Then you have this extraordinary feeling that comes from looking at life without having to do anything about it—you can just let it happen with no sense of hurry and with no wish to improve it. That’s why the images of the Buddha always present him as looking blissful. Cats look like this, too, because they can sit for ages and simply watch. You might say it’s because they have nothing better to do because we think we’re supposed to be constantly improving somehow or doing something beneficial for the world. But hermits who live solitary lives and meditate all of the time are doing an enormous amount for the world, and just the suspicion that people such as that still exist today is marvelous for everybody. The contrast of their presence reveals how the rest of us are busy raising so much dust. We think we’re going somewhere, but we’re already there. Meanwhile, all the dust we kick up rushing about everywhere is getting in everybody’s nostrils and polluting everything. So to know that there are hermits deep in the forest is like knowing there’s a world beyond the dust—a world of streams and flowers that few of us ever see.
[On that note, here’s this week’s Thursday Throwback, originally published Apr. 19, 2017.]
Knight said that he didn’t really know why he left. He’d given the question plenty of thought but had never arrived at an answer. “It’s a mystery,” he declared. There was no specific cause he could name — no childhood trauma, no sexual abuse. There wasn’t alcoholism in his home, or violence. He wasn’t trying to hide anything, to cover a wrongdoing, to evade confusion about his sexuality.
God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and completely free to act according to his own uncaused will — these are a few of the logical necessities that are essential to Christianity’s existence. Anthony Kronman, in his book Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan, argues that such axiomatic assumptions have long motivated the desire of Westerners to usurp the power and position of the God they invented. Modern science has dismissed the idea of free will as a superstitious relic of a pre-scientific age, but the quest for total knowledge of, and total control over, the universe still motivates us today. For at least a few centuries now, the assumption of the universe’s inherent intelligibility has never been seriously in question. If something can be experienced, it can be explained — in principle, if not immediately in practice. Nothing comes into existence uncaused, and if something seems to, it’s only because we don’t have enough of the surrounding jigsaw pieces of the causal context to fit around it. When we have all those pieces, we will no longer be at the mercy of forces beyond our control or understanding.
Yuval Noah Harari has written a new book precisely about this theme. In strict materialist fashion, he celebrates the possibility of humanity achieving Godhood through means of omniscience and omnipotence. Personal satisfaction, political disagreements, and even death itself are all seen as technical problems to be solved by means of increased scientific power wielded by enlightened elites. Begged questions abound, obviously — John Gray, for example, notes that if humans are to become gods, they are far more likely to resemble the polytheistic schemers of Olympus than billions of individuals melded into one unified suprahuman deity. And if society is to be reinvented along the lines of a beehive or anthill, it can be safely assumed that dissent will be treated as a neurochemical disorder, as pluralistic, democratic politics will be done away with due to their inefficiency. Harari is well aware that this eerily resembles Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, but if it wouldn’t be fair to say that he’s eagerly anticipating it, he’s at the very least resigned to it being inevitable.
In a world dominated by people who think like this, what makes someone like Knight so interesting is his passive defiance of such totalizing schemes. Like Bartleby the Scrivener, he seemingly just looked at life in society one day and decided “I would prefer not to.” People obviously looked for a psychological or neurological angle to explain Knight’s strange choice to simply walk away from civilization and live alone in the Maine woods for twenty-seven years — is he autistic? Schizoid? Angry? Depressed? There must be an intelligible cause! But as far as anyone has been able to tell, Knight simply did it because he felt like it. He knew what he was doing and made rational choices to cope with challenges along the way. One doesn’t have to be traditionally religious to feel delight at this apparent assertion of obstinate will, this flickering possibility of hope that maybe, just maybe, the world won’t be capable of being completely explained, mapped, dissected, perfected and predicted by omniscient experts. Maybe the possibility of radical freedom still exists, even if it has to hide in a tiny corner of the northern woods. It’s heartening to think that some mysterious something in human nature, perhaps even intrinsic to life itself, resists and evades control.