An Anthropology of Eremitism

Is an anthropology of eremitism possible? Can the origins and development of eremitism be described by examining not just historical accounts but by considering the primordial epochs of human existence? With a mixture of anthropology, sociology, and philosophy, the preconditions of eremitism can be identified, though the description remains a sketch.

Two factors must be addressed in constructing an anthropology of eremitism: 1) the origins of consciousness, and 2) the nature of primordial human beings, social groups, and the evolution of society.

With regards to the origins of consciousness, anthropologists offer a standard consensus on most issues, and that is what is presented here. On the nature of primordial human beings, however, the evidence is consistent but the interpretations are not.

Development of consciousness

The issue of consciousness begins with the difficulty of definition. In the past, scientists tended to reduce consciousness to a matter of neurons, synapses, and glial cells. But the origins of consciousness are not so clear, especially if attempting to specify a time in human evolution that pinpoints the emergence of consciousness. Self-awareness becomes relevant only when the issue shifts from strictly material criteria to a theory of mind.

Self-awareness is a very brain-intensive activity and takes place in a continuum that is still observable, in part, in human infants, especially up to the age of three years.

At a certain point, the brain relays sensations to be processed into information. Originally, the human mind was strictly grounded in animal alertness, a state lacking reflection, a state of awareness and anticipation conscious of its environment but not conscious of itself. With the evolution of reflection, the mind was able to produce and listen to a kind of chatter within itself. Thus, reflection came to interfere with alertness.

Here is a summary sketch:

     sensations >> information >> awareness >> reflection

The process of reflection lead to what the psychologist Julian Jaynes called the "analog I" or the observing self or the "bicameral" mind. This dualism of aware mind and reflective mind was the origin of self-consciousness or self awareness.

At first self-awareness was economical. It was self-contained and self-sufficient. It allowed for the amalgamation of concepts and experiences into not mere information (as with animals) but into knowledge, what might be considered cumulative information that could be reflected upon. Human beings could then assign value to aspects of their newly accumulated knowledge. Value created intentionality and further reflection.

To continue the sketch:

      >> self-awareness >> knowledge >> value >> intentionality

Where the original motivators and emotions might be based on survival or might represent biological data as symbols, the mind could now, with the ability to reflect upon itself, transform data such as color, depth, form, direction and position into concepts in time and space. This process contributed to the cumulative pool of knowledge. Human beings now found themselves occupying time and space, and self-awareness grew.

Consciousness then evolved a set of behaviors to reflect this newly-discovered self into a unity, an acting agency. Primordial self-realization was no longer purely utilitarian or economical. The mind was on the brink of interaction with more and more of its environment.

To continue the sketch:

     >> conceptualization >> agency

There were disadvantages to self-consciousness. Emotions and concepts became defensive of the self, abetting the primitive "fight or flight" mechanism inherited from animals. In order to evolve, self-consciousness sacrificed animal awareness and the sense of living in the present. The bicameral mind yielded excessive analysis and self-reflection. In addition to the immediate feedback that was being constantly analyzed and in addition to the chatter that accompanied mental processing, the ability to manufacture and extrapolate "scenarios" became an uneconomical process of self-consciousness.

The inaccuracies of subjective thought would have extrapolated more than scenarios of past and future. The emotional mind would swing between optimism and pessimism, in turn affecting intentionality and "will." Extrapolations of emotions such as pride might result from activities such as prey-taking or tool-making, just as failures would have resulted in anger or morose states of mind.

Disadvantages sketched:

   lost animal awareness << analysis  <<scenario-making << extrapolation

But advantages of consciousness were significant. Consciousness was instrumental in changing the nature of social interactions. Instead of a self exclusively dealing with a bicameral mind or viewing itself as another "face in the mirror," human beings now encountered other human beings as conscious beings. Conscious beings could interact with other conscious beings. The human being could now accommodate or modify the self in order to retain a workable mental image of self and others in what Julian Paul Kennan calls an "elaborate cognitive duel."

Advantages sketched (continuing from "agency" above):

  awareness of others >> interaction with others >> modification of self

The gist of theory of mind is described by Rita Carter as the "intuitive ability to know that others have a different point of view," that others can be mimicked in order to develop group consensus or communal consciousness. The emergent properties of social interaction meant the beginnings of true social groups.

Susan Blackmore describes the spread of social units to what she called "memes." The memes are information passed from one person to another and processed or experienced by consciousness, by the subjective self. From these memes evolved what Richard Dawkins calls the "memeplex," the result of replicators in memetic evolution.

Thus, the memes are not material culture or objects but abstract reflections, points of view, and ways of doing and perceiving. Memes spread and were quickly preserved (and reflected upon) as stories or accounts that eventually became language, myth, and culture.

Evolution of social groups:

     >> modification of self >> mimicking of others >> memes >> culture

The human being, as a separate consciousness with animal awareness, became a memeplex, conscious primarily of the thoughts and reflections of other human beings. Human beings now entered the paradox of being simultaneously within yet outside of time, if not space.

Social groups

In his Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality, author Morris Berman focuses on Paleolithic human beings at the cusp of consciousness and awareness of others. His book essentially begins where the consensus of anthropologists sketched above leaves off.

Berman cites Jaynes in terms of the dramatic rise of culture at this point in evolution. In turn, culture leads quickly to goal orientation, planning depth, tool development, and social orchestration. We are nearly at the transition from anthropology to sociology.

According to Jaynes, biologically-based behaviors such as attachment were necessary for physical and physiological health. Such behaviors persisted and expanded into what were perceived to be social necessities. Thus, for example, as Kennan points out, while deception was used by animals in sexual behavior and in eluding predators or pursuing prey, human beings adapted deception to include success in hunting but also to safeguarding the self against painful memories, experiences, or scenarios.

Freud believed that the child's shielding himself from painful memories complimented the suppression of frustration and loss resulting from being born, then from being separating from the unitive state with the mother. Language became a form of veiled deception, for language is , as Kennan puts it, "neither necessary nor sufficient to a fully-developed consciousness."

This extrapolation of an animal behavior into part of intentionality and self-consciousness meant that, as Kennan concludes, "gaining self-awareness is almost immediately followed by the emergence of deception." We might say that the bicameral mind birthed a bicameral heart.

Berman posits a primordial hunting-gathering social group that retained the simple characteristics of emergent self-consciousness. This group or anthropological class would be influenced by its material environment but also retain a simple and functional level of social relations. It would retain animal awareness unbounded by territorial or geographical sense of gain or loss. It would perceive the present without accretions. It expressed immanence not desiring. It was not influenced by a desire for transcendence.

This sensibility in the hunter-gatherer group was a presence, not a view. It was an immediacy mimicking animal awareness, not a detached and reflective view that is the precursor to the evolution of social structure.

Consciousness in this group was wide, not narrow. It held a mature ambiguity about its environment, not a conscious construct of the world.

The hunter-gatherer group consisted, as many observers have shown, of a maximum of twenty-five to thirty members of nuclear families, associating in a tribe of not more than five hundred people. This tribe was no more that an "aggregate of local groups in spatial proximity," notes Joseph Birdsell, sharing a common dialect and a predictable amount of land for hunting and gathering.

The group is further characterized as one of "immediate return" economics, meaning that it did not accumulate and it claimed no immobile property. The entire group moved every two or three weeks. No chief, no governing council, no storage, no possessions, and no political or religious hierarchy existed. The group maintained (necessarily) a low population density. Separation of members from the tribe was without loss of face or retribution. The group was, in short, based on a generic egalitarianism.

Evidence of hunter-gatherer groups around the globe, from the Pacific and Alaska to southern Africa, and from remnants in southern India and South America, confirm these observations.

However, the emergence of social groups generally meant a quick evolution of organization. Rank and prestige grew within the groups, then the tribes. This occurred when strong subgroups emerged, that is, strong-willed, manipulative, and aggressive individuals. Inequalities based on property, hoarding, and the creation of self-justifying ritual and ceremony, conferred informal power on the "accumulators." The inequalities were then instituted. As Berman puts it:

The progression was one from a social organization grounded in the nurturance and trust of the family to one based on prestige and hierarchy, and, finally, to one run by bureaucracy.

As authority and hierarchy grew among these groups, agriculture and sedentarism dominated their economy. From this point, it is easy to see that political control would be centralized in the subgroup, concentrating in a slide from chiefdom to bureaucracy to codified law and state religion. A vertical social structure would emerge, creating economic and social classes or castes, and a top-down hierarchy from king and priest and warrior to peasant and servant. This vertical structure characterizes civilization.

Berman describes the vertical social structure as the "sacred authority complex" in contrast to the horizontal hunter-gatherer culture of egalitarianism and fluidity of both physical and social movement.

The vertical social structure also affected consciousness. An intensity of feeling and experience would be preferred. A vertical ascent to gods (channeled through shamans and then priests) represented the spiritual hierarchy that formed a counterpart to the political hierarchy. Consciousness of absolutes and ideals was encountered in vertical ascent, characterized by unitive and submergent spirituality. Union with the values of the sacred authority complex was considered the ultimate identification with it.

We can see that such a structure mimicked (surely without realizing it) the deepest psychological characteristics of human beings from infancy on. It would take millennia for psychology to begin to enumerate them.

To Berman, the road to civilization meant irrevocable loss.

Writer Ken Wilber objects to Berman's telescoping of the evolution of consciousness. By presenting only the hunter-gatherer and the sacred authority complex, Wilber would argue that Berman's model wrongly ignores the nuances of horticultural and village agrarian cultures.

Wilber describes the idealizing of foraging or hunter-gathering cultures as a myth of "eco-masculinists," who "take what they think they like from these societies and ignore everything else."

Indeed, Berman is dismissive of matriarchal or even modestly matri-focal elements in early post-Paleolithic groups. He acknowledges that hunter-gatherers practiced infanticide on a wide scale. Similarly, modern nomads, as remnants of hunter-gatherers, have been largely under the spell of the "war machine," which supposedly is more characteristic of the sacred authority complex.

On the other hand, Wilber represents the idealist tradition of Hegel and his successors. This school of thought maintains an implicit sense of human progress embedded in history and governing the march of civilizations. According to idealism, Progress led by Spirit successively unfolds the nature of consciousness regardless of material conditions. This school of thought, while not defending the negative aspects of civilization, nevertheless considers progress as the equivalent of evolution. In Hegel's words, "what is real is right and what is right is real."

Berman proposes a nomadic model of consciousness and society that retains the paradox of consciousness and naturalness. His is a provocative thesis that inserts consciousness into the middle of historical thinking that has always historically been centered on the primacy of logic, Spirit, or matter. Berman's view is that logic, Spirit, and matter are all social constructs, artificial and unnatural to the values of a human consciousness in harmony with its environment. As he puts it, "Truth emerges only when it is not pursued."

Origins of Eremitism

While there is a radical divergence of opinion about the origins and character of civilization and culture, anthropologists do hold a consensus about consciousness, as mentioned above. The study of consciousness reveals interesting conclusions relevant to eremitism.

As already noted, self-awareness is considered by Kennan an economical function in the phase that precedes the complexities of a theory of mind. Consciousness has an incorrigible tendency to delve into past and future, dragging the emotions and the very thought processes with it.

Kennan's observation that language is a form of veiled deception and is "neither necessary nor sufficient to a fully-developed consciousness" is an important observation that points to how the ground of human consciousness is considered in the first place.

Among Westerners, brain structure and chemical relays make the ground of consciousness material. With this ground, consciousness is a byproduct or result of material interactions. Subsequent evolution is an unfolding of the material processes. In fact, the notion of an unfolding or evolution of consciousness is implicit in spiritual as much as in material traditions in the West.

To Eastern traditions, however, the reverse is true. Consciousness is the ground of existence and permeates existence in the counterpart way that matter permeates everything in Western thought. To Eastern traditions, matter is what is abstract and illusory, and true insight comes from recognizing emptiness as ground.

Emptiness as primordial consciousness makes the mimicry function of human consciousness not utilitarian but developing or unfolding the capacity for true empathy, and, ultimately, compassion. Despite widespread Western views, Jung's collective consciousness is not a necessary adjunct to Eastern thought, which is far more sophisticated and based on centuries of experimental evidence.

The important point demonstrated by Eastern thought on consciousness is in terms of perceiving not merely an order but a harmony, from which is derived a moral system. The apex of this moral system might be the conclusion that, as philosopher Peter Singer puts it, "Self-conscious creatures must not be killed."

In higher order creatures, the hypothesis of a communal consciousness -- in bees, birds, fish, etc. -- illustrates the possibility of non-material agency. At the same time, communal consciousness, wherein creatures act in spontaneous intentionality without rationally communicating with one another, and only for functional purposes, presents a ground for equal status among individuals without extensive socializing. Berman observes that

Our natural propensity is at least partly egalitarian, but not especially communitarian. ... Community, at least as understood within the conceptual framework of the last ten thousand years, is unnatural.

These clues to human consciousness suggest that eremitism hearkens back to both social circumstances of egalitarianism and the absence of authority as well as to what would be considered moral intentionality.

By the time human beings evolved to create social groups, the potential for individual decision-making would have sufficiently evolved to address common human behaviors. This would be an especially relevant ability in the absence of natural harmony and the rise of behavior based on power.

Decisions became moral perceptions. These were ranked by the sacred authority complex but are not ranked in a horizontal system. In a horizontal system perceptions regularly received the feedback of nature and circumstance for their validity, not the sanction of authority.

The intriguing question, then, is whether a moral system can be identified as a fully mature consciousness, its content fully natural and independent of the intentionality of the vertical "sacred authority complex."

Is there a point in history when the transition from independent foraging to irrevocable sedentary culture can be identified? As one observer has rightly noted, not every independent farmer or lone fisher or mountaineer was a hermit. However, the material circumstances of such livelihoods, set in small villages and village economies, together with the psychology engendered by such settings, hearkens to a great transitional period. This transition might be centered in a period between forager and horticulturalist (versus estate agrarian). While eremitism is likely the product of a reaction to a developed socio-economic state, eremitism might hearken back to this transitional period in human evolution.

Literary Clues

There are clues to this transitional state throughout the mythologies of the world. For example, the biblical book of Genesis describes the sons of Adam. Abel was a pastoralist and his brother Cain was a horticulturalist. Cain murders his brother because God favors animal sacrifice over the sacrifice of grain, and Cain is made to be "a fugitive and wanderer on the earth." This episode clearly represents the transition away from hunter-gatherer but in a period still sanctioning the nomadic. However, Enoch, a subsequent son of Adam, is described as having left the tribe and "built a city."

The tradition of animal sacrifice is a key to this social transition. Another biblical story clearly illustrates a period of transition: Abraham is stopped by God from making a human sacrifice and substitutes the pastoralist's animal sacrifice instead.

Other cultures reflect the transition from hunter animal sacrifice to pastoralist animal sacrifice. For example, the obsession with human sacrifice in the Aztec empire of Central America shows the characteristic of a pre-pastoralist (that is, hunter) consciousness but institutionalized within a sacred authority complex. In India, a portion of the Rig Veda (dating from 1200-900 B.C.E.) entitled "The Creation of the Sacrifice" describes the scene somewhat cryptically:

The ritual repetitions harmonized with the chants and with the meters. The seven divine sages harmonized with the original models designed by the gods. When the sages looked back along the path of those who went before, they took up the reins like charioteers.

The Rig Veda is a catalog of ritual, invocation, chant, dreams, warriors, chariots, and animal sacrifices, the last a remnant of a hunting culture made "vertical." This epic of a conquering (or at least migrating) people reflects the transitional values of an enormous migration of so-called Aryans east from the Caucasus, and of the Sea Peoples west to the Mediterranean and East Asia, culminating in the year 1000 B.C.E. Aryan culture was the prototype transition to modern civilization, mixing elements of a sacred authority complex and nomadism while encountering a still largely horizontal culture of pastoralists and simple horticulturalists.

Just as all the literature of this period reflects the values of Axial civilization (represented by the Aryans, Mycenaeans, and others), it also reflects a moral transition. Among the more perceptive people living in this era of moral ambiguity is a presentiment that must be considered moral judgment. This presentiment is characteristic of that paradoxical place between horizontal and vertical society, of a moral world irretrievably lost.

Thus, within the Rig Veda is a strange allusion to a wanderer, stating:

Traveler, lost in the forest,
The spirit of the forest does not kill.

Fear of forests has always been endemic in humans (reflecting the evolution of horizontal groups), but the notion of a benign spirit reigning there is an unexpected element in this literature -- an anachronism, or perhaps a clue to an alternative culture.

Alexander Eliot has warned that "one of the great dangers to be avoided in the interpretation of all symbolic systems is that of mistaking the symbol for its reference." This tendency is said by its critics, like Berman,  to plague proponents of universal mythology such as Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. Nevertheless, there is no symbolism to deal with in pursuing an anthropology of eremitism. The context of the emergence of eremitism is socio-economic at a minimum, not mythological at all.

A world-weary nostalgia for a past perceived as better than the present and a future perceived as worse than the present lurks in the literary expression of the new Axial civilizations, especially in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. The Babylonian Gilgamesh lionizes the wild man Enkidu as encapsulating values lost to civilization. The seventh-century B.C.E. Greek poet Hesiod describes the past as consisting of a Golden Age, then a Silver Age, then an era of conquest by the "Bronze People" with their violence and authoritarianism, then the present Age of Iron. The present age is the context of Hesiod's Works and Days.

Hesiod offers advice on living in the harsh circumstances of his day.

That man is all-best who himself works out every problem and solves it,
seeing what will be best late and in the end.
He who cannot see the truth for himself,
nor hearing it from others store it away in his mind,
that man is utterly useless.

Do not let appearance confound perception.
Do not call every man your friend.
Do not be called friendless,
nor companion of bad people,
nor one who quarrels with good ones.
Never be so hard as to mock a man for hateful, heart-eating poverty.
That is a given gift of the blessed immortals.
The best reserve of resource that men can have is a sparing tongue. ...

Hesiod exemplifies the transition of consciousness to a volitional and moral level, a transition from the horizontal to the vertical and the subsequent loss of moral meaning. Legends, sagas and poems as diverse as Celtic, Persian, Icelandic, Indic, and Chinese describe a lost mythic age of virtue, a social deterioration, and the dubious rise of centralized kings and potentates bringing their magic and religion into power. The legends sense a failed cultural restoration of universal balance.

But the lost mythic age is portrayed as distinctly moral in character, whereas the authoritarian successors who present themselves as restorative are centralizing and based on power.

By the time of these Axial age writings, the fullness of the sacred authority complex has been realized. The socio-political systems are entrenched. It is at this point in the evolution of consciousness and culture that the intimations of eremitism begin to appear, for eremitism is a moral response to crisis.

Eremitism as a formal solution will be addressed over the centuries primarily by the discerning and the perceptive, for eremitism exists outside the dominant culture. The hermit or solitary will be seen, like the nomad, as inimical to social order and conformity, as inhabiting a rival moral universe. Yet there is nothing crude or violent attached to the hermit. In fact, a certain moral and intellectual rigor is expected, a moral courage to countermand the predominant culture. The hermit is wistful and reserved, like Hesiod's advising narrator. There is no semblance of power or desire for power here because that is the provenance of the vertical complex that the hermit eschews.

As a literary topic, eremitism will first appear in China, coincident with the momentous 6th century B.C.E. In this brief span of less than a century, a moral response to crisis will sweep the world from Greece to East Asia to India and beyond.

But that is another story in the history of the tenuous relations between consciousness and society, another chapter in the anthropology of eremitism. For now, a sketch of an anthropology of eremitism is done. 


Among works mentioned in this article: Julian Paul Keenan: The Face in the Mirror: the Search for the Origins of Consciousness. New York: HarperCollins, 2003; Rita Carter: Exploring Consciousness. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002; Julian Jaynes: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976; Morris Berman: Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality. Albany: SUNY Press, 2000; Ken Wilber: A Brief History of Everything. Boston: Shambhala, 1996; Alexander Eliot: The Universal Myths. New York: Penguin, 1976;