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.