Some Stoic Musings on Loneliness by Kevin Vost

For what purpose then, do I make a man my friend? In order to have someone for whom I may die, whom I may follow into exile, against whose death I may stake my own life, and pay the pledge, too. – Seneca, Epistle IX

 As I sat down this morning to craft this article on loneliness that I’d been thinking about for some weeks I saw my first task as highlighting the importance and prevalence of loneliness in our day and the fact that the Stoics have much to offer in helping alleviate it in ourselves and others. This task was made all the easier by a most timely coincidence when I opened my email and perused Nick Guggenbuehl’s article on this very website: The Stoic Fellowship – Supporting Stoic Communities. Indeed, he had even opened with a quotation from Seneca too – “There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.”

Clearly then I will not stand alone in arguing the importance of loneliness or the relevance of Stoicism in helping us to accept it or overcome it by connecting with others. The topic of loneliness had been on my mind when I was asked by one of my publishers last year to produce the book, The Catholic Guide to Loneliness. Taking “Catholic” in the specific sense of the Catholic Church, but also “catholic” in the most general sense of word meaning all-embracing or universal, I knew I would attempt to share some lessons from the Stoics in that forthcoming book.

Here, I’ll share some of the lessons I gleaned for that book and some that I sought out specifically for this audience from the likes of Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Hierocles, but first I’ll begin with a few facts and statistics about the growing problem of loneliness in our time.

In Whom Shall We Confide: The Loneliness “Epidemic”

As to the importance and the prevalence of loneliness, a group of psychological researchers has recently opined: “Current evidence indicates that heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity…In a recent report, researchers have predicted the loneliness will reach epidemic proportions by 2030 unless action is taken.”[1]

Though loneliness has been with us since before the time that Zeno and the first Stoics walked the earth in the 4th century BC, the phenomenon of loneliness first gained significant notice in the psychiatric and psychological literature in the late 1950s in the writings of psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann and the attention on loneliness in the Western world has snowballed in recent decades.

Political scientist Robert Putnam drew great attention and concern in the year 2000 with his Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, in which he detailed how the United States, the nation vaunted by the 19th century French observer Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America as a land overflowing with all forms of associations and close communities, had become increasingly isolated in the second half of the twentieth century as all kinds of formal and informal groups, clubs, associations, and even shared activities with families and friends had waned considerably. As for the reasons for this increasing isolation, Putnam included pressures of time and money, suburbanization, commuting, and sprawl, electronic entertainment (especially television), and generational change as among the key factors, with television viewing as the number one past-time playing an especially prominent role in weakening the bonds of interpersonal connection. He mused as well, in the year 2000, about the effects we might see from the growing internet.

In 2006, the American Sociological Review created quite a stir when it released the results of a 20-year-study from the University of Chicago comparing surveys of two samples of approximately 1,500 adults each, the first taken in 1985 and the second in 2004.[2] This table provides is a summary of a few of the key findings regarding intimate relationships of close confidants, the lack of which can contribute to the loneliness of emotional isolation:

Modern Research Revealing an American Culture of Loneliness

National Opinion Survey Year 1985 2004
Average number of people one can confide in about important matters 3 2
Modal number of confidants[3] 3 0
People with no close confidants 10% 25%
People who mentioned a sibling as confidant 21% 14%
People who mentioned a parent as confidant 23% 21%
People who mentioned a child as confidant 18% 10%
People who mentioned a friends as confidant 73% 51%
People who mentioned a neighbor as confidant 19% 8%
People who mentioned a coworker as confidant 29% 12%
People who mentioned spouse as confidant 30% 38%
People who confide only in family members 57% 80%
People who confide only in their spouse 5% 9%

The researchers reported that “in spite of a large literature on declining civic engagement and neighbor involvement,” they expected that networks of close confidants would have remained stable. When the updated survey results came in the researchers stated quite bluntly: “We were clearly wrong.” So striking were these findings that shortly after, articles appeared in popular periodicals like USA Today, The New York Times, and The American Spectator, and many others, some headlining with the startling finding that one quarter of Americans have no one to confide in.

In 2010, the American Association of Retired People (AARP) published an extensive report entitled Loneliness Among Older Adults: A National Survey of Adults 45+.[4] About one-third (35%) of their over 3,000 respondents reported significant loneliness with no significant difference between men (37%) and women (34%). Perhaps not surprisingly the AARP’s study showed that the fewer confidants a person reported the more likely he or she was to be lonely.

Recent studies have estimated that up to 32% of adults experience loneliness and up to 7% describe intense feelings of loneliness. To get some sense of the magnitude of those percentages, with the current (2017) U.S. population of over 326 million people, around 142 million may be lonely and around 23 million may be lonely to an intense degree – truly a vast number of suffering souls.

In 2013 The Journal of Psychology devoted its volume 146, issues 1-2 entirely to articles on loneliness that was later produced in book form.[5] It made clear that loneliness is not merely an American problem either as extensive studies have research the growing phenomenon all throughout Europe and in Israel too. The dozens of researchers who contributed to the update in 2013 looked at loneliness from a great many angles from children and teens who are left home alone, to elderly Appalachians with health care issues, to elderly Israelis cared for by foreign caretakers who could not communicate with them in their own language.

Hardly two years after The Journal of Psychology’s special issues devoted to loneliness, Perspectives on Psychological Science ran a special section with a handful of studies on loneliness in its March 2015 edition. Topics ranged from the genetic factors involved in loneliness, the clinical importance of loneliness, loneliness’s impact on mortality, and ways to intervene to overcome loneliness.

Suffice it to say that the once relatively ignored subject of loneliness is clearly among the most important subjects of interest and concern to social scientists and medical practitioners in our time. Anyone at any age anywhere around the world can be subject to loneliness and the numbers are clearly climbing. Clearly every thoughtful, caring person, should ask him- or herself what can be done to stem this tide of loneliness. I would submit as well that he or she should also ask some Stoics! So let’s do just that.

Musonius Rufus: Following a Friend Into Exile

In our opening quotation, Seneca talks of following a friend into exile. His Stoic contemporary, Musonius Rufus, actually did it sometime between AD 60 and 62 when he joined his friend, the respected Stoic and outspoken senator Rubellius Plautus, who had been exiled to Asia Minor by a jealous Nero Caesar, who later sentenced the exiled senator to death. Not long after Musonius returned to Rome, Nero banished him. Many legends accrued surrounding this second Neronian exile. It was said that Nero exposed Musonius to cruelties in prison that would have killed a man without such Stoic fortitude. He was reportedly placed in hard labor, forced to help dig out the canal at the isthmus at Corinth in Greece. Though exiled, Musonius was clearly not alone as people came from far and wide to converse with the philosopher as he carried out his physical labors.

Musonius was later banished to the desolate rock island of Gyara, so dismal that one of Nero’s predecessors, the often cruel-hearted Tiberius Caesar, twice intervened to have people banished to a less hostile place. It was said that the island had no fresh water; yet the resourceful Musonius discovered a fresh-water spring. (Perhaps his experience with the Corinthian canal had made him as an accomplished digger as he was a philosopher!) And even in Gyara his philosophy flourished, as students from all over the Roman Empire sought him out there for his company and counsel, and turned the desolate rock into a mini-Athens or –Rome.

Musonius was able to return to Rome after Nero’s death in AD 68, but in the mid 70s was exiled to Syria by Emperor Vespasian. During that period of exile Musonius formed a friendship with a military tribune who wrote that he loved and admired Musonius when he had acquired great fame of his own as the historian Pliny the Younger.

It is perhaps not surprising that of the remaining fragments of Musonius’ Lectures, the lengthiest is lecture 9 on “Why Exile Is Not Evil.” He asks his hearers whether exile deprives us of water, earth, air, the sun and other planets, or even of human company? Did not Socrates say that the universe is the common fatherland of all men? No one place is the cause of our happiness or unhappiness. As Euripides said,

As all the heavens are open to the eagle’s flight,

So all the earth is for a noble man his fatherland.[6]

Industrious people in exile can find what they need to meet their basic needs and to flourish; and as for the things that matter the most, there is nothing about exile that prevents a person from exercising courage, justice, self-control, wisdom, or any of the virtues that bring honor and benefit to him and those around him. We see many examples of this: for instance, in the exiles of Homer’s Odysseus and of Diogenes of Sinope. Musonius himself reminds his hearers that though an exile himself, no one ever heard him moaning or groaning! Indeed, he repeatedly said such things to himself to make the most good of his exiles.

Now I’ll wager that few readers have experienced loneliness as a result of banishment or exile, but Musonius’ lessons can apply to those of us who might find ourselves separated from friends and family due to relocation to a new neighborhood, city, or even nation, perhaps in pursuit of advanced education or a new job. Musonius informs us that the things that matter the most to a Stoic in living a life of virtue can be practiced anywhere. The world might not flock to us to hear our philosophical musings like they did to Musonius Rufus, but by making the most of our relocation and continuing to practice Stoic virtues we might find that pleasing new networks of social connections and even new close friendships have formed.

Epictetus: The Lame Old Man on the Solace of Solitude

In the first century AD, it seemed that many Caesars believed they rendered philosophers their due by kicking them out of town. Musonius’ greatest student, Epictetus, was no stranger to exile either, when sometime between AD 89 and 95 Domitian exiled all philosophers not only from Rome, but from the entire Italian peninsula. Thereafter, Epictetus established his new base in Nicopolis on the western coast of Greece and was soon accompanied by plenty of students and curious visitors from throughout the empire.

As for lessons from Epictetus relevant to loneliness, I’ll start with his very basic Stoic observation that “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things.”[7] Modern psychological researchers define loneliness as some manner of “perceived social isolation” that entails a discrepancy between the relationships one desires and the relationships one has. So then, the experience of loneliness itself is a form of a judgment regarding a deficiency, rather than merely a set of external circumstances. As Epictetus makes clear, (and as Dr. Gregory Sadler makes even clearer for a modern audience[8]), “a man is not forlorn merely because he is alone, any more than a man in the midst of a crowd is necessarily not forlorn.”[9]

Now, an important point Dr. Sadler builds upon is Epictetus’ observation that one need not necessarily be forlorn and distressed even if one actually is alone. Drawing from the thought of Zeus, King of the gods, alone but content at the time one of the periodic “world-conflagrations” when all the other gods and the rest of the world have gone up in smoke for a time, Epictetus explains that the key to finding solace in solitude is to have trained oneself in virtue so that one is at peace with oneself and comfortable in one’s own company. (Sounds a bit like Musonius Rufus working away on his virtues in the midst of his exiles.)

Further, modern research shows that some people mired in significant loneliness acquire maladaptive social cognitions, such as tendencies toward to selectively remember negative social interactions, fear of rejection, and paranoia that can hamper their abilities to form new connections. Indeed, this is why modern cognitive-behavioral therapy (grown from Stoic soils), has been found to be the most effective treatment for loneliness. In a modern meta-analysis of dozens of studies examining interventions for loneliness in the forms of increasing opportunities for social contacts, increasing social support, increasing social skills, or addressing maladaptive social cognitions through cognitive-behavioral therapy, the researchers concluded that “among these four types, interventions designed to address maladaptive social cognition were associated with the largest effect size (mean effect size = -.598).”[10]

I would propose that when one has focused only on things within one’s own control, as Epictetus advises, one will be in a much better position to reach out to others to make new connections without fearing another person’s potential rejection, that being something beyond one’s own control.

I’ll draw just one other concept from Epictetus in relation to loneliness. One of the most common and powerful events that can lead to significant loneliness is the loss of a spouse or other dearly loved family member and friend. Epictetus gave interesting and worthwhile, if not easy, advice in this regard:

With everything that entertains you, is useful, or of which you are fond, remember to say to yourself, beginning with the very least of things, “What is its nature?” If you are fond of a jug, say, “I am fond of a jug: for when it is broken you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your own child or wife, say to yourself that you are kissing a human being; for when it dies you will not be disturbed.[11]

Further:

Never say about anything, ‘I have lost it,’ but instead, ‘I have given it back.’ did your child die? It was given back. Did your wife die? She was given back. . . . as long as he (God, the Giver), gives it, take care of it as something that is not your own, just as travelers treat an inn.”[12]

Bereavement is a normal, natural human phenomenon, but a proper consideration of the nature of things, including our loved ones’ and our own mortality, can keep it from disturbing and paralyzing us as we continue to strive to continue to live lives of virtues and to reach out to others.

Seneca: The Self-Sufficient Still Desire Companions

In his letter 9 (from which our opening quotation was pulled), Seneca considers how a man who is self-sufficient would still desire to have friendships by summarizing three key points:

  1. He posits, like a good Stoic, that a self-sufficient person does not need friendships, but still desires Indeed, he supplies the very graphic example of the loss of a limb or even of one’s eyes through war or some accident. Surely a wise man would prefer to have all his parts, but will still seek maximum happiness with the parts of him that remain. When such a man loses a friend, he bears it with composure.
  2. He agrees with the positions put forward by Aristotle and Cicero, and contrary to Socrates suggestion in Plato’s Lysis, that friendships are not born of need, but rather, of a superabundance of virtue. Here, he explicitly contradicts a saying of Epicurus to the effect that we seek friends to stay by us when we are ill and to help us when we are in need. Seneca proclaims, rather, that we seek friends in order to have someone to sit by when sick and to help when in need. 
  3. Virtue concerns only that which is within our control, and not the happenstance of fortune. Therefore, the man who builds friendships based on virtue, rather than the desire for gain, is immune to the changes and chance happenstance of fortune, and in that sense he remains self-sufficient.

Seneca has been referred to as a “silver tongued” orator and he is known for the bon mots that enrich in his writings. One such phrase appears in letter 9 when Seneca advises Lucilius to replace lost friends with new ones. He offers a phrase that the Stoic philosopher Hecato of Rhodes (c100 BC), declared to be as potent as any witch’s love potion: “If you would be loved, love.” Clearly then, Seneca advises a remedy for forlornness is to reach out and share one’s virtue with others.

The Loneliness-Thwarting Labors of Hierocles

The writings of the 2nd century AD Stoic Hierocles are known to us mainly through a brief fragment of his Elements of Ethics and other fragments in the 5th century compiler Stobaeus’ Florilegium. He writes most engagingly on relationships, including those of between parents and children, and perhaps the most famous element of his thought bears quite directly on modern conceptions of loneliness. In the aforementioned meta-anaylsis of Cacioppo et al., they describe three dimensions of loneliness based on three dimensions of social connection: intimate connectedness, relational connectedness, and collective connectedness.

Intimate connectedness refers to the “up close and personal,” relational connectedness to “wider circle of friends,” and collective connectedness to larger groups such as a professional organization or a parish. They have depicted these three dimensions of loneliness spatial as circles around a person of increasing size: one’s personal space bearing on intimate loneliness consisting of perhaps up to five people, one’s relational space bearing on relational loneliness of perhaps 15-50 people, and one’s collective space, varying by person perhaps within the range of 150-1500 people. One can feel different kinds of loneliness depending on which spaces are perceived to lack desired relationships.

Now, here is where Hierocles comes in. In the preserved fragments describing How We Ought to Conduct Ourselves to Our Kindred, Hierocles describes a series of concentric circles, the first and smallest circumscribing one’s self; the next larger one, one’s parents, siblings, spouse, and children; the next grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews; the next remaining relatives, and on to ever widening circles encompassing one’s city, its environs, on to one’s province, one’s nation, and lastly, to all of the world.

Regarding these circles of kinship, he encourages us to become aware of them and of all of their interconnections, striving to conduct ourselves benevolently and lovingly to all within all of the circles, indeed, striving to draw them all in closer to our innermost circle. Apparently, Hierocles would be all for the establishment of Stoic fellowships as a remedy to loneliness, and how wonderful it might be if such smaller circles could expand into ever larger ones.

Marcus Aurelius: Notes to Self on Connecting with Others

Who could be less lonely than the leader of the world’s most extensive empire? Well, there is the old saying that “it’s lonely at the top,” and Marcus Aurelius was definitely at the top in the years he drafted his Meditations from about 170-180 AD. Here was a man on the frozen banks of German rivers surrounded by legions of officers and troops and by hordes of non-Roman “barbarians” on the river’s other side so eager to join them, who would retreat to his tent at night and write notes to himself in the form of exercises to help him live a Stoic life of virtue and not become “Caesarified,” though he indeed bore the titles of Augustus and Caesar. Marcus is sometimes portrayed as a somber, if not melancholic figure, and though certainly introspective by nature, he encouraged himself to stay connected with his fellow man. Indeed, his sense of connectedness and gratitude toward others is made so clear in the first book of his Meditations that it is essentially a litany of praise and thanks to the people who helped form his character. There are many lessons in the Meditations that might help minimize the distress of the lonely, but I’ll zoom in on only one.

Marcus Aurelius gave noble advice we can use to brace ourselves for all manners of responses we may receive from others if we try to reach out to them. He advised that every morning on arising, we should remind ourselves that we are going to encounter, “the busybody, the thankless, the overbearing, the treacherous, the envious, the unneighborly,”[13] which surely rings as true in our day as it did in the second century. Aurelius elaborated that some people act this way because they do not truly understand good and evil, (because of their own “maladaptive social cognition”) we might say, and that we should not be debased or discouraged by their actions. Further, if our own social thinking is on the mark, we will recall that they share the same humanity with us, and we must still value them as kinsmen, placed in the world for cooperation, and not for resentment or avoidance. Such thinking can reduce our tendencies toward anger towards others and hypersensitivity to how others might react unfairly to our kindly overtures intended to establish or nourish connections. If we can anticipate in advance that our friendly gestures might not be reciprocated as we hope, and accept it, we can better muster the courage to reach out anyway.

If I might formulate this in the form of a suggested exercise: Say to yourself at the start of each day, some modification of the wise counsel of the Stoic emperor, perhaps something like the following:

Today I will encounter some lonely person, the bereaved perhaps, the newcomer to this city or to this school or place of work, the person who feels left out even within his or her own family, and this person may ignore me, not look me in the eye, not return my greeting, or treat me with suspicion, but I will remember that such people are my brothers and sisters and God has called us to be there for one another.  Therefore, I will still make some effort to connect with them even in the smallest of ways to lighten the burden of their loneliness.

These are but a few of my own musings on some possible Stoic approaches to loneliness, either one’s own or the loneliness of our loved ones and other fellow inhabitants of earth. I wonder what other suggestions to endure or to conquer loneliness readers might cull from the cornucopia of Stoic writings?

[1] Juliann Holt-Lundstad, Timothy B. Smith, Mark Baker, Tyler Harris, & David Stephenson, Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review, Perspectives on Psychological Sciences, 2015, Vol. 10(2), 236. (In this statistical review of 70 prior studies with a cumulative total of 3,407, 134 mostly middle-aged and elderly adult participants, self-reported significant loneliness increased risk of death by 26%, which was not a statistically significant difference from the increased risk of death from social isolation (29%) or living alone (32%) at follow up an average of seven years later.)

[2] Miller McPherson, Lynn-Smith Lovin, Matthew E. Brashears, Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades, American Sociological Review, 2006, Vol. 71 (June 353-375).

[3] Of a range of 0 to 6 or more close confidants, the modal number is the number of confidants reported by the greatest number of respondents. In other words, by 2004 more people reported they had no close confidants than those who reported either 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6+ confidants, while 3 confidants was the most common response two decades before.

[4] Interested readers can find it online at https://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/general/loneliness_2010.pdf.

[5] Ami Rokach, ed. Loneliness Updated: Recent Research on Loneliness and how it Affects our Lives, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2013).

[6] Cited in Lutz, 38.

[7] Epictetus, The Handbook of Epictetus, Nicholas P. White, ed., (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1983), 13.

[8] Because of how I benefited from it, I must credit it and direct readers to Dr. Sadler’s YouTube video Epictetus on Solitude or Forlornness for an excellent summary of this topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VMqtn3pQ1Ts.

[9] Epictetus: Discourses Books III–IV, The Encheiridion, trans. W. A. Oldfather (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), Dis. Book III: chapter xiii, p. 87.

[10] Stephanie Caciopio, Angela Grippo, Sarah London, Luc Gossens, & John Cacioppo, Loneliness: Clinical Import and Interventions, Perspectives on Psychological Sciences, 2015, Vol. 10(2), p. 242.

[11] Ibid, Encheiridion, para. 3, p. 487.

[12] Nicholas White, ed., Handbook of Epictetus, para. 11, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1983), 14.

[13] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 305.

Kevin Vost, Psy.D., is the author of over a dozen books including The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2016) and The Catholic Guide to Loneliness: How Science and Faith Can Help Us Understand It, Grow From It, and Conquer It (Sophia Institute Press, 2017).

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

Leave a Reply

4 thoughts on “Some Stoic Musings on Loneliness by Kevin Vost”

  1. Hierocles does us an excellent turn by pointing out that the first important relationship is with oneself. We probably shouldn’t expect the others to go well if that’s not in good working order.

    One’s relationship with the natural world can also have a way of making loneliness worthwhile. This fact might account for the saying from the old American frontier that it was time to move on when you could see the smoke from your neighbor’s chimney.

    1. Thanks for those thoughtful observations, David. I agree. Some other classical treatments of friendship, like Aristotle’s, also emphasize the importance of an appropriate self-love as the basis of friendship with others.

      As for the natural world, I often think of desert monks or people like Thoreau as people who have sought out the experience of being alone in nature. I like the idea of some of the pioneers of the American frontier as others who sought out their own personal space (and plenty of it).

  2. Thanks for an excellent discussion, Dr. Vost. I might suggest some further consideration of an important distinction made by the theologian, Paul Tillich; i.e., that between loneliness and solitude. Our language, Tillich wrote, “has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.” [1]

    On this view, when someone we love dies or leaves us, when we dearly wish companionship but can’t find it, we experience the pain of loneliness. But when we are alone and in touch with our own deepest feelings, or when we commune with nature, or God, or our own creative powers, we experience the blessings of solitude. [2].

    I’d welcome your thoughts on this distinction. And thanks again for the fine essay.

    Ron Pies MD

    1. https://thevalueofsparrows.com/2012/09/09/sermon-loneliness-and-solitude-by-paul-tillich/
    2. Pies R: Alone or Lonely? http://emerald.tufts.edu/alumni/magazine/summer2013/think-tank/mind.html

    1. Thank you for your comments, Dr. Pies, and for the links to those excellent articles. I wish I had them before I completed my book! Tillich’s brief definitions and elaborations of loneliness and solitude are superb and I do not recall coming across them before.

      I think the loneliness/solitude distinction is of the greatest importance. I included a chapter called The Solace of Solitude in my forthcoming book on loneliness and I drew there on psychiatrist Dr. Anthony Storr’s Solitude and Peter France’s Hermits among other sources.