The motive for writing the book is the poignant recounting of four lonely deaths, including the author’s young daughter and mother. These sad events serve as stimulants for the author’s speculations on the existential condition of each of us.
This slight volume draws much of its interdisciplinary tone from Frieda-Fromm-Reichmann’s groundbreaking article, “Loneliness,” Psychiatry, 22:1 (1959), 1-16. Although the author appeals to an existential image of man, which is generally painted by other writers in rather gloomy brush strokes, throughout this short work, he finds a positive value as the individual creates meaning for himself alone and learns to overcome tragedy with courage and dignity. Moustakas is writing during a period when Christian existentialism (Kierkegaard) as well as atheistic (Nietzsche) was being promoted and reworked through the writings of French and German philosophers, like Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger.
“Every man is alone. Ultimately, each person exists in isolation. He faces himself in silence, wending his way in individual pathways, seeking companionship, reaching out to others…. In loneliness, man seeks the fulfillment of his inner nature. He maps new meanings, and perceives new patterns for old ways and habits. Alone, the life of man passes before him. His philosophy, the meanings he attaches to his work and his relations, each significant aspect of his being comes into view as new values are formed, as man resolves to bring human significance, to bring life to each new day, to each piece of work, to each creation” (page, 54).
One of the major themes in existentialism is that the universe and man’s existence is essentially meaningless. We do not discover meaning through searching for it in human nature, reason, society, or religion; rather we create it for our selves alone. Man is free, condemned to freedom (Sartre), and he freely chooses his meanings and values and thus is responsible to himself alone. This creation within a moral vacuum terrifies man, it produces an anxiety which is very different than Freudian anxiety grounded as it is in unconscious internal conflicts.
Perhaps it would be helpful in understanding the intrinsic relation between meaninglessness and existential anxiety by considering a passage in Paul Tillich, a Protestant existentialist theologian.
“The Anxiety of meaninglessness is anxiety about the loss of an ultimate concern, of a meaning which gives meaning to all meanings. This anxiety is aroused by the loss of a spiritual center, of an answer, however symbolic and indirect, to the meaning of [human] existence” (The Courage To Be).
Interestingly enough, in the section, Tillich identifies loneliness with the feeling of “emptiness and meaninglessness.”
According to Moustakas, during the 17th century, “The separation of self from others and from nature constitutes the primary condition of loneliness anxiety in modern societies” (page 26). Accordingly, the book discusses a common theme in the literature of loneliness, namely the Cartesian separation of mind and matter, body and soul that produces an increasing rift between the self and nature as well as between the self and other selves.
A constant companion to “anxiety is a smoldering but helpless rage and a desire for revenge for being “left out” of life” (pages 28-29).
There is, as Moustakas conceives it, in loneliness, a purity, an immersion, a total and direct turn inwardly that is unlike anything else the individual has ever experienced. It is a journey into the very depths of the soul. But from this depth, a power of reaching out toward others, for growing in a more vital sense, of intimately connecting with others makes itself present.
A number of notable writers are briefly discussed, including Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, Erich Fromm, Rollo May, Harry Stack Sullivan from psychiatry; David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney (The Lonely Crowd), William Whyte (The Organization Man) from sociology; Saint-Exupery (The Little Prince), Emily Dickinson, Thomas Wolfe, from literature; and Admiral Richard Byrd, the arctic explorer.
It is an easy book to read with a hopeful message among the usually grim and somber frightening expressions usually to be found in existentialism.