In paragraph 5 of Solitude, Thoreau discussed one of the most frequent comments he received when speaking about his time living alone at Walden Pond. He explains that often what people tell him is that they could never do what they did because they would miss being around people so much. This prompts Thoreau to move up a level of abstraction, not just speaking in this section about what he did, or about the comments he received from others for doing so, but theorizing about the nature of loneliness itself.
He posits these comments as replies to this hypothetical person who’s told him they couldn’t deal with the loneliness of living by one’s self, but it seems more like Thoreau is using these comments as a vehicle to comment on the nature of loneliness, or as an avenue to move up a level of abstraction. He says he is tempted to reply that simply being physically apart from other people is not what drives loneliness as a concept, but rather that “no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another.”
It’s something that a lot of people miss about Walden when discussing it. I think that Thoreau is trying to emphasize that everyday people are no less lonely than he was when he lived by Walden Pond. In that one sentence, by moving up a level of abstraction, he speaks about what he sees as the idea of loneliness. Just being around people isn’t what keeps you from being lonely, Thoreau argues, and frankly I couldn’t agree more. That paragraph caused me to think a lot about the idea of being lonely in a crowd, and how that sort of thing can affect people.
Choosing to live apart from others does not necessarily make you lonely either. Emotional loneliness can come about even when one is almost constantly surrounded by others, and it can come about if one refuses to make close connections with people. I think it was Marilyn Monroe who once said that she felt the loneliest when she was in a crowded room. If you live your life only shallowly connected to other people, it might seem from the outside that you’re anything but lonely, but inside you might be lonelier than a man who chooses to spend a year living by himself in a cabin by a pond.