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Hermann Hesse : The Path of Solitude

Extract from :

Hermann Hesse, "Zarathustra's return"

(In "If The War Goes On: Reflections on War and Politics")


My young friends, you ask after the school of suffering, the forge of "destiny. Don’t you know ? No, you who are forever talking of the people and dealing with the masses, who wish to suffer only with them and for them, you do not know. I am speaking of solitude.

Solitude is the path over which destiny endeavors to lead man to himself. Solitude is the path that men most fear. A path fraught with terrors, where snakes and toads lie in wait. The men who have walked alone, those who have explored the deserts of solitude: is it not said that they went astray, that they were evil or sick ? And heroic deeds: do men not speak of them as though they had been the work of criminals — because they think it best to discourage themselves from taking the path to such deeds ?

And Zarathustra himself — is it not said that he died in madness and that at bottom everything he said and did was madness ? And when you heard such talk, didn’t you feel the blood rushing to your cheeks ? As though it might have been nobler and worthier of you to become one of those madmen, as though you were ashamed of your lack of courage ?

My dear friends, let me sing you the song of solitude. Without solitude there is no suffering, without solitude there is no heroism. But the solitude I have in mind is not the solitude of the blithe poets or of the theater, where the fountain bubbles so sweetly at the mouth of the hermit’s cave. From childhood to manhood is only one step, one single step. In taking that step you break away from father and mother, you become yourself; it is a step into solitude. No one takes it completely. Even the holiest hermit, the grumpiest old bear in the bleakest of mountains, takes with him, or draws after him, a thread that binds him to his father and mother, to the loving warmth of kinship and friendship.

My friends, when you speak so fervently of people and fatherland, I see the thread dangling from you, and I smile. When your great men speak of their “task” and responsibility, that thread hangs out of their mouths. Your great men, your leaders and orators, never speak of tasks directed against themselves, they never speak of responsibility to destiny ! They hang by a thread that leads them back to mother and to all the cozy warmth that the poets recall when they sing of childhood and its pure joys. No one severs the thread entirely, except in death and then only if he succeeds in dying his own death.

Most men, the herd, have never tasted solitude. They leave father and mother, but only to crawl to a wife and quietly succumb to new warmth and new ties. They are never alone, they never commune with themselves. And when a solitary man crosses their path, they fear him and hate him like the plague; they fling stones at him and find no peace until they are far away from him. The air around him smells of stars, of cold stellar spaces; he lacks the soft warm fragrance of the home and hatchery.

Zarathustra has something of this starry smell, this forbidding coldness. Zarathustra has gone a long way on the path of solitude. He has attended the school of suffering. He has seen the forge of destiny and been wrought in it.

Ah, my friends, I don’t know whether I ought to tell you any more about solitude. I should gladly tempt you to take that path, I should gladly sing you a song of the icy raptures of cosmic space. But I know that few men can travel that path without injury. It is hard, my dear friends, to live without a mother; it is hard to live without home and people, without fatherland or fame, without the pleasures of life in a community. It is hard to live in the cold, and most of those who have started on the path have fallen. A man must be indifferent to the possibility of falling, if he wants to taste of solitude and to face up to his own destiny.

It is easier and sweeter to walk with a people, with a multitude — even through misery. It is easier and more comforting to devote oneself to the “tasks” of the day, the tasks meted out by the collectivity. See how happy the people are in their crowded streets ! Shots are being fired, their lives are in danger, yet every one of them would far rather die with the masses than walk alone in the cold outer night.

But how, my young friends, could I tempt you or lead you ? Solitude is not chosen, any more than destiny is chosen. Solitude comes to us if we have within us the magic stone that attracts destiny. Many, far too many, have gone out into the desert and led the lives of herd men in a pretty hermitage beside a lovely spring. While others stand in the thick of the crowd, and yet the air of the stars blows round their heads. But blessed be he who has found his solitude, not the solitude pictured in painting or poetry, but his own, unique, predestined solitude. Blessed be he who knows how to suffer ! Blessed be he who bears the magic stone in his heart. To him comes destiny, from him comes authentic action.

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