Culture  /  Comment

The History of Loneliness

Until a century or so ago, almost no one lived alone; now many endure shutdowns and lockdowns on their own. How did modern life get so lonely?

In “A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion” (Oxford), the British historian Fay Bound Alberti defines loneliness as “a conscious, cognitive feeling of estrangement or social separation from meaningful others,” and she objects to the idea that it’s universal, transhistorical, and the source of all that ails us. She argues that the condition really didn’t exist before the nineteenth century, at least not in a chronic form. It’s not that people—widows and widowers, in particular, and the very poor, the sick, and the outcast—weren’t lonely; it’s that, since it wasn’t possible to survive without living among other people, and without being bonded to other people, by ties of affection and loyalty and obligation, loneliness was a passing experience. Monarchs probably were lonely, chronically. (Hey, it’s lonely at the top!) But, for most ordinary people, daily living involved such intricate webs of dependence and exchange—and shared shelter—that to be chronically or desperately lonely was to be dying. The word “loneliness” very seldom appears in English before about 1800. Robinson Crusoe was alone, but never lonely. One exception is “Hamlet”: Ophelia suffers from “loneliness”; then she drowns herself.

Modern loneliness, in Alberti’s view, is the child of capitalism and secularism. “Many of the divisions and hierarchies that have developed since the eighteenth century—between self and world, individual and community, public and private—have been naturalized through the politics and philosophy of individualism,” she writes. “Is it any coincidence that a language of loneliness emerged at the same time?” It is not a coincidence. The rise of privacy, itself a product of market capitalism—privacy being something that you buy—is a driver of loneliness. So is individualism, which you also have to pay for.

Alberti’s book is a cultural history (she offers an anodyne reading of “Wuthering Heights,” for instance, and another of the letters of Sylvia Plath). But the social history is more interesting, and there the scholarship demonstrates that whatever epidemic of loneliness can be said to exist is very closely associated with living alone. Whether living alone makes people lonely or whether people live alone because they’re lonely might seem to be harder to say, but the preponderance of the evidence supports the former: it is the force of history, not the exertion of choice, that leads people to live alone. This is a problem for people trying to fight an epidemic of loneliness, because the force of history is relentless.