Civitas interruptus

by chabonsby

I’ve recently been reading Power: A New Social Analysis, which I instantly adore, even with its obvious and noted flaws. Russell’s ambition is admirable, and his writing, as ever, is masterful. I don’t wish to review a book I’ve barely started, but I wanted to share a particularly compelling passage, which comes near the end of an early chapter on the tendency of most to either lead or follow:

I have spoken hitherto of those who command and those who obey, but there is a third type, namely, those who withdraw. There are men who have the courage to refuse submission without having the imperiousness that causes the wish to command. Such men do not fit readily into the social structure, and in one way or another they seek a refuge where they can enjoy a more or less solitary freedom. At times, men with this temperament have been of great historical importance; the early Christians and the American pioneers represent two species of the genus. Sometimes the refuge is mental, sometimes physical; sometimes it demands the complete solitude of a hermitage, sometimes the social solitude of a monastery. Among mental refugees are those who belong to obscure sects, those whose interests are absorbed by innocent fads, and those who occupy themselves with recondite and unimportant forms of erudition. Among physical refugees are men who seek the frontier of civilisation, and such explorers as Bates, the ‘naturalist on the Amazon’, who lived happily for fifteen years without other society than the Indians. Something of the hermit’s temper is an essential element in many forms of excellence, since it enables men to resist the lure of popularity, to pursue important work in spite of general indifference or hostility, and to arrive at opinions which are opposed to prevalent errors. Of those who withdraw, some are not genuinely indifferent to power, but only unable to obtain it by the usual methods. Such men may become saints or heresiarchs, founders of monastic orders or of new schools in art or literature. They attach to themselves as disciples people who combine a love of submission with an impulse to revolt; the latter prevents orthodoxy, while the former leads to uncritical adoption of the new tenets. Tolstoy and his followers illustrate this pattern. The genuine solitary is quite different. A perfect example of this type is the melancholy Jacques, who shares exile with the good Duke because it is exile; and afterwards remains in the forest with the bad Duke rather than return to Court. Many American pioneers, after suffering long hardship and privation, sold their farms and moved further West as soon as civilisation caught up with them. For men of this temperament, the world affords fewer and fewer opportunities. Some drift into crime, some into a morose and anti-social philosophy. Too much contact with their fellow-men produces misanthropy, which, when solitude is unattainable, turns naturally towards violence

It would, I think, be fair to suggest that I have some familiarity with this feeling, and I’ve never seen it so artfully explained.

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