Albert Camus was one of the more acute and responsive thinkers of the past century. When he speaks of “the unreasonable silence of the world” (The Myth of Sisyphus), we quickly appreciate his reflections on the bleak history of humanity, violence, injustice, and the absurdity of collective efforts to reform society or to cheat death, which is to say, reality. Collective responses to perennial concerns have failed historically. What curbs people’s cold hearts but exhaustion! Sisyphus is condemned by gods or fate to roll a great boulder up a mountain only to watch it slip past down and have to roll it up again, indefinitely. But Camus thinks that his archetype must yet be happy. Sisyphus must study and ponder and take meager delight in “every atom of the stone,” every “mineral flake of that night-filled mountain.” And Sisyphus is, in the final analysis, a solitary, condemned by the gods to solitude, but making the best of it, the very best.
One of the paradoxes of traditional religions and sects is that when they are pursued exclusively in their ritual and formulaic modes as institutions of power and privilege, they are invariably attacked as belief systems. However, when religions and sects take on a humanitarian and social function of helping the lowly and oppressed, for example, their belief system is suddenly tolerated and alliances from otherwise antithetical quarters emerges. This is a curious sociological phenomenon of mutual aid and toleration, but a tenuous argument for the truth of a given sect’s beliefs. Which religion with a benign face do we accept for its social face, and does this toleration exempt it from a critique of its beliefs and actions? What method separates the two?
The solitary can best negotiate this underexamined paradox in religion and society by teasing out the valid expressions of the new social face of the religion while constantly pressing the abstract belief system for it spiritual fruit. Because the solitary has no particular public function as do institutions and sects, what can emerge is an insightful and sustainable model of spirituality that does not depend on either one pole or another of this dichotomy.
The first major atheist of the modern West, Paul-Henri-Dietrich d’Hollbach (1723-89), described the atheist as “one who destroys human chimeras in order to summon people back to nature, experience and reason.” The atheist, says d’Hollbach, “has no need to imagine ideal forces, imaginary intelligences or rational beings in order to explain the phenomena of the universe or the operations of nature.” We know today that science and reason do not explain these phenomena either, except in the grossest sense of error and description, or in the pragmatic sense of technology. We know, too, that nature and experience are richer in the spiritual sense than the chimerical forces, intelligences, or beings of which d’Hollbach writes. It has taken the exhaustion of science, technology — and classical atheism — to recognize this. But the “ideal” (or otherwise) “forces” that do explain the universe and the operations of nature continue to elude humanity.
Archaic thinking proposes the existence of a soul or spirit within living things like birds and insects and trees, and even within inanimate things like stars and rocks. So Jainism and Shinto, both influential in the course of world thought. This is distinct from the magic of animism, with its anthrocentric point of view, its preoccupation with power and control.
Our philosophy of life and nature inevitably suggests this primitive or archaic notion of universally indwelling spirit or Spirit percolating from the past. This is true no matter what the technicalities of animation or sustainability or creation in our thinking. And this is good and right, and can be tested with simple logic. Because if we reserve the worthiest form of life only to ourselves as humans, what should even higher beings (whether you accept it as fact, possibility, or myth) think of our claim? Would they crush us in fear or repulsion? Destroy our habitat and well-being for their own selfish ends? Eat us? Presumably they would not because they are “higher.” Yet archaic religions have always expressed the fear that higher beings would and do exactly what we fear. They believed this because these higher beings were projections of the culture’s own malevolence. Even now, however, we humans inflict that suffering on “lower” forms of being. We still project these cultural accretions. Only the positive view of animating all of nature in some universal and benign way will move us to a higher philosophy of life.
One of the great malevolencies of modern (if not Western) culture is the treatment of the habitat of hermits and solitaries, which is to say the habitat of all animate and other beings, but especially of those beings that appreciate the solitude, the silence, and the benignity of simple nature. The heart of the West is rooted in the false premises of Hebrew antiquity, the narrow experience of a hunter-herder culture of the semi-desert. This is succinctly expressed by Aldo Leopold in his classic A Sand County Almanac, published in 1948:
Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. … That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.