Detachment also expressed as non-attachment, is a state in which a person overcomes his or her attachment to desire for things, people or concepts of the world and thus attains a heightened perspective.
Antiquity to sixteenth century
- Then there is a very small remnant … of worthy disciples of philosophy: perchance some noble nature, brought up under good influences, and in the absence of temptation, who is detained by exile in her service, which he refuses to quit; or some lofty soul born in a mean city, the politics of which he contemns or neglects; and perhaps there may be a few who, having a gift for philosophy, leave other arts, which they justly despise, and come to her; and peradventure there are some who are restrained by our friend Theages' bridle (for Theages, you know, had everything to divert him from philosophy; but his ill-health kept him from politics). My own case of the internal sign is indeed hardly worth mentioning, as very rarely, if ever, has such a monitor been vouchsafed to any one else. Those who belong to this small class have tasted how sweet and blessed a possession philosophy is, and have also seen and been satisfied of the madness of the multitude, and known that there is no one who ever acts honestly in the administration of States, nor any helper who will save any one who maintains the cause of the just. Such a saviour would be like a man who has fallen among wild beasts—unable to join in the wickedness of his fellows, neither would he be able alone to resist all their fierce natures, and therefore he would be of no use to the State or to his friends, and would have to throw away his life before he had done any good to himself or others. And he reflects upon all this, and holds his peace, and does his own business. He is like one who retires under the shelter of a wall in the storm of dust and sleet which the driving wind hurries along; and when he sees the rest of mankind full of wickedness, he is content if only he can live his own life and be pure from evil or unrighteousness, and depart in peace and good will, with bright hopes.
- Plato, The Republic, 496d
- And with how free an eye doth he look down
- Upon these lower regions of turmoil?
- Where all the storms of passions mainly beat
- On flesh and blood: where honour, power, renown,
- Are only gay afflictions, golden toil;
- Where greatness stands upon as feeble feet,
- As frailty doth; and only great doth seem
- To little minds, who do it so esteem.
- Samuel Daniel, To the Lady Margaret, Countess of Cumberland
- My third maxim was to endeavor always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, to accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power. ... This single principle seemed to me sufficient to prevent me from desiring for the future anything which I could not obtain, and thus render me contented. ... But I confess there is need of prolonged discipline and frequently repeated meditation to accustom the mind to view all objects in this light; and I believe that in this chiefly consisted the secret of the power of such philosophers as in former times were enabled to rise superior to the influence of fortune, and, amid suffering and poverty, enjoy a happiness which their gods might have envied.
- Descartes, Discourse on Method (1637), J. Veitch, trans. (1899), part 3
- I look down from my height on nations
And they become ashes before me.
- A man is intellectual in proportion as he can make an object of every sensation, perception and intuition; so long as he has no engagement in any thought or feeling which can hinder him from looking at it as somewhat foreign. … Indeed, this is the measure of all intellectual power among men, the power to complete this detachment.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Natural History of Intellect, Complete Works (1883), vol. 12, p. 38
- Nations! What are nations? … Like insects, they swarm. The historian strives in vain to make them memorable.
- Henry David Thoreau, "Life Without Principle" (1863)
- The Ancients … subjected themselves to a fierce discipline of detachment from public opinion. Although they inevitably had to try to influence political life in their favor, they never seriously thought of themselves as founders or lawgivers. The mixture of unwise power and powerless wisdom, in the ancients’ view, would always end up with power strengthened and wisdom compromised. He who flirts with power, Socrates said, will be compelled to lie with it.
- Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: 1988), pp. 284-285
- Goethe, … who lived through the struggle against Napoleon, was once asked how he had managed to exist during the days of shame, defeat, and humiliation. He replied: “I have nothing to complain of. Like one who, from the fastness of a cliff, gazes down on the raging sea, unable to help the ship-wrecked crew, but also out of the reach of the billows—according to Lucretius, a not unpleasant feeling—I have been standing in security, and have watched the fury of the storm passing by me.” ...
It was not only on the political combats and storms of his emasculate fellow-countrymen that Goethe looked down with indifference; to those troubles of the heart, which Rousseau’s teaching had quickened, a philanthropic and educational enthusiasm, he was not merely apathetic ; he was positively hostile. ...
“As of old Lutherdom, so now French ideals are forcing us away from a peaceful development of culture,” he used to say.
- Oscar Levy, The Revival of Aristocracy (1906), pp. 29-30
- Nothing is rarer than giving no importance to things that have none.