Freud’s hermit option

In a celebrated passage of his Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud describes the various methods by which people address the essential problem of suffering and the unattainability of happiness. Freud observes that the extinction of the perception of suffering is the most ambitious goal.

The crudest approach is the chemical one — intoxication. Here the end is the suppression of sensation in the relevant parts of the brain that perceive suffering and pain. While chemical suppression works for a while, it’s injurious repercussions are notorious. Yet culture has given intoxication a rather celebrated place, as if there must be some merit there, despite the hazards. Given this ironic cultural approbation, Freud notes with characteristic irony that intoxicants are largely responsible “for the useless waste of a large quota of energy which might have been employed for the improvement of the human lot.”

Freud then refines the issue by concentrating on the regulation (or suppression) of instinctual impulses or drives. The ultimate example is “prescribed by the worldly wisdom of the East and practiced by Yoga.” This succeeds at the expense of the expression or satisfaction of other drives which are renounced or suppressed as well. Freud implies that since the practitioner understands this trade-off and is in fact successful in regulating the drives, then the option is viable — for those who can master the discipline.

That Freud is willing to accommodate the above option is suggested by his discussion of aesthetics.

At this next level there is first the displacement of the drives, which is best seen in the artist, scientist, and creative person wholly given over to creativity, discovery, and investigation. This is a refined method but not, Freud suggests, a guarantee against suffering.

The next level is that of the aesthete, who may not enjoy the talent of creativity as much as the artist but who makes art, the contemplation of beauty, and the life of the imagination a method for managing suffering and unhappiness.

Freud first describes the aesthetic method by presenting the extinction of the mechanism of suffering. This extinction is accomplished by a transcendence typified by the aesthete who takes up the contemplation of art and beauty. However, Freud notes that:

People who are receptive to the influence of art cannot set too high a value on it as a source of pleasure and consolation in life. Nevertheless the mild narcosis induced in us by art can do no more than bring about a transient withdrawal from the pressure of vital needs, and it is not strong enough to make us forget real misery.

Freud then introduces the method of the hermit.

Another procedure operates more energetically and more thoroughly. It regards reality as the sole enemy and as the source of all suffering, with which it is impossible to live, so that one must break off all relations with it if one is to be in any way happy. The hermit turns his back on the world and will have no truck with it.

It is not clear if the hermit is really Freud’s term for what follows or if he considers the hermit simply the extreme of the continuum of the one who refuses reality introduced in the same paragraph. For the continuum is the solitary who identifies a world-set or reality-set and simply eliminates the objectionable (as much as possible) from this world:

But one can do more than that; one can try to re-create the world, to build up in its stead another world in which its most unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by others that are in conformity with one’s own wishes.

In a sense, Freud is giving the hermit helpful advice. Don’t just reject the world, he suggests, but reject it selectively. This appears to be what the historical hermits have always done: physically isolate themselves from that which impinges upon their priorities and values, and progressively refine this “world.” Granted, however, that Freud excludes religion from the success of any mental process, so that the motive of the hermit or solitary must remain a psychological and mental one, which is a clear and “scientific” way of safeguarding the method.

However, Freud has not excluded “the worldly wisdom of the East and practiced by Yoga” from his options, so perhaps his notion of hermit was only the literal one who recluses from the world and other people.

Still, Freud is not optimistic. For most historical hermits have been religious, in his judgment, and therefore have been delusional and mad. But that is not the main objection to the ambitions of the hermit. The hermit can be entirely secular and still, in rejecting the world and other people, risk everything.

Whoever, in desperate defiance, sets out upon this path to happiness will as a rule attain nothing. Reality is too strong for him. He becomes a madman, who for the most part finds no one to help him in carrying through his delusion. It is asserted, however, that each one of us behaves in some one respect like a paranoiac, corrects some aspect of the world which is unbearable to the construction of a wish and introduces this delusion into reality. A special importance attaches to the case in which this attempt to procure a certainty of happiness and a protection against suffering through a delusional remolding of reality is made by a considerable number of people in common.

Freud does not enumerate any more “extreme” methods in this section of his essay. He emphasizes the trade-off between any given solution and what it renounces, suppresses, or loses. But of great value is the fact that Freud provided a context for considering the psychology of the solitary outside of its traditional historical context of religious vocation, seeing it as what today is usually considered a personality type.