Opinion: We Should All Be Hermits

Tarot Card Meanings

“The Hermit” tarot card depicts an elderly man atop a snowy mountain.

Harrison LeBow, Contributor

For millennia, recluses of staggering vigor have chosen to part themselves from society. The first hermits of antiquity, driven by an overwhelming sense of devotion and godliness, left all material possessions behind to strive forthright in the direction of their God(s). St. Paul Of Thebes (the First Hermit), disturbed by the immense Christian persecution under Roman Emperor Decius, fled to an ever-expansive Egyptian desert where he stayed for 97 years. The man clothed himself in palm leaves, drank from a nearby spring, and resided in a cave where he passed time with only thought. Today, he would be called a madman. He must have surely been sick. Depressed? Wasn’t he lonely? How could he do this to himself? What a waste!

St. Paul Of Thebes (the First Hermit) fled to an ever-expansive Egyptian desert where he stayed for 97 years. (Wikipedia)

Nearly 1,500 years after Paul’s solitary descent into the desert, American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote what is considered the hermit’s manifesto. This opus, originally entitled Walden; or, Life in the Woods contains the meticulous and poetic writings of Thoreau during his two year, two month, and two day “experiment” in the woods near Walden Pond. Thoreau begins, “When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months.” Through 17 chapters, 276 pages, and countless similes, metaphors, and double entendres, Thoreau traverses the woods around Walden, likening it to the Garden of Eden. When he returns to his cabin, he ensures his prose maintains the same level of philosophical and spiritual subtext as though he had just seen Heaven itself in his kitchen drawer. Thoreau tells of nothing exciting; in one chapter, aptly titled “Sounds”, he describes the noises that fill his ears as he sits on his porch in the dead of night. Thoreau indirectly attributes his leisurely philosophical headspace to what I deem the three S’s: Simplicity, Silence, and Solitude. Throughout Walden, Thoreau touches on all three:

Thoreau, on Simplicity: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”

Thoreau, on Silence: “As the truest society approaches always nearer to solitude, so the most excellent speech finally falls into Silence. Silence is audible to all men, at all times, and in all places. She is when we hear inwardly, sound when we hear outwardly.” 

Thoreau, on Solitude: “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

Photograph of Henry David Thoreau ca. 1856 (Mental Floss)

As Thoreau mused on the quotidian and unexceptional, and the Industrial Revolution made way for the Digital Revolution, new generations of visionary creators, such as British-documentary filmmaker Ben Rivers, discovered Thoreau’s masterwork. In the International Film Critics award-winning Two Years At Sea (available on Kanopy and iTunes), Rivers creates a film in Thoreau’s likeness. Two Years At Sea is a film of incredible simplicity — one that would earn Thoreau’s approval. It tells the story of Jake Williams, a hermit living in the Scottish woodlands. The camera follows Jake as he goes about his day through each of the four seasons. The shots are long, and only roughly 30 things happen in the 90 minute film. Jake walks slowly. He chops some wood. He boils some water. For most, sitting through Two Years at Sea would be excruciating. Only Rivers can truly appreciate the film, which emphasizes the idea that critics — of film and society — seem to have disdain for what is on the surface, and neglect looking deeper. 

In the International Film Critics award-winning Two Years At Sea, Rivers creates a film in Thoreau’s likeness. (CineMaterial)

As St. Paul lies in his cave, Thoreau writes in his cabin, and Jake Williams watches the water boil over, the question begs to be asked, “Are these people crazy?” What frame of mind prompts one to choose this sort of lifestyle? Depression, loneliness, and boredom are the most common traits mistakenly associated with hermits. A quick Google search for Rivers’ Two Years At Sea yields some rather harsh — yet understandable — thoughts, such as the following from Eye For Film’s Anton Bitel: “Repeated, often prolonged images of Williams napping also unavoidably brings home the film’s soporific effect on the viewer. If the protagonist can sleep through his own feature, why shouldn’t we?” While explanations of loneliness and boredom make sense, they obscure many truths hiding just out of frame. 

In one of his most powerful quotations, Thoreau writes, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation… A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind”. Thoreau argues that society lives as it does because it knows no other way. From birth, society emphasizes to us the qualities of a “proper life”: higher education (in whatever form that may be), marriage, housing, children, grandchildren, and death. Thoreau insists it does not have to be this way. We can set aside time to listen to the sounds of the forest and watch the ants crawl up the hill, and we do not have to construct dwellings in the woods to live this way. Thoreau concludes his thought, “Yet they honestly think there is no choice left… No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof”. 

In a deck of tarot cards, there is a rather striking image included among the 22 allegorical figures: The Hermit. The image depicts an elderly man atop a snowy mountain. In his left hand, he grips a staff firmly planted in the ground; in his right, he raises a lantern holding a six-pointed shining star. When a player draws this card upright in a game of tarot, he or she must inwardly reflect and introspect for answers.

When a player draws “The Hermit” card upright in a game of tarot, he or she must inwardly reflect and introspect for answers. (Tarot Card Meanings)

Solitude is not the synonym of loneliness. Hermitage is not the antonym of society. Rather, to be a hermit is to live at the mercy of one’s own thoughts, and not to resist them when they come, but to invite them in and let them watch the water boil over.