The Rhetoric of Refuge
On the wish to retreat from the world
David E. Cooper
16 minutes read - 3333 words
A chapter in a recent defence of intellectual life — Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought (2020) — is titled ‘A Refuge from the World’. Intellectual work and learning for its own sake, she argues, owe much of their value to providing a refuge from the world, by which she means ‘the social and political world … governed by ambition, competition, and idle thrill seeking’.
I was struck by the chapter’s title, for it is fairly rare these days to encounter, in philosophical discussions of the human condition, reference to refuges in the figurative sense Hitz intends. The rhetoric or metaphor of refuge from the world has largely disappeared from religious, social and ethical debate. The contrast with the past is striking. Over the millennia, references to houses, homes, rooms, gardens, monasteries and temples as refuges were not to these places considered simply as physical structures whose walls afforded protection against whatever was outside them. A room may literally be a refuge for a mouse pursued by a cat, but the little back room that Montaigne set aside was an ‘asylum’ because it was somewhere the soul ‘can keep herself company’, a small arena in which the soul ‘turns back on itself’. A Chinese literati garden was not, for its owner, a refuge in the way it might be for a fugitive chased by the police, but as a retreat from the social world that, as a Chinese gardening classic puts it, is ‘under my own control’, an environment where a person may be ‘uninhibited’.
The rhetoric or metaphor of refuge from the world has largely disappeared from religious, social and ethical debate. The contrast with the past is striking.
A trawl through sites like Brainy Quote show that most quotations about refuge fall into two groups. Old and serious ones, or more recent and jokey ones. Paradigm examples of the latter are Dr Johnson’s ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’ and Oscar Wilde’s ‘Talking about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative’. More often than not, there is a cynical edge to these quotes. Religion, for instance, has been described as a refuge of human savagery. In most quotes of this genre, taking refuge does not have the positive valence it enjoys both in literal speech and in the older rhetoric. Dr Johnson’s refuge does not provide safety, but an opportunity to dissemble: it is something a person resorts to rather than finds asylum in.
One still sometimes encounters, of course, a serious rhetoric of refuge. When, for example, Maya Angelou refers to music as a refuge in which to ‘curl her back to loneliness’, we hear echoes of a once familiar rhetoric, and it is worth recalling just how ancient and pervasive this was.
Unsurprisingly, religions — with the prospects they afforded of salvation or liberation — inspired many metaphors of refuge. In Psalm 46, we hear, ‘God is our refuge and strength’, an utterance that set the tone for many later Christian statements. St Ambrose, for example, exhorts us to ‘take refuge from this world’ by becoming, in spirit, ‘present to the Lord’, while Martin Luther reminds the faithful that their God is a ‘mighty fortress’. The rhetoric of refuge is especially pronounced in Buddhism. The Buddha, his teachings and the community of devout Buddhists are ‘the three refuges’ in which practising Buddhists constantly re-affirm their confidence. In many of the Buddha’s sermons, moreover, the human world is compared to a conflagration, a flood, or a disease — a place of great suffering therefore — from which it is urgent to take refuge.
Religion did not monopolise the prospect of refuge, and many other potential asylums were recommended. We noted earlier the widespread practice of calling gardens, houses, or temples ‘refuges’, not because they present physical barriers to the world outside, but because they are environments in which to reflect and live free from the pressures, temptations and spiritual ugliness of the everyday world. Epicurus’s famous garden and the grove to which the Buddha and his followers annually retreated were havens in which men and women might live protected against ambitions and desires that bring pain and corrupt the mind. For other thinkers, it was philosophy — knowledge of what transcends the grubby world of the senses — that offered consolation and refuge. For Montaigne, it is one’s own self, suitably purged of ‘the attributes of the mob as are within us’, into which a person should ‘isolate’ and ‘withdraw’. Music, learning, contemplation, love … the list of ‘places’ that, in this rhetoric, afford refuge from the world goes on.
Epicurus’s famous garden … was a haven in which men and women might live protected against ambitions and desires that bring pain and corrupt the mind.
What’s happened to this rhetoric? Where’s it gone and why? More exactly, what constellation of judgements and attitudes sustained it, ones whose demise or distortion has caused the rhetoric to lose resonance? It was, I suggest, a combination of pessimism, misanthropy and quietism — understood in senses they have acquired in philosophical discussion — that sustained the rhetoric of refuge.
By pessimism, I don’t mean an unwarrantedly glum prognosis, nor dejection at the sight of one’s half empty glass of wine. Instead, pessimism is a negative assessment of the everyday human condition as one that precludes happiness and fulfilment. Kohelet proclaimed that ‘all things are wearisome … all is vanity and a chasing after wind’. The first of the Buddha’s noble truths’ is that ‘all is dukkha’ — suffering, dis-ease, unsatisfactoriness.
Misanthropy, too, in the relevant sense, is not an emotion, like hatred of human beings or Schadenfreude, but a harsh and negative judgement of the human condition focused on the vices and failings of humankind. The Buddha was a misanthrope in this sense: the three ‘roots’ of ordinary, unenlightened human life are ‘lust, hatred and delusion’. One kind of misanthrope mentioned by Kant is the person who recoils from social life after long experience of the ‘falsehood, ingratitude, injustice [and] puerility’ that suffuse it. The misanthropic judgement is not directed against individual men and women, but against human ways of life that are pervaded by these and countless other moral failings.
By ‘quietism’, I mean advocacy of an ideal of tranquillity or freedom from disturbance. Typically, the quest for tranquillity involved both the elimination of disturbing desires, cravings and beliefs, and distance from the hurly-burly of everyday social life. It is partly through ‘liberating ourselves from the prison of routine business and politics’ that, for Epicurus, we achieve ataraxia, freedom from mental disturbances that compromise the prospect of happiness. The Daoist ideal of wu wei (‘non-action’) similarly combines ‘spontaneity’ in a life free from domination by purposive deliberation and the rejection of ‘activism’, of ambitious attempts to alter the world. The thought, in China as in Greece, was that embroilment in the business of the world is impossible to reconcile with internal peace and suppleness of mind.
Pessimism, misanthropy and quietism are not invariable bed-fellows. A pessimist who puts humankind’s parlous condition down to the machinations of the gods, or to sheer bad luck, may regard humankind as entirely innocent. A quietist may be a laid-back lotus eater without the energy or appetite to denounce the human condition. However, it is not hard to see why the three are so often conjoined. Someone with a pessimistic view of the human condition is likely to think that part, at least, of the responsibility for this condition, lies with cruelty, hubris, jealousy, hatred and any number of other failings. Conversely, the misanthrope who begins with a focus on these vices is likely to recognise their role in compromising the prospect of happiness and wellbeing. If their pessimism and misanthropy are robust, these figures are liable to think that their own good rests with a quietist cultivation of virtues, and not in futile projects to ameliorate the human condition.
This is precisely the combination of attitudes adopted by, among others, the Buddha, Epicurus, Zhuangzi, and Montaigne. Nowhere, perhaps, is the constellation more pronounced than in Schopenhauer. Ours is the worst of all possible worlds, he maintains, and life is a ‘mistake’. It would be better if you, I and the whole world had never existed. Among human beings, we encounter ‘the boundless egoism of almost everyone, the malice of most, the cruelty of many’. There is, he thinks, no remedy for the situation through political or any other kind of activism: for this is an exercise of the very will whose relentless, blind control is responsible for the tragedy. The language of the other thinkers I mentioned may be less extreme or acidic, but they too advocate a quietism informed by a pessimistic and misanthropic perception of human life.
It is this constellation of pessimism, misanthropy and quietism that gives bite and resonance to the rhetoric of refuge from the world. It is natural, surely, for a person who thinks that the human condition and humankind are irretrievably awful to reach for a vocabulary of withdrawal, escape, asylum or refuge from the world. And this vocabulary is precisely the rhetoric that such persons do deploy. Like Franz Schubert, each of them might say ‘I think I no longer belong to this world’, and look for an asylum — music, in his case — detached from this world.
A corollary of my proposal is that the rhetoric of refuge loses resonance when the attitudes that sustained it are no longer pervasive. And it is just this that has happened. It may sound odd to claim that pessimism has waned, for every day we are presented with doomsday scenarios of global warming, famines, warfare, threats to democracy, rampant pandemics, and so on. These, it might seem, must dent Enlightenment optimism in progress and the amelioration of human existence.
In fact, there is still plenty of that optimism around. Steven Pinker, for one, invites us to ‘marvel’ at the advances in technology, medicine, science and even morality that have made our world immeasurably better than it was only several centuries ago. His view is widely shared by the general public, as it is by intellectuals outside the ranks of professional Schwarzseher. The point, after all, of those doomsday scenarios is to bring us to our senses, wake us up, so that we may gird our loins and do battle against those threats to our ways of life — to guarantee universal human rights, say, or ‘save the planet’, or eliminate Covid-19. Crucially, too, the pessimism that these scenarios might induce is not the kind I identified earlier. What they prompt is not a negative judgement on the human condition as such — as one of ‘vanity’ or ‘suffering’, say. Instead, the depression they may occasion is about particular ills of the modern world, such as environmental devastation, and the likely future for human beings unless ‘we do something’ and ‘act now’.
Misanthropy, too, may at first glance appear to be alive and well. Think of the moral vitriol directed in the social media against, for example, capitalists, politicians and critics of ‘woke’ culture. But this is very different from misanthropy in the sense discussed earlier, which was not hatred of people but a negative moral judgement on humankind. Today’s purveyors of hate are targeting particular persons, institutions or ideologies in the hope of silencing them. Misanthropy in the relevant sense has, in fact, been largely replaced in recent times by its polar opposite, a ‘boosterish’, ‘bright-sided’ conviction that everyone, deep down, is good. We hear that each person is perfect in his or her own way, or that they can become whatever they want to be. People who are forced to make grovelling apologies for causing ‘offence’ invariably plead ‘This isn’t who I really am’. One of the things Pinker asks us to ‘marvel’ at is ‘the moral advances’ we have made over the last century. As Barbara Ehrenreich noted in Bright-Sided, churches these days have reversed many of their traditional condemnations. God now applauds us, it seems, for having fun, sexual experimentation, or living lavish life styles.
Quietism, meanwhile, is out of step in a culture whose favourite slogans clamour for ‘change’, ‘making a difference’ and being ‘passionate’ about a cause, and in which ‘activist’ is a term of praise.
Quietism, meanwhile, is out of step in a culture whose favourite slogans clamour for ‘change’, ‘making a difference’ and being ‘passionate’ about a cause, and in which ‘activist’ is a term of praise. Promethean celebration of energy, transformative work, making a mark, and re-shaping the world has replaced the quietist’s call for dialling down our passions and commitments. The tranquillity — whether sought through control of the emotions, detachment from the business of the world or both — that was once prescribed by the sages as the best strategy for living, is now perceived as selfish abdication from one’s moral responsibility to improve the world. It gets regarded as an indulgence on the part of people deaf to an imperative to march together with their fellows in achieving communal aspirations. Even among pessimists sceptical of the prospects for improvement, quietism is often rejected in favour of a Sisyphean stance towards a recalcitrant world. Just as Sisyphus proudly kept going despite the futility of his task, so — one is told — dignity, self-respect and integrity are preserved through active commitment to causes despite the hopelessness of the causes. Aldo Leopold became a modern hero, in part, for resolving to fight against the environmental devastation that he nevertheless regarded as ‘inexorable’.
What is especially intriguing for students of eremitism is the intimate interplay of personal motives and philosophical commitments behind Nanavira’s decision to live alone.
Someone buoyed up by confidence in progress and in the resolve and ability of humankind to better themselves and their world will be unsympathetic to a rhetoric that invites people to seek refuge from this world. A bright-sided boosterism and Prometheanism that enjoins us to be there in the thick of it, marching for justice or some other moral goal, is precisely opposite to the quietist mood that encourages the search for refuge. Rhetorical talk of refuge won’t entirely disappear, of course: people will still speak of the value of refuge from their troubles, the pressures of life, and situations apt to cause anxiety or depression. But the refuge spoken of here is temporary, a place of recuperation from which the person will spring back, fit and ready again for the business and politics of the everyday world. The appropriate analogy here is more with a health spa than a monastery. Taking refuge becomes taking a holiday, one that, by being understood as mere refreshment, implicitly pays tribute to what really matters — the purpose-driven business of everyday life.
I have tried to diagnose the atrophy of the rhetoric of refuge. Nowhere have I suggested that this was ‘mere’ rhetoric, and in fact its atrophy is something I regret. This is because I take seriously the constellation of attitudes that once inspired and sustained it. It would, of course, require another essay, or a book, to justify my pessimistic, misanthropic and quietist sympathies. But there are concerns that even those who share these sympathies may have about the value of the rhetoric of refuge — concerns that are, in effect, about the very viability of refuge from the world.
Taking refuge becomes taking a holiday, one that, by being understood as mere refreshment, implicitly pays tribute to what really matters — the purpose-driven business of everyday life.
The most obvious concern is that, like the decaying walls of a fortress, a refuge may prove insufficiently strong to guarantee protection from the world. The ugliness of society, the pressures of work or family, the ambitions one hoped to leave behind turn out to be too strong to permit a tranquil retreat into books, music, religion or meditation. Even when the refuge sought is in a physical space — a garden, monastery or back room — there is no guarantee that everyday affairs and passions will not intrude and spoil it.
A more subtle concern is that the refuge might itself become disruptive of tranquillity. In one of the most widely read of Japanese texts, Hojoki, written in 1212, the poet and Buddhist monk Kamo No Chōmei describes his solitary life in a ten feet square hut. Towards the end of the book, Chōmei writes:
we must not be
Yet the way I love this hut
is itself attachment.
To be attached
to the quiet and serene
must likewise be a burden.
Poignantly expressed here is the fear, destructive of the very purpose of retreat, that a refuge might become so indispensable in one’s life as to generate some of the very emotions — craving, anxiety, protective jealousy — from which one sought liberation.
A final concern is almost the reverse of Chōmei’s. Perhaps the refuge will simply lose its charm and savour, its power any longer to feel like a refuge at all.
In his book, Nature Cure, the nature writer, Richard Mabey, describes the prolonged depression from which he suffered. The first and terrible aspect of the depression was loss of enjoyment in the natural world, in the return of the house-martins in the spring, for example. His ‘sensual engagement’ with nature had been severed, and it was only when it was restored, years later — when, at last, the return of the house-martins gave him the joy it had done in previous years — that Mabey recovered. Here, it seems, a refuge from the everyday social world failed not because its walls were too fragile, or because it became an object of excessive attachment, but because of nothing to which an obvious name can be given. It’s just that, one day and for no apparent reason, the refuge — the natural environment, in Mabey’s case — loses its power to provide succour or contentment. In another easily imagined case, the music that has been a refuge for someone might one day start to sound cheap, commercial and shallow, all too obviously the product of the world from which for a time the music provided refuge.
Readers of Chōmei or Mabey won’t think it neurotic to have these concerns about refuge from the world. They are ones that should be taken seriously. To find enduring refuge is a delicate and risky project, and not at all the easy thing that it is touted to be in the many spiritual and self-help therapies currently on offer.
Nevertheless, for someone whose pessimism and misanthropy go deep, and whose quietist aspirations are firm and considered, the prospect of failure is less alarming than the danger of continued embroilment in the febrile business of the everyday world. For this person, certainly, the rhetoric of refuge still has resonance and beauty.
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David E. Cooper is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Durham University, UK. He has been a visiting professor in several countries, including the USA, Canada, Malta, Germany and Sri Lanka. He has been the Chair or President of a number of academic societies, including The Aristotelian Society and The Nietzsche Society of Great Britain. His many books include World Philosophies: An Historical Introduction, The Measure of Things: Humanism, Humility and Mystery, A Philosophy of Gardens, and Animals and Misanthropy. He is also the author of three novels set in Sri Lanka.