Misanthropes and hermits

Misanthropes and hermits are often conflated. Misanthropes are historically depicted as curmudgeons, cranks, ranters, and misfits, unyielding, furious, impatient. They don’t get along with anyone, including themselves. Their intelligence is dimmed by their emotions, their emotions are dimmed by their resentment, their resentment is fueled by their intelligence — and round and round.

For classic depictions of misanthropes I can think of Diogenes, Timon of Athens, Javert (the inspector in Hugo’s Les Miserables), Dickens’ Scrooge, Verne’s Captain Nemo, various characters in Russian fiction — I am surely missing many more. Ultimately there is Moliere’s sympathetic prototype, Alceste. Who can argue with Alceste’s reflection in The Misanthrope that “too much perversity reigns in our age, and I am resolved to avoid in future all intercourse with men.”

Hermits are often lumped into this volatile mix of misanthropes because, as Ryokan the Japanese Zen poet-monk put it of himself, “It’s not that I hate people, it’s just that I am so very tired of them.” But there, perhaps, is the distinction.

The genuine hermit historically has sought out solitude not because of resentment or ill will or hatred but because of world-weariness, experience, and wisdom. Hence it is useful to (temporarily) set aside a strictly spiritualized or religious criteria in considering the wider psychology of solitude and eremitism in history. It is a fine line to draw between the psychology of the hermit and the misanthrope; perhaps a misanthrope is just a hermit gone sour.

One criterion is to look at the ego and the degree of attachment. The misanthrope is far more “engaged” with the world, and wrestles like Jacob through the night with what may be an angel or a demon. (It is darkness so he/she doesn’t know.) The hermit may well wrestle, too, as did the Christian desert hermits and the Tibetan Buddhist yogins. This wrestling with demons is a grand metaphor, but it has a sound psychological basis.

If the hermit is to succeed, ironically, the hermit must do nothing, what Taoism called wu wei. In dropping attachment, passion, anger, the desire to be heard and to have redress for offenses and insults from the world, so much the better hermits we become. As the Dhammapada puts it, “Through hatred, hatreds are never appeased; through non-hatred are hatreds always appeased.” The misanthrope gets passionate about many things, and issues of violence and justice are issues for which a moral passion can be justified. But it is how we proceed from understanding, what path we follow to comprehend the world, that distinguishes us as either a misanthrope or a hermit.