Michel Foucault notes, in his book Madness and Civilization, that the medieval depiction of the desert hermit of early Christianity was one of being assailed by external demons. The view conformed to the writings about the hermits. These were temptations requiring enormous effort to combat, but external temptations nevertheless.

However, in the late Middle Ages, with the end of leprosy as an underlying social fear and the closing of all leprosaria all over Europe, a transformation took place transferring the external disease to a spiritual and internal state of folly or madness. This is an oversimplification, of course; Foucault is more specific.

This transformation was applied to depictions of the desert hermits as well. As Foucault states: “In the fifteenth century the gryllos, image of human madness, becomes one of the preferred figures in the countless Temptations.”

gryllos of St. Pierre di Louvain, 15th century
St. Pierre di Louvain
gryllos of St. Michel, Brussels, 15th century
St. Michel cathedral, Brussels

The Temptations are artistic representations of a theme, namely the temptations of the desert hermits. Historically they had depicted (especially in literature) a devil or demon that, however terrifying, was nevertheless a limited if fantastic and separate beast (the customary horns, tail, and smoke). But the gryllos is a hybrid of human and animal, as if the human being was now possessed by a demon solely because of being tempted.

This represented a significant social and psychological change, not to say theological.

What assails the hermit’s tranquility is not objects of desire, but these hermetic, demented forms which have risen from a dream, and remain silent and furtive on the surface of a world. In the Lisbon Temptation, facing Saint Anthony sits one of these figures born of madness, of its solitude, of its penitence, of its privations; a wan smile lights this bodiless face, the pure presence of anxiety in the form of an agile grimace.

The Lisbon Temptation is the famous tryptych “Temptation of St. Anthony” by the Hieronymus Bosch preserved in Lisbon, Portugal ( and The figure in the central panel of the tryptych is a kneeling St. Anthony.

As Nicholas Pioch (or an editor) of the WebMuseum succinctly puts it:

The central panel of this triptych illustrates the kneeling figure of St Anthony being tormented by devils. These include a man with a thistle for a head, and a fish that is half gondola. Bizarre and singular as such images seem to us, many would have been familiar to Bosch’s contemporaries because they relate to Flemish proverbs and religious terminology. What is so extraordinary is that these imaginary creatures are painted with utter conviction, as though they truly existed. He has invested each bizarre or outlandish creation with the same obvious realism as the naturalistic animal and human elements. His nightmarish images seem to possess an inexplicable surrealistic power.

Foucault continues:

Now it is exactly this nightmare silhouette that is at once the subject and object of the temptation; it is this figure which fascinates the gaze of the ascetic — both are prisoners of a kind of mirror interrogation, which remains unanswered in a silence inhabited only by the monstrous swarm that surrounds them. The gryllos no longer recalls man, by its satiritic form, to his spiritual vocation forgotten in the folly of desire. It is madness become Temptation; all it embodies of the impossible, the fantastic, the inhuman, all that suggests the unnatural, the writhing, of an insane presence on the earth’s surface — all this is precisely what gives the gryollos its strange power. The freedom, however frightening, of his dreams, the hallucinations of his madness, have more power of attraction for fifteenth-century man than the desirable reality of the flesh.

Foucault’s interpretation, like that of the classic Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages years before, suggests the cause of the end of eremitism as the same as what ended the Middle Ages: the end of a reasonable spirituality. Even while the hermit was an eccentric figure practicing a radical simplicity, he was throughout the Middle Ages an “awesome” religious symbol revered for his spiritual power if not his freedom. But the dissolution of the spiritual is, as Foucault shows, the dissolution of reason (or reasonableness) and the ascent of madness in culture. Even if we do not ascribe to a given spirituality, we will have to account for its social function sooner or later.

The creatures depicted in church art as gryllos (half human, half fantastic animal) and the hybrid monsters of Bosch’s semi-religious paintings are projections of the psychology of a dying culture, a culture riddled with fear and madness.

Fear and madness are the plagues of a culture that cannot tolerate solitude, silence, simplicity, harmony with nature, nor eremitism. For in these depictions of society the times are too far gone, purpose, meaning, and a reasonable norm are lost. The millenarianism of this era presented the coming end of the world not suggested by anything real but by the behavior of the people themselves, conjuring fear, terror, and madness. The end of the world is suggested not by anything real but because the minds and hearts of the people require it.

Keltner on emotions

With a title like Born to be Good one can tell that Dacher Keltner’s book about behavior and neuroscience echoes his Buddhist sympathies, and, indeed, he has attended the neuroscience conferences sponsored by the Dalai Lama, which seek to reconcile science and Buddhist psychology. Hence the subtitle of the book: The Science of a Meaningful Life.

Keltner is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and directs the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory. Although it has been covered before, the material Keltner presents is in a popularizing and refreshing way. He concentrates on aspects of behavior eliciting the reader’s interest: facial expressions, gestures, touch — and how corresponding parts of the brain register various emotions, culminating in compassion and awe. Keltner uses the Confucian term jen for the optimal sense of behavior and balance, and while the term may be new to some readers and therefore have no other connotation, jen historically refers to the characteristics of a gentleman in the ancient Chinese imperial court, extrapolated to a universal sense of personal ethics. This may not be what Keltner wants, but at least he does not belabor the term.

The book discusses interrelations of nerve function and the brain, with the author’s ongoing mapping of emotional responses to specific areas of the brain. The vagus nerve, for example, Keltner calls the “nerve of compassion” — not because it measures compassion per se but because its primitive function in the “fight or flight” response is capable of reflecting a hierarchy of emotions. The vagus nerve yields measurements from the colon to spleen to heart and lungs, to laryngeal and facial muscles, and does so with the entire gamut of emotion responses. The vagus touches nearly every internal organ, ascending to the medulla ob longita. The fight or flight response in humans basically reflects fear on the one hand and aggression on the other. As techniques come to pacify and control these extremes of response, the vagus nerve will reflect the change in comparison to the conventional measurements of emotions the average person.

Keltner doesn’t elaborate on the “fight or flight” mechanism, but it reminds one of Erich Fromm’s Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which early established the duality of aggressive response in human behavior. In contrast to instinctivists and behaviorists, Fromm cited the “fight or flight” reaction in human behavior as a vestige of animal defensive response, versus violence and cruelty only characteristic in human beings, not a benign defensive response but a socially and culturally conditioned response, wholly offensive. The capability of human beings to consciously distinguish these two responses enables an observer like Keltner to refine the observations of neurology. Thus the reduction of tension and anxiety in people is measurable in facial muscles, heartbeat, respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), and oxytocin receptors. The vagus nerve is activated with stress and reduced with calmness. The fight or flight reaction itself is reduced in a mammalian counterpart of reptilian immobilization. Of course that’s only how it looks to the panic-stricken and the aggressive.

This information is not new, of course, but Keltner helps popularize what remains tentative and buried away from popular understanding of psychology. But the subjects of his experiments are themselves part of that general public, and certainly influenced by society and culture, but the goal of neuroscience is to find if there are universally applicable results. Keltner thinks so.

The discussion of awe is especially interesting. Awe has historically been reserved for religious emotion, but it was the English thinker Edmund Burke, in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, who identified a secular counterpart of awe. Burke identified power and obscurity as key elements in our experience of awe with regards to both aesthetics and life experiences. Keltner identifies the social, physical, and cognitive sources of elicitors of awe in this secular sense.

In the social, awe may be elicited in the experience of a powerful and charismatic leader, in the execution or observation of a great skill (for example, a musician or athlete), or in experiencing a great virtue. In the physical world, awe may be elicited from something in nature, or even something human-made (for example, a cathedral). Even cognitive fields can elicit awe, as when reflecting on a complex theory or having an intellectual epiphany.

Awe spans from a sense of vastness in the above examples to a sense of accommodation in the feeling of smallness of self. In either case we intuit — or sense — a unity, a commonality, with everything, leading to a heightened respect as much as a heightened sense of reverence, the latter being a sense of astonishment. In either case, the smallness of self is a prerequisite to a new personal ethic. It serves the group the person may be involved with by reducing the self or ego, but ultimately it serves the person himself or herself in promoting self-esteem in the constructive sense of crafting a meaningful life. Although awe in the secular sense may have questionable objects (physical awe experienced by a dictator’s swaying rhetoric, for example), it is a continuum of emotional responses linked with empathy and compassion that are most conducive to satisfactory brain responses. Keltner is suggesting that we don’t get that far unless we literally experience awe, because that is where the prime receptors operate. By that time, however, if we have developed the sense of empathy and compassion, then awe feeds back to an approximation to jen and a meaningful life.

hus, the hierarchy of receptors runs from sensory pleasure at an “animal” level of anticipation and the registration of rewarding stimuli, through relf-referential behavior such as pride, then compassion, then all the way up to awe and its registration in particular parts of the brain. Here is a brief chart compiled from Keltner’s text:

sensory pleasure nucleus accombens;
left dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex & hippocampus
release of opioids -> anticipation and registration of rewarding stimuli; memory; reflective thought
pride rostral medial prefronal cortex
(frontal lobes)
harm and suffering amygdala fight or flight
compassion (= observation of harm + appreciation of sufferer’s experience) dorsal medial prefrontal cortex
(frontal lobes)
empathy, beginning of perspective
awe left orbitofrontal cortex entire gamut:
anticipation & reward;
fight-or-flight -> adversarial defense
goal-directed action -> approachability;
reflection on internal experience -> perspective

Off the grid

Along with the dream hut (previous entry), the modern solitary dreams of being “off-grid,” at least as a symbol of autonomy and self-sufficiency. After becoming dependent on modern civilization’s provisions for the three essentials — food, energy, and waste management — the notion of addressing these necessities without the grid is inspiring both practically and philosophically, especially for the solitary who already has a disengaged frame of mind when it comes to society’s structures.

But as Dave Black points out in his little book Living Off the Grid, we are never really completely autonomous from it using modern solutions. Food can be grown and bartered almost exclusively by simple, even primitive, means. But energy feeds on itself. To go solar means to go to the grid for the equipment, tools, infrastructure, transportation, and — most importantly — maintenance. Production costs for solar components remain high, and so do end user prices. But most telling is when something goes wrong, breaks, needs maintenance, or additional components. We go to the grid to get them. So we are not entirely “off the grid” regardless of the type of alternative energy.

This is not to say that the effort is not worth it. On the contrary, the degrees of autonomy are important to approaching sustainability. Like solitude, there is no absolute degree, only positive ones.

The same is true for waste management, where virtually every municipality insists on expensive waste disposal for anyone contemplating living on a piece of land, however economically. And it is the grid that requires, verifies, and builds septic systems. The vagabond may make easier provisions, but merely passes on the burden to the grid if they are passing through that system.

We can use the past as a model, necessarily retrograde, unraveling the layers of administration, institutions, customs — and most importantly, the technology. But, again, the technology of the past was based on smaller populations and scientific knowledge-base. It was not free of errors, disasters, or bad effects like pollutants and disease. But the latter are still with us, in different forms. The technology of the grid is a structure, but the real control belongs to those who hold what Foucault calls “power/knowledge.” So we have to get used to the idea that the grid was never “ours” but was part of a material progress lurching back and forth to the unintended but foreseeable goal of expiration.

Black identifies three relationships to the grid — he calls them “subcultures.” They are:

  1. the “welfare subculture,” wherein people driven to marginal socio-economic circumstances depend on public assistance to stay on the grid while unable to move out of this subculture. We will see more and more of these people as the global economy first shrinks, then unravels;
  2. the “vagabond subculture,” wherein people capable of productively settling into a stable relationship to the grid refuse to do so, existing on the fringes, living as cheaply and autonomously as possible while using the grid selectively, and,
  3. the “career subculture,” wherein people work regularly, consume regularly, and have come to depend on the regularity of the grid and the presumed limitless responses the grid uses to provide food, energy, and waste management on its (the majority subculture’s) behalf. Many here, too, will enter the welfare or vagabond subcultures as the economy and the grid downsize indefinitely.

The majority subculture in the developed world — the career subculture — is characterized by an unsustainable level of consumption and equally unquestioning expectation that that consumption level and expectation should continue both as structure and entitlement. The welfare subculture is equally dependent on the grid, if not so optimistically. The vagabond subculture has the attitude of opportunism that distinguishes it from the other two, but may not have the ability to compromise and participate in sustainable alternatives. Of course, those alternatives, such as transition towns, may reproduce if not the economics of the grid, perhaps the social dynamics, with a new class of controlling elites who can produce and a larger dependent subculture of exiles from the grid who accept the authority of the new elites.

Is there a fourth subculture? The disengagement from society characteristic of the hermit has affinities with the vagabond without the element of opportunism. The historical hermit also had rid himself or herself of the acquisitiveness of the rest of society, the adherence to social structures and the desire to fit into them, to conform to its authorities and customs — all characteristic of the “career subculture” and its historical antecedent. At the same time, historical hermits made no demands on the “grid” of their age, preferring to seek their own sustainability in remote areas, or becoming part of the “welfare subculture” by begging or bartering their labor but with no strings attached and no expectations about the future.

At least in mind and heart, the solitary is always “off the grid” of society. Whatever new model may emerge in the future, eremitism will always have a more lasting set of values. The future hermit will be like the old hermit, wondering, as the ancient desert hermit Paul did, “What new cities have arisen? What empire holds sway these days?”