The Pain of Enlightenment

“When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it.” – Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Nietzsche Zarathustra

A solitary retreat into the mountains is a common metaphor of enlightenment. Nietzsche, who was studying to be a theologian before becoming a philosopher, borrows his introduction to Zarathustra directly from the Bible. Exodus 24:18. “And Moses entering into the midst of the cloud, went up into the mountain: And he was there forty days and forty nights.”

Jesus, too, retreated into the wilderness where “the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” Matthew 4:8. Thoreau, although avoiding the mountains, nevertheless sought solitude at Walden Pond.

Miyamoto Mushashi, the greatest samurai and perhaps the greatest warrior to ever live, retreated to the mountains before composing his Book of Five Rings. While in the mountains he – like the New England Transcendentalists would conclude hundreds of years later, noted:  ”There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself.”

Nietzsche himself wrote of his own love of the mountains in Ecce Homo: “Philosophy, as I have so far understood and lived it, means living voluntarily among ice and high mountains—seeking out everything strange and questionable in existence, everything so far placed under a ban by morality.” Indeed, Beyond Good and Evil contains a poem entitled, “From High Mountains (Aftersong).

Solitude is a requisite to enlightenment. In undoubtedly the best modern treatment on the need for solitude, William Deresiewicz explains how groupthink leads to poor management decisions and costs lives.

Perhaps in an effort to not arise fear in truth seekers, few have explained that enlightenment is painful. Man, a social animal that he is, is not designed for solitude. Yet the more you fellowship with truth, the harder it is to fellowship with your fellow man.

In ancient Greece, criminals were given the choice between banishment and death – many choose death. In prison the worst punishment a man can receive is to be forced into solitary confinement. Some studies have shown that solitary confinement is more damaging to a man’s psyche than torture.

Charles Bukowski, a misanthrope if ever there was one, had to venture out with his fellow man to the horse races before he could write. Writing is as solitary an activity as any, and yet many writers work from within a coffee shop.

Perhaps lacking self-awareness or a sense of irony, how many guys brag about being loners within the community of an Internet forum?

A man on his quest for enlightenment is destined to feel an extreme amount of pain because of his inherent social nature. In later posts I’ll explain how to deal with that pain.

Check out: Robert Green on Self-Reliance.

  • Nick

    This is money.

    • anon1

      you write this on every article nowadays

  • XDAYS

    Good post, I was actually thinking about this earlier today.

    While I used to call myself a loner, I recently changed my inner view. I realized that I’m more like an independent cell than true lone wolf since I have friends and correspondence, but only check in with them once a month or so.

    A year ago I would have thought this to be an antisocial and lonely state of existence. Now, I don’t ever have enough free time for self doubt. All my energy is spent reading, lifting, writing, meditating, and making money. Truth be told, these things are actually far more satisfying than partying ever was. Plus, developing yourself is far more beneficial than prematurely aging due to drug and alcohol use ever could be.

    When I graduate school in May, I plan on hitting up a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat, and intend on going on a solo backpacking/camping trip. Just to get more in touch with myself.

  • Heartless

    I have had many relationships where I lived together for years. Lately (as I am nearly 40) I’ve noticed that I thrive on living alone. I am no longer trying to get a woman to cohabit with me as that has always been detrimental to my physical, mental and even fiscal fitness.

  • Liam

    Nice post.

  • Rob

    What’s your definition of enlightenment?

    What I find interesting is your belief that enlightenment is somehow in tension with human nature. If that’s so, then maybe enlightenment is unnatural.

    But what you’re saying is that the means necessary to attain enlightenment are unnatural, not the ends.

    Question: is solitude a prerequisite to enlightenment because most people are thoughtless and can’t think subtly or recognize distinctions? Or would solitude be necessary for enlightenment even if you lived among rational, free thinkers?

    Because if the answer is the former, then the issue isn’t the fact that the quest for enlightenment causes turmoil within our nature. The issue is the ends required for enlightenment are anathema to living among dolts.

    On the one hand this is a somewhat depressing thought since we all live surrounded by idiots. But a different perspective to take is that at least enlightenment isn’t some Frankensteinian thing we have to put ourselves through. Rather, it’s natural and even inevitable, but we need to find a way to circumvent the masses.

  • DC Phil

    That Deresiewicz article is a great article, but nothing earth-shatteringly new when it comes to bureaucracies and technocrats. John Ralston Saul’s “Voltaire’s Bastards” is an excellent read on the subject.