusion—a state where we engage with our thoughts, not as discordant noise, but as harmonious music of our intellectual life.
The exultation of pride, the floodtide of thoughts, and the solicitations of desire are things we must deal with, but they do not have to be sources of perpetual inner chaos. When we reach a state of inner solitude, we begin to understand these aspects of ourselves and can engage with them in a way that doesn’t overwhelm us.
Solitude, in its true sense, is an internal state of being. It is about achieving peace within ourselves and being at ease with our own thoughts. The quest for solitude is not a retreat from the world, but a deeper engagement with it by coming to terms with our own thoughts and situatedness. This is the solitude that paves the way to intellectual and personal growth.