Perhaps because of its unreformed origins in an archaic era — archaic in the chronological sense — Islam has historically had little place for hermits, even in advanced Sufi thought. Thus Khwaja Hafiz, speaking of the unity of God, reproves the hermit: “Speak to the recluse in his solitude and say: ‘There is no real difference between the Kaaba and the idolhouse. Wherever you may look, there equally is HE.'”
This, too, is the argument of most of Christianity and of seculars. They reject eremitism as an egoism that scorns the community of charity and good works, and is therefore a false perception of reality. Eremitism does reject “society” as a contrivance of human imposition, while at the same time confirming that, yes, God is present everywhere. The hermit might well argue, however, that God is not present in the affairs of men. God is equally in the Kaaba and the idolhouse, and is equally not in the Kaaba and the idolhouse. God is present in the heart, mind, and soul, and that is precisely why God is best found in solitude, which all mystics and Sufis acknowledge.
In her book Goddesses in Older Women: Archetypes in Women Over Fifty, Jean Shinoda Bolen uses the image of the Greek goddess Hestia as the archetype of women who have come to appreciate solitude. Robert Graves (in his Greek Myths) finds this reference in Apollodorus: “The self-effacing goddess Hestia resigned her seat at the high table in his [Dionysius’s] favour; glad of any excuse to escape the jealous wranglings of her family, and knowing that she could always count on a quiet welcome in any Greek city which it might please her to visit.”
Hestia’s gesture abandons the contentious to their own world to find her home in the simple. She projects warmth, security, reflectiveness, a sense of accomplishment and contentment with her self. Hestia is the hearth in the home, the centering fire that makes every home a temple and sacred place. As Bolen puts it:
Artemis and Athena were externally oriented, while Hestia’s is an inwardly-focused consciousness needed for meditation, contemplation, and prayer. The Hestia archetype is introverted. She looks inward to intuitively sense the essence of a situation or the character of a person. She has a natural detachment and seeks tranquility, which is most easily found in solitude.
Reading Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: the Emotional World of Farm Animals. Masson’s books have always been pleasant romps through the intriguing world of animal intelligence, but here he addresses a sobering reality. Domesticated animals (besides dogs and cats) have formed an intimacy with human beings over centuries, yet are treated with astonishing cruelty and contempt. Pigs, hens, sheep, cows, and ducks, observed first hand in safe and natural settings, are gentle and spontaneous creatures full of simplicity, affection, and obvious intelligence. They have evolved to be naturally congenial creatures with a clear range of consciousness familiar to humans. Yet they are confined in painful and filthy conditions within ghastly mills where they not only suffer but are unnaturally chemicalized, then slaughtered, in order to be eaten by humans. Much of this is due to our sheer ignorance and indifference, Masson believes. It is a matter of becoming aware of what we subsidize, support, and consume, just as with thoughts, behavior, and cultural products as a whole. As Gandhi said, humanity will never evolve spiritually until it leaves off the killing and eating of sentient beings.
Atheism has always been a skepticism born of politics, a point of view arising from the realization that power and authority define what society respects and, ultimately, venerates. But this skepticism has not deterred atheism from embracing and extending power and authority over others. The ancient pontiff who delivered the auspices to the Roman emperor we would call cynical — not because he disbelieved the gods of Rome but because he pretended to believe, and would continue to pretend as long as he preserved his own power and authority. Yet if that priest of the gods really did believe in the gods, or whether he did not, would the political and social consequences have been any different? This is beautifully dramatized in Miguel de Unamuno’s story San Manuel Bueno, martyr.
The compelling logic in human affairs is not belief but actions, morals — or, if you will — psychology and personality. To believe in the gods does not justify the conquest of Carthage and Persia. To not believe in the gods does not justify the conquests either. How disillusioning to discover that a religious authority whom one has admired does not, in fact, believe what he has been saying for years. But how equally disillusioning to discover that the free-thinking believer in liberty against tyranny covets power and authority over others.
Wendell Berry, the political/environmental/agrarian writer, cites a 1907 traveler to China who noted that the average agrarian household of twelve was self-sufficient on two and a half acres, using, of course, traditional (i.e., organic) means of farming. Perhaps Berry and his source were not aware of the reclusion movement of ancient China, but the evident life of Tao Chien, for example, certainly confirms the traveler’s observation. The farm and concomitant village were essentially economic units of eremitism, viewed as independent of the palace and the urban environs that constituted the only economic alternative. Cycles of difficult weather, drought, floods, were all possibilities to prepare for, but not as pernicious as were urban equivalents: humiliation, corruption, abuse, and execution.