The Hermit as Outlaw

“Philoxenos in his ninth memra (on poverty) to dwellers in solitude, says that there is no explanation and no justification for the solitary life, since it is without a law. To be contemplative is therefore to be an outlaw. As was Christ. As was Paul.

One who is not “alone,” says Philoxenos, has not discovered his identity. He seems to be alone, perhaps, for he experiences himself as “individual.” But because he is willingly enclosed and limited by the laws and illusions of collective existence, he has no more identity than an unborn child in the womb. He is not yet conscious. He is alien to his own truth. He has senses, but he cannot use them. He has life, but not identity. To have an identity, he has to be awake, and aware. But to be awake, he has to accept vulnerability and death. Not for their own sake: not out of stoicism or despair-only for the sake of the invulnerable inner reality which we cannot recognize (which we can only be ) but to which we awaken only when we see the unreality of our vulnerable shell. The discovery of this inner self is an act and affirmation of solitude.


Now if we take our vulnerable shell to be our true identity, if we think our mask is our true face, we will protect it with fabrications even at the cost of violating our own truth. This seems to be the collective endeavor of society: the more busily men dedicate themselves to it, the more certainly it becomes a collective illusion, until in the end we have the enormous, obsessive, uncontrollable dynamic of fabrications designed to protect mere fictitious identities– “selves,” that is to say, regarded as objects. Selves that can stand back and see themselves having fun (an illusion which reassures them that they are real).

Such is the ignorance which is taken to be the axiomatic foundation of all knowledge in the human collectivity: in order to experience yourself as real, you have to suppress the awareness of your contingency, your unreality, your state of radical need. This you do by creating an awareness of yourself as one who has no needs that he cannot immediately fulfill. Basically, this is an illusion of omnipotence: an illusion which the collectivity arrogates to itself, and consents to share with its individual members in proportion as they submit to its more central and more rigid fabrications.

You have needs; but if you behave and conform you can participate in the collective power. You can then satisfy all your needs. Meanwhile, in order to increase its power over you, the collectivity increases your needs. It also tightens its demand for conformity. Thus you can become all the more committed to the collective illusion in proportion to becoming more hopelessly mortgaged to collective power.


How does this work? The collectivity informs and shapes your will to happiness (“have fun”) by presenting you with irresistible images of yourself as you would like to be: having fun that is so perfectly credible that it allows no interference of conscious doubt. In theory such a good time can be so convincing that you are no longer aware of even a remote possibility that it might change into something less satisfying. In practice, expensive fun always admits of a doubt, which blossoms out into another full-blown need, which then calls for a still more credible and more costly refinement of satisfaction, which again fails you. The end of the cycle is despair.

Because we live in a womb of collective illusion, our freedom remains abortive. Our capacities for joy, peace, and truth are never liberated. They can never be used. We are prisoners of a process, a dialectic of false promises and real deceptions ending in futility.

“The unborn child,” says Philoxenos, “is already perfect and fully constituted in his nature, with all his senses, and limbs, but he cannot make use of them in their natural functions, because, in the womb, he cannot strengthen or develop them for such use.”

Now, since all things have their season, there is a time to be unborn. We must begin, indeed, in the social womb. There is a time for warmth in the collective myth. But there is also a time to be born. He who is spiritually “born” as a mature identity is liberated from the enclosing womb of myth and prejudice. He learns to think for himself, guided no longer by the dictates of need and by the systems and processes designed to create artificial needs and then “satisfy” them.

This emancipation can take two forms: first that of the active life, which liberates itself from enslavement to necessity by considering and serving the needs of others, without thought of personal interest or return. And second, the contemplative life, which must not be construed as an escape from time and matter, from social responsibility and from the life of sense, but rather, as an advance into solitude and the desert, a confrontation with poverty and the void, a renunciation of the empirical self, in the presence of death, and nothingness, in order to overcome the ignorance and error that spring from the fear of “being nothing.” The man who dares to be alone can come to see that the “empitness” and “uselessness” which the collective mind fears and condemns are necessary conditions for the encounter with truth.


It is in the desert of loneliness and emptiness that the fear of death and the need for self-affirmation are seen to be illusory. When this is faced, then anguish is not necessarily overcome, but it can be accepted and understood. Thus, in the heart of anguish are found the gifts of peace and understanding: not simply in personal illumination and liberation, but by commitment and empathy, for the contemplative must assume the universal anguish and the inescapable condition of mortal man. The solitary, far from enclosing himself in himself, becomes every man. He dwells in the solitude, the poverty, the indigence of every man.

It is in this sense that the hermit, according to Philoxenos, imitates Christ. For in Christ, God takes to Himself the solitude and dereliction of man: every man. From the moment Christ went out into the desert to be tempted, the loneliness, the temptation and the hunger of every man became the loneliness, temptation and hunger of Christ. But in return, the gift of truth with which Christ dispelled the three kinds of illusion offered him in his temptation (security, reputation and power) can become also our own truth, if we can only accept it. It is offered to us also in temptation. “You too go out into the desert,” said Philoxenos, “having with you nothing of the world, and the Holy Spirit will go with you. See the freedom with which Jesus has gone forth, and go forth like Him-see where he has left the rule of men; leave the rule of the world where he has left the law, and go out with him to fight the power of error.”…


The love of solitude is sometimes condemned as “hatred of our fellow men.” But is this true? If we push our analysis of collective thinking a little further we will find that the dialectic of power and need, of submission and satisfaction, ends by being a dialectic of hate. Collectivity needs not only to absorb everyone it can, but also implicitly to hate and destroy whoever cannot be absorbed. Paradoxically, one of the needs of collectivity is to reject certain classes, or races, or groups, in order to strengthen its own self-awareness by hating them instead of absorbing them.

Thus the solitary cannot survive unless he is capable of loving everyone, without concern for the fact that he is likely to be regarded by all of them as a traitor. Only the man who has fully attained his own spiritual identity can live without the need to kill, and without the need of a doctrine that permits him to do so with a good conscience. There will always be a place, says Ionesco, ” for those isolated consciences who have stood up for the universal conscience ” as against the mass mind. But their place is solitude. They have no other. Hence it is the solitary person (whether in the city or in the desert) who does mankind the inestimable favor of reminding it of its true capacity for maturity, liberty and peace.

It sounds very much like Philoxenos to me.”


From Thomas Merton “Rain and the Rhinoceros” (1964) from Raids on the Unspeakable in 1966. Full text available on-line at:

For an account of the writing of “Rain and the Rhinoceros”, see:


Thomas Merton Raids on the Unspeakable New Directions, 8th printing edition, 1966)

For Philoxenus, see:

Philoxenus Ascetic Discourses. Discourse 9 – Second Discourse on Poverty: available on-line at:

“Now therefore it is meet for those who desire to be freed from the fetters of the world to release themselves completely, and to put off and to cast away their old clothes and to put on new, which is the rule and conduct of Christ. And this apparel is the apparel of the kingdom, and it is meet that all the ornaments of an excellent rule and conduct of life should be found therein. It is meet that whosoever wisheth to change his apparel should put off wholly [the old], and put on completely [the new], and these similitudes are placed for thee as an example concerning that about which I am giving thee counsel, and from things which relate to the body thou must gain understanding concerning those of the spirit For behold, whosoever wisheth to pour anything into a vessel, until he hath emptied it of what there is already in it cannot pour therein that which he wisheth to pour; now if that which is emptied from the vessel, and that which is poured therein [in its place] be not similar, although the vessel be washed and scoured, the sweetness of the taste of that which is newly poured therein [is not able] to change the former smell and taste. And again, when the husbandman wisheth to cast into his ground good seed, and he seeth that there are therein brambles and briars, he uprooteth and hoeth them up first of all, and then he casteth the good seed into his field. And again, whosoever wisheth to put on a new garment first of all casteth away the old one which is upon his body, and then he putteth on the new one. And thus also doth the physician, for he deviseth means and removeth skilfully the putrefaction which is upon the boil by means of acid and astringent medicines, and then he layeth on the bandage which buildeth up the new flesh. And like unto these many things are performed in nature, for except the old things be cut off and cast away, men cannot bring those which are new, especially if they are the opposites of each other, and thus, in this case also, the disciple of Christ—-if he wisheth to draw nigh to the perfect rule of the life of Christ—-is bound to cut off and to cast from him all the life and conduct of the old world, and then he must draw near to the new life, and cast off ignorance, and put on the knowledge of the spirit; for the fettering which is in the things which abide not ariseth from ignorance, and the unloosing of them cometh from knowledge. Whosoever casteth off the world, casteth off ignorance, and whoso putteth on the world putteth on folly, for true knowledge is that which forgetteth not that which is not and which thinketh of it as if it existed; and ignorance is known by being fettered, and it thinketh that which abideth not is something which is true and enduring. So therefore those who put on the world put it on as something which endureth, and it is justly said of those who are ignorant, “They have mistaken the shadow for the substance”, and rightly have been called “wise” those who have made themselves strangers to the world, and have cast off early the old rag before it hath cast them off. Whosoever the world casteth off hath no happiness therewith, for the world hath fled from him, and hath rejected him, and thrown him away as something which is superfluous; but those are worthy of blessing and praise who of their own good freewill make themselves strangers to the world, and who go out from it that it may not be an impediment to their course. For as is a covering before the sight, even so is the care of the world before the Divine vision, and as our sight is not able to pierce and to pass through any dense body which may be before it, whether it be a mountain, or a building, or some other such like thing, and until a man cometh to the top of the mountain, or walketh over it, he is unable to see the things which are thereupon, even so our thought is unable to consider the things which are outside the world so long as the wall of the world is built before our vision, and its heavy shadows and the mountains and hills of its cares and anxieties hem us in on every side. If then a man wisheth to see the spiritual rule which is outside the world, and to look closely at the heavenly things which are above it, let him go outside the world, or ascend above it, and behold two things will appear to him:—-the spiritual rule of life which is established by the motion of living thoughts, and the kingdom of heaven which is above the world; for when a man is freed from the passions of the world, his habitation is, as it were, in the kingdom of heaven.”

The first English translation of The Discourses of Philoxenos, Bishop of Mabbug by E.A. Wallis Budge (1894) is available in digital form on-line at:

Philoxenos of Mabbug The Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug. A New Translation and Introduction Translated by Robert A. Kitchen Cistercian Publications, 2014


“The thirteen Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug (445-523) were delivered to new monks at a monastery under his episcopal care. Written in elegant Syriac, the Discourses deal with the fundamentals of the monastic and ascetic life-faith, simplicity, fear of God, renunciation, and the struggle against the demons of gluttony and fornication. This is Philoxenos’s longest work and his most popular. It avoids the strident character of his letters and commentaries that were composed to advance the anti-Chalcedonian movement.

This is the first English translation of an important Syriac text since the 1894 translation, now difficult to find. The introduction to this translation of the Discourses takes into account the scholarly work done and the books and articles published about Philoxenos in the past half century. There are no other titles in English that deal with the Discourses in this depth.”

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