Coping with Isolation

G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Systems of the Hellenistic Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985) 12.

The new philosophical conceptions…sought an ideal of life which any man could follow by using the resources solely found within himself…And this is easy to understand: in an epoch in which all is in ruins and rapidly changing, men cannot call upon other men or upon some things as a support or guarantor of security. They must search and find what they mean in themselves and only in themselves. This is the ideal of complete autonomy. In fact, the philosophers of this epoch extended the requirement of total liberation even to Destiny, Chance, and the Inevitable. Pyrrho put aside Chance with absolute indifference and complete insensibility. Zeno and the Stoics sought to free themselves from Destiny by pre-empting it, that is, by making the will of Fate their will. Epicurus laughed at Destiny and rejected it as an empty belief. Man, or better the individual, is thus freed from every dependency and becomes quasi-absolutized.

The fourth century B.C.E. was a time of turmoil. Alexander the Great made his conquests, spreading a common culture throughout the world. The Greek city-state collapsed, as people began to see themselves as “citizens of the world” rather than their local polis. And, according to Reale, ethnic and gender prejudices were beginning to lessen, indicating there were dramatic cultural shifts.

Reale argues that the collapse of the Greek city-state led to an identity crisis and feelings of alienation among many Greeks. When the polis was still around, they knew who exactly they were: citizens of a small area who knew each other and helped one another out. Once the polis collapsed, however, many of them felt isolated as citizens of a great big world.

Reale discusses various philosophical reactions to this alienation. Many philosophers encouraged people to find strength in themselves rather than other people. This could take many forms: accepting whatever fate threw one’s way (Stoicism); laughing at destiny and having a good time (Epicureanism); rejecting societal norms and the company of other people while becoming closer to nature, like animals (Cynics).

Then there was Anniceris, who acknowledged the importance of friendships, and not just for utility’s sake. Anniceris was against being friends with someone just for the purpose of self-advancement, only to discard that friendship once the person was no longer useful. For Anniceris, there is an actual value in benevolence. Anniceris seemed to differ from the “lone ranger” mindset that pervaded his time period.

I myself have had to cope with feelings of alienation, and I’ve often used the various ideas discussed above. Like the Stoics, I’ve tried to be tough in the midst of my loneliness and fears, resolving to accept whatever fate threw my way. “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” I’ve thought, or “God is putting me through this for a reason.” Like the Epicureans, I’ve tried not to worry about my past, present, and future, losing myself in the pleasures of entertainment (in my case, books, TV, and movies). And, like the Cynics, I’ve lashed out at society and other people, bitterly clenching my fist and claiming that I don’t need others, nor do I care what they think.

All of these approaches can get my mind off of my pain, sometimes for long periods of time. But then my pain returns, and I once again feel empty and lonely. I can understand why there were Greeks who felt so comfortable within their city-states: they knew their role in life, and they found their self-fulfillment by performing it. But today’s society is much like what the fourth century philosophers were addressing: there’s alienation, and people are starving for their niche, or purpose in life. Because of globalization, many do not find stability, for they’re continually changing jobs and locations. As people have said, “The days of working for one company most of your life are now over.”

But many people do manage to find friends and community. Many have a family, where they have a sense of belonging. Yet, it’s still possible to feel alone, even in the midst of groups.

Ultimately, the fourth century philosophers are right: one does have to find strength in oneself. The reason is that we can’t always rely on people we know or outward circumstances, since they are subject to change. Even if we trust in God, we ourselves need to garner up the strength to have faith, since God is not someone we can see. At the same time, hopefully God will act in our lives in ways that sustain our faith.

I also agree with Anniceris, however, who emphasized that showing benevolence to others can make us feel good. I’m not overly eager to dive into relationships, since they can bring hurt in addition to support. But looking beyond myself and doing acts of love whenever the opportunity arises can bring me satisfaction.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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