The stereotypical motive of the recluse is social failure. An unattractive personality and psychological issues may make a person incapable of normal interrelations or difficult to get along with. Few people want to deal with the emotional problems of others when these problems are subjective in the sense that they originate in upbringing or personality. These are fair delineations of the “recluse” but not of the solitary.

The solitary is normal, as far as social functionality. Introversion, reticence, or self-sufficiency should not preclude the ability to function socially, to go about work or the necessities of daily life uneventfully but capably. The solitary — who is such voluntarily — can be said to embrace solitude when he or she reaches a certain point of confidence in self.

Solitude is the core of self, though we have been told by society that social personality is the core. We should not confuse socialization with social personality. The solitary is not a “wild child.” Everyone is socialized as children, young adults, and to varying degrees thereafter by circumstances. The solitary may simply reject over-socialization or bad socialization.

The disengagement from over-stimulus parallels the way the body works (as does nature) where over-stimulus can create a toxic environment for the cell. Balance (homeostasis) is not just a goal of nature, as if nature had a teleology. (That is a separate issue.) But it should be a goal of the conscious human self, and we can learn in part how to achieve this by paying attention to nature and even to the body, which, after all, is part of nature.

Self-corrections by nature are often labeled disasters by human society (floods, earthquakes, tornadoes) but there are clear if not predictable causes. In a cosmic sense, these are not disasters but events. Self-corrections in society are the true disasters, as they are spasms reacting to contrived material conditions and unsustainable behaviors. The expressions are violence, war, destruction, famine, and impoverishment. They are labeled revolutionary, or should be, even when carried out by the state. They may take a long time to work themselves around to their causes. These spasms to achieve balance are to be considered disastrous in consequence but they follow logically from the radical absence of balance in the society itself. While no one wishes these disasters, few are paying attention to the contrived situations from which they arise.

Back to the solitary: It is the perspective of almost every solitary that society has not only gone wrong but seems to lack a mechanism for achieving homeostasis, balance. Is this inevitable? The solitary may want to affirm solitude for him or her self, not wanting to judge others, their institutions and situations, but inevitably sages condemn the world, and by extension, the artificial and contrived entity we call society.

What would a world without society be? A world of solitaries? No, a world without society is not possible. Solitude is only the extension of the wise or intuitive soul perceiving the pain and suffering that comes from embracing a life containerized by society.

Natural disasters are balancing events in nature. Destruction and violence is an artificial balancing act between the powerful and elite on the one hand and the suppressed or reactive on the other, in short the sad interplay of forces in the human psyche, though it never stays at that level but descends into physical pain and suffering. Only solitude and the solitary is a balancing “event” in the world of human consciousness.

Hermits and hagiography

Seen positively, hagiography is a form of stereotyping, an attempt to pattern certain behaviors and virtues in a model saint or holy person. Seen negatively, it is mythologizing and idealizing to the point of exaggerating magical elements and filtering virtues through miracles and powers, thus distorting what the individual ought to get from the story.

Yet cultures have always managed to get out of hagiographies whatever they want or need. Popular superstition has always notoriously taken stories literally and created cults around saints based on their power to heal or to combat demons. Is it possible for people with that level of consciousness to abstract the virtues in the saint’s life and live those virtues, ignoring the elements of magic and power? Or is that really a function of hagiography anyway? The teaching of virtue must be done in a careful manner appealing to logic and intuition, not left to chance with such stories, but religion around the world has always enjoyed an element of saint-mongering.

An example of the lengths to which hagiography goes with regard to eremitism is seen in the two famous Old English poems about Guthlac (673-714), the English saint and hermit. The two poems hardly mention the circumstances of his eremitism. We know from other sources that Guthlac became a monk and in his last fifteen years was a hermit in a desolate sector of Croyland, Lincolnshire. But we know knothing about his life as a hermit, not only because his biographers may not have appreciated it but also because the audience for such biographies would not.

Guthlac A only mentions that while the good pursue virtue and alms, “some dwell in deserts” and become “lone-dwellers.” Guthlac was led to a “spot hidden from men” and “raised a sacred abode” where he “dwelt alone in the secret place.” This desolate place, “the secret spot, empty and desert, uninhabited,” was the former abode of demons, who spend the rest of Guthric’s life tormenting him. Should it occur to the writer or his audience that this secret place might be Guthlac’s mind or spirit or soul? Perhaps the audience subconsciously comes to gather as much, but it won’t tell us. That would make Guthlac the true “Everyman” but even as it is, hagiography is fulfilling that purpose.

The bulk of the poem is about these stylized torments of demons, reminiscent, though much less artful, of the stories of the early Christian desert hermits.

The second poem, Guthlac B, doesn’t even mention that he was a hermit.

This nonchalance about eremitism and the role it might place in the holiness of its subject taxes the writer’s knowledge of psychology. Guthlac and other hermits are folded into the profile of saints typical in medieval hagiography. Perhaps eremitism was not likely to raise the writer’s brow or be seen as a spiritual factor, only as a good setting for a stereotypical battle against demons.

Hermits were and are not the only ones plagued by demons. Hagiography does not even make the hermit the only one privileged to battle demons like a solitary champion in the field of humanity. Many of these stereotypes have lingered in the popular mind, but the hermits did not always enjoy a status far above their spiritual earning. This consciousness of hermits comes later in the Middle Ages, transmuted into anchoritism, mysticism, and spirituality. But the crude hagiographic period retains its naive appeal, even if it remains ignorant of the true nature of eremitism.

William of St. Thierry

In his Golden Letter, the medieval theologian Wiliam of St. Thierry reflects on an insight he had as a result of a several weeks’ stay at the Chartreuse of Mont-Dieu, a prominent monastery. William concluded that (quoting scholar Anneke Mulder-Bakker):

man’s one authentic desire is union with God [and] … the stages of man’s growth inevitably led him to greater and greater solitude, and that this solitude is most perfectly expressed in the vocation of the hermit.

This sentiment may seem to change the sequence of enlightenment. We are used to the psychological explanation for eremitism, based on personal propensity or sensitivity, with spiritual growth a welcome but not essential result of solitude. But in true medieval fashion, William makes God and the innate desire for God to be the basis of eremitism and the eremitic impulse. Openness to things spiritual becomes the impetus to solitude, not the result of it. Thus can be posited a “teleology of eremitism” — if that is not far-fetched.

Unfortunately, this kind view of hermits was not universally held in the Middle Ages, where many were viewed suspiciously because they did not follow a traditional vocation, either in the world or in the reliigous sense. But that has always seemed the original character of eremitism everywhere, to not conform to preconceptions of the hermit presented by those who, simply put, aren’t hermits or empathize with eremitism as did William.

The anchorite was in higher favor because the anchorite was physically confined, which suggested a kind of intellectual and psychological control on the part of others. How true the authorities were on this count is also doubtful, however, for the fulfillment of the anchorite was not so much confinement by the world as renunciaition of its false freedom. Hence the unexpected but welcome support of a theologian like William.

There is an eccentric touch of medieval etymology where William relates the word cella (anchorhold or cell) to celium, meaning heaven.

Schopenhauer and solitude

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is considered dry and cerebral, but given his era and his discovery of the import of eastern philosophy on western ideas, he was groping carefully along a tenuous cliff. That is why he is revealing of self and thought in his aphorisms. As in those under the label of “Familiarity and Interdependence,” “On the Wisdom of Life,” and “Genius and Virtue,” we see his professional — and certainly personal — isolation. He muses on the obligations of socialability and the inevitability of posturing and witholding and courtesies. Who could be trusted to be honest and insightful? That is why, he concludes, “monks and the like, who have given up the world and are strangers to it, are such good people to turn to for advice.”

In the second-named section of aphorisms, Schopenhauer acknowledges what Nietzsche discovered but which German philosophers in general especially experienced:

Men of great intellectual worth, or, still more, men of genius, can have only very few friends … On the heights we must expect to be solitary.

One can readily mark such statements as arrogant. Whether Schopenhauer was giving himself the label of genius or not, he certaily identified with what Nietzsche would call Overman. And Schopenhauer did have a difficult personality. But his experience is simply that of the sensitive person with an intellectual bent, without a social propensity or worldly personality. Such a one will discover the llife of the mind and creativity (even physical) to be more rewarding and more important than what goes on in society. It does not (necessarily) mean indifference or ignorance, but does require a certain knowledge to justify itself.

Such a propensity can lead the solitary to a philosophy of life that offers a profounder insight into the workings of society and the world. Those historical figures of genius, whether from a scietific or religious or intellectual point of view, are often judged by the socially-oriented arrogant, misanthropic or cold. Yet from the larger world view of those who use the mind to understand come views that shape the larger culture. Perhaps most of our insights into culture and ociety have been from such observers. One may think of the work of scientists, sages, and philosophers. It is not that their vision is too subjective or morose, but that the majority of people will simply not give up their narrow social interests long enough to see a larger picture.

Schopenhauer mingled the objects of contemplation, as in the next aphorism.

Men of no genius whatever cannot bear solitude: they take up pleasure in the contemplation of nature and the world.

Here the view of nature is unnecessarily restricted, but doubtless Schopenhauer meant those who live literally in the reworking of otherwise natural things: mining, industry, manufacturing. These hate solitude because they gather around true nature to exploit and destroy it. They cannot abide by solitude because their pleasure is in the consumption of things and people. To this activity Schopenhauer contrasts art, music, literature, philosophy — all that we may call cerebral but nevertheless creative. To him, those who could not use humankind’s greatest gift for good were destined to hate solitude, and therefore banish forever the opportunity to have insight into culture, society, and all that lies before us.


Travel is often recommended as educational, as a way of appreciating different cultures and increasing one’s tolerance and fellowship. But I have seldom seen that travelers really exhibit these characteristics. Often travel is a confirmation of biases and cultural prejudices (almost nineteenth-century in tone). Or the traveler has set out with less information about the target culture and language than those who have stayed home and done a little study.

Travel has acquired such a de rigour attitude today that it is the counterpart of collecting, or of overscheduling activities in order to demonstrate one’s importance. A person is presumed to be incomplete without travel, though, of course, the destination and who one sees or what one visits is raised as criteria for whether the venture was worthwhile.

We are far away from the observation of Thomas a Kempis that whenever he traveled he returned more empty than when he had set out. For travel is not indefinite. It is always with the intention of returning to one’s “home” after “vacating” it. Refreshment, relaxation, renewal — these are goals that are usual put “out there,” as if they are not part of oneself by nature or potential.

By travel I mean that formality of taking a fossil-fueled vehicle and going someplace really not intrinsically unlike one’s home base and seeing different versions of human industriousness, folly, greed, or vanity. The splendor or attraction of ruins is a good example, though what lesson the modern traveler learns from Machu Picchu or the Parthenon, or the Great Wall is not clear. Where travel was once reserved for the wealthy, it is now available to .. the relatively wealthy, on a sliding scale of value: sometimes the same set of multinational fast-food chains, sometimes a rare antiquity, sometimes a business-class hotel.

One can catch one’s breath before an awe-inspiring monument or stained glass or natural setting. It is true and satisfying, for a moment or a few weeks. You may live in the mountains and want to travel to the city or you may live in the city and want to travel to the mountains. There is an acceptable price and an acceptable value. But how often has the traveler stood before something seen in a book and remarked, “Yes, it is just like that after all.”

Getting about physically is not what I mean by travel. Thoreau said that he couldn’t stay indoors for a single day without acquiring some rust. One must walk about or get out and see the stars or the trees or the flowers or the snow, feel the air, the sunlight, hear a bird. For city-dwellers, this may be difficult and discouraging, and the temptation to fly far away is a great but delusional lure. One must come to grips with one’s habitat. The inner walls of the anchorite’s cell became the boundaries of the earth’s stratosphere, the bowl of heavenly stars by way of imagination and solitude.

The solitary is equipped to understand the follies of travel but is often tempted to become sedentary, cerebral, and too comfortable with home or room. The Indian sadhu or Japanese hijiri were homeless, living entirely with nature and at nature’s caprice, in part to test the tendency of attachment and willfully discard it. In doing so, the path of travel became the pilgrimage of mind and spirit. The stars and forests and mountains became household objects. They did not set out to see anyone or anything. It was just that life takes us on a path where we intersect with all that matters anyway. We don’t have to set out traveling; we are already traveling, and have merely to get our bearings.