Nietzsche’s anti-hermit

Every search for a philosophy of solitude runs into Nietzsche, especially the clever aphoristic Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The ancient argument of whether or not an author’s writing is projected autobiography immediately arises. For in Zarathustra is a prime representative of the issue, and the mask of Nietzsche rises to confuse a clear appreciation of solitude. Zarathustra celebrates solitude with a reluctant reconciliation, while at the same time disparaging not only his potential disciples but even hermits, particularly the mad desert hermits (as Nietzsche assessed them).

Zarathustra’s failures as a worldly prophet of eremitism (or, in this case, a brand of egoism under the umbrella of solitude, of the anti-societal) are absolved by his conscience. He returns, failing in his speeches in the marketplace and the byways, to his warm and friendly cave:

O solitude! O my home, solitude! Too long have I lived wildly in wild places not to return home to you in tears. … How happily and tenderly your voice speaks to me. We do not question each other, we do not complain to each other, we often walk together though open doors. … To be forsaken is one thing, to be lonely another. … You will always among others seem wild and strange.

Here Nietzsche is speaking of himself — wild and strange. The psychoanalyst will see complex feelings and emotional imbalances in Nietzsche’s personal life as the source of panegyrics like the one quoted. Similarly, too, are his praises of the “courage of hermits and eagles” and his reference to “my hermit’s heart.” But personally, Zarathustra-Nietzsche was not really reconciled to his solitude, and the contradictions, clever or contrived as may be, confirm this.

Nietzsche held a special venom towards those who successfully embraced eremitism or discovered a workable formula from their solitude:

In solitude, whatever one has brought into it grows. … Therefore solitude is inadvisable for the many. Has there been anything filthier on earth so far than desert saints? Around them not only was the devil loose but also the swine.

Here is the intellectualization, the abstraction, of lived eremitism, but not the reconciliation to it. Like the Enlightenment-era historian Edward Gibbon, very much a solitary not from philosophy but from personality, Nietzsche reacts vituperatively towards successful solitaries. Does he deduce that beliefs include and absorb solitude, or is a solitude capable that is not subordinate to belief? In short, is Nietzsche’s objection (like Gibbon’s) only to Christian hermits? What about his own atheist or secular hermits as solitaries, the latter represented by himself as Zarathustra?

Nietzsche had by this time already rejected Wagner’s romantic solitary as a reconstruction of Romanticism rather than a transcendence. And he had already rejected Schopenhauer’s admiration for Buddhism — and by extension its long tradition of eremitism — because it was not life-affirming, in his words. So perhaps the hermit or solitary in Nietzsche anticipates the Camus-like outsider or stranger, in both cases affirming not mere atheism but epicureanism or sensualism, as in Dionysus. Camus’ early works celebrate sun and sea and senses in a pagan rather than Enlightenment way; Nietzsche’s Dionysus would fit that mode of expression, the solitary (or ego) whom nothing reconciles.

Indeed, the Nieztschean solitary would evolve into the Ubermensch or Overman, leaving behind even the juxtapositions of Dionysus not Diogenes, and certainly of Zarathustra not the bikkhu or eremite. Even a secularized hermit, dwelling in wilderness or obscurity, was not good enough for Nietzsche. A Thoreau would be dismissed for his mildness and Stoicism.

In the end, Nietzsche’s solitude is an interim step to egoism, a skin to be shed, a mask to be abandoned.