Robert Rodriguez’ “The Book of Hermits” is a work of impressive scholarship, covering the global history and lore of eremitism from antiquity to the present. Read an interview with the author here
I have known the work of Robert Rodriguez for many years. Long before Daily Philosophy existed, there was already hermitary.com, Robert’s site that celebrated hermit lifestyle and hermit lore.
It was founded in 2002, almost twenty years ago now, and has always been the one resource to which I returned again and again when I was looking up a fact about anything that had to do with hermit life — or simply for inspiration. The Hermitary offered, and still offers, a wealth of articles on individual hermits, on the history of eremitic movements and religions, and on art, books and movies about hermits.
So I was thrilled to hear that Robert Rodriguez had finally put all his knowledge and his research of many decades into a book about hermits, called, fittingly, “The Book of Hermits” (374 pages; available from October 1, 2021 at Amazon and other booksellers, both as print and ebook).
Hermits and Happiness
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.
The Book of Hermits
The Book of Hermits is a work of impressive scholarship, and one can feel the author’s enthusiasm and affection for eremitism in every sentence of this book. It attempts to cover the entire world history of hermit lifestyles, and it largely succeeds, which is a remarkable feat. If there is one problem with the book, it is that the sections often feel just a little bit short, more like a detailed encyclopedia than an immersive tale.
Rodriguez covers an immense amount of ground. He begins with eremitism in Western antiquity, covering the history of hermits from Diogenes of Sinope and the Stoic and Epicurean movements all the way to the Desert Fathers. This is a history of around 700 years, and even with the focus on hermits and hermit lifestyles, it still seems too much to cover in only fifteen pages of the book. Make no mistake: these are wondrous pages, written from a position of deep knowledge about the subject and giving a wealth of information on the topic. Still, one wishes that the book was just a little bit longer, to give these stories more space to breathe.
The Book of Hermits is a work of impressive scholarship, and one can feel the author’s enthusiasm and affection for eremitism in every sentence of this book.
One of my favourite discussions is in Chapter 10, where Rodriguez discusses hermits in 20th century Western literature. As I was reading through this chapter, I was always making mental notes about the authors he’d left out; only to discover, two or three pages later, that he had actually included them. Kafka and Rilke are there, as are Hesse, Pessoa, Yeats and Kahlil Gibran, and even Ionesco, whom I wouldn’t have expected in a book about hermits.
Unfortunately, the treatment of “Philosophers of Solitude” in section 56 is again a bit short. Sartre and Camus get only one and a half pages together, which seems a pity, given how much one could possibly say about the connections between eremitism and existentialism. Rodriguez does quote Camus, though, and provides a pointer for further reading:
There are no more deserts. There are no more islands. Yet there is
a need for them. In order to understand the world, one has to turn
away from it on occasion; in order to serve men better, one has to
hold them at a distance for a time. But where can one find the solitude necessary to vigor, the deep breath in which the mind collects
itself and courage gauges its strength? (p.190)
One must see the book as what it is. It is not intended to be an exhaustive scholarly work on one particular, narrow subtopic. Rather, it is a handsome coffee-table book (minus the pictures), a sampler of the millennia-long history of hermits in world culture, and a comprehensive historical overview of that particular tradition. Personally, I see it as an intellectual springboard, a starting point for further reading, full of stimulating, sparkling ideas. At any point (and there were many such points for me as I was reading through it), one can put it down, grab a browser, and go off to research in more depth some aspect of humanity’s history of hermits that catches one’s fancy.
“The Book of Hermits” is a handsome coffee-table book (minus the pictures), a sampler of the millennia-long history of hermits in world culture, and a comprehensive historical overview of that particular tradition.
At the end of the book is a huge bibliography of 60 pages that includes a great number of books, articles and websites. Unfortunately, the links to the websites are not live links (which is regrettable, since it would have been easy to embed working hyperlinks into the ebook file), and the value of printed hyperlinks for the reader of the paper book is questionable. In a future edition, it would be better to provide a separate webpage with all the live (and maintained) links and to just put one link into the book, pointing at that page.
The main value of this book, for me, is that it provides a solid context in which one can then position the individual thinkers and hermit figures. Reading it from beginning to end, one gets an appreciation of the whole historical framework in which individual authors and hermits lived and worked, and from then on it is easier to look up those who seem interesting in more detail.
Also, reading it, I learned a lot about authors and philosophers I’d never known much about, and I was reminded of a few old friends I had almost forgotten. For example, Rodriguez discusses sympathetically an old favourite of mine, Alexandra David-Neel:
David–Neel notes that while other Westerners have visited lamaist monasteries, none had visited the gomchens “about whom so many fantastic
stories are told,” and none had observed their contemplative life. During
her travels, she encounters two wild hermits on the Nepal frontier who
flee at the approach of her party. On another occasion she encounters a
hermit and inquires from a translator about him. “This lama is a peripatetic
ascetic from Bhutan,” she is told. “He lives here and there in caves, empty
houses, or under the trees. He has been stopping for several days in a small
monastery near here.” In her enthusiastic manner, David–Neel notes: “I
had no definite plan for the afternoon, why should I not go to the gompa
(monastery) where he was staying, and persuade him to talk?” In another
anecdote, visiting a mountain hermitage and staying in a cave at night, she
looks out on the myriad stars in the night sky and paraphrases Milarepa: “I
feel that the hermit’s life, free of what we call ‘the goods and pleasures of
the world,’ is the most wonderful of all lives.” (p.213)
If one has a prior interest in hermits, many figures in the book will be familiar. Most lovers of hermit lore will be aware of Hesse’s Siddhartha, of Kahlil Gibran, and of the famous hermit-poets of the Japanese tradition. Even so, it is great to have a place where they are all collected together, and where one can find a one- or two-page summary about each of them. The result is more than just a dictionary: by putting all these people in context, the book provides a rich history of the eremitic movement all around the world.
Most lovers of hermit lore will be aware of Hesse’s Siddhartha, of Kahlil Gibran, and of the famous hermit-poets of the Japanese tradition.
I found particular value in two categories of people that are less obvious candidates for a book on hermits: those from the Western tradition, whom we know in some other capacity, and whom Rodriguez shows us to also be, often surprisingly, associated with the hermit tradition: Goethe for example, or Poe, or Melville. It is great fun to discover a new, more hidden side to these household-name poets and writers.
Robert Rodriguez on Hermits
Robert Rodriguez is the author of The Book of Hermits and founder and editor of the website Hermitary. In this interview, he talks to us about the history of eremitism and the nature of hermit life.
The second kind of treatment that I found invaluable was Rodriguez’ presentation of Asian intellectual figures who are little known to the average educated Westerner, from hermits in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions to perhaps less widely-known Japanese poets and painters.
But the author also gives us more thematic passages, where he discusses particular books or other artefacts that relate to eremitism, for example the I Ching or the “Hermit” card in the Tarot.
Paralleling the hermit legends are ancient texts advocating the wisdom of
withdrawal. The thirty–third hexagram of the I Ching (“Book of Changes”)
advises retreat or strategic withdrawal, suggestive in a military context but
widely applicable to the larger context of reclusion. A verse in Shi Jing (“The Book of Songs”) notes that “When words are well-considered, respond;
when words are slanderous, withdraw.” Witnessing his ruined city, a figure
in Shangshu (“The Book of Documents”) expresses a desire to “withdraw
to the wilds.” And a court official longs to “withdraw from public life.”
Not unexpectedly, folklore ascribed moral wisdom to solitary professions: woodcutter, gatekeeper, farmer, or fisherman, for example. These figures
are popularly conflated with hermits into eremitic archetypes. (p.69)
After a while, the author’s voice, calm and competent, becomes like the voice of a friend, introducing the reader to a whole world of wonders that was there all along, but which we never knew existed. The Book of Hermits, therefore, is a bit like the train platform 9 3/4 on King’s Cross Station: the passage to another dimension, in which the culture we thought we knew opens up entirely new vistas and contexts of meaning.
The Book of Hermits, therefore, is a bit like the train platform 9 3/4 on King’s Cross Station: the passage to another dimension.
Reading The Book of Hermits, one gradually becomes aware of a hidden undercurrent of the world’s cultural fabric, a whole world of its own, in which both the thinkers one knew and those whom one newly meets turn out to be stones in a grand, esoteric mosaic: the universe of hermits.
I am happy to have Robert Rodriguez as my guide to this world.
Daily Philosophy’s opinion
Robert Rodriguez’ “The Book of Hermits” is a work of impressive scholarship, covering the global history and lore of eremitism from antiquity to the present.
- A comprehensive overview of hermit history and culture from the ancient times to today.
- This book could become the standard work on hermit history and culture, a must have for the serious hermit researcher or enthusiast.
- Covers not only the Western tradition, but also Eastern hermits.
- Includes discussions of the wider culture associated with hermits: writers, artists, books, symbols.
- The author is very knowledgeable and presents a huge amount of research in an easy to read and entertaining way.
- An enormous amount of value for the price.
Room for improvement:
- I missed a discussion of the non-European, non-Asian traditions. One wonders if there are no indigenous African or Australian hermit traditions, for example.
- The references, although comprehensive, mix together books, papers and non-functional hyperlinks that one has to laboriously re-type into the browser (copy and paste won’t work on Kindle or print editions). Since links age and rot, it would be better to offer them all together on a working webpage rather than printed in full inside the book.
- Sometimes the treatment of particular authors or works can be a bit too short. One wishes for a “director’s cut” that would expand a bit on authors or subjects that are particularly interesting or less known.
- On a related note, the style could sometimes be a bit more conversational and story-telling, rather than mainly reporting and facts-based.
- Occasional, very minor editing issues which could easily be fixed in a future edition.
- If you are interested in hermits, get it. It’s a valuable resource, certainly worth having in one’s library.
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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. Get it right here on Amazon! - Dr Andreas Matthias, Editor of Daily Philosophy.
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