I remember hearing a song on the radio back in the ’90s by some generic alt-rock band, with a chorus that went, “If I could be all by myself, I could be free.” But as Christopher Knight, the Maine Hermit, noted from experience, true solitude dissolves such romantic adolescent fantasies of authentic selfhood. It sets you free from everything, including meaning and purpose. Most people’s notion of solitude and independence only extends to arm’s length, understandably enough.
Intellectual (or epistemological) solitude, like what Brad Warner is talking about here, has a similarly unsettling effect. If, like Descartes, we sit down to rigorously and thoroughly determine what we really know about the topics we opine about, we’re soon forced to admit that we don’t have the time (or inclination, if we’re feeling especially honest) to become deeply informed. For most of us, in most areas of knowledge, our feeling of certainty rests on Arguments from Various Authorities. If asked “How do you know?” persistently enough, we will end up pointing toward someone else. “Because they said so, and I generally trust them.”
There’s no shame in that, of course. In a world as complex as ours, there’s no way for any individual to be an expert in all the things that matter. Nevertheless, acknowledging this diminishes a flattering self-conception most of us hold, where we like to imagine our opinions being rooted in objective facts and reason, unlike those people over there. Most startling, perhaps, at least for those of us who write online, is the recognition of how much of this type of writing requires being completely invested in the conceit that our opinions are well-founded and, especially, that they matter. The sort of emotionally-balanced honesty that Brad is talking about, well — it sounds kind of boring, doesn’t it? Who wants to read the musings of someone who can’t even seem to take a side in an argument? As a writer, who wants to sit down every day to affirm his own ignorance and powerlessness? It’s much more viscerally satisfying to both parties to scream and throw things at those people over there. Most of what we consume online is empty-calorie junk food and cheap beer, briefly sating a fleeting desire while simultaneously stimulating the appetite for more. No one wants the equivalent of a raw-food vegan showing up and ruining the fun.
How do we maintain our independence while still remaining within touching distance of other people and events? How do we generate meaningful things to say from within ourselves, rather than rely on the trivia/outrage du jour to give us our cues? This is something I wrestle with regularly, trying to find that golden mean between “Dear Diary” self-indulgence and ephemeral social-media punditry.