Some modern moralists say that a state or government should never be labeled as “evil” because this label obliterates accountability and moral responsibility, presumably to change or conform to the accusatory’s morality. But when Confucius recommended to serve the state when it is good and recluse when it is evil, he recognized the existential circumstance of the individual forced to make a decision. The individual must determine that the intrinsic character of the state or government will not change based on anything anyone’s service can bring about. The label of good or evil is, of course, a moral contrivance, especially given the utter ambivalence of morality in any state or government that relies on labels as propaganda. But the moralist misses the eremitic insight that the state is a contrivance and not an entity, a tool of human beings and their culture, not a moral reservoir. Accountability is itself a moral issue. The expectation that the state or society will be accountable to any high standard of morality is not something for which to wait indefinitely. All the more urgent for the solitary who must decide, and quickly.
Going out late at night (for the dog), I consciously look for the moon. The full moon is hidden among dark pines; a huge silver globe is not obscure. The moon is familiar and, as part of nature, a friend, but an enigmatic, aloof, and mysterious one. As a child I was always wary of the “man on the moon” — not the one on the moon as such but the portraits and images of the anthropomorphic crescent moon man, smiling wanly, his smug gaze reminiscent of the joker in an antique deck of playing cards, or a satyr. He still intrudes on my peaceful gaze. He interrupts solitude like a childhood phantom, perhaps a projection of some buried but restless memory. Best not to contrive a pattern in moon craters and seas, best to leave the moon to its simple mystery.
The poignancy of traditional hermit writing the world over is in the hermit’s contrast of society (cities, temples, palaces) with the freedom of the deserts, forests, and mountains. Deserts, forests, and mountains are not just symbols of the unchanging, but true habitats for a viable life of reclusion. But modern solitaries (and everyone else) have virtually lost this habitat, and with it even the symbols. The danger to the viability of life itself can be gradual or sudden: logging, mining, drilling, spoliation, pollution, dumping, poisoning, radiation. Human menaces have reduced deserts, mountains, and forests to environmentally endangered status. This has effectively reduced the possibilities for wilderness eremitism for moderns to a minimum. And government, corporations, and society would gladly eliminate privacy as well.
After many years of desert eremitism, the hermit Paul is recorded as asking a famous visitor: “How fares the world? What great cities have risen and fallen? What empire now holds sway?” Echoing these questions, we might today add: “And what desert, forest, or mountain is still viable habitat for a hermit?”
Wilderness survival books usually address emergency conditions of stranded hikers, skiers, hunters or accident victims. They focus on clothing, shelter, wood, food, the perfect knife, etc. All this can be practical but sometimes crude or full of bravado. Seldom are these books addressed to the conscious solitary. In browsing a handful of survival books, however, the fact that Alan Fry lives alone and once lived year-round in a tepee, in Canada, is notable, as is this passage from his Wilderness Survival Handbook, first published in 1958 when nobody else was making survival books a business or avocation:
When I go out from my camp on a very cold winter’s night [minus 50 degrees Celsius or -58 degrees Farenheit] to walk in the moonlight along the shore of a frozen lake … and I see the glint of moonlight caught by flakes of frost in endless sparkles over the perfect surface of snow that stretches nearly a mile away to the spruce forest bordering the distant shore, and when I look up and in the distance see a great mountain range gleaming in snowclad perfection by the light of this brilliant winter moon, when I have all this before me I all but burst with the joy of it.
In probably every culture much is made of the end of the calendar year and the beginning of a new one. But we must remember that this arbitrary assignment of days, months, and years are for convenience and have no natural necessity. Only the seasons represent more faithfully the passage of time. Herewith, part of a poem by the fourteenth-century Chinese hermit Ch’ing-hung:
The year is ending
the month is ending …
the moon lights the window the same as before
only the plum blossoms are different
but who cares
the Yangtze rolls on
the sun and moon do not slow their pace
a black dragon lurks in the clouds.