Should we all be hermits?
For 40 years Ken Smith has lived without electricity in a hand-made log cabin in the Scottish Highlands. Finally his secret is out.
The Scottish Highlands are one of the most remote places. It might seem like no human being could scrape a living from the hard land and the deep lakes. But if you go walking near Loch Treig, 20km east of Fort William, you might catch a glimpse of a figure fishing in the waters.
A new BBC documentary told his story. Ken Smith has been living as a hermit since he built his own log cabin 40 years ago. He has no electricity, gas or running water. He grows his own vegetables and forages for berries, but he mostly lives off fish.
For the last four decades it has been a life of perfect self-sufficiency.
But in 2019 Smith suffered a stroke. He had to activate a GPS-operated locator beacon, allowing the coastguard to airlift him to Fort William, where he stayed in hospital for seven weeks.
Despite doctors’ best efforts to get him to move to a flat, he insisted on returning to his cabin. Damage to his vision and memory means he needs more help: a local gamekeeper now brings him food every few weeks.
For some, Smith is an example of what humans can do in a state of solitude. For others, he is a reminder of the limits of solitude.
The desire to seek solitude is ingrained. Humans have been seeking refuge for centuries. Many early Christians left to wander the wilderness. The best-known was Anthony the Great, who moved to the Egyptian desert and lived alone for 35 years, eating only bread, salt and water.
But these so-called Desert Fathers realised how difficult it can be to find solitude. When others heard of their example, they flocked to the deserts themselves. Soon there were so many of them that it was impossible to be alone, and many started banding together in communities that became known as monasteries.
Some philosophers have extolled the virtues of solitude. Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous work Thus Spoke Zarathustra tells the story of a hermit who, after a life of thinking alone in the mountains, descends to teach the people the wisdom he gathered.
Likewise, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was proud to call himself a hermit. But his supposed “solitude” was not very solitary, since he was almost always accompanied by admirers.
Other thinkers suggest that solitude should be taken in moderation. Aristotle argued humans are social animals who like living with each other. But he also thought spending time away from others was vital for a philosopher.
The Romantic poets, delighted in temporary seclusion. William Wordsworth wrote about the “bliss of solitude”, but he also valued his friendships.
Should we all be hermits sometimes?
Yes. Scientific studies have found that spending time alone increases empathy, sparks creativity and helps build our mental resilience. Spending time apart gives us time for reflection and makes us behave better to each other.
No. Human beings are not made to be alone. Hermits throughout history, from Anthony the Great to Ken Smith, have found that living a self-sufficient lifestyle is not easy. We should cherish the time we have together.