The word “scandal” derives from the notion of climbing out of a trap or snare. The word is ambiguous because the trap is usually of the person’s own doing, though it is a situation observable by others and therefore offense to them and to their moral expectations. Scandal suggests a double offense — the offense or transgression in itself and the ignominy of its public revelation. The latter may have greater impact on other aspects of the scandalous one’s life and situation, since it is usually tied to one in office or highly placed in an institution of high repute or trust.
Scandal suggests that the high level of repute or trust is meritorious and deserved, rather than part of a narrow and contrived arrangement of people with power. In this light, every institution will potentially have scandals because every institution contrives a moral purpose beyond its actual capabilities. The scandalized have accepted the premise, expect the high purpose to be true, and hover on the brink of hope and insecurity in placing the bulk of their moral investment and emotional well-being on a given institution or set of people.
Why do scandals regularly convulse institutions and groups? It is too facile to say that they are only human, to say that they are individuals who misrepresent the high calling of the institution. Looked at sociologically, it is impossible not to take into account the fact of an institutional setting. Whether it is religious, financial, political — scandal is built into the nature of the social relations that mesh with institutions of power. The very nature of groups consists of vertical structures assuring an environment of power inherited and power dispensed. This structure breeds scandal.
Neither time nor geography spare structures of scandal. Power itself is the root of both the institution and the scandal.
The opposite of scandal is innocence, and innocence contrasted with the world is powerlessness. Thus scandal involves the powerful and the powerless, and the relationship is inevitably symbiotic. Here innocence does not mean ignorance or naivete but the state of nature, of childhood unresolved by reason, of conscious renunciation or suppression of ego. Thus scandal is depicted as offense to those who have with innocence placed their trust in the powerful — although it is not innocence but naivete and ignorance when the public is scandalized. The public, we are reminded, ought to know better. But the mind and heart of the public often envies the powerful rather than opposes them. The expectation that the public will revolt at scandal as a sign of deeper moral trouble is gainsaid by the inevitable misinterpretation of cause and effect.
Scandals can be enumerated to infinitude. That is because power and its human contrivances can be enumerated to infinitude. Religious scandals, financial scandals, political scandals — are they not centered in the very corridors of ultimate power? What wisdom is needed to come to this conclusion?
The personality of the hermit must be conscious of the instinct for power. By definition, eremitism and solitude connote a renunciation of power, for power must be built up and exercised over others in order to provide the pleasurable feedback of its success. But even within the solitary self, the instinct for power can rise in pride, self-assurance, and self-satisfaction. In every case, a self must exist in order to understand itself and the world — at which point, seeing power, that self disengages. The hermit, whether in the world or not, is essentially a figure that does not seek power. The eremitic task is to find ways of living that continually disengage from power. To some hermits, such a life is threatened by living in society; to others, anonymity and privacy is sufficient.
The spectrum of emotions, like a pendulum, does not bring peace to the hermit. The spectrum is understood to be two aspects of life, two sides that complement one another, two faces looking forward and backward. It is these extremes on the emotional spectrum that must be stilled. Between joy and sorrow, power and weakness, propriety and scandal, must be a different standard for which the hermit strives.
And yet, the two ends of the spectrum which the swinging pendulum strike, driving back to the middle, only to sweep on to the other extreme, cannot be easily reconciled. The middle is not a reconciliation of extremes but an uneasy compromise. It is not moderation, for the middle does not stand still. The new standard must not be a tepidness of effort to desperately try to stay in balance, but an active reflection on what sort of life is best. Here disengagement is a profoundly radical act and requires courage, strength, and assertiveness of a strong — that is, conscious — self. The middle is for the scandalized, the naive, and the ignorant. The pendulum is for those clinging to time and desire. The hermit breaks through both with what Eckhart called “releasement.”
And so the hermit becomes in many epochs the scandal. Those who point out the evil, who denounce the scandal, are often seen as radical and dangerous. The hermit does not do so vocally but will be thought to be doing so by example. To maintain silence, to turn away, is interpreted as an offense, a disdain, an arrogance. That is why the desert, the mountain, the forest, were the preferred settings of so many historical hermits who realized how difficult it is to be a hermit in the world. The Taoist ideal of the hermit in the city presupposed a supportive philosophy, even an esotericism, that made such a life possible, even in a culture that tolerated and even celebrated hermits. But in the West, hermits were often pursued if not persecuted, often deemed mad and requiring control. The hermit was the scandal and not the institutions.
What the scandalized need to recognize is the spectrum of emotion, the spectrum of existence, especially in the form of a pendulum that swings between propriety and scandal, the appearance of good and the appearance of harm. They are all of a part because they are made essential by social needs, by institutionalizing of power. To be free of power is to be free of dichotomy.
Dichotomy makes us complicit with power and scandal, with good and harm, with life and death. Grasping the effects of dichotomy we can begin the project of understanding.
Kahlil Gibran offers a sense of this dichotomy in The Prophet:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.