In A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland points out the difference between ancient and modern eremitism, that is, the eremitism of the ancient desert hermits (but analogies to medieval Western and to Asian hermit traditions apply) contrasted to the English Romantics such as Wordsworth. In part, this difference is the result of time and culture, but an important psychological factor affects consideration of both.

Maitland went on retreat to the Sinai in the footsteps of the Christian desert hermits and trekked Galloway in northwestern Scotland in a wilderness that has not changed significantly over the centuries. Emblematically, she took one book on each trip: Helen Waddell’s Sayings of the Desert Fathers on the first trip and Wordsworth’s Preludes on the second.

The ancient hermits sought self-effacement, the reduction of the ego or self to the point where emotions and psychological turmoil evaporated and nothing was left but God (or Emptiness, or other equivalent in the East). The English Romantics, on the other hand, sought settings such as Nature in order to build up the self, plunge into self-realization, and thereby develop the insight, imagination, and fortitude to deal with the world and gradually give it up. The Romantics saw the need to develop a self in order to get rid of the self. According to the Romantics, the inputs of society and culture frustrate development of an independent self, a self realized.

Romanticism was a revolt against rationalism’s reduction of the human being to reason alone. At the same time, rationalist philosophy bolstered the power interests of the era in the land enclosures that plunged small farms and villages into poverty and with the transformation of rural areas into accessible mines, logging grounds, agricultural fields and estates for the wealthy through industrialism.

Maitland outlines the philosophical attitudes of the Romantics:

  • elevation of emotion over reason and of the senses over the intellect;
  • Introspection and a fascination with the self; a sort of heightened awareness of one’s own moods and thoughts;
  • fascination with the genius, the hero, and the exceptional personality, and particularly his inner struggles;
  • construction of the artist as a free creative spirit — whose expression of authentic personal emotion was more important than form;
  • emphasis upon imagination and spontaneity as a way to spiritual truth;
  • idea that children were born naturally free and even perfect — and that social life and its demands corrupted them. They came into the world “trailing clouds of glory” and “shades of the prison house” ensnared them all too fast;
  • heightened appreciation of he beauties of nature, particularly the sublime.

This useful distillation points to the Romantic project of finding the whole self, beyond only the reasoning intellectual self or the emotional self common to everyone in society — base, reactive, instinctual.

Romanticism extols the genius and hero as an assertion of self and triumph over the dominant social values. This genius and hero is not a political or military figure or a captain of industry or political office, of course. The poet, artist, wanderer, adventurer, seer — these are the heroes of Romanticism. In this vein, the ancient Celtic heroes of Britain are the hermits, and evidence of the ancient past such as Tinturn Abbey need not be literally ascribed to hermits as long as it was a provocation to the imagination. A natural setting, wild and untouched, is the ideal setting for imagination and reverie.

The reference to childhood hearkens to Rousseau and Blake. Childhood is the only opportunity to present vivifying images and experiences to the mind and spirit prior to the intermediary social and cultural corruption. Inevitably, the recreation of childhood experience escapes the adult Romantic. Today, alternative education can present methods of tapping sensitive channels in the child through music and the presentation of world literature: fairy tales, fables, and stories. Such literature is quite relevant to developing the adult sensitivity as well, for it distills the human experience and delineates universal values.

Children also profit greatly from being outdoors, in nature, for the psychology of the self ought to include not merely the imprint of other people but the impression of animals, fields, forests, seas — whatever can become private to the onlooker and a source of imagination. Ultimately, the influence of “field trips” and exposure to nature cannot be quantified, and the process is difficult to understand because it is not rational, only partly cognitive, and not merely aesthetic. So, too, in adults.

The Romantic agenda is both a revolt and an affirmation. The hermit easily fits the portrait of revolt, even when only a withdrawal from society, and similarly fulfills the expectation of an affirmation. The Romantic effort to build a self in order to withdraw from society becomes a single process, like that of the solitary pursuing an eremitic life. But like every historical movement, Romanticism fell against the shoals of violent 19th-century social and technological changes. Worsened conditions of daily life for the majority of people hardened the spirit of revolt without the prospect of affirmation. How could the sensitive observer give up a self when so many inimical social and cultural forces wanted to wrest it away?

Historical romanticism no longer resonates for those for whom Nature is an abstraction and the imagination a byproduct of ego and popular media. Maitland’s juxtaposition points us to both the next step of Romantic eremitism and of “ancient” eremitism. For the West the next step is an intensification of solitude and silence, justified by a somewhat intellectual analysis. Otherwise such a step can devolve into the recluse’s psychological dysfunctionality. Ancient eremitism, including Western medieval and Eastern forms, offers two trajectories: 1) a strong intellectual or philosophical critique of the modern world as a justification for non-participation, and 2) a strong meditative philosophy of withdrawal, whether in the world or out of it, based on spiritual, psychological, artistic, or cultural values. The latter can be further helped by an intellectual understanding of society and culture; the former can be helped by an intimation (to use Wordsworth’s favorite term) of what is wrong with the zeitgeist, the spirit of the world.

However we approach eremitism, retracing the experience of Romanticism helps clarify the role of the self in the many settings one is heir to.