Whether dwelling in forest, mountain, desert — or crowded urban center — the hermit is the most peaceable of people. Sometimes irascible, pedantic, sarcastic, reclusive, cynical, perhaps on occasion more characteristic of the recluse — the ideal hermit shuns the overreactions against sufferings and above all is at peace with self and the world, for this is intrinsic to eremitism and necessary to successful solitude.

The peaceful person is vilified by society because society is perpetual conflict, in a state of turmoil and struggle, adversarial and warlike. The face of society is at most seen to foster competition, entrepreneurial wiles, an optimism invested in the system, but its means and ends are incompatible with the creation of a peaceable person and a peaceful society. The hermit retires from this realm in order to seek peace, with self, others, nature, God, and the universe. But society summons him, breaking his silence and intruding into his solitude.

Zarathustra meets the “involuntary beggar” in a distant field — the beggar being another manifestation of the hermit in Nietzsche’s tale — and the beggar gently mocks the sentiment of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, saying, “Blessed are the kine” — that is, the cows, for they and not men are the true peaceful ones, the true peacemakers.

And it is true that discerners of the world often get along better with animals. Animals are always peaceable, especially the plant-eaters, who have not developed or exacerbated the instinct for aggression with which humans are burdened. Animals reach their limit, but collapse into vile or miserable beasts when humans control them. Humans, rather than transcending their limitations instead accentuate, refine, and employ violence in their relations, be they personal or international. In contrast, tales of hermits dwelling with forest deer or bear or lion all manifest the image of the hermit as paragon of humans at peace with themselves and the world.

If we are to seek and find peace, we must critically examine and reject the world. Some will enjoy the process of examination, the research and reflection, the analysis and intellectual excursion. This is recommended to all, regardless of educational background, for knowledge and information are useful self-persuasion. But some will reject the world from a spiritual instinct that does not look back to accommodate sentiment or kinship. This latter person’s rejection of the world need not be in anger or disgust, not be flamboyant defiance or cynical surliness. One need not burn bridges or make enemies or renounce loved ones and friends and acquaintances altogether. Each hermit will discover the necessary degrees of solitude. Errors along the way will not be more numerous than the errors of anyone else in the world on their personal quests. Mistakes need not detain anyone. The process for the hermit will be positive, however, in the discovery of self, personality, strengths, skills, and disposition, for there is no ambition to outdo the world, rather survive it.

If the examination of society is thorough and the progress towards the goal steadfast, the world will simply drop away, slowly or quickly, when we realize that we don’t need this or that or the other thing. We may realize that the apparatus of society, the presumed defense of social values, the structures that govern the lives and aspirations and imaginations of so many masses of people, are hollow, empty, mere distortions with false premises, interpretations turned bad. The social values of valor, bravery, service, and heroism are exercises in militarism, lust, violence, acquisitiveness, consumption, and concentration of power. Or, having seen one act of injustice, the spiritual-minded may right there abandon this vale of tears.

The destruction of life and the planet in the quest for contentment, self-assertion projected large, is vanity at best, madness at worse. Where is peace and a peaceable existence to be found when daily one witnesses the overthrowing of all that is derived from divinity or reason itself? It is not a matter of aligning oneself with the presumed victors, the loud and noisy claiming all prescience, in order to feel free. That is the heart of sham, and no recruit to such a school or army survives with integrity but loses the moment’s insight to pursue the eremitic path.

Sometimes the hermit will wonder if she is mad, that how in blindness has no one yet noticed anything or concluded anything about the world. This is an observation that becomes the very heart of conviction and makes a hermit. The solitude and space that distances the world from the reality perceived palpably by the hermit is too great.There is only that self, that fragile self that Rousseau lamented is so easily and wantonly crushed by society in its onslaught over the individual. And that self, though latent in each person, is conscious only for that one who contains or expresses or experiences it. Only by embracing a thorough-going peace, contrasted from every department of the world, will the aspiring hermit be convinced that the goal is within reach, that the enlightenment is true and attainable by silence and solitude.

To hope

“To hope” is to maintain an expectation, but often a vain, idle, naive one, something unlikely to come to past by sheer logic or probability. What is missing in the bare notion of hoping is the application of context. Can we expect anything beyond the obvious, the day-to-day reality that faces us? Are we avoiding rather than comprehending reality? To look to the long-term at a possible change in one’s life means to apply a plan, a method, a progression, with the expectation of results. But to stand aside and hope without changing attitude or behavior or practice is trivial and not serious.

In Buddhism hope is not wishfulness but the concrete expectation that a given method leads to a given result. The process is experiential and tested by practice, a kind of scientific method. The first premise is to understand the context of a given situation, enumerate and describe the relevant elements and factors, assess them, and begin research or experimentation. This was the Buddha’s method sitting beneath the tree. It is the method of someone who wants to learn about how to build a house or how to address a disease or how to put away a bad habit. Such a method does not build hope or false expectations. It busies itself with that which is necessary to accomplish the task. And if the results are not satisfactory, it is because of the wrong premises, or an incomplete understanding of the context, or simply one’s flagged efforts. It is not a failure of hope, nor a failure on the part of the individual. We can’t do everything we want to.

In the Western world, hope is a complement of belief: one believes then trusts, because the belief is so positive, so illuminating, so awe-inspiring, that to trust that it is the right target or trajectory in life must be good. In Christianity hope is a virtue. In the sense of complementing a belief, hope is not wishing but the expectation of positive outcome, expectation of the efficacy of pursuing a certain behavior or path. One follows the moral code, let us say, and the result is a good behavior. One did not hope that this would be the result, but rather it should have been by definition. To trust in this way, as with the method of the Buddha, is perhaps not the conventional understanding of hope, but it is sustainable.

Hope is trivialized daily in a modern materialist culture. “I hope I win the lottery” or “I hope I find happiness” are the typical sayings and mental constructions of hope, skipping the parameters of reality and begging the question of what the person is doing to attain the so-called goals. Such vanity is worse than wishing, which, after all, everyone knows carries no effort or self-discipline; such vanity relies on the culture rewarding conformity to its material standards.

In the end it is better not to hope, not to make vain expressions of desire for this or that outcome to life, even the most serious. Often attributed to Goethe is the saying that “Hope is better than despair,” but despair is not the opposite of hope. The opposite of hope is “not hope.” To not hope does not suggest despair or resignation or fatalism but rather stoicism, understanding, tranquility of mind, and an affirmation in the harmony of the universe.