'All of humanity's problems come from a man’s inability to sit in a room by himself,' wrote Blaise Pascal.
In early modernity, Pascal’s words were perhaps right. But now the more appropriate comment would be: 'All humanity’s problems come from each one of us being unable to sit in a room with others.'
Pascal was convinced that our world is one of suffering, and, that as we strive to evade that suffering, we are unable to face ourselves honestly. He did not envision a peaceful indwelling of the self with itself, what later thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau would suggest as the proper way of being alone, in dialogue with oneself in solitude. For Pascal, there is no proper solitude, our disability is our fear of being alone. To be alone is to contain all within oneself, in the crudest of etymologies, to be “all one.” For Pascal, whose scientific work refuted Aristotle’s idea that nature abhors a vacuum, the “all one” would be the psychological equivalent of living while knowing that the vacuum is an essential part of us, of embracing it as our given condition of life, not knowing whether this would be our condition in death as well. Indeed, his famous wager, that it is rational to believe in God’s existence because the consequences of not believing are riskier to one’s soul than believing, would seem to follow from his proof of the existence of vacuums. The inner self is a void, to be filled by God if not by others. All of life is a risk, and all we can do is try to minimise our peril. Pascal, parent of probability theory, lived in a perilous time, when life could and did end early, from accident and disease.
"In our age we are able to live with ourselves, but not with others."
But our peril now comes from a different place. The arc of modernity has been a long struggle for security, for a peace that comes from plenitude, especially with the rise, over the past two centuries, of a worldwide consumer society built upon the carbon economy. Even the rise of mechanised war has not deterred us humans in our expansive growth and longevity. In our prosperity, we have become accustomed to being alone, to being left alone. We have come to see each other as impediments to our peace. We are able to live with ourselves, but not with others.
Hannah Arendt On Why You Must Break Your Bubble Read more As is becoming increasingly clear, this long expansion is coming to an end. We are now on the slippery slope of the Anthropocene. As the environmentalist Bill McKibben has recently documented, our habitable planet is shrinking. Rising seas and increasingly uninhabitable lands (due to our collective failure to abate greenhouse gases, and the inevitable desertification, massive fire and increasingly unsustainable high temperatures in the continents’ interiors) make a massive collapse of the world’s consumer civilisation a distinct possibility.
Such a world crisis provokes alternative political responses. Totalitarian regimes in the past have succeeded in keeping power through what political theorist Hannah Arendt has identified as a formula of mass loneliness plus terror. Subjects of such regimes are forced to focus on being alone together, and like in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, all subjects stand shoulder to shoulder, facing toward the sovereign, not toward each other. Such regimes have usually cultivated humanity’s worse rather than better instincts. They tend to “withdraw consent from above,” as the philosopher Stanley Cavell once put it. Those already holding power succumb to the temptation to further concentrate power.
It is important to note that such regimes instrumentalise loneliness as a political strategy, putting the already partially disenfranchised against the precarious. So, any alternative responses to such powerfully reactionary temptations would need to cultivate a coming together, a rejuvenation of political activism, an assembly of the precarious, to borrow from philosopher Judith Butler’s recent reflections on a performative theory of assembly, or a reactivation of a potential for a general strike, to use William E. Connolly’s study of Trumpism. Such democratising movements would depend upon an overcoming of our desires to be left alone. Instead we would need to learn, once again, how to be in a room with others.