In every major world religion, the emergence of eremitism or a more restrained form of solitude practice emerges at a very specific historical point in the evolution of the given religion. One may even consider such a moment a precondition to the emergence of eremitism or an equivalent practice of solitude. The question of what can sustain eremitism over time will be found within the moment itself.
And if “religion” is broadly defined as a way of looking at the universe and responding to large questions, then the historical model might be broadened to include primitive religion as well as philosophy itself. The important factor is the larger context of society and culture.
Consider Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. All of these are “scriptural” religions, to some decree, meaning that the religion presents a set of texts as authoritative. At the same time, each of these religions emerges from specific historical, cultural, social, geographic, environmental, material,and perhaps psychological, contexts. These avenues of reflection and investigation are rich, indeed. For now, here are very brief considerations of each:
Hinduism emerged from the the distinctive myths, deities, stories, rituals, prayers, and societal practices of the conquering Aryans in India. The myriad gods, their foibles and desires expressed in stories, and the social hierarchy or caste system they created around priests, warriors, mercantile, and household classes, comprise the structure in which the religious injunctions were pursued. The scripture is the Rig Veda, which has no spirituality, because the society and dominant Brahmin class had no need for it. But as that intellectual class came to recognize the shallowness of rote rites, prayers, and inadequate comprehension of self and universe, succeeding generations of Brahmins compose the Upanishads, spiritualizing the religion and forming Vedanta. In this new, refreshing spiritual movement emerges the primacy of the hermit, as a social and religious option.
Judaism reflects its desert origin in a sky god, unusual as a single deity, thus monotheism, which may have had Egyptian origins or simply reflect the stark geography of its earliest adherents. Its priests and scholars accommodated myth and history with ritual and doctrine in its scripture, dominated by the harsh image of the deity Yahweh, shaping the psychology of the Hebrew and Jewish culture. Rigidly communal in social expectations, structuring society around the family and community, the exhaustion of the old scripture after the diaspora gradually saw emergence of mysticism, especially in medieval Western Europe and later in Eastern Europe. In these mystical forays, the practice of solitude and tolerance of scholarly eccentricity in pursuit of spirituality became options to the serious adherent. Though no formal eremitism emerged in the Judaic tradition, instances of solitary behavior were tolerated.
The content of earliest Christianity remained the experience of the first generation or two witnessing the historical Jesus, for Jewish scripture retained a moral and priestly hold for a century and more. Christianity became split between adherents of the historical sense of community and values versus the emergent priestly and ecclesiastical structure that regularized (or “sanitized”) the sayings and teachings into ritual, doctrine, and dogma. As the latter forces dominated, the first wave of hermits emerged in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, lasting several hundred years and strongly reflecting a spiritual versus ecclesiastical preference. Eventually scattered geographically from their desert settings, eremitism consolidated in Greece, Ethiopia, and parts of Europe. But in Europe the ecclesiastical movement dominated (less so in Britain, southern Italy, and later, in the Low Counties). Eremitism only reached its apex in Europe with the emergence of a significant mystical movement in the later Middle Ages. Christian eremitism virtually disappeared after the Protestant reform and emergence of nation-states.
Islam shares many characteristics of Judaism, not only as an Abrahamic religion and its conception of God, but in terms of initial geography and the dominance of communalism, discouraging social life outside of family and group. A rapid 7th-century expansion from Persia to Egypt, North Africa, and Spain, could not contain a strict ritualism from welcome intellectual influences. A spirituality built around mysticism evolved into Sufism, with its emphasis on solitude as an individual practice towards greater comprehension and identification with God. As with Judaism, no hermit movement emerged, but the primacy of solitude in spirituality, however restricted or rarefied, is a notable feature.
Buddhism represented a new religious phenomenon among world religions. For centuries, the compelling moral weight of traditional ascription of sayings and teachings of historical Guatama were sufficient to guide the adherent. The religion remained largely the practice of a spiritual “elite,” leaving myth, ritual, and doctrine to the mass of societal adherents, the tenor of which was governed largely by the particular society or country. Unlike Brahmins, the Buddhist monks seldom interacted with society except on a “shamanic” basis, as in bestowing wishes, prayers, and healing formulas, especially in Tibet, where the transition from the local Bon religion sustained these rituals. Eremitism seemed inevitable in Buddhism, especially among an intellectual class not residing in large ecclesiastical structures like monasteries but pursuing Buddhism as philosophy, with a willingness to follow some ritual prescriptions as religion. The rich reflections of the historical hermits of China and Japan automatically include an entirely spiritual component, something between philosophy and poetry, weaving an eremitic movement that often absorbs the entire expression of Buddhism.
In each instance above, though sketchily presented, an inevitable conclusion emerges: eremitism thrives when ecclesiastical structure is weak or absent, when a mystical or spiritual sense of the universe is evoked, pursued, and applied and appreciated, when rote ritual and doctrine is exhausted, and when the social structure itself is challenged by the popular realization that conventional thought and formulas are insufficient to represent the heights to which the given religion can attain.