Should hermits work, or does work in the world contradict being a hermit? Self-sufficiency is still largely possible to hermits in wilderness and small towns, but perhaps the definition of hermit should be adaptable to times and circumstances, for the hermit is not necessarily a survivalist. Even accounts of mountain and desert hermits of the past show them going to towns and villages for supplies once a month or once a year, trading woven baskets or hemp garments or herbs and picked fruit for other comestibles. Physical isolation and social isolation is relative, too, as the examples of urban hermits show. An ideal hermit does not actively hate people and culture, but simply avoids them as unnecessary and dispiriting. If we insist on too precise a definition or lifestyle, we verge on the ideal and create an image always outside of reality. The paradox is that we are striving for that ideal despite it being outside of reality. Not because we are deluded. Perhaps a good image is that of an asymptote, the mathematical concept of a line that approaches but never reaches a particular point. Our lives are like spiritual asymptotes, closer to our goal the more solitude nurtures us, regardless of the fact that we will never get there.
A few years ago the notion of “jamming” culture arose, from Kalle Lasn’s book Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge and Why We Must. “Jamming” differs from voluntary simplicity movements in consciously opposing modern popular culture, essentially created by corporations to stoke consumption — of corporate logo apparel, unhealthy food and habits, exploitative entertainment, competitive sports, etc. The idea is that by withdrawing from consumption and the use of what drives the moneyed economy of profit one could pursue an authentic life of simplicity and frugality. Simplicity is not merely a subjective phenomenon or a matter of personal taste. The premise is that the individual succeeds best (and the world benefits) when conscious of the sources of the products he or she consumes. Being conscious of simplicity and the degree of change it brings in the world as well as to the individual is a useful model for solitaries, who already have a psychological disposition for what young people call “jamming.”
According to some scientists, the brain works as much in sleep as in waking, busy problem-solving and prioritizing what should go into memory. This is why the “sleep on it” advice for decision-making works — or is it? Clarity and insight may develop in sleep precisely because there is no work, no doing of mathematical-logical processing at all. Instead, the mind in sleep registers impressions and sorts feelings. What it resolves for waking is based on the innate sense of consciousness we possess simply as human beings. Our busy modern culture wants to work out its contrived problems “24/7.” But insight and wisdom come from “not-doing” or wu-wei. For this reason eastern sages have always seen the absence of dreams as confirmation of not-doing, as a high point of progress towards enlightenment.
Apologists for society, institutions, and the state, insist on the necessity of social and civic duty above all other virtues. Hence Cicero, the defender of Roman character, insists that “service is better than mere theoretical knowledge” and that “men of ability either choose a life of private activity or, if of loftier ambition, aspire to a public career of political or military office. …” (De Finibus, 5.57). Whatever the public career today, it serves to perpetuate a contrived system incompatible with natural and humane values. In Western religious culture, the virtues of service were once pressed upon the majority, while a non-active life was reserved for the few. But secular culture of today returns moderns squarely into Cicero’s mode of thought. And with it comes an authority to enforce civic duty — an authority defined, of course, by the powerful. All this is anathema to eremitism, where spiritual and natural virtues define the solitary’s chief object as retirement of self from the marketplace and social halls of society and institutions, which are the cause of so much sorrow and the banishment of virtue.
The ancient Greeks warned that we must call no one happy until they are dead. Our present good fortune may change and our disposition with it. But a more important corollary follows: Call no one wise until they are dead. We can trust no judgment thoroughly or make it our own without the possibility of that other person having a change of mind or heart, and thereby dashing our trust and esteem. Such a realization would certainly underlie the psychology of many a solitary. The hermit is not automatically a recluse, and even the solitary may have dealings with others, even intimate dealings, but their insight may well be this one, though not conscious. Meanwhile, even the solitary must guard against delusion, the delusion of permanence in human affairs. The point is to maintain a philosophical attitude as the ever-changing river of life, opinions, emotions, and desires floats around and past us. We can hope that we are ready to cede all as never really having been ours to demand when our tun comes to die. And may we die happily.