‘Loneliness is the common ground of terror’ – and not just the terror of totalitarian governments, of which Hannah Arendt was thinking when she wrote those words in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). It also generates the sort of psychic terror that can creep up on a perfectly ordinary individual, cloaking everything in a mist of urgent fear and uncertainty.
By ‘loneliness’ Arendt did not simply mean solitude, in which – as she points out – you have your own self for consolation. In the solitude of our minds, we engage in an internal dialogue. We speak in two voices. It is this internal dialogue that allows us to achieve independent and creative thought – to weigh strong competing imperatives against each other. You engage in it every time you grapple with a moral dilemma. Every clash of interests, every instance of human difference evokes it. True thought, for Arendt, involved the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. True loneliness, therefore, was the opposite. It involved the abrupt halting of this internal dialogue: ‘the loss of one’s own self’ – or rather, the loss of trust in oneself as the partner of one’s thoughts. True loneliness means being cut off from a sense of human commonality and therefore conscience. You are left adrift in a sea of insecurity and ambiguity, with no way of navigating the storms.