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.