Seclusion is perhaps the most basic, tangible notion of privacy—a physical separation from others. It is a state people crave at times, but can also dread. Alone at home with a good book is one thing; being quarantined on an island or tossed into a supermaximum security prison cell, another. Seclusion can be chosen, freely and autonomously, or it can be mandated and imposed. Where mandated, seclusion can be embraced or it can be despised. Faced with felt threats of violent crime, political terrorism, dangerous insanity, and public health pandemics, liberal societies may wish to put people away for the common good. But when is coercive separation from society an acceptable deprivation? What norms of solitude, isolation, and confinement make sense to us, and why?
Known as a philosopher of the politics and morality of the public sphere, Hannah Arendt was also a subtle philosopher of the politics and morality of privacy. Arendt offered evocative phenomenologies of solitude, loneliness, and isolation. She characterized solitude as a “silent dialogue of myself with myself.”1 For Arendt, “solitude means that though alone, I am together with somebody (myself, that is).”2 The company of oneself can lead to boredom and loneliness, she noted, but solitude is not the same thing as loneliness. We can enjoy solitude; whereas loneliness is typically a pain. Arendt understood that a person may be lonelier in a crowd than while alone, because the company of oneself can be such a pleasure. Loneliness, she suggests, can be tolerable if it “is transformed into solitude,” a state of mind in which a person takes pleasure in her singularity and self-accompaniment.3 Physical privacy that leads to solitude without loneliness is a blessing.
Arendt distinguished solitude from loneliness and loneliness from isolation. Being alone amounts to isolation, she offered, “when I am neither together with myself nor in the company of others but concerned with the things of the world.” The work I perform can be isolating if I am “so concentrated on what I am doing that the presence of others, including myself, can only disturb me.” Isolation is a “negative phenomenon” where “others with whom I share a certain concern for the world may