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Sociability • Confidence

On Becoming a Hermit

It’s one of the telling quirks of history that just as the world was growing ever noisier and more urbanised, there arose – in many countries of Europe – an obsession with hermits: bearded men in long unkempt cloaks who lived on their own, normally in a forest or up mountainside, reading, reflecting and contemplating nature. It briefly became a fashion among 18th century aristocrats to build – and staff – hermitages on their estates. Charles Hamilton, the English owner of Painshill Park in Surrey, offered the then enormous sum of £700 for anyone who would agree to spend seven years as hermit in a hut on his grounds, on the condition that he spoke to no one and never cut his hair (though after only three weeks, the successful candidate was discovered chatting in a local pub and sacked).

A painting of a hermit lost in thought by Dutch painter Gerrit Dou.
Gerrit Dou, A Hermit, 1664

Hermits fascinate us because they are who we might be if only we learnt to be braver. They have unearthed the courage to be unusual. They have ceased relying on outside sources of esteem in order to value themselves. They are free.

But it pays to remember that hermits were almost certainly something else before they reached a state of liberation: they were probably followers of fashion, panickers about trends and people who minded rather a lot what was being uttered about them on the street. No one is born not caring what others think. Such indifference is only ever the result of immense psychological labour; the 18th century had the wisdom to recognise it as an achievement to be ranked alongside – or indeed far above – winning a battle or making a fortune.

Being a hermit ultimately has nothing to do with letting one’s hair grow or maintaining years of silence. These are blunt external symbols of what really counts: a state of mind in which we make conscious efforts to distance ourselves from the absurdities of our era and focus on what remains beautiful, kind and good in the time that remains.

Hermits had a reputation for being strange; on closer examination, we should wonder why anyone would ever fail to want to be one.

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