The hermit has always existed on the periphery of society, both physically and mentally (the latter being the range from psychological to spiritual). The periphery is that zone neglected and disdained by the circles of pleasure and power. The periphery is in part a physical place, in part a cultural and social place. It is not geography alone, city versus country, or even part of the city versus another part. Periphery can be a state of mind and habitat that alone enriches the solitary heart, regardless of where a person is physically.
One of the first questions occurring to the solitary, to the person on the brink of embracing their solitude, is whether they should work, how should they live their daily lives. The religious person finds resolution in a community of ideas, taking the edge of the question of solitude and blunting it with a community that is like-minded, as much as possible. For everyone else, the question underlies any other practice, whether one reads and thinks, meditates or not, lives in the city or the country.
Some resources are suggested by history, but time has irrevocably dissipated the precious models of the past. The modern hermit will find the question of work, labor, money, etc. not addressed in attempting to apply the past to the present.
In ancient China, eremitism became a philosophical option distinct from an occupation that required physical remoteness. The hermit was not a subsistence farmer in that he or she did not grow for gain; not a wood-cutter or charcoal-burner in that these entailed physical isolation but did not require eremitic values to accomplish them.
The hermit typically lived on the physical periphery, in a small dwelling, growing or finding the food needed for self. The rest of life consisted of the natural world, and minimal needs for food, clothing, books, devote objects, perhaps an inkbrush or incense, or a religious tool or a garden tool.
The Chinese hermit Stonehouse, for example, fits this image of life on the periphery. Mary Rotha Clay and others have documented how medieval English hermits were often occasional bridge-tenders or toll-keepers, or maintained roads or cleared trails, occupations not unlike the wood-cutter and charcoal-burner. Europe did not extol the hermit as did China, and a livelihood was a minimal necessity for those without a patron, short of begging. The protagonist of Jean Giono’s The Man Who Planted Trees lived first as a shepherd and then as a beekeeper. The protagonist in Donald Hall’s hermit book for children, The Man Who Lived Alone, worked a few weeks of the year to pay his taxes.
The question of how the solitary provides for daily necessities can overshadow his or her project of cultivating a refined philosophy of solitude and philosophy of life. The ideal setting is simply what the solitary can do.
There are just as many hermits in the city with regular employment as in the country, as many in the streets as in the mountains. As Emerson has written: “The solitude of Nature is not so essential as solitude of habit.” The Zen saying: “Can you be a hermit in the city?” begs the same question. But all sorts of animals live in cities, many in gutters and behind cage bars — and humans are even less immune from the trepidations of crowded urban life or vapid suburbia than animals. Cities have the essential function of nurturing the mind of those with leisure and wealth with art, culture, and learning. For the rest it is not so providential. The solitude of cities is a ghostly sense of alienation tranquilized by consumption. The overwhelming number of people suffering involuntary solitude find refuge in cities, like their medieval (and now globalized) counterparts, countryside victims of drought, famine, or attack.
The opportunity to experience nature is the opportunity to rediscover the sinews and blood that courses at once through rocks and rivers and soars up trees and mountains — and is identical with the self, with the human body. Heidegger in his hut undoubtedly derived important insights, late in life, into the concept of releasement. Edward Abbey in the desert, as a “desert solitaire,” experienced an intensity of living that his fiction never managed to convey. We speak of society as contrivance when compared to the genuine creativity of the mind and heart, yet the city is the heart of both our best and our worst human efforts. Only the inspired spirit, based on memory or dreams or a deep insight, makes the breakthrough out of mundane life and into solitude, regardless of the setting.
Based on his convictions, Tao-chien abandoned the city for a village, stamping the red dust from his perpetual chase after office, throwing his lot at last with the reclusion of a distant farming place. But that was the 5th century C.E., when the mountains were unmined and the air was clean, and villages really lived simply and (to use the Buddhist sense of the word) wholesomely. Today, bedroom communities of commuters, satellite dishes, and ponderous gas-guzzlers poke out of bucolic settings to announce the triumph of civilization over nature.
It is not only China, of course, but every corner of the globalized world that has been polluted by the modern world. The destruction of nature represents the destruction of hermit habitat, as much as the habitat of so many other creatures. All people suffer from the wholesale targeting of any one natural place. Ultimately, the mutilations of the earth are like self-mutilations of human mind and body, driven by a desire for amusement and contrivance, fleeing as quickly as possible in the opposite direction of silence and self-examination.
We search in vain today for a corner in which to still view the stars, for some little place where water can still be drunk unfiltered, where no human sound like an airplane’s can be heard. Truly the gods must be crazy — except that they are gods of our own making. The whole world has no place left for simplicity, neither geographical nor mental. How can the collective mind appreciate its environs when the inhabitants of modern society put as their first goal upon awakening to hear packaged news and eat packaged food, ignoring the song of birds, the presence of a new flower, the dew trickling down a green leaf, a moment for meditation?
Meditation itself continues to be commodified as a device for relieving stress, just enough for resuming the vicious cycle. The heart’s search for solitude is shunted off as a psychological aberration hostile to society and culture. But who can live like Kamo no Chomei, the Japanese poet of the 12th century, who carried his house with him, a symbol of evanescence and the vanity of society and civilization around him?
We do well to monitor the signs of the times and stay safely on the periphery, safeguarding our few virtues. The first desert hermit Paul, when visited by an important and admiring dignitary, exclaimed, “How fares the world? What new empire holds sway?” The words are reported by St. Jerome, who himself struggled between the plaudits of urban life and the serenity of the solitary desert. But in the words he attributes to Paul he rightly captures the hermit ethos. If the modern world contains such deserts … somewhere on the periphery.
We, too, should carry this sense of detachment, geographical but also mental and spiritual, wherever we happen to make our cell. To cultivate our soul is to cultivate a garden, whether the latter be truly of dirt and vegetables or of reflections and dreams.