Hermits: The Insights of Solitude

Hermits: The Insights of Solitude

by Peter France

NOOK Book(eBook)

$9.99 $14.09 Save 29% Current price is $9.99, Original price is $14.09. You Save 29%.
View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781473511637
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: 09/30/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,216,823
File size: 476 KB

About the Author

Peter France spent the first 15 years of his working life as a civil servant in the Fiji Islands. After a spell as an academic, he joined the BBC, first in radio where he launched and presented Kaleidoscope, and later in television, where he wrote and presented programmes such as Everyman and Timewatch. His most recent books are The Rape of Egypt and Greek as a Treat. He lives in Devon but spends much of his time on the Greek island of Patmos.

Read an Excerpt


The Emergence of the Individual

The Greeks, who first taught the Western world what could be achieved by living together, were also the first people in that world to work out a philosophical justification for living alone. Greek society in the age of Pericles reached unsurpassed levels of achievement in philosophy and the arts, and even gave birth to science; but that same age, which was called 'golden' because of the glories created by the city-state, was also the first to discover the significance of the individual. Although the Greeks never developed a hermit culture, they were the first to work out a philosophy of solitariness -- one which stressed the value of the individual outside a social context. So, as they are the founders of our civilisation, they are also the inspiration of those who have chosen to live outside it.

The world of classical Greece which gave birth to European civilisation was not a place in which to be solitary. Man, said one of the most influential of all Greeks, Aristotle, is a political animal. By this phrase, echoed by political philosophers down the centuries, he did not mean that we are all born to take an active interest in party politics but that it is in our nature to live in a polis, or community. Human beings, Aristotle taught, achieve their full potential by working for the common good, and their drive to do so is not implanted by society through an education in Civics but is an innate instinct.

An ancient Greek myth explains this. When the gods were first creating the animal kingdom, they gave to the brothers Prometheus and Epimetheus the power to choose the characteristics of each member as it was created. Epimetheus, who had more zeal than intelligence, persuaded Prometheus to let him do it by himself and he began distributing the gifts of the gods with enthusiasm. To some animals he gave horns and claws so that they could hunt for their food; to others he gave fleetness of foot to run away. To the different creatures as they came into being he handed out great strength, keen senses, thick skins and furs to ward off the cold. The last animal to be created was Man. By this time, Epithemius had nothing left to give. So Man was put on earth a bare, forked, unprotected thing until Prometheus, taking pity on humans, stole fire from heaven and gave them technology.

But technology demands communal effort, and humans could not use it to survive unless they could learn to cooperate and live in communities. So Zeus sent Hermes with two gifts from his own personal store: a sense of shame and a sense of justice. Hermes asked if he should distribute these gifts only to some individuals and not to others -- like the practical skills of carpentry and house-building. But Zeus said no: a community cannot survive only through its experts. If it contains laymen in the arts of communal living as there are laymen in the practical skills it will fail. So all men were given a sense of shame and justice. 'And,' Zeus added, 'implant this custom in them from me: that if there should be one without a sense of justice or shame from doing wrong he should be put to death as a pest of the community.' So the arete of Man, the purpose for which he was created, his true virtue, is to live in communities. Man is, by nature, a political animal.

The Greek society described by Homer was one in which people were motivated almost entirely by public opinion. It is an example of what anthropologists have called a 'shame culture' rather than a 'guilt culture' -- that is, one in which the main spur to activity is public esteem rather than the pricking of a private conscience. The highest good at which an individual could aim was the achievement of timi or public honour. (So fundamentally important was timi in this sense that it came to mean also the basic price or value of an object.) Achilles asks, 'Why should I fight if the good fighter receives no more timi than the bad'. When Hector takes his baby son in his arms in a famous scene of the Iliad he prays that the boy '. . . may become, as I have been, pre-eminent among the Trojans, as strong and brave as I . . . And let people say, as he returns from the fighting: "This man is better than his father." May he carry home the bloody spoils of the enemy he has killed and bring joy to his mother's heart.' The prayer strikes a harsh note with us today because the highest good the father can wish for his son is the notoriety that comes from fighting and plunder. But it is enough to gladden his mother because she knows that success as a warrior is the sure way to that public celebrity which was the spur to all human activities. The human being was significant only so far as he or she was acknowledged and praised by society.

Greek religion in the earliest times was a communal activity. The gods that were worshipped were those of the community, and the acts of worship were expressions of communal solidarity. But there was an early movement which departed from the usual worship of the Olympian gods in the direction of a more personal religion. Those who practiced the cult of Orpheus banded themselves into ascetic brotherhoods and tried to purify their souls through diet and dress. The Orphic cults were based on the myth that Orpheus had introduced to Greece from Egypt the worship of Dionysus. Soon after his birth, Dionysius was entrusted to the Titans, who, under Hera's orders, tore the child to shreds and boiled his flesh in a cauldron before eating it. The Titans were then blasted by the fire of Zeus, who created, from their ashes, a new race of men. These were composed of the eaters and the eaten, so that they each had within them the divinity that was a piece of the god. The soma, or body, was the sema or tomb of the divine. The Orphics taught that by abstinences and purifications the divine might be preserved pure within the body and protected from the soiling of the carnal appetites. Their practices were ascetic and mystical. The preachers of the Orphic doctrines were the first pre-Christian missionaries in the Mediterranean world. They were specially powerful at Crete and do not seem to have penetrated the religion of mainland Greece to a great extent until their most famous convert, Pythagoras. Pythagoreans, exponents of an intellectualised Orphism, practiced continence and abstinence and -- some of them -- silence. These religious observances of asceticism, of withdrawal from society, of stressing the individual's duty to work out his salvation with diligence, were all part of the transition which gave birth to the individual as set apart from society and so provided the first religiously based ideological justification for solitude.

Yet Greek society continued for the most part to maintain the social ethic of Homer, which survived into the age of Plato:

If you were to look at the ambitiousness of men, you would be surprised how irrational it is, unless you understand that the love of fame and the desire to win a glory that shall never die have the strongest effect upon people. For this they are ready to face any danger -- even more than for their own children: to spend their substance, to endure any physical hardship, to give their lives for it ... the nobler a man is, the more is undying fame and immortal arete the spring of his every action.

Anything which exposed an individual to the contempt or ridicule of others or which caused loss of face was intolerable. It was a matter of personal honour for a wronged person to seek revenge, and a prosecutor in an Athenian court would openly admit this as a reason for bringing a complaint.

In time of war, the Greeks sought and won honour by hand-to-hand combat on the battlefield. In peacetime, they bought it. The Attic farmer was as concerned as the Homeric hero to be publicly recognised. In the golden age -- the fifth century -- this recognition was attested by the possession of citizens rights, the loss of which was called atimia. As in every society, the wealthy were given public respect. Greeks enjoyed accumulating money and felt no pangs of conscience in pursuing it. Money was necessary to the good life and to keep friends. The poet Pindar wrote that a man who loses his money loses his friends, and quoted the words of Aristodamus of Argos which became proverbial:

'Money, money makyth Man,' he said
When he lost his possessions and friends together.

Theognis, an elegiac poet of the late sixth century BC, who had lost all his lands in a political revolution, said that poverty is worse than old age or shivering ague and that a man should avoid it even by flinging himself from a precipice or drowning himself in the sea. As poverty was degrading, wealth was elevating and allowed a citizen to buy and surround himself with beautiful objects to the delight of his family and the admiration of the society in which he lived.


So when we come to Socrates -- an unprepossessing figure who walked barefoot; whose meat and drink were of the poorest; who wore the same cloak, summer and winter; who claimed that the most valuable possession he had was his leisure and that to be content with little is to approach the divine -- a sea change has begun. It would be a misrepresentation, of course, to claim Socrates, that most sociable of men, as a hermit. His whole life was spent in public -- the market-place, the streets, the gymnasia. He had no liking for the country and rarely went there. 'Fields and trees', Plato makes him say, 'will not teach me anything; the life of the streets will.' He loved the market-place because there he had opportunities to talk with and therefore learn from his fellow Athenians.

But the market-place also, paradoxically, reinforced his asceticism by allowing him to experience the pleasures of abstinence. He once happily remarked, surrounded by the great variety of goods for sale: 'How many things there are that I do not want!' In his indifference to possessions and public opinion Socrates had the cast of mind of the solitary; but it was combined with an intense sociability that kept him in the city. He did not need to live in the desert to prove his independence. He was well able to assert and maintain it through his conversations. He was sociable but not committed to company. He could stand absorbed in his own thoughts from one dawn to the next if a thought struck him and he felt the need to unravel its potentialities. Dinner might cool and friends be kept waiting while Socrates pondered alone.

In another important respect Socrates cleared the philosophical ground for the solitaries: he argued for replacing the approval of society as the spur to human activity by the individual conscience. The aim of the wise man was no longer the plaudits of the masses but autarkeia, or self-sufficiency.

A contemporary of Socrates, Hippias of Elis, had also preached a doctrine of self-sufficiency but, in his case, it was a demonstration of his own virtuosity rather than of abstemiousness. He taught that the greatness of the polis was based on its economic independence and that every individual could achieve the same greatness and become a polis in himself by learning the arts of self-sufficiency. According to Plato, he once presented himself at the Olympic festival, where his fellow Sophists enjoyed parading themselves, wearing clothes and ornaments all of which he had made with his own hands, including an engraved ring and an ornate Persian belt. Socrates taught a different self-sufficiency: for him the wise man was not the one whose abilities had been expanded to fill his needs, but one whose needs had contracted to balance his abilities.

Such a person seemed to others deprived. Antipho, the Sophist, once approached Socrates and, in the presence of a crowd whose attention he was trying to capture, said:

I thought, Socrates, that those who studied philosophy were to become happier than other men; but you seem to have reaped from philosophy fruits of an opposite kind; at least you live in such a way as no slave would continue with his master: you eat food and drink drink of the worst kind; you wear a dress that is not only bad but the same in summer and winter, and you continue shoeless and coatless. Money, which cheers men when they receive it, and enables those who possess it to live more generously and pleasantly, you do not take ... you must consider yourself to be but a teacher of wretchedness.

Socrates answers that, since he doesn't take money for his conversations, he is at liberty to talk to the people he likes. As for his diet: 'he who eats with most pleasure is he who least requires sauce'. The purpose of changing dress in winter and summer is surely to enable people to go out in the different weather conditions, but Socrates points out that he has never had to stay at home because he was too hot or too cold, or because his feet hurt. He then rounds off his apologia for the ascetic life with words that inspired later generations: 'I think that to want nothing is to resemble the gods and that to want as little as possible is to make the nearest approach to the gods; that the Divine nature is perfection and that to be nearest to the Divine nature is to be nearest to perfection.'

As to public opinion, Socrates seemed indifferent to it during his life and, during his final hours, gave a reasoned explanation of the need to avoid dependency on it. In the year 399 BC he was locked away under sentence of death in the state prison in Athens. The execution had been stayed because of the annual ceremony in which the Athenians commemorated the delivery of their city by Theseus from the tribute exacted by the Cretan Minotaur. Ships sailed from the Athens to the sacred island of Delos, and while they were absent from the city no one could be put to death there. As Socrates and his executioner waited for the return of the fleet, his old friend Crito came to visit him with a plan for escape. Socrates was unwilling to run away and pointed out that a philosopher should uphold the law. One of the arguments Crito used to persuade him to fall in with the plan was that, if he refused, Crito would be blamed:

CRITO: Most people will never believe that it was you who refused to leave this place although we did our best to persuade you.

SOCRATES: But, my dear Crito, why should we pay so much attention to what 'most people' think? The reasonable people, who have more claim to our consideration, will believe the facts as they are.

CRITO: You can see for yourself, Socrates, that we have to think of popular opinion as well. Your situation right now is enough to show that the capacity of people for causing trouble is no small thing, in fact it has no limits if you once get a bad name with them.

SOCRATES: I just wish that ordinary people had a boundless capacity to do harm, because they might then have a limitless capacity to do good, which would be a marvellous thing. Actually they have neither. They cannot make a man wise or stupid; they just act at random.

Socrates goes on to say that serious thinkers have always held that only some of the opinions in popular circulation should be respected, others not. And, as was his way, he illustrates this by concrete examples:

SOCRATES: When a man is in training and taking it seriously, does he take notice of all praise and blame indiscriminately or does he only pay attention when it comes from his doctor or trainer?

CRITO: Only when it comes from the qualified person.

SOCRATES: Then he should fear the criticism and welcome the praise of the one qualified person, but not when it comes from the general public?

CRITO: Obviously.

SOCRATES: So he should regulate his work and his exercises as well as his diet in accordance with the judgement of his instructor, who has expert knowledge, rather than by the opinions of the general public.

CRITO: Yes, that is so.

And Socrates goes on to point out that the athlete who tries to train according to a regimen dictated by popular opinion is likely to damage himself. The conclusion is that popular opinion is an unsafe guide to human conduct and is more likely to lead to harm than good. This is a view which overturned the long-established priorities of the Greeks; it was a view which led them to put to death the wisest of their number.

The Cynics

After the death of Socrates, some of his followers picked up his indifference to popular opinion and carried it further, into an open scorn for society. They became the outsiders: rejecting material possessions, wandering the countryide with staff and begging bowl and claiming that the polis, far from being the natural environment for humanity, was the great distorter of human values.

Socrates had no more devoted pupil than Antisthenes, who walked from Piraeus to Athens every day, a round trip of over ten miles, to hear his master. Xenophon reports Socrates as saying that Antisthenes never left him, and Plato says that Antisthenes was with Socrates at his death. Antisthenes was not a full-blooded Athenian. His mother was from Thrace, possibly even a slave, and so he had no strong attachment to the city-state of Athens. He followed Socrates in teaching the importance of individuality and self-sufficiency. And, whereas Socrates thought of possessions as irrelevant to the pursuit of the good life, Antisthenes went one further and erected a scorn for wealth into an ethical principle. Since the appetites can distort a person's perception of the truth, and since wealth feeds the appetites, the wise man will avoid wealth and seek to control rather to indulge his desires.

As I see it, wealth is not a material possession that one can keep in one's house as if it were an object, but a disposition of the Soul. Otherwise it would be impossible to explain why anyone who already possesses material goods should expose himself to peril and fatigue for no other reason than to acquire more wealth ... For my part, though I confess I have no money at home, I don't want any because I only eat as much as will satisfy my hunger and drink to quench my thirst. I dress in such a way as to be as warm when out of doors as Callias in all his finery.

In fact, Antisthenes was quite comfortably off and the torn cloak he wore to make public his scorn for material possessions was an affectation. When he turned the cloak one day so that the tears were more obvious, Socrates remarked to him: 'I can see your vanity peeping through the holes in your cloak.' As Socrates echoes the spirit of Chuang-Tsu, so there is in his most devoted pupil a pre-echo, perhaps, of Tolstoy, whose servants spread silk sheets on the peasants' beds so that their master could sleep in comfort when experimenting with humility. Antisthenes cannot be enrolled as a precursor of the genuine hermits since he was given to parading an assumed poverty to make an impression on his fellow citizens; but in his philosophy of rejecting possessions and regarding civilisation as a corrupting influence on the natural goodness of mankind he was a bridge between Socrates and the Cynics.

Antisthenes was also important in the early history of Cynicism because he promoted the causes of the two principle patron saints of the Cynics: the hero, Herakles, and the king, Cyrus. Both demonstrated virtues which the Cynics adopted and passed on to hermits of later ages. Antisthenes wrote books about both.

Herakles was a generally admired hero figure because of his performance of the twelve labours, or ponoi, imposed on him by the gods. He piled up timi through demonstrations of courage and strength in overcoming obstacles, and his real virtue lies in the stoicism with which he accepts that which he cannot change. This is the Herakles of Homer, of Hesiod and of Pindar. But there is a subtle change in later stories of Herakles which reflect an attitude to toil, pain and labour which was accepted and later taught by the Cynics: that ease is to be avoided and that true virtue consists in the willing acceptance of avoidable discomfort.

The Horai of Prodicus, a precursor of Socrates from the mid fifth century BC, tell the story of how the young Herakles, before deciding on how he should shape his life, goes into the wilderness and meets two beautiful women. One is elegant and modest in her appearance and demeanour. She is Arete. The other wears a semitransparent dress and is heavily painted and sensual. Her name is Kakia, or Evil. The second approaches him and tells him that he can choose a life of pleasure and indulgence, living off other people and never experiencing toil or ponos. But Arete says that the gods never give any real good to humanity without ponos. The earth only produces crops after cultivation; cattle cannot be raised without toil; to excel in the martial arts the body must be healthy, and it can only become so through exercise. The people who follow her way have moderate enjoyments, not luxuries for which they have not worked. The young men are encouraged by praise from the old, and the old are honoured by the young. They celebrate the great achievements of the past and tackle with vigour the problems of the present. They are friends to the gods, loved by their friends and honoured in their native land.

There is never any doubt as to which of the two ways Herakles will choose. His choice is still in the context of the culture which is driven by public approval; but the significant change from earlier stories of Herakles is that here he deliberately choses the ponoi. They are not imposed from the outside and he does not undertake them to benefit others but to complete his own path to virtue. This preference for the career of hardship when an easy life is on offer is the mainstay of the Cynic philosophy.

The second Cynic patron erected the preference for hard living over civilised ease into a national principle of education. The Persian king, Cyrus is celebrated in the Cyropaedia of Xenophon (b. Athens c. 430 BC). This book in eight volumes is more a historical novel than true history, but it is significant in that the system of education which it promotes is one which accepts that the harsh conditions of a natural life -- that is, one lived close to nature -- are more conducive to morality and happiness than the sheltered existence of civilised people. This is a revolutionary idea in the golden age of the city-state and one which gives a philosophical basis to those who later chose to leave the city for a solitary life. Cyrus is represented as an ideal king and a morally superior being, not because of his specific achievements, but because he was pre-eminent in that virtue which all men should possess: the arete that comes from living a natural and ascetic life. His system was an individual-ethical one in which the human being is of primary and the state of secondary importance.

In their deliberate decision to adopt the ascetic rather than the easy life, the Cynics considered that they were opting for the natural way of living over civilisation. They prepared the philosophical way for later hermits by their preference for physis, or nature, over nomos, or culture. The idea of physis for the Greeks was that of property or characteristics. So that they would say it is in the 'nature' of wild animals to bite, or of dry wood to burn. As for people, their nature was part of their inheritance from their parents and they were most comfortable when acting in accordance with it. But civilisation often forced them to act according to the laws or custom of others. This could produce economic and political stability but it was at the cost of moral integrity. It is a conflict echoed by the hermits down to our own time.

The laws imposed by culture had been undermined by Herodotus, who demonstrated that they were relative rather than universally valid:

Darius, after he got the kingdom of [Persia], called into his presence certain Greeks who were at hand, and asked what he should pay them to eat the bodies of their fathers when they died. To which they answered that there was no sum that would tempt them to do such a thing. He then sent for certain Indians of the race called Callatians, men who eat their fathers, and asked them, as the Greeks stood by, and knew by the help of an interpreter all that was said, what he should give them to burn their fathers when they died. The Indians exclaimed in horror and asked him not to use such language. Such are the rules of custom, and Pindar was right in my judgement when he said: 'Custom is the King over all.'

The Cynics were individualists, proclaiming the supremacy of the individual over social rules, and they quoted the story from Herodotus in support of their view that physis, or nature, was constant and stable whereas nomos, or custom, was varied and changing. Nature was the core of the individual when the artificialities of society had been stripped away. So the Cynics tried to live on an irreducible minimum because this was kata physin -- according to nature.


The best-known pupil of Antisthenes, who most flagrantly demonstrated in his own life the rejection of civilisation, living outside society and living alone, was Diogenes of Sinope. He became far more famous in his own lifetime than his master and there are some difficulties of chronology in the relationship. Diogenes Laertius records that Antisthenes at first repulsed him with a stick, but Diogenes placed his head directly under it and said: 'Strike, for you will not find any stick hard enough to drive me away so long as you go on speaking.' Whether or not they actually met is uncertain, but the link in their philosophy is undeniable.

Diogenes was from Sinope, on the coast of the Black Sea, which had been founded as a Greek colony in the seventh century BC by the Ionians of Miletus. It was the terminus of a great caravan route from the River Euphrates to the Black Sea. His father, Hikesias, was a magistrate there and seems to have had some responsibility for the currency -- possibly as a money-changer -- because he was exiled, together with his son for debasing it. Diogenes reacted to the order of banishment by saying: 'The Sinopeans have condemned me to banishment; I condemn them to stay at home!'

This, at least, is one of the stories recorded by Diogenes Laertius. Diogenes made much use of the phrase 'paracharatein to nomisma', (altering the currency), and told the story that he had been directed to do so by the oracle at Delphi. The Greek word 'nomisma', orcurrency, is connected with 'nomos', meaning law or accepted standard of behaviour. So when Diogenes was told to alter the currency, he came to accept this as a divine command to change the ways people behaved. Sceptical critics have put this story down to a later invention and pointed out that the claim to have received a command from the Delphic oracle is simply an attempt to claim a link with Socrates, but the metaphor is an apt one.

Diogenes had one other teacher of philosophy as well as Antisthenes: an Athenian mouse. He was, so the story went, musing on life one day when he noticed a mouse running about in a carefree fashion. It wasn't afraid of the dark; it wasn't looking for a secure spot to lie down in or the comfort of a bed, or indeed any of the comforts that humans spend so much energy in seeking to acquire. And in the example of that mouse he found a remedy for his poverty and a basis for his philosophy.

According to Diogenes Laertius, he was the first to 'double his cloak out of necessity' and sleep in it; he carried a wallet in which he kept his food and all worldly possessions. He was once made so feeble by illness that he needed a staff to support him and took to the habit so that even when restored to health he carried a staff with him on his journeys. The cloak, the wallet and the staff became the badges of the Cynics.

Diogenes carried to extremes a number of Socratic ideas: frugality became with him asceticism; the famous Socratic irony which pretended ignorance as a mode of argument became parisia, an outspoken frankness which licensed all speech; sophrosiny, the moderation of sensual desires, became apatheia, an insensibility that could amount to callousness. And the indifference which Socrates professed to popular opinion became, with Diogenes, anaideia, a total shamelessness demonstrated by his practice of masturbating in public. Plato is said to have referred to Diogenes as 'Socrates gone mad'.

An instance of his madness was the occasion when he went to a meal at Plato's house and trampled over all the embroidered cushions with his muddy feet. 'Thus I trample on the pride of Plato', he cried. 'With the pride of Diogenes', replied Plato.

He was particularly upset by lavish interior decorations. At one rich man's house, finding himself surrounded by carpets and cushions, he spat on the owner's face, and then wiped it with his cloak and apologised, saying it was the only dirty place in the room he could find to spit. Diogenes enjoyed a joke and once, whenwatching an incompetent bowman at an archery contest, walked over and sat down right next to the target, explaining that it was the only place where he felt safe.

He was fond of demonstrating that the independence conferred by his isolation from society made him even more powerful than its greatest: 'Aristotle has to dine when Philip thinks fit; Diogenes can dine at any time he chooses'. The most famous instance of this was when the young Alexander the Great visited Diogenes one day and asked if he, the most powerful ruler the world had ever known, could do anything for the destitute philosopher. 'Yes,' Diogenes replied: 'get out of my sunlight'.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Dawn in China



The Emergence of the Individual



The Desert Fathers



Lying Low in the Dark Forest: The Russian Startsy


Ornamental Hermits: an Interlude



By Walden Pond: Henry David Thoreau



Light from the East: Ramakrishna



Hermit of the Sahara: Charles de Foucauld



The Waters of Contradiction: Thomas Merton



A Hermit for Our Time: Robert Lax on Patmos








What People are Saying About This

Anthony Storr

An engaging selective resume of the sayings and teachings of hermits down the ages... I wish Peter France had written his book before mine was published. I should certainly have drawn on his observations and his quotations from the great hermits which are as relevant to the human condition today as when they were first uttered. (Anthony Storr, author of Solitude: A Return to the Self)


"France shows himself to possess the discernment which was a prized virtue among the Desert Fathers, a sort of watchful irony... Clearly and engagingly written with a wealth of anecdote." --Author of Morality Play


An engaging selective resume of the sayings and teachings of hermits down the ages... I wish Peter France had written his book before mine was published. I should certainly have drawn on his observations and his quotations from the great hermits which are as relevant to the human condition today as when they were first uttered. (Anthony Storr, author of Solitude: A Return to the Self)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews