Is solitude compatible with the best kind of life?

The question of what is the best kind of life for man has been answered in a large variety of ways, but one particularly dominant issue that this question raises, is whether the best life requires substantial relationships with other beings, or whether the best life can be lived in solitude. I want to illuminate two different ways of thinking about whether the best life requires relationships with others or whether the best life is a solitary one, and suggest a solution to this problem that seems to me to fit with our intuitions.

One of the clearest statements of why the best life requires particular kinds of relationships with others can be gleaned from the comments of Plato’s Aristophanes in The Symposium. I specify that these are the comments of Plato’s Aristophanes as The Symposium is a dialogue written by Plato, and consequently we cannot be sure whether it represents the authentic voice of Aristophanes himself. For the sake of this entry I will refer to Plato’s Aristophanes as Plaristophanes. In The Symposium, each guest of a drinking party is to give a speech in praise of Love (Eros).  When it comes to Plaristophanes turn to give a speech he says that Love “is the helper and the doctor of those sicknesses whose cure constitutes the greatest happiness for the human race.” Furthermore, to explain why Love is so important to human happiness Plaristophanes provides an origin story about the nature of humanity, which states that originally humans had four legs, four arms, two sets of genitals, and two heads. Similarly, there were three genders: one that had two sets of male genitals, one with two sets of female genitals, and one with one set of female and one set of male genitals. These beings were much more powerful than humans are today, and made an attack on the gods, and as punishment Zeus, with the assistance of Apollo, cut the beings in two so that they take on the shape that they have today. Plaristophanes then notes that Love is the longing of each for his or her other half. Specifically, he says “each of us is a matching half of a human being because we’ve been cut in half like flatfish, making two out of one, and each of us is looking for his own matching half.” Consequently, for Plaristophanes, Love is the name of the desire we have to pursue wholeness by finding the half from which we have been cut off.

Plaristophanes’s speech, while humorous and absurd, expresses a reading of the human spiritual predicament in which humans as we exist now are incapable of living the best life in solitude, as we are incomplete halves of a wider whole. If we are only part of a whole, how could we live a fully developed life without our other half? So, if we tend to agree with Plaristophanes that we are not whole, but rather parts of a whole, it seems that the best life would necessarily require a relationship with our other half. On this view humans cannot be complete in solitude; the solitary sage or philosopher lives a radically impoverished life because he is not able to try to approach his completion through a relationship with another. Furthermore, this viewpoint is very appealing to members of modern postindustrial societies as we tend to see the pursuit of romantic love and the finding of a “soulmate” as essential to the best kind of life. Likewise, we typically feel that something has gone wrong in someone’s life if they have not been able to find their soulmate, or at the very least develop substantial friendships.

On the other hand we have the viewpoint that is expressed in Plato, but is also present in other philosophers, that the best kind of life is one spent in contemplation of the forms (the fundamental constituents of reality.) On this reading of our existential predicament while human beings do require a particular form of activity to live the best life, this form of activity does not necessarily require others.  On this view humans are being who fundamentally reach out to know, and thus the best life for us is one that fully allows us to reach that end, and it is only a life of contemplation that fully devotes us to understanding the whole and our place in it. While initially we may find this attitude hard to understand. It seems to me this viewpoint is very powerful for a couple of reasons. One reason is that the good of contemplation is not vulnerable to circumstance; no matter what happens in my life as long as I am alive, I can still try to comprehend the fundamental constituents of reality. Presumably, even if I become a slave I can still contemplate, whereas the forming of relationships is much more vulnerable to circumstance. If the best life requires grounded, developed relationships, than the best kind of life requires me to be fortunate and meet people who I can form these kinds of relationships with and there is no guarantee that this will happen, thus if the best life involves relationships necessarily many will be barred from living the best life by virtue of misfortune. Similarly, one other reason why I find this Platonic viewpoint powerful is that one fundamental constituent of humanity is the desire to understand our place within the universe, and the Platonic view about the best kind of life takes the aforementioned desire very seriously, rather than viewing it as something that is good, but perhaps not necessary to the best kind of life.

I want to suggest a solution to the question of whether the best kind of life can be lived in solitude that argues that the best life will involve relationships, but also that these relationships are not the only source of value in that life. The view that the best life requires significant relationships with others seems correct in one sense, for I cannot think of someone living a complete life without friendship. Part of what makes Socrates’ life such a model is that he did have friendships, and did not simply live a quiet life devoid of friendship to pursue contemplation. However, the reason why the best life requires friendships of some kind is not because friendships or relationships are more important than activities like contemplation that can be pursued in solitude, but rather because relationships with others can enhance many goods that we can pursue in solitude. For example, if I am interested in pursuing the good of understanding the universe, my efforts are enhanced by conversations with others, as they may assist me in trying to come up with solutions to problems with my current understanding. Likewise,  if I am drawn to the value of the appreciation of music or art, this is enhanced again by conversing with friends about what we enjoy and why enjoy it, as we may have our eyes opened to other artists, or return to a work of art that we have dismissed, but which might be quite valuable if appropriately appreciated.

In this sense sharing in a good with others seems to enhance that good. I don’t mean to completely reduce the value of relationships to an instrumental one in which their value simply lies in enhancing other goods. Relationships do have an intrinsic value, but the reason why they are so vital to our lives is because they not only provide a unique value to our lives, they also enhance other activities that we engage in. On the other hand, a life that was filled with relationships, but relationships that failed to enhance particular goods would hardly be eligible to be considered to be the best kind of life. Furthermore, a solitary life might be preferable to one that involved the aforementioned kinds of relationships with others.  In this sense, I would affirm that relationships are essential to the best kind of life, but these relationships must enhance important goods, rather than detract from them.

One other element of the best kind of life is that relationships themselves cannot be the only source of value in that life. While relationships are deeply important and can be valued on their own account, if the only value in one’s life is relationships with others, than one is leading a deeply impoverished life, as there are a whole host of goods that are separable from relationships, that one is missing out upon. This is not to say that one has some obligation to pursue all goods, but rather to say that focus on one good at the expense of others tends to lead to an impoverishment, as differing good realize different fundamental human capacities that ought to be valued on their own account. This is also simply the other side of my previous comment that relationships are a necessary part of the best life because they enhance other goods, but if the only good in one’s life is relationships with others, than one’s relationships, are by definition, failing to meet the standard of the best kind of life, because they are not enhancing other goods.

It will be noted that I did not directly respond to the questions of whether contemplation is a necessary part of the best life? And whether we are irreducibly incomplete parts of a whole? I lean towards an affirmative answer to the former question although I will leave answering that question to another entry. With regard to the latter question while I find the views of Plaristophanes fascinating, I tend to disagree with them, although it would take an entry far longer than this one to explain all of the reasons why. I will just say that I tend to see things in more Platonic terms, rather than Plaristophanic terms, and because of that I tend to see our most full realization as in principle separable from a specific relation with another.

Works Cited

 Plato. The Symposium. Trans. Christopher Gill. Toronto: Penguin, 1999. Print.


3 thoughts on “Is solitude compatible with the best kind of life?

  1. I agree with your sentiment that relationships aid us in the contemplative aspects of existence. Part of understanding our place in the universe is developing an understanding of oneself, of one’s unique aspects of character. In this sense we learn about who we are by understanding what we are not and that is the Other, but this goes back to your entry on friendship the other day. Great writing.

    • Thanks for the comment and the compliment.

      I agree that part of the contemplative facet of existence involves recognizes the Other and what we are not, but the simple sharing of a good with another seems to enhance it in another sense. Sometimes, when I lose enthusiasm for a particular good, whether it is political philosophy or music, I will then have a general discussion with a friend about that good and facets of the good that initially attracted me to it come back to light. The sharing in the understanding of the good with another does not simply instrumentally rekindle the enthusiasm for the good, but rather it seems that a constitutive part of the friendship is its ability to deepen and reestablish one’s love for a particular good. I would not be able to have my enthusiasm rekindled by anyone, but rather it requires a particular conversation with a particular other, and part of the meaning of my friendship with that particular other is our sharing in that good.

      I am not trying to correct you or anything, just when I read my blog over I realize I was not particularly clear on what I meant by enhancement, so I wanted to clarify my position.

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