Hermits have always been around as an alternative vision of what human life could be. Hermits, from the Greek “eremites,” (=men of the desert), are found in all cultures and at all times. In this article, we look at the phenomenon of hermit life as a whole, before we go into more detail in future posts in this series.
Of all the ways humans have devised to pursue happiness, shutting oneself off from the company of others and embracing a life of poverty and stark deprivation must be one of the strangest. And yet, many have tried it, over and over again, all over the world, in every culture and throughout the ages: from the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, famously depicted as living in a barrel, to today’s Hikikomori, young people who choose to retreat to the isolation of their bedrooms for years at a time.
It is easy to find flaws in the way human societies are organised. All real human societies have and always have had hierarchical structures; all are based on competition, on power, on the accumulation of wealth and status; all have perpetuated injustice and suffering for too many of their members. There has been no shortage of utopias, dreamy landscapes where happy, well-fed and well-educated children would play in the sun. But the reality of life has never been as easy as that for the vast majority of human beings on Earth.
There are only a small number of possible ways out of the misery of life inside the system of human society:
First, one could try to embrace the challenge and rise to the top positions, achieving a life that is better than that of others, ultimately, though, at their expense.
There are only a small number of possible ways out of the misery of life inside the system of human society.
Second, one could try a revolutionary approach: recognising the failings of a society, one might attempt to overthrow the social order, remove the ruling classes and establish a new and better order that will finally bring justice and happiness to all. Unfortunately, this doesn’t usually seem to work out as intended. With a few exceptions of places we don’t know much about — like the Indus civilisation (2600-1900 BC) — every human society, whether pre- or post-revolutionary, seems to have been plagued by the same problems: theocratic states are not closer to God than secular ones and communist states have not eliminated poverty any more than capitalist ones.
A comprehensive overview of Erich Fromm’s philosophy of happiness. We discuss his life, his ideas and his main works, both in their historical context and how they are still relevant for us today.
Third, one might retreat into private life, abandoning the prospects of a career and the signs of outward success in society, in order to pursue one’s own values inside the family. Youtube is full of videos of homesteaders and first-generation farmers, who, while outwardly still part of society and its structures, choose to devote most of their time to pursuits that are not in line with the ideals of capitalist success: baking one’s own bread, raising one’s own crops, being self-sufficient as much as possible, and living one’s own dream together with like-minded people, but without any political intent of eventually overthrowing the social order.
Fourth, one might try to withdraw from society entirely, by forming a separate entity within it — but one that is largely independent in its organisation and that provides a separate set of values and that is based on a different vision from the rest of the society that surrounds it: successful examples of such parallel societies are the monastic orders of Christianity, whose members can live entirely different lives from the rest of society, lives based on a hierarchy of religious merit rather than material wealth and power. Or communities like the Amish in the US, who live largely independently of the structures of the country that hosts them, while still being contained within it in a way that does not threaten the social order outside of their own territories.
But the last two approaches, the retreat into private life and the creation of a different community within the official state, could be seen as morally problematic: if one recognises what’s wrong with the world, isn’t it then one’s duty to either do something against that wrong (for example, by starting a revolution) or otherwise to leave society entirely? By peacefully cooperating with and supporting a society one recognises as evil, does one not become complicit in perpetuating injustice and suffering?
And so there have always been individuals who chose yet another, the fifth way out of the problem: to leave society entirely, to turn their backs on it, and to seek a life in the wild that is completely independent of the doings of the world.
These are the hermits, whose ideas and lives we want to explore in the coming weeks in this newsletter and on Daily Philosophy.
The word “hermit” comes from the Greek “eremites,” someone who lives in the desert: because the first hermits were Christian holy men who decided to leave the cities in order to be able to live their lives closer to God and away from the distractions of social life.
The word “hermit” comes from the Greek “eremites,” someone who lives in the desert.
Often, St Paul of Thebes (226-341 BC) is named as the “first hermit,” but of course this is only true within the Christian tradition in the West. Paul fled the city of his birth when his brother tried to betray him in order to get his inheritance — setting a somewhat unsettling precedent: the hermit as one who flees from an injustice or an inability to cope, rather than someone who embraces the solitary life as a means toward a better existence. We will see throughout the coming weeks that this tension between fleeing from and fleeing towards has stayed with those who chose the life of a hermit ever since — and it has always clouded with doubt the purity of the hermit’s vision and motives.
Just three days ago, there was an article in the news about a New Hampshire hermit, “River Dave,” who, at 81 years of age, decided to finally head out of the woods and to return to life in society. When he was interviewed about his life, Mr Lidstone said: “Maybe the things I’ve been trying to avoid are the things that I really need in life … I grew up never being hugged or kissed, or any close contact … Maybe I was a hermit for nothing.”
This is a somewhat sobering and shocking statement from one who has spent three decades in isolation: could it all have been for nothing? And what are we to make of a statement like this? Does an admission like this taint the project of all hermits? Is the solitary life nothing but an escape for those who are wounded, traumatised, unfit for society? Is it just an attempt at a cure that doesn’t really work and that the patient is going to later regret?
Or are there different kinds of hermits?
Is there a lineage of the traumatised and lost, from Paul of Thebes down to River Dave and the Japanese Hikikomori, and another, separate tradition including all the spiritual masters of the solitary life, from St Anthony to Francis of Assisi and Shiwu, and on to successful journalist Brendon Grimshaw, who chose to spend half of his life reforesting a remote island in splendid isolation? Or are the two just different sides of the same coin?
The last book of visionary writer Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), Island, is a bold attempt to envision a utopian society that provides its members with everything they need to achieve happiness in life.
The Hindu stages of life
While the West seems to stick to a stricter demarcation between the social and the solitary life, in the Eastern traditions things have often been more fluid.
In Hinduism, the human life is supposed to ideally go through a number of distinct stages, the Ashramas:
In “Brahmacharya,” the Student Stage, a young person is supposed to cultivate both the practical skills of life and their spiritual side, by living with a teacher and learning what they need for their future lives.
During “Grihastha,” the Householder Stage, which lasts from about 25 to 50 years of age, the person participates fully in domestic life: earning money, raising children, supporting a family and enjoying the pleasures of life and sexuality.
When one’s skin starts to wrinkle and one’s hair turns grey, it is time for the third stage of life: “Vanaprastha,” the Hermit Stage:
The person’s duty as a householder comes to an end: He has become a grandfather, his children are grown up and have established lives of their own. At this age, he should renounce all physical, material, and sexual pleasures, retire from his social and professional life and leave his home for a forest hut where he can spend his time in prayers. 
The fourth stage echoes the return of the human soul to eternity, in the same way as Christian hermits sought to approach the kingdom of God by getting rid of earthly desires and attachments. In the Wandering Ascetic Stage, or “Sannyasa,” the person renounces all worldly attachments and prepares to leave this world — and, ideally, the cycle of birth and death altogether.
The Hindu concept of life stages could be argued to be more in line with the changes in a person’s urges, needs and desires over the course of a typical human life.
There is a wisdom in this arrangement of affairs. Whereas the Christian tradition requires young monks to commit to lifelong celibacy and Amish culture seems to deprive its young people from participation in activities that are pleasurable and fun at this age, the Hindu concept of life stages could be argued to be more in line with the changes in a person’s urges, needs and desires over the course of a typical human life. The young receive guidance and training, the middle-aged social success and the pleasures of family life and the elderly a meaningful vision of an old age lived in dignity and respect, a life preparing for and embracing its inevitable end, rather than denying it, as Western culture too often does.
Robert Rodriguez: The Book of Hermits. Here is a new, comprehensive book on Hermits by Robert Rodriguez, the creator of the hermitary.com website. This is a wonderful, sympathetic and informative book from a lifelong researcher of hermit life and lore. I loved reading it, and I cannot recommend it more. - Andreas Matthias, Editor of Daily Philosophy.
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Chinese hermit traditions
China, always complex in its social structures and roles, has brought forth many different visions of hermit life: from the simple life of a person living alone in a hut in the mountains, growing their own food and living in life-long poverty, to the luxurious study room of a city official who painted pictures of natural landscapes in his free time, romanticising a vision of a hermit life that he would never actually live.
Sometimes, officials would retire into a comfortable life in the country, pursuing the four arts of the Chinese scholar: painting, calligraphy, music and strategy games, while enjoying the visits of friends and drinking wine on a terrace, making poems to the moon.
Paintings of such gatherings normally depict only refinement, peace and pleasure: the scholar-gentleman would not attempt to get his hands dirty by planting his own cabbages or hauling water from a stream.
Sometimes, rich families even kept their own hermits. In the Dream of the Red Chamber, a Chinese classic, a wealthy family keeps their own nun in their estate’s park. The ultimate refinement of hermit life is demonstrated when the discussion comes to the best way to prepare tea:
“Is this tea also prepared with last year’s rain water?” Black Jade
wanted to know.
The nun smiled contemptuously. “That just shows what very ordinary people you are!” she said. “People like you cannot even distinguish the quality of tea water! Five years ago, when I was living in the Temple of the Dark Funeral Incense Fumes, I obtained the water which made this tea from the snow that covered the plum blossoms. I collected the snow in that blue glass jug with the specters' heads, and kept the jug untouched, deep down in the earth, for five years. Only this summer I dug it up and took out the snow water. Today is the second time that I have prepared tea with some of this precious water supply. How could you think that one could get from ordinary last year’s rain water such a pure, fine taste as this precious tea possesses?”
Hermit ideals today
But it’s not all ancient history.
The times where hermits were sought after by thousands of followers for their wisdom, advice or blessings might be past, but the attraction of a different, perhaps more meaningful life outside of society is as strong as ever. Marx’s concept of alienation, Erich Fromm’s analysis of what’s wrong with our societies, and Aldous Huxley’s utopian island are just a few of the attempts to understand what’s wrong with our lives today — and to provide solutions.
Stay with us in the coming weeks, and let us explore together the hidden world of hermits and their millennia-old quest to find happiness and meaning in their own, often quirky, but always astonishingly brave and uncompromising way.