How to distinguish between the genuine hermit and the mere recluse? “Mere” in the sense that reclusion is not necessarily eremitism and is only motivated by part of eremitism. Reclusion is a hiding away for mixed motives ranging toward the negative: misanthropy, worldly failure, mental illness, anti-social behavior, the psychological burdens of involuntary solitude.
Even historical cultures sympathetic to hermits have their aberrant personalities like hikkimori in Japan or vagabond thieves in India or medieval Europe. Not to mention those cultures antagonistic to hermits, as in a 1876 news item about a man who was obviously mentally handicapped but who was labeled a “hermit” by The New York Times.
The negative sense of the recluse is represented by the person not predisposed to ideals of eremitism nor motivated by philosophy, religion, spirituality or personality. Such a person may be engaged for a time with success in social circles, be involved for a time in intimate or decision-making interactions with others. They may have always shown signs of eccentricity or irregular personality but it did not affect them. Then, perhaps gradually or suddenly, they become reclusive. Among such eccentrics are celebrities such as Howard Hughes, J. D. Salinger, and the Beales of Grey Gardens. With such recluses there is no question of excluding them from a roster of hermits.
A vocational aspect of eremitism does not preclude eccentricity bordering on what others would consider irrational. Elements of austerity, asceticism, aesthetics, and personality strongly influence average people judging others. Such values are so anti-modern that people cannot but dismiss those who hold them as eccentric or worse.
Add physical reclusion to this mix and most people will conflate the hermit and the recluse. All of these traits are alien to the goings-on of the world, where power, beauty, cleverness, and social pleasures are the chief virtues.
Etymology shows a further means of distinguishing the hermit and the recluse. The word for hermit or eremite derives from “desert,” thus connoting the context as well as the disposition of solitude. Recluse only means “hidden away,” and suggests a furtiveness and fear that is not admirable. Note how these terms did not originally intersect with specific religious or institutional etymologies.
The progress of psychology in identifying multiple intelligences, patterns of learning and consciousness, and how the individual responds to rearing, environment, and genetics suggests a map or profile of the hermit, even a methodology or morphology of eremitism.
If certain emotional factors are today isolated by popular psychology in order to identify their parts (for example, happiness), the same characteristics of solitaries can be compiled in relation to those factors. Thus, while happiness consists of the perception of positive events and the sense of empowerment to make such events come about — with the concomitant attitude that successfully copes with one’s environment — such a discussion is focusing on an emotional state that is accessible to everyone, regardless of personality, beliefs, or philosophy of life. Regardless of solitary or gregarious styles or any in between. We miss the big picture if we just focus on sets of characteristics available to all but do not pursue characteristics that the individual taps, refines, and extracts insight from according to their philosophy and style of life.
The temptation of the hermits of the early centuries of the modern era was acedia, a sense of futility and boredom brought about by social and psychological isolation. This may have been a response to sudden isolation found difficult to handle, or it may have resulted from the human tendency to rely on a mind full of thoughts, busyness, and occupation. Acedia has been called depression, but it is not simply that insofar as it was considered “vocational” and corresponded to a stage, not something inevitable. The image of the depressive recluse is probably the image of the individual who does not or cannot resolve depression, even “vocational” depression. Such a factor in the life of solitaries may have to do with changes of material or social circumstances, or with having one of the intelligences that lacks intra-personal skill.
Rather than acedia, Nietzsche described the modern bane of solitaries to be resentment. A subconscious resentment at the ability of others to function smoothly in social circles and garner worldly success contrasted to oneself trapped in isolation or alienation can certainly lead to resentment. To Nietzsche, of course, this was a cultural phenomenon as much as a personal one. Resentment can grow into anger and misanthropy — yielding the classic recluse, who knows nothing of the vocational aspects of eremitism, silence, and solitude. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra recognizes and conquers resentment through disengagement.
Indeed, disengagement, the only remedy for resentment, is also a homeopathic one. Disengagement is not indifference to the pain of depression, alienation, or angst but is rather a disengagement from what should not function as genuine and an engagement with what does. Small doses of disengagement, for the novice of solitude, brings large and rapid gains to the self-esteem.
Self-esteem is still quite necessary for the potential hermit in the world, but disengagement allows that self-esteem to not grow into ego but, in fact, to shrink in proportion to one’s true place in the world. In this process, humility mingles with insight, power and will redefine themselves in terms of understanding and freedom. This process also allows the world to shrink to its true place in us.
As successful disengagement breaks down the dependence on the world and its feedback, it does so without exacerbating our emotional or psychological weaknesses, without leaving us vulnerable to the strange and dysfunctional profile of what the world thinks of disparagingly as the recluse.