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Rangie's avatar

What is meant by "no man is an island unto himself" and can he ever be?

Asked by Rangie (3656points) May 1st, 2010

are there any instances where a man can be an island unto himself? When you say, nobody understands, are you at that moment an island unto yourself?

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26 Answers

Dr_C's avatar

To be an island unto yourself you would have to be completely independent of any outside influence of any kind. This includes income, and the purchasing of food, clothing, payment of utilities, etc. The complete absence of interaction would make you an island.

If you have clothing odds are you didn’t make it (from the thread to the cotton or whatever it’s made of), same with food! chances are you didn’t hunt, clean and process it. Any kind of interaction with any object, service, product or any other thing you can think of that was previously manufactured, prepared or made available by someone other than yourself would negate the “island” theme.

Coloma's avatar

I see it as the exact opposite.

Every man IS an island unto himself.

Meaning he is whole and complete and needs nothing from the external to build an identity around.

I also like to reverse the saying of ’ Be in the world but not of it’ to ’ be of the world but not in it.’ lol

Okay…my philosophies mostly fall on deaf ears anyway. lololol

Coloma's avatar

Okay…seriously, my interpretation of this saying means that everyone needs a little help from their friends from time to time. ;-)

Rangie's avatar

@Dr_C But are there ever times when you are an island unto yourself?

marinelife's avatar

@Rangie Yes, at the moment of your death.

Rangie's avatar

@marinelife I certainly can see that. What about when a parent dies and there are siblings. Are you an island unto yourself, dealing with that loss? There is nothing anyone can say that will help or change anything. You are alone on this.

Rangie's avatar

@Dr_C Maybe you could answer my question that I just posted above. I think there are moments, if not longer, when a person is an island unto themselves, in the psychological sense, which is just as real as the physiological sense. would you help me out here?

Dr_C's avatar

I think maybe in the philosophical sense it might seem that way at times. Some form of social isolation maybe but only in the figurative sense of the word. Absolute isolation in this day and age would be extremely difficult.

It would depend on your definition of what being an island would be. For me it would imply the absence of anything not created by oneself.

Adagio's avatar

I think the saying is No man is an island

I’ve always read it to mean that no one is completely self-sufficient no matter how self-sufficient they feel and I would agree with that although I think there are times when we come up against the knowledge that we are, ultimately, alone… I think being alone and being an island are 2 separate things…

Rangie's avatar

@Adagio But what about being alone in your mind, while having to deal with something. Not literally alone physically, but mentally, when no body can help. I have felt that way on certain occasions in my life.

Coloma's avatar

You ( we ) ARE alone in that sense.

There really are no new experiences, it just feels unique to the individual.

A million people have lost loved ones, experienced pain, psychic, physical.

So while it is true that no one persons pain is unique, it IS unique to that person, in that moment and it is unique in how any individual copes with their pain, therefore this renders one ‘alone.’

I coped with a painful divorce some years ago by going within, on a spiritual and psychological journey ‘unique’ unto myself. A friend coped by going out and being wild and crazy…different strokes for the same pain.

Rangie's avatar

@Coloma Yes, that is sort of what I am talking about. At that time in your life, don’t you feel like you are an island unto yourself?
In a manner of speaking. I am sure others would use another description of the feeling, but this one does it for me.

wundayatta's avatar

To me it means that all people are interdependent. We can not survive on our own. We are dependent on the cooperation of others.

I guess people can be islands unto themselves, but they soon become irrelevant and meaningless. Without other humans, there is no future, and there is no significance to anything we do. So if we keep to ourselves, alone, with no contact with others, we are essentially dead. We lose our personhood. We can have no identity on our own, because identity is irrelevant and meaningless and inconceivable without context—specifically, the context of other people. In a nonhuman context (such as the environment, if you are a hermit, or a closet if you are one of those children locked in a closet since birth), you can’t even think, or see, or begin to understand your surroundings, much less yourself.

But we generally don’t do that kind of thing. Most people are in relationship with many others, and their personhood develops in relationship to all those connections. They come to understand themselves as they relate to others, and they find a place within that matrix.

Adagio's avatar

@Rangie that is exactly why I say that being alone and being an island are 2 entirely different things… there are certainly times when one feels completely and utterly alone but I do not feel that qualifies as being an island… to my mind, being an island means that our lives are completely untouched by the world around us, including people…

Coloma's avatar


True, to an extent, on the surface level of form.

Also untrue to a greater extent.

I am not speaking of a child locked in a closet deprived of all sensory input.

But….you are incorrect to say that ones ‘identity’ is dependent on others perceptions/mirroring back of oneself after the basic differentations mandatory to childhood development.

It is one thing to enjoy others, it is enjoyable to share, give & receive, but…ones selfhood is not dependent on others reflections.

To look to anything outside of self for an identity is to be lost in the smoke and mirrors of ego.

I enjoy others, I enjoy myself equally and if I was left in solitude that would be okay as well.

This is what awakening or enlightenment means…the recognition that one is not the ripple but the ocean itself. Therefore everything on a surface level, while perhaps pleasant has no effect on the depth of ones being.

You can enjoy and appriciate all that arises but do not ‘need’ outside confirmation that you have an identity, that you exist

Especially not through role playing.

I ‘am’ a worker, husband, father, man, brother, and the roles assigned accordingly to glean approval and a sense of identity.

Seeking self through others, relationship, a job, your physical being, is to suffer.

Therefore, in the truest sense of ‘enlightenment’ you ARE an island unto yourself, meaning…you recognize your true self beyond form and no longer seek affirmation outside of yourself.

If it happens thats beautiful, if it doesn’t, you are still happy and at peace within, complete and not needy of outside recognition to prop up your sagging sense of self worth.

Rangie's avatar

@Adagio Okay, all of you make sense in the way you are seeing this issue. Perhaps this questions has many facets instead of just one as it appears on the surface of the question. Being a man is more than :
identity, recognition, ego, literally alone, as opposed to mentally alone in thought. Where no one but no one understands what you are thinking, and if they could, they could not help you. So there you are, a man as an island unto himself, until your “self” independently, deals with the handling the issue that put you there in the first place.
Does that make any sense to you?

ratboy's avatar

No man is an island, entire of itself
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main
if a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were
any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls
it tolls for thee.

—John Donne

wundayatta's avatar


Let me try a little thought experiment.

What happens when a person is completely shunned? No one talks to them. No one does business with them. No one allows them to do anything that is related to other people. This person must find a place where they can be alone or else they will be pushed away. This state of affairs is permanent. No one will ever connect with this person an any level at all.

I suppose a person could be content just relating to his or herself. Not want anything, except maybe food and shelter. There are stories of people who voluntarily put themselves in such a position, but it seems to me they want, eventually, to come back into contact with other people. Is there any point to enlightenment if no one ever knows? I suppose it could release some kind of endorphine rush. You could feel happy until you die. But no one would know and no one would care, and you would be irrelevant to humanity (which, itself, is irrelevant to the universe unless we another “humanity” to relate to).

So I think that you are right. It does not require any relationship with anyone else in order to be happy. You can just be happy if you get rid of expectation and prejudice about things that you want or believe you should have. You can sit or lie down until you die.

But once desire enters into it (in the shape of hunger or something), you are no longer happy. You want something. You may be able to satisfy that hunger, or not.

To be alive is to desire. The moment you stop desire, you are on a fast road to death. Certainly you can satisfy some desires without interacting with other people. But there there is a desire for sex or closeness with others. I guess that is not something you have to have in order to stay alive.

However, if you lose contact with people, and if you lose language (which I’m not sure would happen, but I think it could), and you are able to remain unattached to any physical desire besides food and maybe shelter, then it’s hard for me to imagine someone having an identity. They have no means of differentiating themselves, conceptually, from the rest of the world. They do have skin which physically shapes a boundary, but they may not think about what that means. The idea of identity may mean nothing.

Ah, I’‘m not saying things very clearly. It just seems to me that without desire, you are soon dead. And with desire, you can not be an island unto yourself. You need things that only can be gotten with the cooperation of other people. In other words: affirmation outside of yourself.

Rangie's avatar

@wundayatta I am not talking in the physical sense. I am talking in the mental sense. Have you ever been so alone with grief, that nobody could possibly help you with, that you felt like an island unto yourself? And if you felt like it, then at that time, you were.

Coloma's avatar


Well, actually no, as long as ones basic survival needs are met desire is not the fast track to death, it is the fast track to liberation! Renunciation of an attachment that happiness is contingent of something, someone, some particular thing or situation needing to happen.

Don’t misunderstand me, desire is normal, it is the attchment of getting the desire filled that causes suffering.

I am very social, love to talk, party, have fun, but I am not attached to any particular thing HAVING to happen to feel happy and fulfilled.

I am certainly not ‘above it all’, I am human…but I have undergone some inner transformations the last decade or so that has left me truly content, regardless of any particular event needing to happen.

It is about appriciating the good stuff, the social times, the prosperity, but no longer needing anything to be a certain way to expereince inner peace and contentment.

There is simply no more seeking outside oneself for a sense of completion or happiness.

There is a big difference between wanting and allowing those wants to be the barometer of ones inner state of being.

Yesterday I spent the whole day in solitude doing my thing around the house, today I am socializing…either/’s all good, but not necessary for me to be happy and at peace.

It is the recognition that while you are both the ripple and the wave, you are the ocean itself, and the ripples of attachment to getting are just that, ripples on the surface of the totality of what you really are, the ocean itself! ;-)

plethora's avatar

“No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” —John Donne

Full quote

With apologies to John Donne (in a New Yorker cartoon) “Ask not for whom the refrigerator hums (in the middle of the night) hums for thee”...:)

wundayatta's avatar

@Rangie I think grief does cut you off. Whether it is possible to be unattached to that which would eliminate the grief, I don’t know. If someone has died, you can’t bring them back. I suppose you could just feel the grief without wanting anything except to feel the grief.

For me the pain is too much. I’m a wimp, I guess. I get attached to people and when they go away for no understandable reason or for no reason they can articulate, the pain is terribly intense. I want them back.

If I understand @Coloma correctly, she is saying that desire is not the problem. It’s being attached to a particular way of gratifying that desire. What I don’t know is if it also means being attached to having that desire gratified at all.

What does the mirror have to tell us? I think @Coloma would say it has nothing to tell us. All that we need to know can be felt, inside.

Rangie's avatar

@wundayatta Yes, I am a wimp as well. It took me several months to come to terms with the death of my mother. My heart physically ached. And, my sisters didn’t help with their “you better pull yourself together and get over this” remarks. If I was a physical person, I would have slapped them for their insensitivity. I know they were trying to help, but sometimes less is more.

Adagio's avatar

@ratboy Context is everything… thank you.

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