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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed the philosophy of solitude. As always the programme is available to listen online or to download and keep


Just before the programme started, I said to our three contributors that each one of them could have done the entire programme single-handedly. They were a philosophical troika of formidable qualifications. Three professors and between them many books considered seminal.

And so we attempted to do one of our Grand Nationals. From Plato, we hoped, right up to the present day talking about solitude. We didn’t get to the present day. We spent more time than I thought we would on hermits and anchorites, which left me feeling that perhaps the whole programme could have been devoted to them and that would have been no bad thing. We didn’t get to Kant and Hegel, which was a titanic contest. But the thing about these gallops is that it frisks up the minds of those taking part and, I hope, entertains you. Now and then, a survey of the whole territory is also helpful for Tom Morris and myself in deciding what we can pluck out for deeper study next time. Nevertheless, I felt that we had bitten off a little bit too much.

But of course the reaction afterwards from the three contributors was that we had not bitten off enough! They said we had not done this or that or the other. It’s called lose-lose.

Tom Morris had his tail up this morning; very, very good news indeed about the In Our Time podcast, with the number of downloads up by 60% in a single month. Lovely e-mail directly after the programme from Piers Plowright, a friend, but even so. He used to be a star producer for Radio 3 and is a man of total integrity. I should know, I was Trinculo to his Caliban and how much closer could you get to anyone?

Out of the BBC on a lovely, windy, June morning, to the office for interviews and publicity for the new South Bank Show Originals series, and then down to the best and by far the most reasonable brasserie in London, next to Piccadilly Circus, where I had one of the greatest treats that I know which is a modest lunch with an old friend and no agenda. The bill was even smaller than usual because I was not drinking. I have not had a drink for 19 days, I’ll have you know. At the beginning of the year I didn’t drink for 10 weeks. Just to see if I can.

Trafalgar Square, as I walked down to the Lords, had once more become the fairground and meeting centre of London. Something called West End Live is going to happen there on Saturday and Sunday and there were tents and much activity all around the place, as this magnificent central open space now has as many people in it as it once had pigeons.

The House of Lords was discussing the situation in the Middle East. As usual, those who spoke were extraordinarily well-informed, and the stories, both from the front and from what potentially might backfire into our own back gardens, did not make for comfortable listening.

And now, swerving off to see the England World Cup game with a friend. If we win, I shall raise a glass.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by samwardell

    on 27 Jun 2014 07:01

    You mentioned a quote of Hume's, any chance you could post it?

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by John Thompson

    on 24 Jun 2014 00:22

    This elementalism Powys identifies as coming from the part of our human nature tapping animal passivities and "moods of vegetative quiescence, a region that is neither subconscious nor yet rational, a region which might be called ... Stupid Being." (Today, of course, we might draw lines from Wordsworth and Powys on this empty-mindedness to Eastern meditation. But this was the 1930's.) Powys sees this simplicity of mind and desire as a key to self-control and understanding. His elementalism is based on the solitude that is evoked by this self-knowledge, which allows a person to make and define a life for themselves based not upon the tempo and rhythms of the crowd and technology but on the unspoken wisdom that wells up from solitude itself.” We need to create substitutes for all the spiritual satisfactions that the old mythologies gave us… The soul that has re-created itself in isolation has gained something of the humility of the grass, the rocks, the winds. All that lives is holy unto it; and it realizes, taught by the innumerable voices of Nature, a certain ultimate equality in everything that draws breath.”

    As models of living, Powys gives us "the teachings and examples of the Christian Saints," who offer psychological and mystical insight, if not the faith that moderns can no longer embrace. Elementalism is a profound identification with the universe as it is, not imposing anything on it but not accepting the imposition on it of ourselves.The grand metaphysicians of the past, notes, Powys, are "too abstract and technical for simple minds to use. They are also too moral, too ideal, too pure-minded." They are of little help in our diurnal difficulties. They provide no solace to us who have to work, suffer privation, insecurity, poverty, malice, jealousy, cruelty, ambition, physical discomfort and pain, anxiety about the future. Powys knows that all of these concerns must be addressed by philosophy just as they were by religion. Powys recommends a kind of forgetting, really a sense of transcendence, which will push out all but that inkling of mystery and connectedness that reassures, calms, uplifts. Powys calls it a "premeditated ecstasy," wherein we consciously and deliberately identify with the cosmic elements and the eternal force that animates them. This consciousness detaches self from every distraction, placing necessities of life and labor into a Stoic dispensation, while the soul waits to breathe the rarified air of solitude.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by John Thompson

    on 24 Jun 2014 00:17

    I felt your programme was a good attempt to cover the whole field of the philosophy of solitude but it failed to convey something for which there is no real philosophy in an analytic sense.We are dealing with a desire to escape from society,from the public realm,into inner landscapes of the soul,dealing with introspective moods,a poetic type of philosophy and psychology.Professor Haldane took the programme into very academic areas,bringing in too much of Jewish prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, Wittgenstein,the American transcendentalists,Thoreau and Emerson, and Adam Smith.This was a programme aimed at the scholar and professional philosopher,not the literate and reflective public.Their stress on the individual in society,left out the alienation of
    the individual from themselves, a distinct person,not an atom in a collectivity.Also the attempt to bring in the changes bought by microscopes,telescopes,Copernicus,told me the programme was heading in the wrong direction,too much science,not enough self.We could have replaced Boethius(too much history/biography) with Thomas Merton, who wrote Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude.He talks of the Christian hermit.Just as physical pleasure can dissipate mental distress,the use of logic can analyse small problems,or lead to over analysing situations. Wikepedia has no entry for the philosophy of solitude.Why?Because only John Cowper Powys and Thomas Merton wrote such books,it is not a province of modern philosophy.The modern world is full of distraction,technology,gadgets,bombardment of our senses.Powys speaks of the “Dantesque horror of our modern cities”,enslaved to technology.Our loneliness in crowds increases,so our need for solitude.50-60% of the population of big cities live alone.The sense of alienation,that we do not belong to ourselves,that there is no place for us on earth.The sense of trivial chatter,noise pollution and angst weigh us down.What I’m trying to say is that solitude is a state rather than a philosophy.

    Writers on solitude have set out to construct their own philosophy.Think of a world where you can’t check emails or voicemails.Think of having loads of books and NOT reading them,just being left alone with your thoughts.Think of feeling this is the right time to be alone.Hell,even spending time alone with a book,living with it,taking it in,entering into a private dialogue with the book,spending quality time in absorbsion. Solitude brings us into intimacy with certain ‘life illusions’. Thinking that is slow and deep,rather than quick and productive,is more creative.Could we reduce Twitter to the tweeting of birds?Are there pools of vegetative consciousness?Can we connect to elemental forces?Our soul a mysterious substance fused from mind and matter,that
    thing in us which says “I am I”,of which the body is one expression,the senses are only one gateway.Powys looked for a “real,hard,unrhetorical introspection”.He calls upon a variety of classical thinkers.He creates a new level of discourse that appeals to the common person,the person who needs a philosophy of life,a way of comprehending the world around him/her.His metaphysic is less abstract and logical, and more primitive and concrete.He draws on the inspiration of Lao-Tze,Chang-Tzu,Heraclitus,Epictetus,Marcus Aurelius,Rousseau and Wordsworth.He points out their weaknesses,but seizes on their strengths, while referring to, among others, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Spengler. He acknowledges the grim fatalism of Stoicism and the social self-consciousness of Rousseau. Powys likes the absence of sentimentality or "pietizing" in Wordsworth's view of nature, what Powys calls "elementalism." This is the term he uses to describe his own philosophy of solitude

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