In any case, solitude and privacy are not just privileges. They are also compensations. People didn’t have modern selves in traditional society, but they didn’t need them, because they had family and community: extended families, face-to-face communities. They had an intricate structure of relationships, traditions, roles, and expectations to give content to their lives and direction to their efforts, to orient themselves in space and time. They didn’t need to go it alone or make up the world for themselves, so they didn’t need the equipment that enables modern individuals (if they’re lucky) to do so.
Now all we have is ourselves. The modern self is a consolation prize; it’s what we have to cling to—that and friendship, modernity’s central relationship. Intimacy is also a modern phenomenon, because it rests on privacy. When E. M. Forster said “Only connect,” he didn’t mean that’s all we need to do; he meant that’s all we could do: forge our horizontal bonds, because the roots are gone.
The Law of Jante
That image, in case you were wondering, as I’m sure you were, comes from this cool little project. Further explanation of the concept can be found here. The emphasis on individual achievement and success might come across as slightly Rand-y to American sensibilities, but more generally, it illustrates why many of us don’t view our evolving bargain with modernity over our social relationships as quite so Faustian as all that. Thoreau was right about that much, at least: you never gain something but that you lose something. I’m fine with trading physical proximity for cerebral connection.