In his The Ego and Its Own, Max Stirner (1806-1856) proposed “egoism” as a model for society and individuals. His rejection of state and religion in favor of property and the will strikes a familiar chord in his successor Nietzsche. But egoism is a model for ruthless hedonism, not watchful solitude.
Stirner does make an interesting point when he wonders why Jesus and Socrates, after denouncing the authorities and courting arrest and execution, did not flee to live another day, feeling themselves obligatory citizens of Jerusalem and Athens, subject to the moral authority of its corrupt powerbrokers. Why should they feel subordinate to worldly powers, wonders Stirner.
One might argue about the content of integrity, I suppose, or just plain logistics in small and populated areas. But it is true that flight or reclusion was the Eastern model — though it has little to do with Stirner’s “egoism.” “When the king is good, serve,” advised Confucius. “When the king is evil, recluse.” And Lao-tzu went one step further, retreating for the mountains like many a Taoist and Zen successor. As did, in effect, the Buddha in renouncing the world and eschewing martyrdom. A difference in the case of the Buddha, perhaps, was in not inciting or even vocalizing a prophetic denunciation of authorities as evil, evil being as much a cultural as an individual phenomenon.
The catch for Stirner, of course, is that a desire for freedom as he conceives of it requires absolute autonomy of will and ego. The ability to satisfy the caprices of desire become the measure of freedom. The necessity of defining this capacity in a busy social world or even in what Stirner would create — a “union of egoists” — will always be his undoing. This undoing results because of the essential disharmony represented by Stirner’s model of human nature and psychology. Stirner and his like-minded egoists will forever suffer what the Buddha called “thirst.”
We underestimate the power of personality when we ascribe our ethics and behavior to a system of belief and not to the complex of will and spirit that makes up our very being. Believers will live moral lives because, they will tell us, their belief system requires it. But this does not explain the conduct of fellow-adherents, which may differ by degrees or be outright reprehensible. Supposedly such believers share the same belief system and proscriptions, the same faith and tenets, but the morals are so different as to defy explanation. Unamuno puts it succinctly:
Virtue … is not based upon dogma, but dogma upon virtue, and it is not faith that creates martyrs but martyrs who create faith. There is no security or repose — so far as security and repose are obtainable in this life, which is so essentially insecure and unreposeful — save in conduct that is passionately good.
This is why people without a metaphysical creed may be decent, while those with a religious belief may be monstrous — and the other way around.
Looking carefully at people, we can see that the metaphysical insecurity to which Unamuno refers is also a built-in uncertainty as far as the nature of people. While we may dismiss as hypocrites those believers who practice contrary to their belief, we are not on safer ground dismissing the beliefs, which, as the quote suggests, are a kind of epiphenomena of their tortuous personalities. We are on safer ground simply abstaining from judging people by their creeds or beliefs but on their moral fruits or lack of them. Hence we not so much judge as arrange or classify.
All this is essential for socially-oriented people who hope to navigate through life and not lose their bearings in this world. But for the solitary, who may intuitively sense that the world of human personalities is more complex than this or that set of beliefs, such complexities need not detain them. Neither judge nor complain. We know virtue when we see it, but don’t need to devote time and energy to extracting it from the entanglements of social obligations not pursued. There is just enough time and energy to work on our own personalities and virtues.
Not much is known of the Christian desert hermit Doulas — the fate of hundreds of such hermits. Only a couple of sentiments are ascribed to him, wherein he speaks directly of the “enemy” in one and asceticism in another. But how easily they are conjoined.
The “enemy” is taken to be the devil, of course, though clearly the desert fathers and mothers understood the psychology of daily living and the temptations and foibles of self. Abba Doulas warns us to hold on to our inner peace because there is no substitute for it. He sees control of appetite or “privation of food” as the practical means of complementing inner peace, in order to “make interior vision keen.” This combination ought to work for “fighting the enemy,” no matter how we define “enemy.”
Of course, if we work in the world, then turning away social occasions that challenge our monitoring of food and of inner peace will make of ourselves strange objects to co-workers and worldly companions. So we get to the heart of integrity with the second sentiment ascribed to Doulas:
Detach yourself from the love of the multitude lest your enemy question your spirit and trouble your inner peace.
We may not be willing to consider our necessary social rounds an outright “love of the multitude,” but what solitary has not experienced the inevitable offense to a sense of psychological integrity, to our values, to our “inner peace,” when in the “multitude”? Perhaps “love” of the multitude is the distinction, though none of the desert hermits had even any fondness for it.
To many, the word “hermit” has a faintly antiquarian ring to it, so many moderns prefer “solitary” because life in the contemporary world makes the physical existence of being a classic hermit difficult. But even the classic hermit, in his or her simplicity, can represent an archetype, as in the Tarot.
Even those who reject the validity or efficacy of the Tarot can acknowledge the psychological component and the spiritual power of the archetype, and I don’t hesitate to recommend these latter concepts to adherents of any particular religious or spiritual tradition.
But it is easy to slip into extending the archetype too enthusiastically. For example, the hermit is not automatically a shaman, though every shaman identified by anthropology is a hermit at some necessary stage. Some Tarot practitioners identify the Hermit (9) as a Shaman (see inset image from a modern card set). That equates the hermit with a magician, mage, sorcerer, wizard, or conjurer — altogether different archetypes. It is a serious misinterpretation. Even a hermit in the classic archetype of searcher for truth, a kind of Diogenes mixed with images of desert, medieval, and Asian eremetical models, has no power that he claims, desires, seeks, or wants. Extrapolations from myth and literature notwithstanding, the classic hermit may want truth, and may project wisdom, insight, and harmony with the universe, but the hermit renounces power as soon as its scent reveals itself.
The idea of transcendence is to get away from what we judge to be mundane and impermanent. Yet the very process can undermine the real goal, which is to eliminate suffering and bring equanimity to our lives. Transcendence can mean refusing to live in the present moment, refusing to acknowledge that we are the very stuff of this earth and sky, that we are intrinsically a part of everything we presumptuously want to transcend.
Thus the wisest sages carefully define transcendence in terms of the obstacles that block our perception of the interrelatedness of all things. Transcendence should not mean obliterating reality but informing and enlightening our perception of it. Otherwise, transcedence becomes dualism, a Manichaean rejection of the totality of reality.
Quantum theory has long shown that energy and matter are just two aspects of the same being. So it does us no good to reject the material — to transcend the material — in a quest for the non-material, when both are ultimately the same. We have to ask ourselves exactly what we think we are transcending.