Imagine someone who voluntarily cut themselves off from the modern world. No TV, no computer, no phone, newspapers or magazines, no cinema and no interest in the modern world. Could be male or female but I’ll assume our modern hermit is male and his name is Mr Smith.
Mr Smith doesn’t live in a cave, tent or any other form of traditional hermit habitation. He lives in a house, holds down a job and doesn’t shun personal human contact. What he does shun is the clamour of modern life, the celebrities, fads, fashions, memes and narratives. He relies on what he already knows and what he sees and hears in daily life – little else apart from a personal philosophy gleaned from old books and a sceptical nature.
He shops at supermarkets, travels by bus or train and listens to conversations, visits the pub once in a while, meets up with friends, goes walking in the countryside and spends much of his spare time reading. Mr Smith is far from being socially isolated but he never reads anything about modern life. No analyses of the contemporary human condition, nothing about modern politics, economics, art, music or fashion. No pundits, no contemporary biographies, no kiss and tell.
Given all this, would Mr Smith be ignorant? I’d say yes - in a sense he’d be desperately ignorant. He may not even know the name of the Prime Minister. Although he would have an unclouded perspective untainted by modern narratives and propaganda, he could not apply that perspective to current political situations because he knows nothing about them and doesn’t want to know. To avoid this social limitation he would have to absorb modern social and political contexts, but he shuns them and sticks to his own contexts.
Not a satisfactory situation for most of us, but to my mind there is something attractive about it too. Mr Smith’s judgement is based on his personal philosophy and what he actually sees of daily life. Prices, consumer habits, housing, social conditions, globalisation, immigration, feminism, racism are not issues in the way they are presented to most of us as issues. Mr Smith sees social change through his memory of the way things were compared to the way things are now.
In the past, many ordinary people must have been versions of Mr Smith and even today there may be people who share some of his isolation. A degree of isolation seems to be necessary to achieve some semblance of a non-attached standpoint. The trouble is, one also has to be exposed to the clamour of modern life in order to make a stab at understanding it.
Older people seem to achieve an increasing degree of non-attachment as they are left behind by fashions which do not interest them. This development can begin surprisingly early too, as one becomes conscious that youth and ambition are receding into the past. Perhaps we need to age more quickly.