Solitude and Asceticism: 5 Hermits who effected History

Their intuitiveness guided them toward independence of the individual, it was achieved with detachment of thoughts and sensations, through instinct and observing the laws of nature, without liturgies or intermediaries.

They believed that the individual, in contact with nature, achieved “enlightenment“, which they called by another name, depending on their traditions. They founded philosophies, religions or literary currents. They were respected and, at times, stigmatised as solitary lunatics. Some were even executed.

All of them continue to influence us today. Here we’ve collect the lives of five ascetic personalities who, through solitary contemplation and meditation, learned about their inner life and related it to their peers and to future generations.

Listen to yourself, being alone is often considered a punishment that, taken to the extreme, may lead to insanity. This would explain why one of the most widespread methods of punishment in history is solitary confinement and forced isolation, in which the inmate is deprived of all contact with those outside.

Allegorical examples of forced exile abound: Napoleon in Saint Helena in the southern Atlantic Ocean; The founding of the British colonies in Australia to house British inmates as Robert Hughes adeptly explains in The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding; The deportation of political prisoners to Siberia gulags during the Russian and Soviet purges and used as a major instrument of political repression in the Soviet Union. In addition to remote exile and isolation from society, kidnapping or shipwreck are other extreme cases of forced isolation, equally dramatic, ideal for a romance novel with a Byronian hero thrown in for good measure.

But isolation is not always forced or leads to madness, but rather, those who have practiced solitary contemplation since ancient times have believed, that it “elevates” the physical and the spirit. It is not simply a mystical statement, but a scientific one.

Reasons for the secluded life and voluntary simplicity

Moved by religious, political or artistic motives, history not only compiles examples of hermits, anchorites, hermits, misanthropes or influential figures who freely choose a secluded life – often dedicated to little more than contemplation and meditation – but many of these characters founded, after their inner cultivation alone, ideas, philosophies of life and religions which still thrive in the world today.

Loneliness, understood as a tool for cultivating thought, creativity and productive work, is vindicated again in the era of information overload, given the overwhelming dominance of the theories of “new group thinking”, which hold that collaboration per se, is beneficial to human creation.

Voluntary solitude is praised as a useful contemplative method to get rid of the constant interruptions that block the progress of a task, or the growth of an idea or project, often arising from solitary work.

Responding to the culture of interruptions and noise

The writer and professor William Deresiewicz thus warns of the risk of the culture of interruptions: “I have the impression that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube – and just so you see that this is something generational, television and radio, magazines and newspapers also – they are ultimately a mere elaborate excuse for escapism”.

The first step toward thinking coherently, says this writer, who has analyzed students and professors at America’s most prestigious universities for years, is to learn to be alone with our own way of thinking.

Those who have investigated freely and away from mental disorders – the borders of loneliness and silence (check the importance of silence in the documentary by film maker Philip Gröning “Into Great Silence”), whether for work or for spiritual reasons, explain their experiences with different types and degrees of asceticism , meditation, contemplation and anacoretism.

Geographical asceticism

When we evoke the practice of ascetics, contemplation, austerities or anacoretism, we come across the popular image of the hermit removed from society, with shabby clothes, a long white beard and a personality between messianic and quixotic: from the hermits who appear in the forest to the knights of chivalric novels to advise the fictional character Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars to a more contemporary reference to Agafia Lykov and her family of Russian Old Believer who journeyed into the depths of Siberia’s vast taiga to escape persecution and protect their way of life, or the film  “Hermits: Freedom or Madness?” (Australia, 1997) where the film’s author Peter Thomas documents six very different Australians who’ve all chosen to live lives of complete seclusion, free from obligations – withdrawn from society (yet in some cases still living in urban environs), exploring life in depth. We meet people like Vyn Bailey, a hermit and yogin – Father Ronan, a priest and anchorite – and Pravrajika Ajayaprana, a Hindu nun.

The hermitic life of the Greek mendicant philosophers (the Cynics and, to a lesser extent, the Stoics), the first hermits in the Abrahamic confessions (biblical characters, as well as the Desert Fathers and Mothers – with Paul of Thebes as a paradigm-, or Gnosticism, in Christianity; mystical Sufism in Islam; or the Hebrew meditative Kabbalah), and Eastern religions (Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Hindu teachers as founders of Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism respectively), is the extreme example of the human need for cultivating one’s interior (well-being, spiritual enlightenment, artistic creation, work).

But, is it necessary to climb a mountain and remain secluded there (a recurring image in the Scriptures of various religions), seclude oneself by a lake (Virgilianism, Thoreau), live inside a jar (Diogenes of Sinope), or seclude oneself in a monastery to achieve the supposed benefits of a simple life and in accordance with nature, dedicated to contemplation and spiritual cultivation?

Postmodern asceticism: “hermitism in the middle of the world”

Thinkers like the Italian writer and journalist Vittorio Messori speak of people who, freely and in response to the prevailing culture of what the American philosopher William B. Irvine calls “unconscious hedonism”, practice a “hermitism in the middle of the world.”

This hermitism in the midst of society does not constitute a geographical isolation (solitude) of the prevailing society, in the manner of the archetype of hermit or romantic pastoral character such as Henry David Thoreau in Walden, but rather incorporates philosophical values close to the Christian heretical doctrine of Gnosticism: that is to say, pure and hard Greek philosophy (Stoicism, Neoplatonism).

Messori describes “hermitism in the middle of the world” as a silent and individual practice that avoids publicity, in which voluntary solitude, prayer (practicing Catholicism by conviction, he always thinks in a Catholic interpretation) and work are cultivated, to counteract “community drunkenness.”

“Guide to the good life”

In his essay on the practice of Stoicism in the contemporary world A Guide to the Good Life-The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, the aforementioned philosophy professor William B. Irvine reaches conclusions similar to those of Vittorio Messori, although Irvine approaches the cultivation of the inner life through of philosophy and a concept that has been lost in the contemporary world: putting into practice a philosophy of life that starts from Aristotelian eudaemonism, consisting of learning to live well by practicing moderation and in harmony with nature.

Irvine explains in his book that, due to personal circumstances, he thoroughly explored two potential options for putting a philosophy of life into practice for his own existence. He was interested in Zen Buddhism – the spoiled religion of a certain Western urban intellectualism – and Stoicism – a philosophy that Christianity plagiarized without paying any royalties.

To his surprise, in his personal battle for a distinctive philosophy he won Stoicism. Irvine wanted to respond in this way to the same phenomenon that Messori describes as “hermitism in the middle of the world”: in a society that prioritizes easy and short-term rewards even if it is detrimental to long-term interests, a growing number of people decide to take the plunge and seek their own spiritual paths.

Mental silence and urban hermits

Solitude, mental silence or contemplation, as well as a certain degree of asceticism, which can range from the isolation and extreme poverty of the hermits to the “militant” poverty of the Greek cynics and the early Franciscans, or the frugality of the Stoics and Protestant Christians, such as Calvinists and Puritans, are techniques that more and more people resort to, often without withdrawing or entirely removing themselves from society itself. These are the “urban hermits.”

Practicing solitude encourages, studies say, innovation and productivity. Yes, we have reached a state of affairs in which it is necessary to remember that “solitude can be practiced“, and this is not bad, but necessary.

But, how do you practice without going into the desert or climbing mountain tops? Or, is it of the essence to meditate following pre-established patterns such as Zen Buddhism, Christianity or Sufism to achieve the “peace, tranquility, quietude” (ecstasy or happiness) that the Stoics speak of and to enjoy its benefits?

An ambiguous answer? that depends. If what we seek is to cultivate a philosophy of life, the Internet and books such as A Guide to the Good Life, as well as the reading of the classics and the deep investigation of eudaemonism are a good start, but not the only one. You can explore the philosophical side of contemplation and asceticism, or opt for the religious and spiritual.

A Balance between extremes

In philosophy, Stoicism supposes a balance between the extremes of cynicism -living a simple “extreme” life in accordance with nature-, and hedonism-Epicureanism -basically, the contemporary prevailing current, albeit unconsciously: lead by short-term elation and recompense, rather than knowing where you are really going.

The Fertile Crescent

The different confessions often resort to hermit characters to explain their liturgy. From those born in the Fertile Crescent [a crescent-shaped region in the Middle East, spanning modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, together with the southeastern region of Turkey and the western fringes of Iran and Cyprus] and influenced by Zoroaster (like the three religions of Abraham: Christianity -Catholicism and Orthodox, Protestant, Coptic doctrines, etc.-; Judaism-Kabbalah-; and Islam -Sufism-); to Buddhism, Taoism or Hinduism.

Not to mention pantheism, which encompasses both the primitive hunter-gatherer religions and the Greek philosophical idea that equates God or Creator with the Universe (personalities of the European Enlightenment movement declared themselves pantheists).

In all these philosophical branches and religious confessions, groups and individuals practiced asceticism and mental silence or contemplation in order, through detachment between thoughts and sensations, to achieve well-being (or enlightenment, or mystical experience, etc.).

Abrahamic Zoroaster vs. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra

Through his character Zarathustra – not coincidentally by selecting the name of the Persian Zoroaster, whose ideas about the conflict between Good and Evil would influence Abraham’s religions – the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche analyzes the ascetic ideal, which he believes to be paradoxical: through to extreme control of desires and extreme frugality, the ascetic enters into a kind of hibernation and abandonment of material life in order to stay alive and reduce suffering.

Nietzsche saw in this search, for him senseless, the origin of secular science and religion, as well as the germ of Christian decadence. Of course, he seems to forget commenting on what Buddha called the middle path or way and the Stoics identified with tranquility and virtue: that is, the middle way dictated by the common sense of the wise ascetic. He limited himself to commenting on extreme asceticism.

The most influential hermits in history served as illustrative examples of the different currents to achieve detachment between thoughts and sensations, through techniques such as meditation or different types of reading, prayer, etc. Sometimes the orientation of the individual, his physical posture, or the exercises he performs are part of meditation.

Contemplation, the driving force and origin of science and mysticism

There are as many methods of contemplation as there are philosophical and religious traditions that have used it as a method to achieve long lasting well-being (enlightenment, and so forth.): shamans and sorcerers, Sufis, Tibetan monks, Zen masters, Indian gurus, Christian hermits.

Tree of contemplative practices

Classic philosophical doctrines such as cynicism or stoicism, on the contrary, taught to live, rather than to meditate or contemplate, although they prescribed a simpler life and to be “in harmony with nature.” Ultimately, following the natural flow, rather than going against it, brings Stoicism closer to Taoism and Zen Buddhism than Christianity.

In the ascetic life of hermits -including the “hermits in the middle of the world” that Vittorio Messori and William B. Irvine identify by different methods-, the individual seeks solitude so that meditation, contemplation or prayer can have its effects without external distractions.

From time immemorial, hermitism was the most radical method of avoiding distraction from the immediate pleasures of life in a community, such as practices of purification and behavior, as well as physiological requirements: sex, food, possessions and so forth.

De Thoreau to Christopher McCandless

Into the Wild (2007)

Geographical isolation was often complemented with tasks that maintained a certain self-discipline, such as the provision of food for a simple diet, as well as manual labor. Henry David Thoreau and, more recently, Christopher McCandless, are the paradigm of contemplation through manual labor and subsistence in an alien environment.

Christopher McCandless’s journey through North America to a secluded Alaskan wilderness and subsequent death was picked up by Jon Krakauer in an essay, and later made into a film by Sean Penn entitled ‘Into the Wild’. (see YouTube trailer here)

The outcome of his life story is an allegory of the search for “enlightenment” (it can be “virtue and tranquility” for the Stoics, “nirvana” for certain Buddhists and Hindus, etc.) and the risks of the hermit life, which delves into the idea that human beings sharpen their inventiveness when they operate in an environment dominated by scarcity, similar to that of their remote ancestors.

Rise of urban asceticism

Hermit ascetics and “urban ascetics”, who practice contemplation in human settings, manage, with practice, to ignore distractions and maintain concentration, solitude, regardless of external circumstances.

Vittorio Messori and William B. Irvine argue that the search for tranquility and inner cultivation through contemplation can be done even in the center of a large city.

Anyone who has the ability to concentrate and make the most of the moment, achieving detachment between thoughts and feelings, is ultimately capable of doing so in an office, in the subway or at an airport. He doesn’t need to follow the pastoral path of Thoreau or McCandless.

We compile below the trajectory of some of the most influential hermits in our world history.

1. Gautama Buddha (563-483 BC)

Siddhārtha Gautama (Buddha)

Enlightened Hermit Archetype. During his existence, with remarkable parallels with Mohandas Gandhi, Siddhartha Gautamá abandoned a wealthy life to seek spiritual enlightenment alone.

To achieve this, he first became a hermit, to later abandon asceticism and found Buddhism, after having achieved enlightenment, an event symbolically occurring under a bodhi (tree of wisdom).

A sacred figure to two of the world’s major religions, Buddhism and Hinduism, Gautama Buddha had married at 16 and had a son. He turned away from his palace life and embraced the ascetic life.

He explored the frontiers of human physical and mental endurance, reaching the brink of starvation. This convinced him that the proper way to achieve spiritual awakening was meditation and moderation (the middle way), in a life far removed from both easy pleasure and ascetic mortification.

2. Lao-tzu (551-479 BC)

Lao Tzu 老子

Lao-Tzu (also Laozi, Lao-Tze, Laozi or  老子) disputes with Confucius to be considered the most relevant philosopher of Chinese civilization, and the compilation of his thought (Dào Dé Jing or Tao Te Ching) is one of the masterpieces of universal philosophy, which influenced the West through the Silk Road since long before the travels of Europeans to the East, inaugurated by Marco Polo.

Although his own existence is the result of controversy, Lao-tzu is considered a contemporary of Confucius and Buddha, as well as the teacher of both. According to tradition, Lao-tzu lived his last days as a hermit, adapting to the flow of nature, just as he himself had described in the Tao Te Ching.

Lao-Tzu analyzed the functioning of nature (cosmological order of the universe, Yin-Yang) and its fluid functioning or “natural order”. To improve his existence, the human being must recover his cosmic harmony, understanding again the rhythm of nature and flowing with it.

His book Dào Dé Jing or Tao Te Ching ( 道德經), “Way”, approaches the order of the Universe with parables, describing concepts such as wei-wu-wei 無為, “inexertion or action through inaction“, which does not mean remaining idle, but renouncing the will and the desires of the moment when they hinder the harmonic flow of nature.

According to Dào Dé Jing, virtue is achieved when the way things grow and fall is respected. Acting in accordance with the Tao, without contradicting it, is much easier, more productive, “in accordance with nature.”

The parallels between his thought and Confucianism, Buddhism (and his “middle way”) and Greek eudaemonism (Stoicism, for example, and his living in measure and in accordance with nature), make him a probable candidate for an ideology. original that influenced the rest.

3. Priscillian bishop of Ávila (340-385)

Priscillian of Ávila

Priscillian bishop of Ávila, surely born in Roman Province of Gallaecia, possibly in Hispania (Gallaecia) territories, northern Portugal, has descended into historicity as the first heretic sentenced to death and executed by a Court. At Trier, Priscillian was tried by a secular Court on triple charges of Manichaeism, sorcery, and sexual immorality, which at the time were considered a capital crime which would result in a death sentence if found guilty. Priscillian had been questioned at length and intimidate into making a confession stating that he studied obscene doctrines, held nocturnal meetings with shameful women, and prayed whilst naked. Consequently, he was charged with practicing magic (per maleficium), for which he was convicted and sentenced to death. Ithacius of Ossonoba was his main accuser and was so vehement in his denunciations that St Martin of Tours, who was then in Trier, intervened. As did Pope Siricius, who censured not only Ithacius but the emperor Magnus Maximus as well. On receiving information from Maximus, he excommunicated Ithacius and his associates. St Ambrose was equally stern in his denunciation of the tribunal as were some of the Gallican bishops, also in Trier under the leadership of Theognistus; they broke communion with Ithacius of Ossonoba. He was subsequently deposed from his See by a synod of Hispanic bishops, and his friend and collaborator Hydatius, Bishop of Emerita were compelled to demit themselves. Priscillian was excommunicated and condemned to death with his companions Instantius, Salvianus and Helpidius were executed by the sword in 385. Priscillian’s execution is seen as the first example of secular justice intervening in an ecclesiastical matter and the first Christian killed by other Christians for heresy.

Until his death which by some was considered a martyrdom, the treachery against him and his beheading, in the Gallic city of Trier in 385, Priscillian had become a danger to the growing power of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which had began to replace the secular administrative power of the Roman Empire, because his viewpoint strayed too far and was considered as having strayed from orthodoxy.

This Hispanic bishop, born into a patrician family, influenced by the stoicism of the Roman ruling classes and the cultural remains of traditional Celtiberian [a group of Celts and Celticised peoples] pantheism, closely related to forests, springs and natural landmarks, gave Gnosticism a new impetus.

He dared to preach equality between men and women in religious worship, he practiced masses in the forest, with no liturgy other than his words, fusing the pagan energy of Celtic pantheism with that of the early Christians.

His works were almost entirely eradicated, like a damnatio memoriae being imposed; but later disciples and scholars secretly recovered many of his ideas, sometimes without attributing them to the so called “heretic.”

Priscilliano: Profeta contra o poder

However, as the excellent book Prisciliano: Profeta Contra O Poder (Priscillian: Prophet against Power), by Xosé Chao Rego (1999, Ediciones A Nosa Terra) shows, Priscillian’s corpus was often extremely close to Zoroastrianism that his ideas about the Universe and living according to the course of nature they placed him closer to Gautama Buddha and Lao-tse (and to the later, St. Francis of Assisi), than to many present-day Catholic prelates.

Priscillian practiced contemplation and often withdrew to forests and caves, subsisting on what he found in the forest and through charity and those who inquired into spiritual contemplation; a veritable Thoreau of the fourth century. He was more than a millennium ahead of his time, a pioneer and paid for it with excommunication and his life, followed by a literary ‘holocaust’ type purge of his works.

There are well-founded suspicions that the martyr buried in the forest of the diocese of Iria Flavia called Libredón, in a small chapel that would later become the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, is actually Prisciliano.

4. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)

Saint Francis of Assisi and the wolf of Gubbio

Like Priscilian, Francis of Assisi was born into a wealthy family, in this case dedicated to commerce in XII century Assisi.

Also like Priscilian, Francis had had a carefree and comfortable youth, until the horrors of war awakened a detachment from the earthly and a greater interest in contemplation and detachment between thoughts and sensations.

He fled from the world by practicing a very simple and austere life, which made him a stoic Catholic living under strict poverty and practicing “contemplation” (the version of the Catholic Church: “Saint” Francis of Assisi lived in strict poverty and observance of the Gospels).

His interpretation of Christianity brought him closer toward Stoicism and Gnosticism, although he was adept enough that the order he had founded, the “FraticelliLittle Brothers” as he called them, or as Rome named them Ordo Fratrum MinorumOrder of Friars Minor, now commonly called The Franciscans, so that it would be accepted by Pope Innocent III and those who had the pope’s ear in Rome. What appealed at the time was that the Regula bullata or Rule that St. Francis had composed, demanded that no-one was allowed to own property, requiring the brothers of the order to beg for food whilst they preached on the streets. The austerities imposed by St. Francis within his rule was his way of emulating both the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, as best as he was able.

Of course: Rome devised a tailor-made Assisi for posterity. He was canonised on 16 July 1228 only 2 years after his death, but not before his theological stance had been eased away, made more agreeable or sweetened from Francis’ original intention, while the Franciscan order had already been assimilated to the Catholic way of thinking, by forcing Francis to adopt the rule of Saint Benedict or Saint Augustine.

His way of life for the order was not accepted by some of the newer members of his order even whilst he was still alive, dissatisfied with the “Regula primitivaprimitive rule”, the militancy in poverty and the life dedicated to helping lepers in Lazar Houses, the poor and sick, basically all others in need. The Primitive Rule was extremely simple and short “To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps”, punto e basta!-full stop and enough.

After founding the Poor Clare Sisters and before his years dedicated to preaching her vision of Christianity in North Africa and the Middle East, he withdrew on several occasions to meditate and seek spiritual tranquility (the “virtue and tranquility” of Stoicism) in the La Verna mountain. He practiced solitary meditation and retreat at various phases of his life until his death on 3 October 1226.

After his death, the Catholic Church skillfully brought the most controversial aspects of the figure of the canonized monk closer to its own official doctrine, after having created various rows and struggles within the Order itself. There were some who wanted to retain the purity of Francis’ ideal. It is no accident that the Doctor Mirabilis Roger Bacon OFM, father of scientific empiricism; and Ramon Llull TOSF, a teacher who attempted to merge the three Abrahamic religions through his Ars Magna and interpretation of the Kabbalah, both happen to have been Franciscans. Llull’s Ars operated by combining religious and philosophical attributes selected from a number of lists. It is believed that Llull’s inspiration for the Ars Magna came from observing Arab astrologers use a device called a zairja.

5. Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson

The American poet and isolationist who spent much of her life sequestered in a room within her parental home, where she wrote her greatest works and read American peers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson (personal friend of Henry David Thoreau) and Walt Whitman.

Of her five poems, only three were ever published without her signature, one without her knowledge, her works were not published until after her death, from that time onwards she is regarded among the greatest American authors. Many of her poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two topics which reappear in the letters to her friends time and time again, she also explored aesthetics, society, nature and spirituality

Being born into an upper-class New England family, with friends like Ralph Waldo Emerson himself, made the parental home a gathering place for personalities at a time when it was common for women of his class who did not marry to remain in the family home.

Dickinson’s work was deeply influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who together with his friend Henry David Thoreau had laid the foundations of the ethical theory of transcendentalism: a kind of recovery from Stoicism and influences from Hinduism, as well as from Johann Gottlieb’s German romanticism. Fichte and Friedrich Schelling. That is, life in accordance with nature, renunciation of urban life and exaltation of nature.

Transcendentalism believed the intuitive path of individual consciousness. Something like the Middle Way of Buddha Gautama, or the tranquility of the Stoics, or the wei-wu-wei, “action through inaction” of Lao-tzu, in which no miracles, no religious hierarchies, or mediations are required . Pantheism.