By the 21st century loneliness has become ubiquitous.
Commentators call it ‘an epidemic’ – a condition akin to ‘leprosy’ and a ‘silent plague’ of civilisation.
In 2018 the United Kingdom went so far as to appoint a Minister for Loneliness.
Yet loneliness is not a universal condition; nor is it a purely visceral internal experience.
It is less a single emotion and more a complex cluster of feelings composed of anger – grief – fear – anxiety – sadness and shame.
It also has social and political dimensions – shifting through time according ideas about the self – God and the natural world.
Loneliness in other words has a history.
The term ‘loneliness’ first crops up in English around 1800.
Before then the closest word was ‘oneliness’ – simply the state of being alone.
As with solitude – from the Latin ‘solus’ which meant ‘alone’ – ‘oneliness’ was not coloured by any suggestion of emotional lack.
Solitude or oneliness was not unhealthy or undesirable but rather a necessary space for reflection with God or with one’s deepest thoughts.
Since God was always nearby a person was never truly alone.
Skip forward a century or two however and the use of ‘loneliness’ – burdened with associations of emptiness and the absence of social connection – has well and truly surpassed oneliness.
The contemporary notion of loneliness stems from cultural and economic transformations that have taken place in the modern West.
Industrialisation – the growth of the consumer economy – the declining influence of religion and the popularity of evolutionary biology all served to emphasise that the individual was what mattered – not traditional paternalistic visions of a society in which everyone had a place.