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Benjamin Franklin on the Balance Between Solitude and Company

In response to yesterday’s post about quiet creativity, a reader asked the following question in the comments:

“Here’s my question: How can digital minimalism and deep work be adapted for extroverted people who want to do deep work and lead a digital minimalist life — but also satiate a voracious appetite for human interaction?”

A few other commenters subsequently emphasized this question, which I think is a good one and worth discussion. We can find some insights into this issue in the journals of a young Benjamin Franklin. In August 25, 1726, a twenty-year-old Franklin was more than a month into sea voyage from London back to Philadelphia when he recorded the following entry:

“I have read abundance of fine things on the subject of solitude, and I know ’tis a common boast in the mouths of those that affect to be thought wise, that they are never less alone than when alone. I acknowledge solitude an agreeable refreshment to a busy mind; but were these thinking people obliged to be always alone, I am apt to think they would quickly find their very being insupportable to them.”

There’s a healthy dose of Aristotelean moderation in this observation. Time alone with your thoughts is necessary: it refreshes your mind and enables insights. Too much time alone, however, quickly becomes “insupportable.”

This is, I believe, a reasonable answer to my reader’s question. Embrace your extroversion, but not 100% of the time. A quiet walk in the woods, or a summer spent staring at the rolling Atlantic, will serve its purpose, but such seclusion need not become a total way of life.

7 thoughts on “Benjamin Franklin on the Balance Between Solitude and Company”

  1. Great timing Cal!

    The key word always seems to be “balance.” I try to explain that balance is not always an exact 1:1 ratio or 50/50.

    Due to the energy expenditure differing between activities, it’s important to imagine a scale in which we can strike a balance between introversion/extroversion, exercise/rest, work/play, etc etc

  2. Nice post Cal.

    Also I think it is a matter of purpose. For instance, here is a lovely passage from Thoreau’s Walden.

    ” What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary ? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another. What do we want most to dwell near to ? Not to many men surely, the depot, the post office […] or the Five Points, where men most congregate, but to the perennial source of our life, whence in all experience we found that to issue, as the willow stands near the water and sends out its roots in that direction. This will vary with different natures, but this is the place where a wise man digs his cellar … ”

    So by examining your purpose, or otherwise “the perennial source of your life”, you can be at peace with yourself even if it means to go out and meet new people, hang out with your friends, stay alone to analyze your thoughts, etc.

  3. Great post Cal. This question of the role that extroversion and introversion play in life is very stimulating. As an introvert I crave that solitude but it is not solely a time to indulge myself in the richness of that. It is, also, a time to recharge. It is not a perpetual condition. Once recharged I can then “spend” myself on others in social contact. I believe that extroverts, if mindful of their proclivity, recharge while basking in the social baths of life. Having done so, they should be recharged and ready to “spend” themselves on solitary pursuits.

  4. As a former Carthusian monk: (and for those who do not know them they are a Roman Catholic Order of monks who spend a great deal of their waking hours in solitude in their little house cells) I can relate that although even though some of us may be naturally introverted or extroverted, we need balance or there will be a cost to pay in personal disintegration if one or the other is taken to extreme. Take away: we need to have quality alone time and quality time with others. Cal’s message is summed up this, as I see it. Wishing you all wellness, safety and deep thought.

  5. Can’t you spend time alone with your thoughts in an extroverted way (for example, whilst doing some sort of exiting sport?) and in an introverted way (gazing through the window for example)? I am more of an introvert, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I spend more ‘alone time’. For that, I read way too much ;-).


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