Monks come in two kinds, the cenobites and the eremites or hermits. The cenobites live in community whereas the hermits go off on their own. Eremos in Greek means desert, and there are many different motives for moving into the desert either literally or figuratively. There are those whose serious psychological conditions make it impossible for them to function in modern society. Chris Knight is such a one, who, when asked about Thoreau, replied in one word, "dilettante." That's saying something inasmuch as Henry David was one monkish and solitary dude even when he wasn't hanging out at Walden Pond. Somewhere in his fascinating journal he writes, "I have no walks to throw away on company."
Others of a monkish bent are wholly sane, unlike Knight, so sane in fact that they perceive and reject the less-than-sane hustle of Big City life. Some are motivated religiously, some philosophically, and some share both motivations. I have always held that a sane religiosity has to be deeply philosophical and vice versa. I think most of the Desert Fathers would agree. Athens and Jerusalem need each other for complementation and mutual correction. Some of the monkish are members of monastic religious orders, some attach themselves as oblates to such orders, and some go it alone. Call the latter the Maverick Variation.
And of course there are degrees of withdrawal from society and its illusions. I have been called a recluse, but on most days I engage in a bit of socializing usually early in the morning in the weight room or at the pool or spa where a certain amount of banter & bullshit is de rigueur. I thereby satisfy my exiguous social needs for the rest of the day. Other mornings, sick of such idle talk and the corrrosive effect it can have on one's seriousness and spiritual focus, I head for the hills to traipse alone with my thoughts as company. But I am not as severe as old Henry David: I will share my walk with you and show you some trails if you are serious, fit, and don't talk too much.
I am a Myers-Briggs INTP introvert. Must one be an introvert to be a hermit? No. The most interesting hermit I know is an extrovert who in his younger days was a BMOC, excellent at sports, successful at 'the chase,' who ended up on Wall Street, became very wealthy, indulged his every appetite, but then had a series of profound religious experiences that inspired him to sell all he owned and follow Christ, first into a cenobium, then into a hermitage.
A tip of the hat and a Merry Christmas to Karl White of London for sending me to this Guardian piece which profiles some contemporary monkish specimens.
An outstanding essay by Robert Royal on the many Mertons and their uneasy unity in one fleshly vehicle. There is of course Merton the Contemplative, the convert to Catholicism who, with the typical zeal of the convert, took it all the way to the austerities of Trappist monasticism, and that at a time (1941) when it was a more demanding and rigorous affair than today. In serious tension with the Contemplative, the Scribbler:
It did not help that Merton the Contemplative confronted Merton the Writer. Even for a man not vowed to silence, Merton's several dozen books would have been an extraordinary output. But adding the journals -- four volumes have now appeared and the whole will run to seven volumes totaling about 3,500 large pages -- we begin to glimpse a serious conflict. Can a man committed to the wordless apophatic way and a forgetting of self be preoccupied with recording-and publishing-every thought and act?
I live that tension myself very morning. For me it takes the form of a conflict between Athens and Benares, as I like to call it. Denk, denk, denk, scribble scribble, scribble from 2 AM on. But then at 4 AM, no later! I must tear myself away from the discursive desk and mount the black mat of meditation, going into reverse, as it were, moving from disciplined thinking to disciplined non-thinking.
Also in tension with the Contemplative, the Bohemian:
There were also other Mertons, among the more troublesome: the Bohemian. This Merton felt a constant need to be an outsider. When Merton lived in the world, it took the usual forms. He had aspirations to being an experimental writer and poet (his Collected Poems, which show real innovation but great unevenness, run to almost 1,000 pages). He listened to jazz, dabbled in leftist politics, hit the bottle pretty hard, smoked heavily, had his share of girlfriends, and did a bit of drawing. All relatively harmless, but some incongruous holdover bedeviled Merton the monk. Should a Trappist be interested in Henry Miller? Or follow Joan Baez? Or Bob Dylan? As late as 1959 (after eighteen years in the abbey), Merton was reading books like James Thurber's The Years with Ross, an account of life under Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker. The New Yorker of the fifties was more staid than its current incarnation, and Merton often claimed the chic ads reminded him of everything in the world he had fled. But there was something odd in a monk even being interested in a magazine like the New Yorker.
Also battling with the Contemplative and Quietist (in a broad sense of this term), a fourth Merton, the Social Activist who aligned easily with the Writer and the Bohemian:
In the 1960s that world [the world outside the monastic enclosure, the 'real' world in the parlance of the worldly] came to the fore in his work. The Contemplative who fled the world, however, was not always a good advisor for the Activist. The Contemplative had not fared well in European or American society, and had taken this as proof that those societies were not doing well either. This led him to a number of mistaken or exaggerated judgments. During the fifties he accepted a theory of the moral equivalence of the United States and the Soviet Union. The Vietnam War abroad and the civil rights struggle at home, he came to believe, revealed a totalitarian impulse in America and he wrote of the possible emergence of a Nazi-like racial regime in the United States. (Emphasis added)
Royal has it exactly right.
The frequent tendency of Merton the Activist to overstatement is telling. Merton was by background mostly a European. And lacking any experience of the moral realism and decency of most Americans, he tended to judge all of American society through the lens of heated political controversies and the usual intellectual complaints about the bourgeoisie. His essays on civil rights, for example, are heartfelt and penetrating, but are not even a very good description of the predicament of the American liberal. The kind of moderation Merton showed in spiritual and moral questions rarely appears in his social commentary. He was angry about political issues in the early 1960s. (Emphasis added)
Spot on, once again. Merton was in many ways a typical leftist intellectual alienated from and unappreciative of the country that allowed him to live his kind of life in his kind of way, as opposed to, say, being forced into a concentration camp and then put to death. The Commies were not all that kind to religion and religionists. You may recall that Edith Stein, another Catholic convert, became a Carmelite nun, but was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz. She was, by the way, a much better thinker than Merton.
Merton the Man is the uneasy unity of these four personae. His edifice is four-storied rather than seven, and I suppose 'story' could also be read as 'narrative' or 'script,' the Contemplative, the Writer, the Bohemian, and the Activist being as much multiply exemplifiable life-scripts as the competing personae of one particular man.
Intimately interwoven with these four Mertons is someone we are forced to call Merton the Man. This Fifth Business never entirely settled down. The Contemplative, as may be seen in painful detail in the journals, is constantly vacillating, though in his public work Merton displays spiritual mastery. The Writer is gifted, but so much so that he has a tendency toward glibness. The Bohemian Merton got the others into any number of scrapes, and the Activist Merton often got carried away by currents in the sixties that-in retrospect-were not entirely fair to American society. Yet when all is said and done, Merton remains one of the great contemplative spirits of the century.
Merton died young in Bangkok in 1968, at the age of 53. He was there for a conference. Those of us who have attended and contributed to academic conferences know how dubious they are, and how destabilizing to a centered life. I tend to think that it was the Writer, The Bohemian, and the Activist who, in the synergy of an unholy trinity, swamped the Contemplative and caused him to be lured away from his circumscribed but true monastic orbit.
If he had lived on into the '70s would Merton have remained a monk? Who knows? So many men and women of the cloth abandoned their vocations and vows at that time.* In his Asian journal he writes that he intended to return to Gethsemani. It is nevertheless reasonable to speculate that he would not have lasted as a monk much longer. The Zeitgeist would have got to him, and the synergy of the unholy trinity just mentioned. Not to mention the transports of earthly love:
The mid-1960s brought him to the brink of disaster. Merton had a back problem requiring an operation at a Catholic hospital in Louisville. When he recovered from the anesthesia, he was anxious that he had missed daily communion. He began making notes on Meister Eckhart. His long- desired hermitage awaited him back at Gethsemani. To the eye, it was business as usual.
But a pretty young student nurse came in. A Catholic, she knew of Merton from a book her father had given her. Something erupted between them- even though she had a fiance in Chicago. On leaving the hospital, he wrote her about needing friendship. She wrote back, instructed by him to mark the envelope "conscience matter" (lest the superiors read the correspondence). Under "conscience matter," Merton sent a declaration of love. Thus began a series of deceptions, and Merton only narrowly avoided the shipwreck of his monastic vows because of the impossibility of the whole situation.
*I think of the Jesuits and others who had jobs in philosophy because they were assigned to teach it at Catholic colleges back in the day when such colleges were more than nominally Catholic, and how they left their religious orders -- but kept their jobs! Nice work if you can get it.
Let me start off by recommending Jim Ryan's infrequently updated but very old (since 2002!) Philosoblog, the archives of which contain excellent material worthy of the coveted MavPhilSTOA (stamp of approval). The following entry (originally posted February 2005 at my first blog) is in response to my query as to why Ryan left university teaching.
JR: Well, here's my story, thanks for asking: I've always taken learning to be almost sacred, scholarship to be transcendent, books sublime. Given this disposition, I was unable to stomach teaching that 20% of my students who were there to get by by hook or by crook (avoid class, avoid the book, succumb to cheating, etc.). I realized at 37 that I would become a bitter old man if I taught for another 30 years. I liked the other 80% of my students, and I liked my research, but these weren't enough to get me through the bitter part. So, having a reasonable math and science background I boned up on chemistry during my last year of teaching and hustled a job in the Chem department at U. of Virginia. That was two years ago, almost. It's been fun, but now I'm thinking of moving into the business world, so that I can make more money and have more time with my kids.
What about your story, Bill? How'd you come to quit?
BV: Learning sacred, scholarship transcendent, books sublime. I can see we have something in common, a commonality that is also part of the reason why I gave up teaching. The average run of students would dismiss your sentiments and mine as bullshit, as some kind of empty self-serving rhetoric that could only be spouted by some weirdo who fills his belly by spouting it. Most people have no intellectual eros, could not care less about scholarship, and place no value whatsoever on good books.
Proof of the latter point can be found by scouring the used bookstores in a locale like Boston-Cambridge. Take a book off the shelf that was assigned in a course, note the underlining or 'magic marker mark-up' and how it extends maybe three or four pages and then stops -- great for me, of course, who gets a relatively pristine copy for pennies, but indicative of the pointlessness of reading assignments.
Most teaching is like trying to feed people who aren't hungry. Pointless. Of course, I had some great students and some great classes. But not enough of either to justify the enterprise.
Then there is the problem of stimulating colleagues. It is easy to end up in a department without any, in which case you are on your own, and you may as well be an independent scholar. Isolation? Not any more. Not with the WWW and the blogosphere in particular.
But the main reason I quit was to be able to do philosophy full time and live a more focused existence. It had been something I had been thinking about for a long time. I see philosophy as a spiritual quest, not an academic game. I had tenure, and I had enjoyed it for seven years. I had enjoyed a two-year visiting associate professorship, and I could have returned to my tenured position, but I was ready to take the next step in my life. The catalyst was my wife's being offered a great job in a beautiful place. Being a Westerner, I had served enough time in the effete and epicene East and was ready to get back to where mountains are mountains and hikers and climbers are damn glad of it.
Properly enacted, independent thinking is not in the service of self-will or subjective opining, but in the service of submission to a higher authority, truth itself. We think for ourselves in order to find a truth that is not from ourselves, but from reality. The idea is to become dependent on reality, rather than on institutional and social distortions of reality. Independence subserves a higher dependence.
It is worth noting that thinking for oneself is no guarantee that one will arrive at truth. Far from it. The maverick's trail may issue in a dead end. Or it may not. The world is littered with conflicting opinions generated from the febrile heads of people with too much trust in their own powers. But neither is submission to an institution's authority any assurance of safe passage to the harbor of truth. Both the one who questions authority and the one who submits to it can end up on a reef. 'Think for yourself' and 'Submit to authority' are both onesided pieces of advice.
True Detective is a new HBO series getting rave reviews. This bit, I am told by Karl White from whom I first learned about the series, is from the first episode. It's good. I'll leave it to you to sort through the sophistry of Rust's spiel.
Here is some TD dialog about religion. I'll say this about it: it is well done and stimulates thought.
The scriptwriter, Nic Pizzolatto, is a very interesting cat who abandoned a tenure-track university gig to try his hand at writing for TV. It takes balls to give up security for a long shot. Especially when you have a kid. At that point nothing-ventured-nothing-gained risk-taking begins to taper off into irresponsibility. If I had had young children I wouldn't have quit my tenured post. Conservatives are cautious and responsible, fiscally and otherwise.
Pizzolatto earns a place in my Mavericks category. Bio and interview here. Excerpt:
Do you think part of the reason why television had so much appeal for you was that you knew you’d be able to reach an audience? Everyone has a TV in the living room. Not everyone reads literary novels.
That’s a great point. I think, with myself, growing up in rural Louisiana but having TV—TV jumps all these class boundaries. For a kid to even have a disposition to be willing to sit down and read literary fiction and not regard it as a waste of time—that requires a certain amount of cultural influence and education. But TV sneaks in, no matter what. I really like that. And the idea that you could put your heart and soul and every bit of yourself into it, the same way you could a novel, and stay there and make sure it was done right? That was all appealing.
I am as confirmed a bibliophile as I am a scribbler. But books and bookishness can appear in an unfavorable light. I may call myself a bibliophile, but others will say 'bookworm.' My mother, seeing me reading, more than once recommended that I go outside and do something. What the old lady didn't appreciate was that mine was a higher doing, and that I was preparing myself to live by my wits and avoid grunt jobs, which is what I succeeded in doing.
Orwell, then, presented Catholics as either stupid or blinkered, dishonest or self-deceived. Yet he was very far from denying the need for religion. In his opinion socialists were quite wrong to assume that when basic material needs had been supplied, spiritual concerns would wither away. ‘The truth,’ Orwell wrote in 1944, ‘is the opposite: when one’s belly is empty, one’s only problem is an empty belly. It is when we have got away from drudgery and exploitation that we shall really start wondering about man’s destiny and the reason for his existence. One cannot have any worthwhile picture of the future unless one realises how much we have lost by the decay of Christianity.’
Exactly right. Would that the point were appreciated by the so-called New Atheists and their cyberpunk acolytes. Were they to rid the world of religion, what would they put in its place, to satisfy the needs of the spirit for meaning and point in the teeth of time and transition?
Prescriptive worldly counsel and other-worldly [hyphen added!] ideals were both anathema. ‘No doubt alcohol, tobacco and so forth are things that a saint must avoid,’ Orwell wrote in his essay on Gandhi, ‘but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.’ ‘The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.’
Part of what attracts me to Orwell is his intellectual honesty. He sees the problem, one that superficial atheists and dogmatic believers alike often paper over. The baubles and trinkets of this all-too- transient life cannot satisfy anyone with spiritual depth, which is presumably why Marxists and other leftist activists of a less superficial stripe invent a pie-in-the-future ersatz which is even less believable than the promises of traditional religion. But on the other hand, the dogmatic certainties projected by the will-to-believe flabbergast the critical intellect and appear as so many idols set up to avoid nihilism at all costs.
Yet seven months before Orwell died, he wrote to Buddicom, insisting that there must be some sort of afterlife. The letter, unfortunately, is lost, but Buddicom remembered that he had seemed to be referring not so much to Christian ideas of heaven and hell, but rather to a firm belief that ‘nothing ever dies’, that we must go on somewhere. This conviction seems to have stayed with him to the end: even if he did not believe in hell, he chose in his last weeks to read Dante’s Divine Comedy.
In his will Orwell had left directions that he should be buried according to the rites of the Church of England. Of course no one was better qualified to appreciate the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer; nevertheless the request surprised some of his admirers. A funeral was duly held at Christ Church in Albany Street; and David Astor, responsible for the arrangements, asked if his friend’s body might be interred in a country churchyard, at Sutton Courtenay, in Berkshire.
Appealing to both Right and Left, invoked by both, Orwell is owned by neither. He was his own man, a maverick. Hats off.
William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966) had his day in the philosophical sun, but is no longer much read – except perhaps by those contrarians who take being unread by contemporaries as a possible mark of distinction. Recently I came across this magnificent passage:
Life itself is individual, and the most significant things in the world – perhaps in the end the only significant things – are individual souls. Each one of these must work its own way to salvation, win its own experience, suffer from its own mistakes: "through angers, losses, ambition, ignorance, ennui," yes, and through crime and retribution, "what you are picks its way." Any rule which by running human conduct into approved grooves saves men from this salutary Odyssey thwarts the first meaning of human life. ("The Philosophical Anarchist" in R. Hoffman, ed. Anarchism, New York: Lieber-Atherton, 1973, pp. 120-121.)
The quotation within this quotation is from the last stanza of Walt Whitman's "To You" from Leaves of Grass.
The solid bourgeois may dismiss as so much nonsense philosophy, poetry, and other products of questers and romantics -- all the while subscribing to the socially sanctioned nonsense of some respectable established church.
Be neither bourgeois nor bohemian, the one to the exclusion of the other. The true maverick is that dialectical blend, the sublatedness (Aufgehobensein) of both, that blend known as the BoBo, the bourgeois bohemian.
How wildly diverse the concrete solutions to the problem of life that each works out for himself!
There was Leon Trotsky the professional revolutionary who worshipped life-long at the altar of politics. Politics was his substitute for religion. (If religion is the opiate of the masses, revolutionary politics is the opiate of the intellectuals.)
And then there was Trotsky's secretary and bodyguard Jean van Heijenoort who, after finally seeing through the illusions of Communism after years of selfless service to its cause, renounced politics entirely and devoted himself to mathematical logic, becoming a distinguished historian of the subject. One is struck by the extremity of this turn away from something of great human relevance to something of almost none. A retreat from messy reality into a realm of bloodless abstractions. An escape from the bloody horrors of politics into the arcane. At the same time, a turn from devotion to a great but ill-conceived cause to bourgeois self-indulgence in sex, 'romance,' and love affairs. Sadly, his fatal attraction to Ana Maria Zamora got him killed in the same place, Mexico City, where Trotsky met his end at the point of an ice axe wielded by a puppet of Stalin. Zamora shot van Heijenoort with her Colt .38 while he slept . From revolutionary to bourgeois professor of philosophy at Brandeis University. But he was never so bourgeois as to respect the bourgeois institution of marriage.
Dr. George Sheehan's escape was into running to which he ascribed a significance it could not bear. He was an inspiration to a lot of us with his 1975 On Running. But then came a string of rather more fatuous and portentous titles, starting with Running and Being. As if der Sinn von Sein is poised to disclose itself to the fleet of foot. All due praise to running, but homo currens qua currens is not on the way to Being.
And then there are those who went from politics to religion. Unlike van Heijenoort who moved from leftist politcs to mathematical logic, Simone Weil went from leftist politics to religion. "The great error of the Marxists and of all of the nineteenth century was to believe that by walking straight ahead one had mounted into the air." Exactly right.
Edith Stein, another very bright Jewish philosophy student, went from philosophy to religion. Seeking total commitment she fled to a Carmelite monastery. She was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz as Trotsky was murdered by the long arm of Stalin in Mexico City. When I say that Stein went from philosophy to religion, I do not mean that she abandoned the first for the second: she wrote weighty tomes in the convent, Finite and Eternal Being and Potency and Act, to name two. But they were written under the banner, philosophia ancilla theologiae.
It is fruitful to compare Weil and Stein. The former, despite her attraction, kept her distance from the Roman church -- Kenneth Rexroth speaks of her "tortured prowling outside the doors of the Catholic Church" -- while the latter embraced it in the most committed way imaginable. There is a 'logic' to such commitment, one that is operative in the lives of many a convert, Thomas Merton being another example: if it is The Truth that one has found, then surely it demands and deserves total commitment. Religion really embraced and made existential make a totalitarian claim -- which is why the totalitarians of the Left must make total war on it.
But these days I've been reading the slacker poet, Charles Bukowski, so perhaps he deserves a place in this little incomplete catalog. His epitaph reads, Don't try." He avoided bourgeois mediocity, no doubt, but along a path that cannot be recommended: one of piecemeal physical and spiritual suicide. Whatever you say about Trotksy, van Heijenoort, Sheehan, Weil and Stein, they were strivers. They understood that a life worth living is a life of relentless effort and exertion and self-overcoming. It is about subduing the lower self, not wallowing in it.
When I was a young man I came to the conclusion that I had three choices, three paths: suicide, mediocrity, striving. A lifetime later I verify that my choice of the third was best.
Reader Ray Stahl of Port Angeles, Washington, kindly mailed me a copy of Ned Polsky, Hustlers, Beats, and Others. It is a work of sociology by a maverick sociologist, academically trained, but decidedly his own man. I wasn't aware of it or him until a few days ago. The preface already has me convinced that this is a book I will read and digest. A writer who writes like this is a writer to read:
Many readers of this book will feel that I object to the views of other scholars in terms that are overly fierce. These days the more usual mode in academia, thronged as it is with arrivistes aspiring to be gentlemen, is to voice such objections oleaginously. But luckily I cut an eyetooth on that masterpiece of English prose, A. E. Housman's introduction to his edition of Manilius, and so am forever immune to the notion that polemical writing and scholarly writing shouldn't mix. I believe that polemical scholarship improves the quality of intellectual life -- sharpens the mind, helps get issues settled faster -- by forcing genteel discussion to become genuine debate.
(Hyperlinks added. Obviously. But it raises a curiously pedantic question: By what right does one tamper with a text in this way? Pedantic the question, I leave it to the pedants.)
Polsky died in 2000. Here is an obituary. You will have to scroll down to find it.