It is quite common to hear that there is an epidemic of loneliness within post-industrial societies. Yet, this seems odd as inhabitants of post-industrial societies seem to have a great deal of contact with others. However, on reflection this is not odd, because loneliness is a form of alienation that results from an unsatisfied general human desire, and a large amount and variety of social contact does not satiate this desire. Furthermore, while loneliness may be a problem for post-industrial societies, it is unclear if it has been a problem for other societies, such that loneliness may be a part of the human condition, rather than a historical contingency.
Post-industrial societies are overwhelmingly urban and thus it seems odd that people would be lonely as inhabitants of these societies typically are surrounded by other people. Unlike the subsistence farmer who would often only have contact with his family, the typical city dweller within a post-industrial society will have contact with neighbours, clients, colleagues, vendors, family, and friends on a regular basis. Furthermore, the development of technologies has made it far easier to contact others. The fact that nearly everyone has a cell phone and is on social media means that we can easily stay in contact with other people even if they live on the other side of the world. So, it seems that our loneliness is not an effect of not being in contact with others or not being able to easily contact others, as post-industrial societies far surpass other societies both in terms of the amount of contact that people have with one another, and the ease with which we can contact one another.
Loneliness is a species of alienation. The lonely, like the alienated, feel displaced; the particular variety of alienation that the lonely person encounters is that they feel isolated from those they should be connected with. This does not mean that the lonely know who in particular they should be connected with, but rather that they have a sense that they are not connected to the right people or connected to people in a proper way. What lies behind loneliness is a general human desire to connect with something beyond oneself in a substantial, meaningful way. This is not a desire for any particular social relationship, but rather to be engaged with something other than ourselves in a substantial way. This is why a vast network of social contact does not protect against loneliness, as the desire to connect meaningfully with something beyond oneself is not satiated by the fact that one has a large amount of social contact. Some might question the existence of such a desire, but if the desire did not exist then the sense of loneliness we feel would likely be nonexistent, but yet we feel or typically know someone who feels this sense of loneliness. Furthermore, it seems plausible to construe this desire as a general feature of humanity rather than something particular to post-industrial society, as many cultures that have developed independently seem to speak to the presence of this desire. The notion of connecting meaningfully with something beyond oneself is vague, but it is purposefully so, as this desire is meant to cover both our desire to develop friendships and find romantic love, as well as our desire to connect with something like God. I construed the desire in this way as I think loneliness can result both because of a sense of disconnection from God, and from a sense of lack of meaningful connections with other people. The believer who feels disconnected from God would surely feel lonely, as they have found themselves in a situation where they are disconnected from a being that deeply matters in their life.
I have assumed throughout this entry that loneliness is a problem for post-industrial societies and I have no intention of arguing against this thesis, as it fits with my own anecdotal experience, although I recognize that this thesis may be discredit by empirical evidence. But simply saying that loneliness is a problem for post-industrial society raises the question of whether loneliness has been a problem for other societies. The answer to this question is not something that I can answer as I do not have the historical knowledge to speak to it conclusively, but we do have reasons to think that loneliness was a problem in other societies. In the Symposium Plato has Aristophanes say that erotic desire is rooted in the general human desire to find the other half of their true nature, and this is surely related to the desire that underlies loneliness that has been elucidated above. There are surely other examples like this, so while loneliness may be a problem for post-industrial societies this may also have been an issue within other societies as well. So, in the case that it turns out that loneliness is a problem for other societies we may need to accept that loneliness is a central aspect of the human condition, rather than a historical contingency.