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The Long History of the Loneliness Epidemic In the West

September 15, 2018 in Blogs

By Aeon

The contemporary notion of loneliness stems from cultural and economic transformations that have taken place in the modern West.


‘God, but life is loneliness,’ declared the writer Sylvia Plath in her private journals. Despite all the grins and smiles we exchange, she says, despite all the opiates we take:

when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter – they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long.

By the 21st century, loneliness has become ubiquitous. Commentators call it ‘an epidemic’, a condition akin to ‘leprosy’, and a ‘silent plague’ of civilisation. In 2018, the United Kingdom went so far as to appoint a Minister for Loneliness. Yet loneliness is not a universal condition; nor is it a purely visceral, internal experience. It is less a single emotion and more a complex cluster of feelings, composed of anger, grief, fear, anxiety, sadness and shame. It also has social and political dimensions, shifting through time according ideas about the self, God and the natural world. Loneliness, in other words, has a history.

The term ‘loneliness’ first crops up in English around 1800. Before then, the closest word was ‘oneliness’, simply the state of being alone. As with solitude – from the Latin ‘solus’ which meant ‘alone’ – ‘oneliness’ was not coloured by any suggestion of emotional lack. Solitude or oneliness was not unhealthy or undesirable, but rather a necessary space for reflection with God, or with one’s deepest thoughts. Since God was always nearby, a person was never truly alone. Skip forward a century or two, however, and the use of ‘loneliness’ – burdened with associations of emptiness and the absence of social connection – has well and truly surpassed oneliness. What happened?

The contemporary notion of loneliness stems from cultural and economic transformations that have taken place in the modern West. Industrialisation, the growth of the consumer economy, the declining influence of religion and the popularity of evolutionary biology all served to …read more

Source: ALTERNET

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