Eremiticism as Psychopathology?

Hermitary – – draws attention to an attempt at a “diagnosis” of modern Hermits.
“A curious piece in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Dec. 2012, is titled “Taking refuge from modernity: 21st century hermits.” The article describes some contemporary individuals as fleeing society due to “idiopathic, environmental intolerances, such as ‘multiple chemical sensitivity’ and ‘electrosensitivity’” and searches for possible analogies with historical hermits. The abstract shows the direction of the research and point of view:

“Idiopathic environmental intolerances, such as ‘multiple chemical sensitivity’ and ‘electrosensitivity,’ can drastically affect the quality of life of those affected. A proportion of severely affected patients remove themselves from modern society, to live in isolation away from the purported causal agent of their ill health. This is not a new phenomenon; reports of hermits extend back to the 3rd century AD. We conducted a literature review of case reports relating to ancient hermits and modern day reclusion resulting from idiopathic environmental intolerance, in order to explore whether there are similarities between these two groups and whether the symptoms of these ‘illnesses of modernity’ are simply a present-day way of reaching the end-point of reclusion. Whilst there were some differences between the cases, recurring themes in ancient and modern cases included: dissatisfaction with society, a compulsion to flee, reports of a constant struggle and a feeling of fighting against the establishment. The similarities which exist between the modern-day cases and the historical hermits may provide some insight into the extreme behaviours exhibited by this population. The desire to retreat from society in order to escape from harm has existed for many centuries, but in different guises.”
Noah John Rondeau

The historical hermits studied (and named) are just four: Noah John Rondeau, Roger Crab, St. Simeon Stylites, and St. Anthony. The article concludes controversially that with the diminished influence of religion in the modern world, the motive of those who are deemed intolerant of modern society may include the pretext of idiopathic medical conditions referred to in the article and abstract.”
crab 3
Roger Crab

The full text of the paper – “Taking refuge from modernity: 21st century hermits” by I. Boyd, G.J. Rubin and S. Wessely [King’s College London, Department of Psychological Medicine, Weston Education Centre, London SE5 9RJ, UK ] J R Soc Med December 2012 vol. 105 no. 12 523-529 can be found at and and

The authors might be forgiven for a singular lack of knowledge of eremiticism and the eremitical tradition, given that they make no claims to be specialists in this field, but one would have expected scholars to employ more and better documentary sources, not to mention more and more typical Hermits (21st century or otherwise) on which to base their research let alone their conclusions. The methodological flaws in the paper are too numerous to describe, but a few might be mentioned. The choice of only two – Simeon and Anthony – ancient hermits is suggestive of intellectual laziness more than rigorous scholarship. Neither can be said to have been typical of the early Hermits (even assuming that either can be properly defined as a Hermit). Likewise, the sources for both are limited and tend to hagiography. The extent to which they can be considered reliable for the purpose of psychological diagnosis can only be described as dubious. Roger Crab can hardly be considered to be a typical Hermit, if, indeed, he can be said to have been a Hermit at all. The same is true of Rondeau. The basis upon which the authors selected these four supposed Hermits is entirely unexplained.
St. Simeon Stylites

The use of only six contemporary case studies (and why only six?) is similarly limiting. It remains entirely unclear from the paper on what basis, other than some apparent self-declared reclusive tendencies, any of the six could be called “Hermits”. But, unfortunately, the paper does not seem to address the fundamental definitional question at all.

Simplistic “conclusions” follow from inadequate data and inadequate understanding. For example:

“In tracing each individual’s journey to isolation, it is clear that many of the case studies feel they have had no choice in making their decisions. PM asserts: ‘This is not a lifestyle I choose’; PS believes ‘I have no choice,’ whilst GM states ‘nobody would live like this if they had a choice.’ Furthermore, E reports ‘I felt I just had to get away’ while LS asks ‘do you think I would have given up a satisfying life … if I had a choice?’ This sense of compulsion is not limited to the modern studies, for St Anthony, when ‘entreated to stay’ in society, replied ‘fishes, if they remain long on dry land, die. And so monks lose their strength if they loiter among you.’ For both St Simeon and Roger Crab also, the sense that their behaviours were the will of God meant that to disobey was unthinkable. As Crab said in “The English Hermite” (1652): ‘If John the Baptist should come forth againe’, then he would preach ‘he that had two coats should give away one of them, and he that hath food should doe likewise’, indicating that, in Crab’s literal interpretation of the Scriptures, he had no choice if he was to behave in a true Christian manner. For both modern and historical hermits, this removal of autonomy can provide a powerful belief to adhere to when views and behaviours are questioned.”
anthony of desert
St. Anthony

Or, more dramatically (and even more inadequately supported by evidence or argument) their final conclusion:

“It appears there are similarities between those who live in isolation due to MCS [multiple chemical sensitivities] or EHS [electro-hypersensitivity] and hermits that lived previously. The similarities focus on problems living in society, compulsion to flee, a sense of persecution, and ideas of fighting for an under-recognized cause. The similarities exist despite extensive differences, such as the historical religious focus and differing public attitudes.

Many of the modern cases find it difficult to imagine re-integrating into society, with its ever-increasing use of computers and wireless technologies. Whereas St Anthony and St Simeon remained hermits until their deaths, neither Crab nor Rondeau could sustain such harsh ways of living into their old age. With the modern case studies showing both similarities and differences with their historical counterparts, it remains unclear whether, without intervention, they will be able to return to society and re-join ‘the land of the living.’”

Unfortunately, Hermits past and present are likely “victims” for those who seek to research far beyond their areas of competence and without even a basic understanding of the tradition of the eremitical life.


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