“The love of retirement has, in all ages, adhered closely to those minds, which have been most enlarged by knowledge, or elevated by genius.”—Johnson, Rambler, No. 7 (10 April 1750)
For most people, to be too much in the world or too much out of it, for a great length of time, produces an inordinate strain on the personality. In that respect I imagine that hermits must be spiritual athletes who can maintain their equilibrium in protracted solitude no less than those people who dwell among the madding crowd without losing all sense of dignity or individuality. As Marcus Aurelius put it, the accomplished individual can “leave the company of men without having tasted deceit, any kind of pretense, luxury or pride” (The Meditations, IX.2). Most of us must be content with regularly alternating between the social and the solitary life.
Perhaps few famous writers were more gregarious than Samuel Johnson. Yet his Rambler essay is a beautiful tribute to the importance of periodically “getting off the grid.”
[I]t is necessary that we weaken the temptations of the world, by retiring at certain seasons from it; for its influence arising only from its presence is much lessened when it becomes the object of solitary meditation. A constant residence amidst noise and pleasure inevitably obliterates the impressions of piety, and a frequent abstraction of ourselves into a state where this life, like the next, operates only upon the reason, will reinstate religion in its just authority, even without those irradiations from above, the hope of which I have no intention to withdraw from the sincere and the diligent.
Lately I have felt this need very much. I have spent so much time at the office that it is tempting to seek relaxation through constant dissipation, however mild. But real healing requires occasionally fleeing the world of appetites and emotions in order to contemplate those principles which guide us toward our ultimate goal.
To read Johnson’s study in its entirety, I recommend the Penguin edition of his essays.