Thursday, May 24, 2012

Philosophy: Solitude And The New Age of Privacy

I wouldn’t call myself a “morning person” but I do like the way the day has a kind of endless feel when I get up with the sun.  This time of year the world around this little house is alive with the spring song of rushing brook water, birds, and that subtle sound of bloom rubbing against bloom that is quieted in winter.  So, I follow my cat’s lead and stretch into the day in response to the sounds of the outside waking up.  Click on NCPR, draw a dark roast, pour some granola, gather pen and paper, settle into a soft chair and begin.

It was on such a morning recently when a report came over NCPR that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had declared privacy was passé.  “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

And with this new normal now apparently upon me, my mind set to wondering about what this shift (real or imagined) means.  I don’t know about you, but privacy feels to me like one of those sacred spheres where solitude and quietude also reside.  To keep privacy is to preserve a mental perimeter as much as a physical one that holds us in part, apart from community and world.  John Stuart Mill would roll in his grave to hear that such ideas as this have become quaint.  He wrote,

“A world from which solitude is extirpated, is a very poor ideal.  Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character; and solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could ill do without.”

Mill was convinced that the preservation of humanity – literally our ability to conduct ourselves humanely – depended on a degree of privacy and solitude.  I happen to agree but I won’t make pleading arguments for a return to antiquity.  Those gestures invariably paint the past with nostalgia thick enough to elide complicated truths.  And in my experience, ghosts and the fantasies that attend them are dangerous subjects.  They are often compelling and seductive for their appearing either flawless, or hovering at a safe enough distance for their shortcomings to be mistaken for charm.

On the other hand without relying on old halcyon tropes of bygone days, sometimes it is right and courageous simply to walk away.  Time is an elusive mistress, but I believe we can reclaim lost space and begin to inhabit the world differently with a quiet mind that fosters a kind of spiritual revival.  Mill meant to say that claiming (or in our 21st century scenario, re-claiming) personal space is restorative, that we are repaired and literally mended back to our best selves in the act of being alone.  In this process the easy posture so blessedly common among the young may become familiar again, as before we were buffeted too long, and endured too much in the absence of privacy.

Photo credit:  Statesmen No. 141: Caricature of Mr. John Stewart Mill, March 29, 1873 from “Vanity Fair” (Courtesy The University of Virginia Library).

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Marianne Patinelli-Dubay leads the Environmental Philosophy Program at SUNY-ESF’s Newcomb Campus on the Huntington Wildlife Forest. In addition to teaching and writing, Marianne chairs the Adirondack Chapter of the Society of American Foresters and is an active member of the Forest Stewards Guild.   Please send comments to

One Response

  1. Pete Klein says:

    I would suggest that privacy and solitude can be had and maintained within a crowd. One could posses even if one were totally naked within a crowd of people fully clothed. It all depends upon your center.
    The question might be: why do you need to keep something private? If you truly posses something, no one can take it away.