How one treats the innocent, the simple, and the helpless reveals one’s character and moral aptitude. The historical hermit, deliberately shunning that which the world values most, becomes by default ignorant, innocent, simple, and helpless.
But the hermit is strong, persistent, conscious, and willful by worldly standards — more willful because of the status of calling, personality, and the vicissitudes of eremitism contrasting to the world.
This duality of characteristics makes the hermit capable of both being and identifying with the simple, yet capable of being and identifying with the motives of intelligence, spirituality, acculturation, harmony, equanimity — those virtues which the poor are often incapable of attaining or expressing in their ignorance, and which the powerful are equally incapable of in their stubbornness.
Thus the hermit partakes of two worlds, lives between two worlds. Or, rather, the hermit lives in neither world, fitting neither but thrown in between. The hermit culls the values of simplicity from the values of the one world (requiring a necessary education, sophistication, or spiritual sensitivity) but leaves off the instinctive dullness and torpid animality of the simple poor in their misery. (How often have many poor people said that they want to be rich, that they hate simplicity.)
Thus the hermit seizes upon the intellectual and cultural strengths of the powerful, the worldly-wise perspicacity of the glib and educated, the aptitude to deftly glide through complexities of daily life characteristic of the powerful, only shunning their coldness, their materiality, their inability to understand their own situation and that of others.
The hermit is burdened by this complexity of experiences, insights, reflections, decisions, motives — yet eventually distilling self and others into a functional simplicity. The hermit is a reduction in quantity, entanglements, obligations, compromises, expectations, and aspirations.
But the “reductionism” of the hermit is not a chopping off or plucking out — though most people need to be crudely radical in order to discipline themselves for life in society, in order to survive with any degree of integrity. It is a realization in the hermit born of observation, personality and life encounters.
The hermit is always a becoming, not quite through but never lacking contentment. Eremitism is a “beingness” never quite filled but always shaping and adjusting itself, always set aside from, disengaged from, anything that might identify itself too closely to him or her. Thus even in the discipline of religion or the questioning of philosophy, the hermit takes all the best, the richest, the most nuanced, but does not concede the core of self, of heart, to the structures contrived by man. Thus has the hermit always been looked upon suspiciously by authorities and by others who conform to them, for the very vocation of hermit threatens not only daily life and society but the premises of having to institutionalize spiritual and moral responses to society.
The hermit lives within two worlds or simultaneously on two ends of the spectrum (an impossible feat by worldly standards!) One end of the spectrum is perfect conformity and reproduction of what society mandates in consumption of food, appearance, thought, reading, viewing, thinking, environment. On the other end of the spectrum is dysfunction: madness, mental or physical illness, instability, lack of sustaining and redeeming abilities put to common use.
That this spectrum is false is not proven by anything in the world. Indeed, scientists, economists, psychotherapists, enforcers of power — all agree on the two poles of the spectrum and how everyone must inhabit one or the other. But throughout history, hermits have inhabited both — or neither. Only the hermit (and the mystic and the sage) show that the spectrum is false, that there is no context to its extremes, that nature is the flow between and around them, dissolving them.
The hermit looks beyond the creatures, even beyond himself or herself as one of the myriad creatures, to the context, to that which is the medium of life, energy, being — not the individual instance, which is a moment’s flesh, grass, froth on the water. The context reveals the useless efforts of those who cling to the poles of the spectrum, the poles they have themselves erected, the poles that they have been given or assigned and which they view as precious.
This context is what the Tao te ching or Lao-tzu calls the Way, as in chapter 4:
The way is empty, yet use will not drain it.
Deep, it is like the ancestor of the myriad creatures.
What do the worldly do, panicking in this emptiness, drowning in this fullness? The Way is alien to them and challenges both the turpitude of the poor and the sophistication of the rich. Neither wants to stand before it with open eyes. But the hermit responds to the difficulties of understanding the Way, pursuing the sage’s advice:
Blunt the sharpness;
Untangle the knots;
Soften the glare:
Let your wheels move only along old ruts.
The last line above is the D. C. Lau translation. Ursula LeGuin, in her transliterative method, puts it thus: “The way is the dust of the way” — we are merely following the sages, we cannot pretend to innovation; there is nothing new, yet what does the world constantly seek but the new.
The world is dark in the intensity of its savagery and in the parsimoniousness of its contentments. But at least, cry the worldly, there is something palpable, something they can embrace to drain like a cup and then smash to the earth. That is the conviction of the despairing, whether what they want is political power or just a moment of pleasure. They do not see what is before them.
Darkly visible, it [the Way] seems as if it were there.
Not that the hermit (or mystic, or sage) presumes to have grasped the Way, tamed it, controlled it, deciphered its secrets. But this very elusiveness contrasts with the arrogant certainty of the worldly, their certainty, at any rate, of this moment’s ambition and the next moment’s goal. But there is little more beyond that, and the next moment was all that they planned for. The hermit does not presume to grasp the next moment, or the one after, for the next moment is only part of the continuum that is the whole, that is the Way. And not grasping it definitively, how can it be circumscribed by words, gestures, and desires?
I know not whose progeny it is.
It images the progenitor of the all things.
Lau says God and LeGuin says “the gods.” We assume that something begets reality, but once in the continuum, we are without beginning or end, only wondering where the way came from, or if it is the same as the creature who asks the question.