Photo Credit: Zabanski /

Alone, adj. In bad company.
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1906)

For the first time in a long time, I took my daughter to a ballgame. It was good to be out with the crowd, albeit socially distanced and masked (between bites of hot dog and sips of beer). The Cubs scored one in the third and two in the fourth, all they’d need to win. I asked my daughter if she thought her brother was making friends in college. He’s a freshman, she’s a senior. Yes, she said. Why, didn’t I? I did, but he had been locked down in his dorm most of the year and could not see others, except outside. Fall and winter had been very cold. Even now, late April, it was 36 degrees at first pitch.

Finding myself talking about the weather, I realized I was thinking about one of my students, a boy almost my daughter’s age who died last year. The notice of condolence from the administration exhibited a studied discretion and scarcity of detail that suggested either overdose or suicide—in today’s terminology, a “death of despair.” The kid had been outspoken, opinionated, a bit outrageous, gratifyingly good for class conversation. Although often late with his assignments, he finally passed in work that earned an A grade. When campus closed last spring; he had gone back home to tightly locked- down California, and now… My daughter interrupted my thoughts: What are you working on? I said, I am writing about loneliness.

First published in 1951, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism tells the true crime story of the twentieth century. Like a philosophical detective, Arendt investigates the cultural trends and historical forces, from antisemitism to imperialism, that led to the rise of Hitler and Stalin, their propaganda and secret police, the Holocaust and the Gulag. Origins was a bestseller. Yet in her preface to the second edition of 1958, Arendt confesses that her first edition had not properly concluded; she had not yet found the elementary human condition that had made possible this new kind of regime and, with it, such unprecedented horror. Her new final chapter, “Terror and Ideology,” contends that totalitarianism arises from loneliness. 

Loneliness is “one of the fundamental experiences of human life,” Arendt observes, but it is “at the same time contrary to the basic requirements of the human condition.” Loneliness distempers desire, saps will, and confounds reason. You hopelessly yearn. Your spirit is low; you fill with inertia. You think yourself misunderstood and begin to doubt yourself. There are different degrees of loneliness. It can be a feeling of lack when you are by yourself, or sadness when you have no one with whom to share anything. You may be homesick, without family or friends, or heartbroken by a lover’s betrayal. And yet loneliness can feel worse when you are with others, in the midst of a crowd, but with whom you feel nothing in common, disconnected, excluded. You feel isolated, abandoned, forsaken. “Loneliness … is closely connected to uprootedness and superfluousness.” An intuition of the meaninglessness of existence, the death of a loved one, or a loss of faith can all cause loneliness. Even a saint may experience “a dark night of the soul” when God’s presence seems gone. Loneliness has been a merciless muse to lyricists seeking to express this fundamental experience that, yet we feel few others understand. So, Roy Orbison croons: “Only the lonely know why I cry.” 

Loneliness reaches a unique extreme under Hitler and Stalin. Here loneliness is “the experience of having no place in the world at all,” Arendt writes, “of being abandoned by everything and everybody.” Aside from murder and torture, a totalitarian regime inhibits resistance by isolating dissenters. It sows distrust among its citizens, making each feel isolated. When a general loneliness pervades, each individual is ready to submit totally, publicly, and privately. Publicly, individuals are coerced through propaganda and terror into identifying as part of the mass group. Totalitarianism does not abide privacy, but rather subsumes the private within the public just as it subsumes the individual within the mass. While a tyranny merely crushes opposition in order to maintain its power, the totalitarian state operates from the imperative to conquer the entire earth and possess every soul. The totalitarian state requires more than obedience. To the prescribed ideology, each must confess. Thus, Arendt warns, “total domination is the only form of government with which coexistence is not possible.”

Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism reveals that loneliness can be an intellectual experience, a problem not only of feeling, but also, of thinking. Loneliness makes you sad, but also dull, or to use Arendt’s favored term, “banal.” Reason turns upon the psyche. The lonely ideologue persecutes and punishes others and will even accuse themselves of crimes they know they did not commit:

The preparation of victims and executioners which totalitarianism requires … is not the ideology itself—racism or dialectical materialism—but its inherent logicality. The most persuasive argument in this respect, an argument of which Hitler like Stalin was fond, is: You can’t say A without saying B and C and so on, down to the end of the murderous alphabet. Here, the coercive force of logicality seems to have its source; it springs from the fear of contradicting ourselves.… Through this contradiction, you render your whole life meaningless.

(1951 [1973], 472–73)

Reduced to strict logic, without direction from will or desire, our reason reiterates and elaborates upon the ideology’s unquestioned premise. If, as Emerson said, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” then this foolishness, when backed up by terror, grows into a myopic cyclops devouring all minds. The lonely soul cannot resist.

Arendt looks back to antiquity, to the Roman Stoic Epictetus, for the first properly philosophical account of loneliness. Epictetus contrasts loneliness with solitude: “All thinking, strictly speaking, is done in solitude and is a dialogue between me and myself.” Thinking is talking to yourself. The Stoic insists that one can learn to be alone without being lonely by practicing philosophical thinking. The better we learn to think, the better company we can be to ourselves. Epictetus says:

We ought to prepare ourselves to be capable of being self-sufficient and bearing our own company. For just as Zeus converses with himself, is at peace with himself, contemplates the nature of his own governance, and occupies himself with thoughts worthy of himself, so should we too be able to talk with ourselves, not need others, nor be at a loss for some way to occupy ourselves.

(Epictetus 1995, 3:13)

Such thinking is really a spiritual practice, a form of contemplation or meditation. The Stoic fix for your lonely, weak, weepy, doubt-filled soul is simple: think like Zeus!

But we are not as self-sufficient as Epictetus would lead us to believe. Thinking is an internal dialogue between me and myself, Arendt writes “but this dialogue of the two-in-one does not lose contact with the world of my fellow-men because they are represented in the self with whom I lead the dialogue of thought,” Moreover, the words with which we think, the metaphors and myths, the tropes and topics, are not of our own making. Tradition teaches us the terms with which we think, just as our parents taught us language. As Arendt says, “The Greek polis will continue to exist at the bottom of our political existence … for as long as we use the word ‘politics.’” Just so, Plato properly refers to Homer, whose epics dramatized heroic virtues and a cosmic vision in unforgettable poetry, as the “educator of the Greeks.”

Loneliness reveals all thinking to be social, or in properly Greek terms, political. Although Epictetus advocates a radical self-reliance modeled upon the divine solitude of Zeus, assuring us that Zeus was not lonely in the time before creation, still Zeus did create. His daughter Athena, goddess of wisdom and justice, patron of Athens, emerged fully formed from her divine father’s head. So Socrates said: “A city [polis] comes into being because each of us isn’t self-sufficient but is in need of much.” One of our needs is company, conversation, a way to test our thoughts. Even the philosophical focus on self, exemplified by Epictetus, is political philosophy. Solitude reveals that our psyches are political.

Indeed, we must eventually return from our solitude into society, as Arendt says, in order to reaffirm our individuality and find corroboration for our thoughts: “What makes loneliness so unbearable is the loss of one’s own self which can be realized in solitude, but can be confirmed in its identity only by the trusting and trustworthy company of my equals.” Totalitarianism isolates and terrorizes so that individuals cannot recover themselves. Lonely, we can no longer talk to ourselves. Common sense no longer seems common, or no longer makes sense. We cannot think freely. Incapable of free thought, some vehemently and violently defend ideology and its unquestionable premises. Others turn on themselves. Thus, loneliness can lead to genocide and suicide.

A silent interlocutor of Arendt’s Origins is Plato’s Republic. Arendt insists that totalitarianism is a new phenomenon. Yet Socrates posited a city a lot like a totalitarian regime, a class system founded upon “noble” lies, run by secret police terror, in which family structure is abolished, education strictly controlled, artists censored, and dissenters exiled.

It remains a question whether Plato intended the regime described in his dialogue to be realized or if it was merely a model, as Cicero thought, a nightmare city no one would ever want to live in, but that thinking about could reveal the nature of the human psyche, including the limits of reason, and the political order, and the need for legal constraints on power.

The dialogue’s traditional subtitle is “On Justice.” Socrates says, “There is, we say, justice of one man; and there is, surely, justice of a whole city too?” Arendt follows the trope first dramatized in Plato’s Republic, seeing the psyche as analogous to the polis. Socrates explains that just as a city has parts—merchants, guardians, and rulers—so our souls have parts—desire, will, and reason. These parts of the psyche are inherent capacities that may, with proper care, become virtuous. Our wills ought to be courageous, our desires well-tempered, and our reasoning prudent. A city ought to cultivate such virtue and so help each citizen better pursue happiness.

Courage, temperance, and prudence are three of the four classic cardinal virtues. The fourth is justice. The virtue of justice balances all these capacities. Justice is the harmonious balance within ourselves, and justice is also the fair balance of us each with society and nature. Loneliness—feeling loveless, impotent, and doubtful-confounds all our capacities. Loneliness is a symptom of injustice, both public and private.

How does one find this just balance? “Isn’t to produce justice to establish the parts of the soul in a relation of mastering and being mastered by one another that is according to nature?” Socrates asks. How can we cultivate such self-mastery? How do we find the just balance between ourselves and society that will bring about the just balance between our desires, wills, and reason that will expiate our loneliness?

Putting our own souls in order requires connecting and reckoning with the political order. Loneliness yearns for reconciliation with the crowd. The realization of Plato’s theorized regime by Hitler and Stalin perversely also realized the most unjust state and the most unjust condition for its citizens. Loneliness leads to an imbalance within the self and an unjust relation between the self and society. Arendt’s analysis of loneliness under totalitarianism recalls this ancient and most fulsome sense of justice, a balance between public and private, a virtue that harmonizes the individual’s character and that fairly orders the city. How to find such a just balance in modernity?

Christian Sheppard teaches liberal arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He coedited Mystics: Presence and Aporia. His next project is a book of popular philosophy on how the heroic virtues and mythic vision celebrated in Homer’s epics and at the baseball game offer a more perfect pursuit of happiness.

This article is excerpted from an essay that first appeared in Social Research. It is part of the journal’s issue Loneliness.