Eremitism & power

What distinguishes the philosophy of eremitism is its rejection of power. But what does it reject?

Power is the ability to act, with whatever ends and in whatever capacity. Power has no inherent moral or ethical basis or content, and is justified a posteriori, after the fact of awareness of its potential. Once aware of itself, power grows insatiably, assuming control over a given sphere of mind, then material conditions. Power is not a force of physics or nature, where no design or ego directs power against others, where forces are innocent of motive and meaning. Only consciousness of its potential — that is, only human beings — can exercise power. Power applies to human and societal uses, and to the vagaries of history and the concentration of power in a class or group over time. The powerful define the basis or content of power — and its uses and legitimacy or moral justification.

Power has been the object of philosophical scrutiny by impartial thinkers hoping to justify the universal use of power by the class of power. But this class of power is not a monolithic entity over time. Power diffuses itself as a human expression and social relationship — over time, geography, culture, and history, over many people in many circumstances.

Power is action and the urging of an effect by the powerful. Regardless of its institutional setting or justification, power contains within itself the corrosive ability to intend an unjust stasis and a justification of necessity, of a necessary condition securing the powerful in their acts. These acts parallel what the powerful will consider natural law. History, then, is the record of the use of power by the powerful.

Power, once enjoyed, once made legitimate, can be renounced in righteous retirement, due to weariness, or tactical withdrawal from a more threatening power. But can power ever really be renounced in itself, rejected wholesale, by a philosophy of life?

Although power is associated with abuse, of its use to exploit, enslave, coerce, or inculcate, power is often presented as freedom, autonomy, and independence. But can even this will to power as benign and nurturing be renounced it itself, rejected altogether for a different frame of mind?

To not act is not merely to reject the desire to be powerful but to reject power as a mode of human relationship with other people or with nature. Eremitism is based on this rejection, not with a sense of criticism or militancy or egoism but as disengagement and detachment, a dismissing of power as a means of living.

Of the many models of eremitism, here are three are suggestive of this disengagement.

The Taoist dictum of wu-wei, “do-nothing,” refers to self-election of separation from social aspiration. Chuang-tzu did not, however, counsel an eremitism that encouraged flight to the mountains. The Taoist philosophical tradition — at least in Chuang-tzu — recommended being a hermit in the crowd, the pursuit of a leisured and contemplative life. Epicureanism in the West is a possible parallel.

But Western eremitism, dealing with more powerful classes of empire culture seeking both political and material control over people and nature, were bound to conflict with authority more directly than in Chinese Taoism or Epicureanism. A philosophical response is found in the life of Diogenes, who rejects social convention as an expression of defiance. Like Chuang-tzu or Epicureans, Diogenes deems life within society as normal. But, whereas Taoists would make themselves inconspicuous, Diogenes — intending to highlight his rejection of power as a philosophy and not merely an affectation — must make his presence in society more flamboyant, more defiant, more public. Decidedly, Diogenes is not a recluse, but like Socrates, is a supreme individualist, eccentrically living a contrived life in order to dedicate himself to his philosophy of life.

Nietzsche’s criticism of Socrates applies as well to Diogenes. Both are caught in an end-of-civilization mode of decadence, and in such circumstances function as reformists, not radicals, as social or legal criminals but not as philosophers. Such is the temptation of resentment, what many disaffected and solitary personalities feel towards society and other people. Resentment engenders reform, the desire to establish a world of social justice, but a reform impossible without power. Resentment cannot be the foundation of a healthy solitude, a proper eremitism that is in harmony with nature and not engaged with society or social issues. This is dramatized by our third example, Poemen.

Poemen was a Christian desert hermit of antiquity. Often ecclesiastical authority retrospectively praised the hermit in order to include this model within religious society. However, the Christian desert hermits decidedly wanted not only be not of the world but not of the world in the Church. Their flight into the desert signified their rejection even of living as hermits in the city, for the city had become the world, and the Church was now in the world. Nor did the desert hermits share either the aplomb of Chuang-tzu nor the self-centered exhibitionism of Diogenes.

Like all eremitisms, the desert hermit version evolved from a deeper, more elusive ethics and psychology. This evolution is presented in a simple, even naive, way in two incidents in the life of Poemen from the narrative of Paschasius. Here is a summary of the incidents:

At this time Poemen lived in a monastery, and a brother who shared his cell was constantly quarreling with another brother. Poemen tried to dissuade the brother from his quarreling but without success. So he went to an elder, saying that he had no peace and asking him what he should do. The elder looked at him and told Poemen that he should lay it into his heart that he was dead, that he was in the grave a year. The elder’s counsel is that disengagement must be so thorough-going that one must be dead to the world, even to the world around us, if we are to gain our peace.

Another incident in later years shows the degree to which Poemen has entered into disengagement: some brothers were arguing vociferously, and Poemen kept his silence. Paphnutius came to him and insisted that Poemen do something. Poemen replied that as they, the quarrelers, were brothers, they eventually would (or at least would have to) reconcile with one another. This answer did not please Paphnutius. But Poemen looked at him and said, “Brother, lay it in your heart that I am not here.”

Was Poemen responsible for resolving the quarrels? For exercising power over others? Can one ever convince anyone of anything using power? Poemen could have used rhetoric, persuasion, pleading — but these are evasions of power, as the powerful themselves will point out. Unsuccessful coercions only reveal weakness and attempts to manipulate; they solve nothing, anymore than does power. For the world’s premise is that power solves problems. Bypassing the consciousness of others, and assuming responsibility for them without understanding their consciousness, their experiences, drives, personalities, and ethics, is the fallacy of using power for anything “good.” And when power is used it is always for “bad.”

Poemen, as an eremitic archetype, found his way to the desert in that great historical exodus from the monasteries. His decision represents an evolution from what one might call the sleight of hand of Chuang-tzu and the societal project of Diogenes.

Eremitism attempts to understand the nature of power because the simplest aspirant hermit senses the inauthenticity of power. Disengagement rather than rejection, renunciation rather than criticism, demurral not acquiescence, self-effacement rather than assertion of ego — these are the foundations of eremitism in antiquity that remain pertinent today.

Issa’s dew

The genius of classical haiku is the transformation of ordinary natural objects into precise expressions of meaning.

Natural objects in themselves have no meaning, of course — they simply “exist.” Human beings assign them meaning — if they are conscious, sensitive, and aware. The poet is conscious, and the culture can serve to promote this exploration of mind and heart. What matters is not that everyone be a poet, but that many appreciate the specialness of the poet’s art. The prerequisite to this appreciation is essentially expressed in the given culture, and here traditional Japanese culture has facilitated this experience for poets.

The object of the haiku becomes not so much a metaphor as a vehicle. In the poem, it does not stand for something (because it has no meaning) but rather evokes emotion and meaning from the human observer. This meaning for the poet is expressed in a universalizing way, linking poet, reader, and, ultimately, the experience of nature. The reader becomes aware of oneness because the successful poet has first felt the awareness, then captured the awareness in a poem, then shared it with a mind on the brink of appreciation and self-transformation. This is the genius of haiku.

The natural objects selected in the “canon” of classical haiku poetry are most representative because their existence is rooted beyond human contrivance. Choosing objects from technology or modern times breaks the sentiment of the poem because it turns itself back on itself, rather than serving as a vehicle, rather than serving to bring nature into harmony with the reader. Thus, from

object --> meaning

we would, with modern or unnatural objects, instead get

contrivance --> object --> contrived meaning

It is the very nature, the very “coming-into-being” of the object that makes the difference.

An example of a natural object is dew. The representative poet is Issa (1763-1828). Issa is considered the sentimentalist of the three great haiku poets, the other two being Basho (the artist) and Buson (the aesthete). The life of Issa was a tragic one. He lost his mother at 3, his father remarried to a hostile woman, Issa’s stepmother, and Issa’s doting grandmother died when he was 14. In adulthood he lost his wife, and all his children died in their youth. When his little daughter died at 2 and a half years — the second or third child to die young — Issa wrote a poem with the header or prescript: “Losing a Beloved Child”:

This dewdrop world
Is a dewdrop —
And yet — and yet —

The dewdrop is a consummate symbol of evanescence and impermanence. The natural object here conveys this sentiment in its very naturalness, its very beingness. Issa would have understood the Buddhist precept, the admonition to detachment from that which does not last, or at any rate, that which does not last long compared to other things — symbolized by dew.

But Issa wonders if that detachment can be possible in this most heart-wrenching situation, the death of a small child. The world is like a dew drop, we are like dew drops, but does that dispense with or thwart love and affection and its corollary sorrow? Does it shield us from emotions? More pressing, Issa wonders: Why do we feel this deep love and compassion and grief for that which will go away? For that which we know consciously (or in repression) will go away? What does nature intend of us? Is the Buddhist admonition true? Is our anguish worse than the hollow comforts of the admonition that does not understand how or what we feel? Such is the weight of Issa’s poem in provoking a whole realm of reflection.

In other poems, Issa uses the image of dew to further explore the sentiment of evanescence.

“I will have nothing more to do
With this sordid world” —
And the dew rolls away.

On the lotus leaf,
The dew of this world
Is distorted.

From the white dew-drops,
Learn the way
To the Pure Land.

In the first poem of these latter three, even the dew recognizes the sorrow of self-consciousness and asserts its philosophy of life — only to roll away, to disappear. Our very attempt to assert our detachment, our disengagement from the “sordid world” is a vanity, for the course of nature itself will surely detach us, regardless of what we think.

For the very evanescence we apprehend is distorted, is too evanescent to disclose reality to us, to reveal to us the mysteries of existence. Perhaps even the lotus, that symbol of wisdom in Eastern tradition, cannot retain the dew in its purest form, cannot serve as a symbolic vehicle for dew.

That is why, in the third poem, Issa suggests that we must learn to not assert anything, to observe quietly, to learn the way from the evanescence we witness around us. For the way does not consist in triumphantly proclaiming that we have learned something, learned anything. Conversely, we must not proclaim that we are ignorant, that we do not know, that we have not fathomed any mysteries. We must be comfortable with this quiet insecurity, this not-knowing. No shame attaches to us as if this not-knowing as if it were a failure of diligence and intellect. Rather, it is that we cannot apprehend , we cannot reason our way into the mysteries of existence. Everything in nature shows us that.

We can explore the depths of this sentiment best in classical haiku. Issa is a good example.

Von Franz on religion

A baseline description of religion is offered by Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise Von Franz in her essay “The Bremen Town Musicians.” Her work on fairy tales and their universality is a trove of ideas and information, and in this essay one finds, almost in passing, this discussion of religion:

The primordial connection of image and instinct … explains the bond between instinct and religion in the widest sense. “Religion” on the most primitive level signifies the psychic regulatory system that relates to the dynamism of the drive.

Religion is the cultural product of human observation of the universe and its wonders, terrors, mysteries, sources of fear, recognition of cycles (birth and death, seasons, light and dark, etc.). Consciousness brings these observations directly into the instincts and emotions, into the psyche.

These images or impressions evoke seamless functionality in animals, what we call instinct. Little regulation is needed, and thus we wonder at how little instruction a newborn animal requires from its mother. Not so the human being, whose consciousness quickly opens the gulf between image or instinct, and mind, reflection, and consciousness. The wonder at the environment and self become layers of conflicting emotions, products of the interaction taken by us and sifted by the mind to make a meaningful narrative of reality.

This search for meaning is only a search for harmony with this environment, a search to reconcile mind and instinct. But as environment grows complex, the tools of the mind are easily outstripped. Positive socialization can help guide a child to harmony. The fairy tales present to children essential images, symbols, and emotional undercurrents. They make order out of environment and universe without heavy-handedness. Would that fairy tales were in every child’s hands!

Religion means the “psychic regulatory system” in this very basic sense of providing a child with social and mental images and emotional experiences that will allow the child to prosper, to allow the child to achieve the tools for reconciliation, for harmony of self and environment. Von Franz wisely begins at the beginning, as do Jungian and other psychological schools, in accounting for the functions of the mind, and looking to psychic harmony as the tacit aspiration of the self.

Extrapolating, then, one might say that “religion” is successful to the degree that it services the regulatory function of the psyche. Jung identified the archetypes that reflect pivotal aspects of universal thought and sentiment specifically as points of encounter for the self in the quest for harmony. Failing to incorporate within the psyche these pivotal points, these bundles of psychic energy, results in neuroses, or worse. Adjusting to society is not the goal of Jungian psychology, it is self-actualization, self-realization, which in turn allows the individual to rightly place environment and emotions into their right context, their regulated context. This process, and its final product, is a form of primordial “religion.”

In civilizations, chaos arises when the energies represented by the archetypes are ignored, subverted, overthrown, denied, assaulted, or dismissed. This is not to say that there is never a universal “discontent” with civilization but crafty and worldly-wise rulers give their populace surrogate symbols on which to masticate. In the full sense of civilization or culture, the collective structures, the outward constructs of power and authority, fail to reconcile the least sensitive individuals to their selfhood. The goal is, rather, to reconcile the individuals to the structures. By society’s standards, failing that reconciliation means alienation, and the regulatory function is itself alienating and injurious. The regulatory function, however, is then false or traitorous, for it no longer intends to reconcile environment and self, instinct and mind. Thus Von Franz continues:

On the higher level, to be sure, this primordial bond is often lost, and then religion easily becomes a poison counteracting the drive, and in this way the original relationship of mutual compensation degenerates into the well-known conflict between mind and instinct.

Note that the conflict is brought about by the artificial imposition of a system that would disrupt the harmony within, yet promote an outward harmony. All children will experience conflict with parents, peers, other adults, authority figures beyond their circle. This will be part of the inevitable maturation process. At each point, these conflictors can conceivably serve to promote inner harmony rather than exacerbate conflict. But competition, rivalry, jealousy — in short, survival instincts — will thow consciousness into conflict with instincts, and the primordial drives will be channeled not into creativity but into conflict with others, let alone with self. The individual will have to become neurotic in order to become socially functional. Von Franz describes all this briefly:

Initially of course people degenerate and fall into conflict with their true nature. They forget their origins, and their consciousness behaves in an autocratic manner that is antagonistic to the instincts.

But somehow we survive childhood, and bear with society. For the conflict, the split between mind and instinct, is not absolute, Von Franz notes:

Such a split is by no means just an accident and a senseless catastrophe; rather it contributes toward the broadening and further differentiation of human consciousness. In other words, if the conflict reaches a certain unbearable intensity, the unconscious instigates a new reconciliation between instinct and mind by producing symbols that reconcile the opposites.

And herein lies the genius of the fairy tale — and “fairy tales” for adults as literary, visual, and aural art. The fairy tale presents us with constant conflict of epochal dimensions — or apparently mundane dimensions made complex by instincts — and brings us refreshing symbols to absorb and concentrate the energies of the given conflict. The reader or listener can then address not the conflict but the symbol, not the dysfunction but the harmony, not the tenets of a “religion” but the psychic regulatory function that only the symbols provide. The symbols are receptacles of primordial and complex emotions and instincts. They constitute “civilization” in its best sense.

Fairy tales, like dreams, are beyond logical deconstruction. Logical arts are in this realm not efficacious. “Religion” is a psychical function that projects consciousness to its furthest extension while safeguarding the weakness within of mind and thought and emotion. If we find our “way” successfully through what is represented as archetypes, what is projected by our psyche as essential symbols, then the externals of “religion” ultimately withdraw themselves, not longer needed, like the finger pointing to the moon.