Tolstoy, Smith, and the Perils of Loneliness

theory of moral sentiments leo tolstoy robert putnam vivek murthy john donne marriage

Richard Gunderman for AdamSmithWorks

October 20, 2021
As sickness is the greatest misery,
so the greatest misery of sickness is solitude.
John Donne

There is reason to suppose that, even though we enjoy greater connectivity than any human beings who have ever lived, we inhabit an age of loneliness. In his 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam details the growing disconnection of Americans from family, neighbors, and the structures of democratic life. In his 2020 book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection, United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy catalogs the health costs of an epidemic of loneliness, including increased risks of heart disease, dementia, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and premature death. For many, the widespread practices of quarantine, isolation, and social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic have only magnified these problems. Further compounding the physical, mental, and emotional tolls of isolation is the fact that many lonely people feel ashamed, fearing they may be unlovable.
Our natural endowments serve to protect us against loneliness, and for good reason. Babies are naturally cute, at least in part because at birth we are helpless and require total care to survive. A decade or two later, secondary sexual characteristics appear and draw us to one another, promoting reproduction and pair bonding. Remaining in a relationship confers a similar advantage, and couples continue to find new attractions in one another long past the age of childbearing—married men and women are less likely than the unmarried, divorced, or widowed to fall seriously ill and die prematurely, and the same is true for their children—they too tend to lead longer, healthier, and happier lives if their parents have gotten and remained married. Nature, it seems, abhors isolation no less than a vacuum, as the ubiquity of marriage and family life perpetually remind us.
Yet loneliness remains an unfortunate fact of life, recently exacerbated by the pandemic. As John Donne suggests, solitude may be the most unbearable part of serious illness—in some ways a more dreadful state than sickness itself. His oft-quoted line, “No man is an island,” is intended in part to reassure that no one is ever truly alone. Yet such poetic guarantees provide slim comfort to someone in the throes of isolation. The same can be said for the undoubted fact that to be capable of experiencing fellowship, we must be susceptible to isolation, solitude, and loneliness. To rejoice in our capacity to be together requires a correlative susceptibility to emptiness at being apart. Yet this too does little to assuage the emptiness of isolation. Even marriage—perhaps the most enduring antidote to loneliness—represents no panacea.

Leo Tolstoy
More than any other institution, marriage embodies the human need for companionship and love. Yet people may marry for all sorts of questionable reasons: to gain wealth, advance their social standing, please their family, and so on. Consider this passage from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, in which the title character weighs whether to marry a young woman who has fallen in love with him.
She was of good noble stock and not bad looking; there was a bit of money. Ivan Ilyich might have counted on a more brilliant match, but this match was also good. Ivan Ilyich had his salary; she, he hoped, would have as much. She came of a good family, and she was a sweet, pretty, and perfectly respectable woman. To say that Ivan Ilyich married because he loved his bride and found her sympathetic to his view of life would be as incorrect as to say that he married because people of his society approved of this match. Ivan Ilyich married out of both considerations: he did something pleasant for himself in acquiring such a wife, and at the same time he did what highly placed people considered right.

Tolstoy is alerting us here to the dangers of a marriage undertaken for the wrong reasons. Ivan Ilyich weighs his decision as he might deliberate over a business transaction or a case that he, a judge, were trying in court. It is almost as though he is ticking off boxes on a list of criteria that any prospective spouse must satisfy—physically attractive, well off, good family, respectable, and approved of by his social circle. In fact, the very idea of marriage may have occurred to him at least in part because society expected such a match—he must be married to advance to the next rank. Of special note is the statement that to say that he loved her and found her sympathetic to his view of life would be “as incorrect” as to say that others approved of the match. It seems likely that he did not love her and did not even know her well enough to be confident that she sympathized with his view of life.
Beneath the preparations for marriage, the trappings of the ceremony, and setting up housekeeping lies a far deeper question. Do the people entering into such relationships share a view of life? Perhaps more than anything, this is what human beings long for—not merely someone to share domestic chores with, augment household income, and contribute jointly to childrearing. From nearly the first months of marriage, when Ivan Ilyich’s wife becomes pregnant, the realization emerges that they lack such a view. His wife expects him to recenter his life on their marriage and impending parenthood, but all Ivan Ilych sees is an unpleasant, painful, indecent, and steadily growing infringement on the pleasantness and ease of his former life.
Ivan Ilych does not want a life partner. He wants a plaything, a credential, an ornament. And as his wife steadily raises her demands that he commit to a very different vision of marriage—one in which he would long to participate in the birth of their child, feel genuine sympathy for the difficulties of the child and mother, and build his happiness around their welfare—he feels increasingly besieged. He does not want to participate in it because he understands nothing of it. He is far too wrapped up in his own comfort and freedom from disturbance. To resist such demands, he begins “fencing off for himself” a world outside his family, transferring his center of gravity more and more to his work. How ironic that years later, when Ivan Ilych falls seriously ill, he discovers that no one in his family bears him any real sympathy. They treat him as he has long treated them, with merely feigned concern.
Even marriage—perhaps the most intimate of all human relationships, bedrock of both reproduction and childrearing, and the only bond in which two human beings become, in Biblical terms, “one flesh”—provides scant guarantee against loneliness. As Ivan Ilyich’s illness progresses, he becomes increasingly conscious of his own isolation. Every day he gets up, dresses, goes to court, talks, writes, or stays at home, but it is all the same. Each day is torture, primarily because he is utterly alone, with not a single human being who can understand or pity him. Over the course of his life, he has built fences, walls, fortresses to protect himself against the demands of others, rendering himself nearly unlovable. Yet now, amid mortal illness, he needs not walls but bridges, someone who will share his burden.

Adam Smith
To grasp in full the relationship between loneliness and lovability, we would do well to turn to a seemingly unlikely guide: Adam Smith. Although Smith is sometimes mistakenly regarded as a prophet of selfishness, his first and greatest work, the 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments, contains deep insights into the human psyche’s need for love, which is every bit as elemental as the body’s needs for food and water. Smith’s account is so valuable in part because it refuses to ground such needs in biological utility. Our desire for companionship serves many useful ends, such as reproduction and childrearing, but it is not a mere product of such needs. It also possesses an innate urgency and a reality independent of any biological exigencies that might render it useful.
Consider a passage in which Smith is exploring what he calls the social passions, such as generosity, humanity, kindness, compassion, mutual friendship, and esteem. We have, he says, the strongest disposition to sympathize with such benevolent affections. For just as:
to be the object of hatred and indignation gives more pain than all the evil which a brave man can fear from his enemies, so there is a satisfaction in the consciousness of being beloved, which to a person of delicacy and sensibility, is of more importance to happiness than all the advantage which he can expect to derive from it.

Even a person of immense wealth, prestige, and power would still find satisfaction in being loved. In fact, this satisfaction would be all the greater if such a person believed they were loved for who they are, rather than merely for what they happen to possess.
Smith asks what character is more detestable than the one who takes pleasure in sowing dissension among friends and “turning their most tender love into mortal hatred”? It is bad to rob a purse, defame a reputation, or destroy a career, but it is worse still to deprive a person of affectionate relationships. He talks about a “harmony of hearts,” which is another way of characterizing Tolstoy’s sympathy in a view of life. From childhood onward, we seek not only to express our affection for others, but to know if it is reciprocated—or better yet—shared. Unrequited love is sad precisely because it is unshared, which only makes the lover feel even more isolated and alone. Any consideration that might flow from shared love is less important than the sharing of the love itself.
Picture a school child picking the petals one by one from a daisy. “He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me. . . .” We long desperately for some sign, some assurance, that our beloved shares our feelings. Shakespeare’s dramas often hinge on precisely this longing, as in these words of Juliet from Romeo and Juliet:
Does thou love me? I know thou wilt say ‘Ay,’
And I will take thy word; yet if thou swearest,
Thou mayst prove false. At lovers’ perjuries
They say, Jove laughs. 
O gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully;
Or if thou thinkest I am too quickly won,
I’ll frown and be perverse and say thee nay, So thou wilt woo, but else, not for the world.

That this sentiment of being truly loved, of sharing love, is as sweet as any known by the human heart is a reflection of our incompleteness, the fact that it is in union with another person that we become fully ourselves. Plato captures this beautifully in the Symposium, where Aristophanes describes human beings as once globular creatures who were cut in half and now roam the earth seeking our counterparts. Absent our other half, we are haunted by a deep awareness of our defects and a longing for completion. To put such unions asunder by sowing seeds of suspicion, jealousy, and betrayal—as Iago does in Othello—is as sinister an act as any person could contemplate. The tragedy of Ivan Ilyich lies not in the destruction of such a relationship but his refusal to allow one to take shape in the first place.
According to Smith, we delight in such unions, which “soothe and compose the breast,” “favor the vital motions,” and “promote the healthful state of the human constitution.” But to repeat, loving and being loved are not mere means to some other end. They are instead ends in themselves. Where such harmony obtains, people are delighted in one another, and the sympathy we feel for such relationships renders them agreeable to others as well. Shakespeare plumbs the depths of love by showing us again and again how wrong it can go, and nowhere more so than in Othello. Nothing of the drama is real—the setting, the characters, the plot—and yet it conjures great discomfort, precisely because it engages our moral imagination. We know how real love is, and its fictional betrayal causes us real pain.
As a physician, I have witnessed many times what such love can do. On the deathbed, when patients have nothing to lose—because they are about to lose everything—nothing seems more important than reconciling with a loved one or expressing as truly as possible our depth of feeling for a beloved. Even in dying, we seek to affirm what most brings us to life: a loving relationship with another person. As the old saying goes, the dying never regret that they failed to spend more time at the office. Where moral blame is concerned, there is no such thing as loving or being loved too much. We may, Smith admits, look upon a too-tender mother or indulgent father with something like pity, but an excess of love can never be the object of contempt or derision. Smith writes,
There is a helplessness in the character of extreme humanity which more than anything interests our pity. There is nothing in itself which renders it either ungraceful or disagreeable. We only regret that it is unfit for the world, because the world is unworthy of it, and because it must expose the person who is endowed with it as a prey to the perfidy and ingratitude of insinuating falsehood, and to a thousand pains and uneasinesses, which of all men, he the least deserves to feel, and which generally too he is, of all men, the least capable of supporting. It is quite otherwise with hatred and resentment. Too violent a propensity to those detestable passions renders a person the object of universal dread and abhorrence, who like a wild beast ought, we think, to be hunted out of all civil society.

Medicine has identified a genetic condition called “Williams Syndrome.” It is characterized by a variety of physical markers—such as a broad forehead, underdeveloped chin, and full cheeks—as well as an increased risk of narrowing of the aorta. It is associated with mild degrees of intellectual impairment. But afflicted individuals are also unusually outgoing, display a complete lack of fearfulness around strangers, and appear remarkably happy. They are typically described as kind, unselfish, and forgiving, and they take pleasure in seeing others do well. They are also highly empathetic. Such traits naturally inspire delight and admiration in good people, because we see in them the ground of good relationships.
Smith is perhaps the first and greatest of the economists, but he also realized as profoundly as any the limits of economics. We can talk about the biological, psychological, and social costs of loneliness, and we can seek to justify our desire to love and be loved in a variety of utilitarian ways—including biological, psychological, and social necessity. Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich is such a utilitarian, always asking what is in it for him. But what ultimately renders Smith’s discussion of the social passions so necessary today is his deep respect for their inherent dignity—our need to love and be loved does not flow from anything else. Rather, everything else flows from it. Life is ultimately not about how much we manage to extract from others—the path of loneliness—but how, what, and why we share with one another, and there is nothing that grows more in sharing than love.

Related Links
Richard Gunderman, Insights from Adam Smith on the Erosion of Sympathy in Medicine
Enrique Guerra-Pujol, Adam Smith's Lost Loves