Defining “hermit”

Popular media actually does a fair job at distinguishing hermits and recluses according to a classical definition — meaning the definition of dictionaries and of historical usage versus popular culture. Thus, when an older person suffering a neurosis (or worse), who stays indoors and barely knows his or her environs, dies alone, the media will usually and correctly call that person a recluse.

Someone living alone or even with others, quietly going about their business, conscious of their environs, others, the trajectory of their lives, but fitting the solitary personality type, comes close to being a solitary, or in classical terms, a hermit.

Sometimes the term will be used interchangeably in popular media. A browse through news stories on Hermits … around the web will offer up examples. Usually, we can tell the difference in a glance.

Hermits are consciously crafting their lives according to some principle, belief, or viewpoint. The popular image is endearing but a stereotype — meaning one does see it all of the time! The reputation for grumpiness or cantankerousness follows from the expectation that maximum latitude should be given by others. Eccentric ideas and habits stir the mix. How does the media distinguish a hermit or a recluse if newspapers are stacked to the ceiling in their house, or they wear a long beard or unkempt hair? Is Diogenes really the prototype hermit, the archetype of the Waite tarot card? Maybe the definition for “crabbiness” was based on 17th-century English hermit Roger Crab? (Well, no, the OED says 1580 — but the Merriam-Webster does illustrate the use of “crabby” with: “a crabby recluse.”)

Most of the modern focus on the justification of solitude is based on two important points: 1) aesthetics and 2) psychology.

The true hermit can try to guide life by spiritual, religious or aesthetic ideals. A lived eremitism adds the unique experience of physical solitude — really social solitude. This experience can add a view of nature and wilderness that captures the two aspects of an argument for a philosophy of solitude. Eremitism can transform nature and wilderness into a spiritual reflection of our physical solitude, in part because the profound absence of consciousness (or better, self-consciousness) impresses us, we humans with the debilitation that consciousness seems to dog us with. Additionally, nature and wilderness resist anthropomorphism, and the solitary learns early on that nature and wilderness are as caught up by mysterious forces as we are, and is no enemy, no antagonism, nothing but peace, fearlessness, and silence.

From this observation of nature, we can apply our minds to what resonates about certain aspects of nature, and bring them to our own contrivances (art, language, symbols, emotions, technology) to compare. The solitary will safeguard the self’s apparent structure, but is free to invite the input of nature in order to see where ideas and feelings lead.

Hence the whole idea of simplicity is no more than the confluence of our human contrivances meeting aspects of nature that can resonate with our basic instincts and values. The solitary always has the potential for a more intrinsic simplicity simply because most of what is complex and contrived is for social purposes. Who would create for oneself parlor art, fashion, pulp writing, techno-gadgets, if these are going to stay in one’s room? Everything mass-made and mass-marketed is for social interaction. Solitaries do take up eccentric hobbies and pastimes that no one every sees or shares, but in their hearts, these hobbyists know that these are substitutes for life, time-killers that amuse and no more. The challenge is to make of them an expression of aesthetics that resonates with solitude, that projects our being, that thrusts us into a place of knowing. Reading can do that, and practices can do that, and art can do that, and listening, too. But let us not busy ourselves so much that we forget to look out the window, that we do not go out and draw water and chop wood, as the saying goes.

The wise hermit is meticulous, artful, subjectively introverted, but not neurotic.

Neurotics is exactly what recluses are. At least that is the definition that can be proposed to distinguish hermits and solitaries from recluses. Neurotics do not create philosophies of life. They do not contemplate the eternal lessons of nature and wilderness, monitor the interaction of nature and culture to achieve the right expression of spirit. Neurotics are fearful of others, even while wanting others to do something for them — obey, command, sympathize, serve them. The hermit — the true solitary — no longer wants anything from anybody, but feels free to talk, counsel, listen, accept, and exchange.

The greatest hermits of every culture — Europe, China, Russia, India, etc. — have always had time to counsel others, as did the Christian desert hermits, the Russian starets, or the forest-dwellers of South Asia. They could give of themselves so much because it was easily replenished. Their sharing was not charity, social work, or duty but a form of enlightenment for themselves as much as for others, as when a candle lights another candle and its flame is not diminished. If one can have this relationship to everyone, then our solitude would be mature and lasting, not broken by pulls of passion.

Social relations for the solitary then become a kind of aesthetics in that every soul has to one degree or another a kind of beauty or wisdom to offer, but no more. Like art, conversation for the solitary is guided by a careful touch of paint here or sculpting there — images not so much of language but art, making our words and thoughts making portraits of reality, not emptiness, jocularity, and time-wasting.

Aesthetics governs words and the economy of ideas that reflects simplicity of soul. We complicate our thoughts with too many intentions to cover too many realities, when in fact the simple is best, and always leads back to nature. Nature is assertive but never wasteful, sometimes understated but never contrived. Like nature, so our social relationship ought to be.

The solitary does well to consider aesthetics and nature as building-blocks to a philosophy of life and the structure of eremitism. In this we already have ready-made much of culture to sift and consider. The task is one of simplifying, until that which is crafted to our best abilities can emerge. Nor do we lose our self in the bargain. We develop as much “ego” as we need in order to then discard it, replacing ego with the work of art that we have made of our lives. And this, by anyone’s standard, will make for a quiet and understated but forceful presence in the world, or rather, the little world in which we find ourselves. The traditional “recluse” — the one cited for those who exhibit strange anti-social behavior by the popular media — will not be able to do this. The recluse will have little to do with the true hermit, who loves solitude but also everything in the world that is natural, simple, and true.

Suffering and meaning

The last entry touched upon weaknesses in Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters: not so much his opposition to scientism but his broad reaction to contemporary institutions and ideas without any historical consideration of how they got the way they are, no apparent interest in the sources of the modern and postmodern world views that he dislikes. As a long-time proponent of the perennial view of religious values, Smith vigorously defends perennial thought, but he targets the wrong issues.

For all that, Smith concludes, endearingly, about deciding between the theist (“There is one God”) Beatific Vision and the mystic (“There is only God”) union. He quotes Ramakrishna: “I want to taste sugar, not be sugar.” Smith muses that, after all, there will come a time when everyone will have forgotten Huston Smith, and he will feel like packing it all up. That’s where the mystical alternative will be available.

Smith’s journey has been a rather long one from the dubious days in the early sixties when he invested credence in entheogenic drugs such as mescaline and ayahuasca and later (like Aldous Huxley) became a staunch advocate of perennial philosophy. The perennial seeks to salvage the best of each religion and identify their trajectories as the same or similar enough to be tolerated and respected. This view edges close to assuming that content is the same, and one or another religion is the same, at least in good will and spiritual configuration.

Perhaps a broad similarity of teleology among the world’s religions is as far as anyone can take the pursuit of truth, but the view has the unintended consequence of relativizing the social and material conditions that give rise to particular religious forms — exactly the error that Smith makes in his arguments against scientism. Moreover, the relativizing affects the beliefs themselves, conflating the personalities of prophets and founders, or of ceremonies and sounds. Smith’s wrong path would be in blaming scientism for loss of the traditional view, but the traditional view came about under specific circumstances, and is hard to retain intact over centuries of change, especially recent centuries. Postmoderns point this out. Science is not alone in the flow of ideas in this process of cultural and societal change. The error is in not seeing the whole context of society, culture, and expression that engenders the particular religion — and science, too.

John Horgan, in his book Rational Mysticism, spends his first chapters discussing Huston Smith, postmodernism and mysticism. The postmodern distrusts both the traditional worldview and modern optimism. It deconstructs experience in order to identify the roots of institutions and finds the beginning of the trajectory to what has happened up to today. Nietzsche foreshadowed this work in his Genealogy of Morals, tracing back in time and history what culture presents rather than accepting culture’s definitions, which are themselves products of culture’s elites. With postmodernism, one is still working with culture’s elites, of course. The postmodern edginess may seem like an academic exercise, a chess game back at the faculty club, not always a real encounter with society. But how else can we understand why things change and why they benefit the powerful?

Another journalist, Peter Trachtenberg in his book The Book of Calamities, is compelling, evocative, and thoughtful. His subtitle is “Five Questions about Suffering and Its Meaning.” Such an angle can take in traditional to postmodern views while keeping a strong hold on the real issue: suffering. Whether one finds solace — read “meaning” — in the traditional view (suffering as punishment, karma, divine mystery) or the postmodern view (the absurd, chaos, chance, mystery), the modern view of infinite progress and optimism is largely unmasked.

Trachtenberg offers a compilation of anecdotes intermingled with reflections. His first-hand experiences drive the authenticity of the questions. He personally spoke with genocide victims in Rwanda, tsunami victims in Sri Lanka, an innocent man on Texas death row, twin sisters suffering from a rare skin disorder that would kill them at 27, Vietnam War veterans still unhealed from war trauma, a female colleague at the office dying of cancer, the Andrea Yates prosecutor, and a blustery failed writer who never gets around to organizing his life or ambitions and kills himself.

Trachtenberg downplays his own 20-year long heroin addiction, now that he is clean. And along the way, he dips into the significance of suffering in the classic texts: Gilgamesh, Job, Oedipus, Polycarp (the prototype early Christian martyr), Buddha, Boethius, Victor Frankl, Simone Weil.

The questions are “Why me?” “How Do I Endure?” “What is Just?” “What Does MY Suffering Say About Me? … About God?” and “What Do I Owe Those Who Suffer?” There are no concrete answers, of course, no satisfying insights, but a panoply to awaken our sensitivities. Suffering as punishment or as nature makes for psychological sleights-of-hand, but the reign of chaos over order is so unrelenting in the world that the questions become rhetorical or unspoken. Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist in the Nazi death camps, found himself grasping for bits of pleasure (the recalled passages of a scholarly paper or the lucky bottom scraps of a pot of soup with a few peas in it) — these gave not so much pleasure as meaning. Simone Weil fasted in solidarity with those who suffered, and probably died from it. Boethius found himself imprisoned by those he had loyally served, and spun out his essay “On Consolation” in order to grasp for stability, no longer concerned about vindicating himself, any more than Job did, who was feisty enough to argue with God but then just gave it up, as if to answer “whatever,” still clearly unsatisfied with the idea that suffering is simply a mystery to be endured, as Yahweh insisted.

And so we look outside of ourselves, and shake our heads at the world’s penchant for increasing the suffering of others; we look within our societies and communities and see self-destruction in the habits of all from the simple-minded to the wealthy around us. The Buddha’s image of a wheel is appropriate: one must stop the wheel from turning, that’s all. But suffering makes the wheel go on without us, without our intentionality, our good will, our hopes — and one ends up suffering mentally, on behalf of others, within. The wheel turns, and who is available to stop it? Where the modern was optimistic, the postmodern is not — the traditional world view fluctuated between optimism and pessimism because it could not fathom the mystery, lacking the consciousness of what has unfolded as history. But consciousness does not spell insight, and we are left blind to meaning, unless we consume ourselves with some social task to accomplish, a fatal activism — or turn to solitude.

Solitude tries to rescue the only self that it can reach, the only self that can be worked on. The bodhisattva image, so persuasive in masters from Shantideva to Bassui, does not relieve suffering as such, only the mind, so that suffering does not dominate our thoughts, our senses, our cells. That is a half measure. One lifetime is not enough to work on that many souls, barely enough time to work on oneself. No, there just isn’t enough time, let alone energy. We are left quite alone in the work of fathoming that still point that mysticism is fond of, that point so lofty and sublime that suffering is viewed as simply change and randomness that we look at as if from afar rather than felt as real pain.

Huston Smith’s tunnel

Despite Huston Smith’s firm reputation in popularizing religion and distinguishing spirituality from its institutional counterparts, Smith’s book Why Religion Matters is disappointing. The book is not really about “the fate of the human spirit in an age of disbelief,” as the subtitle suggests. The book rails against modern and postmodern thinking (in contrast to “traditional” thought) without explaining or examining how things got this way. And lacking this explanation makes too much of what Smith says sound like a reactionary screed.

The configuration of traditional (what used to be called, simplistically, the “age of belief”), modern (Enlightenment to the 20th century, more or less) and postmodern, is generally accepted. While the first two eras are extensivety covered most anywhere else, the three cumulative levels of postmodern are here usefully summarized: 1. minimalist (“we have no maps and don’t know how to make them”), 2. mainline (” … and never again will we have a consensual worldview”) and 3. hardcore (” … and good riddance!”).

But Smith spends most of his time complaining, not explaining. He describes the modern view as tunnel vision, with four sides of the tunnel being scientism, academia, the media, and the legal system. These are conservative themes dangerously bordering on fundamentalist politics and social views, only in part dealing with religion. Yet Smith has never been a reactionary. It is rather his conservative view of religion that seems to pull him into a camp that may include rather secular-minded agendas by people hostile toward his religious agenda but willing to change institutions to fit their own. These are the perils of Smith’s own tunnel vision.

If Smith was confident in the staying power, the perennial nature of the heart of religious thought, he would be confident that it can last or outlast any era of skepticism or estrangement. But his shrill tone in the book of a proponent of reconciling perspectives on culture and ideas lands his thoughts next to unsavory books on the same shelf.

The problem is that Smith does not look at historical factors that would explain the evolution of Western thought. Why did science emerge in the first place, why did reason and philosophy overturn belief, what social and material factors in early modern and modern times overwhelmingly changed society and daily life, how did world wars, genocide, totalitarianism, and atomic bombs conspire to promote postmodernism?

Taking these into account, Smith would understand that religion does not exist in a vacuum, that it is a cultural expression and must be seen in a social, even anthropological, light. Additionally, the fate of a religion (he is thinking almost exclusively of his own Christianity in this book) is bound to the fate of the people who profess it. The character of the West has been progressive revealed or unmasked in the modern and postmodern eras, especially to the rest of the world. Is its religion no more than an appendage of its centuries of conquest and imperialism? Perhaps Smith is bound to be sensitive about this issue, for his parents were missionaries in China. But it is astonishing to read his snide remarks about the gullible Chinese.

From this issue can be extrapolated the obvious details of how modernity has changed the world. The changes to academia or media may bother Smith, but not modernity’s economics, or wars, or technology? What about other institutions: pharmaceuticals, agri-business, chemicals, aeronautics? Traditional beliefs were overthrown by such secular material forces as much as by universities or mass market media, which are merely their echoes.

In the second part of the book, Smith offers another quick generalization: “spiritual personality types.” These categories have their use, but they are not allowed to intersect or overflow, which is exactly what modernity and post-modernity sees, contrary to Smith. His types are 1. the atheist (“there is no god”), 2. the polytheist (“there are many gods”), 3. the monotheist (“there is one God”), and the mystic (“there is only God”). Here Smith is somewhat better grounds, but his relentless samples of proofs are not adequate, representing only anecdotal evidence. Just because someone says something does not make it so.

Another reason to skim (if not skip) the book is Smith’s ubiquitous name-dropping. He is too facile in bringing up conversations with famous people, to quick and frequent in mentioning “when I was at MIT” or Harvard, or Standford, or elsewhere.

Perhaps it is a penchant in old age to ease off the analysis and simply remember that it worked once upon a time. Indeed, Smith was one of fascinating and curious Western eclectics who studied Zen in a Japanese Zen monastery and studied Hinduism with an Indian yogi and threw himself into experimenting with hallucinogens with Timothy Leary in an era when it was still not popular. Of his many hours with Bill Moyers, one best remember the Tibetan Buddhist mandala on the wall of his Berkeley home.

So Smith has done great service in promoting an understanding or appreciation of the many paths of spirituality. That is why Why Religion Matters is either not representative of Smith or not representative of how to address the topic posed by the title.