coverFrance, Peter. Hermits: the Insights of solitude.
London, Chatto & Windus, 1996; New York, St. Martin's, 1997.

Here is a friendly and serviceable introduction that is loosely guided by the promised identification of the insights suggested in the subtitle.

After a tantalizing prologue about Eastern hermits, France presents a fine overview of the ancient Greek Cynics as precursors of hermits, tracing their philosophic convergences  from Socrates to Diogenes to Crates and the affect on Christianity. The resemblance of the Cynics to some Eastern hermits, though not pursued by the author, is notable. The Desert Fathers are also treated well, with copious quotations from Helen Waddell's classic collection. And the Russian startsy are described, but not the eremiticism of Christian Greece or the European history.

The second half of the book is a personal tour of eccentric individuals whose lives are tangential to eremiticism - like an asymptote, to continue the analogy - always approaching the hermit life but never really reaching it.

Thoreau is the more solid personality. The experiment at Walden and Thoreau's writings are as close to a Taoist hermit as imaginable, all the more remarkable for Thoreau's need to think out a philosophy with few resources or traditions behind him. Translations of Asian classics were only just becoming available, and he was not a romantic. Thoreau offers "insights of solitude" but only takes the temporary plunge.

Similarly, Ramakrishna, whom I first discovered in the compelling biography by Romain Rolland, uses solitude as a device or tool but not for its own sake. It can be argued that Ramakrishna is an anomaly in a book about Westerners who must find their way without the rich traditions of the East that foster hermits and solitude. Charles de Foucauld was a Catholic missionary who dedicated himself to evangelization, only incidentally living as a solitary. He remains a controversial figure in light of his apparent absence of being conscious of his political and ideological beliefs.

And Thomas Merton, that penultimate Catholic of contradiction! A psychiatrist who spoke to him told Merton's abbot that Merton wanted to be a hermit with his name emblazoned in lights on Time Square. I have read nearly everything by Merton and cannot figure out what his soul wants, at once conformist and skeptic, pious and smart. His life was tragically consumed by the perpetual psychological war against authority (his abbot, refusing his dreams of a hermit life) while his scholarship inevitably revealed the Catholic tradition's hostility toward eremiticism, thus finding himself bolstering the very tradition that refuted his deepest desires. When he finally got one abbot to give him a cottage apart, Merton entertained a daily troop of guests and gawkers, wrote ceaselessly to editors and friends, and sought desperately to play a role he could not perform despite his conviction.

France offers Robert Lax, an American editor of Merton's generation and intellect, as a secular version of a hermit for today's world. For France, Lax represents solitude for creativity and simplicity. Quotes from Lax's diary and an interview give us the picture of a cultured and informed figure. As France suggests, for Lax, "living with someone isn't all that different from living alone." Lax never saw the "need of a false persona." This is the heart of the modern dilemma for we who crave solitude: to achieve a form of existence that is neither contrived nor misanthropic, and Lax may have done the best he could.

This is an engaging book by an insightful person, and offers much food for reflection.