NIETZSCHE: Living in Solitude and Dealing with Society

“Choose the good solitude, the free, high-spirited, light-hearted solitude that, in some sense, gives you the right to stay good yourself!”

Beyond Good and Evil, §25

Nietzsche’s life was one of solitude, his later period in life was spent almost in complete isolation.

At the age of 24, he was offered to become a professor of classical philology before completing his doctorate or receiving a teaching certificate. He remains to this day among the youngest of the tenured Classics professors on record.

He taught at the University of Basel from 1869 to 1878. Nietzsche’s poor health worsened and he was forced to leave his professorship. He had also felt that academic life was a hindrance to his creative thinking.

He retired with a modest pension of 3000 Swiss francs which represented two-thirds of his annual salary. The pension, though awarded for only six years, was actually paid in full until 1889, the year of his mental breakdown. This money was Nietzsche’s main source of income for the remaining years of his productive life, spanning from 1879 to 1888.

In his period as an independent philosopher he plunged into his creative work while plagued with continued ill health.

Nietzsche’s personal attitude involved a hidden and solitary aspect of his outward persona. Carl Jung writes:

“I was held back by a secret fear that I might perhaps be like him [Nietzsche], at least in regard to the “secret” which had isolated him from his environment. Perhaps, who knows? he had had inner experiences, insights which he had unfortunately talked about, and had found out that no one understood him.”

Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, III

Sigmund Freud, in rare praise, noted that:

“Nietzsche had a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any other man who ever lived or was ever likely to live.”

Nietzsche travelled frequently to find climates more beneficial to his health and lived in different cities as an independent author. He spent his summers in the coolness of Sils Maria, Switzerland and his winters in the warmness of the Italian cities of Genoa, Rapallo and Turin, and the French city of Nice. He also wrote many letters to his colleagues.

However, for the most part he was alone. Apart from writing, he used to take long walks that could last several hours. Nietzsche considered himself as the solitary wanderer and hermit, the “free spirit” that had experienced a great liberation from the traditions that had kept him chained. Solitude became the origin of a new category of thinker, a “philosopher of the future”, a “free spirit”.

“… we are the born, sworn, jealous friends of solitude, of our profoundest midnight and midday solitude – such kind of men are we, we free spirits! and perhaps you are something of this yourselves, you who are approaching? you new philosophers?”

Beyond Good and Evil, §44

He further elaborates that one must:

“… remain master of one’s four virtues: courage, insight, sympathy, solitude. Because solitude is a virtue for us, since it is a sublime inclination and impulse to cleanliness which shows that contact between people (“society”) inevitably makes things unclean. Somewhere, sometime, every community makes people – base.”

Beyond Good and Evil, §284

Solitude is best expressed in the figure of Zarathustra, the solitary wanderer:

“When Zarathustra was thirty years old he left his home and the lake of his home and went into the mountains. Here he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude and for ten years he did not tire of it. But at last a change came over his heart, and one morning he rose with the dawn, stepped before the sun, and spoke to it thus: “You great star, what would your happiness be had you not those for whom you shine. For ten years you have climbed to my cave: you would have tired of your light and of the journey had it not been for me and my eagle and my serpent.” But we waited for you every morning, took your overflow from you, and blessed you for it. “Behold, I am weary of my wisdom, like a bee that has gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to receive it.” I would give away and distribute, until the wise among men find joy once again in their folly, and the poor in their riches. “For that I must descend to the depths, as you do in the evening when you go behind the sea and still bring light to the underworld, you overrich star.” Like you, I must go under—go down, as is said by man, to whom I want to descend. “So bless me then” you quiet eye that can look even upon all-too-great happiness without envy! “Bless the cup that wants to overflow, that the water may flow from it golden and carry everywhere the reflection of your delight. “Behold, this cup wants to become empty again, and Zarathustra wants to become man again.” Thus began Zarathustra’s down-going.”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra’s Prologue

Zarathustra’s solitude was very fruitful, but there comes a moment when he grows weary of his wisdom. Solitude seems, therefore, to be a temporary matter. He wishes to share his teachings and thus he begins his descent into mankind.

However, he fails to teach the people no matter how hard he tries. In fact, he feels more isolated with the people than being alone with himself, like a black sheep. Despite the appearances, the mediocre man is actually isolated from himself and progressively absorbed in a faceless collectivity, that ends up suffocating his individuality.

Nietzsche himself was acutely aware of his psychological isolation, and joked to one of his correspondents that he was the “hermit of Sils-Maria”. On one of his drafts in his last work Ecce Homo, he writes: “I am solitude become man”

He considered his contemporaries as parroting culture and society in their ideas, writings and daily life because they lack the will to delve into their own being and derive meaning and ideas from a thorough-going examination of oneself, which can only be achieved by cultivating solitude. He writes:

“When I am among the many I live as the many do, and I do not think as I really think; after a time it always seems as though they want to banish me from myself and rob me of my soul and I grow angry with everybody and fear everybody. I then require the desert, so as to grow good again.”

Daybreak, §491

And:

“I need solitude – that is to say, recovery, return to myself, the breathing of free, crisp, bracing air… The whole of my Zarathustra is a dithyramb in honour of solitude.”

Ecce Homo, 1, 8.

Zarathustra eventually ends up going back into solitude, but this time – he focuses on a small minority of “higher men”, who unlike the crowd, possess virtues of introspection, discipline, self-overcoming and other aspects constitutive of the love of life. An individual who isolates himself without ever valuing external opinions will only have his conscience with himself and nobody to ever confront or challenge his views. This is why Zarathustra must find “higher men” for his mental elevation. He suggests that our “enemies” are actually adversaries whose ideas have the potential of improving our own. He writes:

“My brothers in war! I love you deeply, because I am and have been your equal. And I am also your best enemy… You should be the kind of men whose eyes always seek an enemy – your enemy… You should seek your enemy, wage your war and for your thoughts! And when your thought is defeated, then your honesty should cry out in triumph even for that.”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Of War and Warriors

Solitude is thus not just a result of the contempt of the masses, but allows to forge a more profound longing for a community that allows one to explore the best version of oneself. Company is important, and if chosen well – can be mutually beneficial.

In this sense, introspective solitude is compatible with life in community, but it is also necessary to retreat into complete solitude once in a while, in order to receive its fruits.

“Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you. Indeed, with different eyes, my brothers, will I then seek my lost ones; with a different love will I love you then.”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Of the Bestowing Virtue

A temporary retreat into solitude helps to dissolve one’s entrapment in being a mere member of a crowd, where society is thought of as higher than its members. Anyone who questions and goes against society is ridiculed and ostracised, so too the solitary wanderer.

The solitary is he who challenges society’s desire to turn the human being into an absolutely gregarious animal. There is great risk in wanting to live and think like a solitary, for he is expected to conform to culture and popular opinion. Yet it is the solitary who is free, while the masses have renounced to their will and have become conformists.

However, in solitude, everything that one carries with him grows, including one’s inner beast.

“Today you suffer still from the many, you lonely one: for today you still have your courage and your hopes intact. But one day solitude will make you weary, one day your pride will cringe and your courage will gnash its teeth. One day you will cry “I am alone!” One day you will no longer see your high, and your low will appear too near; your sublimity itself will frighten you like a ghost. One day you will cry: “Everything is false!” There are feelings that want to kill the lonely one; if they do not succeed, well, then they must die themselves! But are you capable of being a murderer?”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Of the Way of the Creator

Nietzsche indicates that only a few people can bear solitude, but these will be able to harvest its fruits. Solitude has an aspect of a sense of belonging that is not present in the crowd.

Being physically isolated, however, does not imply automatically and instantaneously getting rid of the social imprint, because society not only makes an appearance outside of oneself, but also within oneself, through a common conscience. It is an inner voice that contains the norms and habits that prevail at the civic level and, to a greater or lesser extent, condition our way of speaking, interpreting, reflecting, acting, and, in short, living.

That is why Nietzsche urges us to reflect upon this inner voice that conditions our life, and that is only possible in solitude.

“Flee, my friend, into your solitude! I see you dazed by the noise of the great men and stung by the stings of the little. Forest and rock know well how to be silent with you. Be once more like the tree that you love, the broad-branching one: silent and listening it hangs over the sea. Where solitude ends, there begins the marketplace; and where the marketplace begins, there begins too the noise of the great actors and the buzzing of poisonous flies… You have lived too long near the small and the pitiable man. Flee their invisible revenge! Against you they are nothing but revenge.”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part I “On the Flies of the Marketplace”

Being in solitude allows to see one’s constant anxious consideration of the opinions that others hold of you and one’s captivity in the quick pace of modern life that pressures everyone to become workaholics, the result is alienation and fragmentation of the self.

Solitude makes again possible the practices of contemplation, which puts oneself in touch with one’s deep sources of wellness.

“On this perfect day, when everything is ripening, and not only the grapes are getting brown, a ray of sunshine has fallen on my life: I looked behind me, I looked before me, and never have I seen so many good things all at once… How could I help being thankful to the whole of my life?”

Ecce Homo, Preface


Living in Solitude and Dealing with Society | Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche recommends to spend some of our time in complete solitude. To reflect upon the inner voice that conditions our life which is the product of the common conscience of society.

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In Pursuit of Meaning (philosophy & psychology)

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