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The Sweets of Solitude

Tuesday, 19th June, 2001

Amos Wilson arrived just a moment too late.

He had been held up on his journey by heavy downpours that had turned a lively stream into a raging torrent. By the time the waters withdrew enough for him to be able to ford them and spur his horse on, he had lost too much time. He arrived at the appointed place with his sister's pardon in hand just in time to see her final death throes at the end of her noose.

It was a sad affair throughout. Harriot Wilson was the respectable daughter of a respectable family, comfortable and content; Amos, two years older and the only other child, was a promising stone mason's apprentice. Their parents were proud of them and the house was a happy one.

Then, at the age of nineteen, Harriot was seduced by a scoundrel. Though a respectable young lady in all the varied meanings of the term applicable in the Pennsylvania of 1795, she eventually succumbed to his promises of marriage and surrendered herself to him. Unfortunately he proved to be already married and the pregnant Harriot found her life all but ruined. When the baby came, she secreted it in a wooded grove, in an attempt to put behind her the shame that she had brought onto her family. The attempt was doomed to failure and she was naturally soon arrested, tried and sentenced to hang.

Amos did all he could, as did many others, to plead leniency and compassion from the powers that be, but to no avail. Only on the last day did success come, when he prostrated himself before the Governor who took pity and granted his poor sister a pardon. Sadly fate intervened and she was twitching her last as he delivered it.

Many months of delirious grief followed and finally he took his leave of civilisation. He lived out the last nineteen of his years on a ledge deep inside the Indian Echo Caverns in Hummelstown, PA. He spent his time reading and writing, carving mill stones to keep him fed and clothed. Few visited him and he seems to have truly enjoyed his solitude. He died on his ledge surrounded by a number of manuscripts.

I got to take the guided tour through this cave system in the summer of 2000 and I saw Amos Wilson's ledge, which is surprisingly small. A year before I'd walked through the Natural Bridge Caverns outside of San Antonio, TX, and become well and truly stunned by the outre beauty of the world underground. Some of the stalagmites looked like nothing more than Lovecraftian deities. Was that really just a rock or was it great Cthulhu dreaming his insane petrified dreams?

Quite how Amos Wilson saw such beauty in 1795, I'm not sure. Electric lightbulbs wouldn't be invented for another eighty years and the light from a gas lamp can only travel so far. The less light, the more outre the surroundings must have seemed, making his choice to live underground a strange one. To this day, I can understand why he chose to leave the world behind but not why he chose such a location to leave it for. Nowadays it's beautiful; two centuries ago it must have been oppressively dark and confining.

During his life he refused to let anyone read his manuscripts, as he had intended them all along for publication after his death. Along with his brief biography, a 1945 pamphlet published possibly the most appropriate, entitled 'The Sweets of Solitude, Or Instructions to Mankind: How They May Be Happy in a Miserable World'.

Amos Wilson was a religious man even before his sister entreated him, in her final letter, to dedicate the rest of his life to cherish religion. Much of his treatise makes a lot of sense, in calling people to be content with what they have and who they are, rather than court misfortune and suffering by constantly striving for what they don't have.

'The greatest cause of discontent,' he writes, 'is that men have no definite measure to their desires. It is not the supply of all their real wants that will satisfy them; their appetites are precarious, they hunger not because they themselves are empty, but because others are full.'

He goes on. 'A low condition in the world seems to all a terrible misfortune; but how many are really poor amid their riches, and want in the midst of plenty!'

Reading this, I was struck by how astute this young man was, cloistered away in perpetual near-darkness. Most of modern society could learn plenty from him, and his simple views, though they would do well to gloss over his pessimistic view of civilisation, understandably perhaps, as after all it killed off her closest to him.

Then again most of modern society could learn plenty from the philosophers who went before him. I presume his reading material, primarily Biblical, didn't include coverage of the Cynics, but he would have found a kinship, I'm sure, in some of their views on establishment and austerity.

The Cynics were followers of Socrates who was sentenced to death for subverting the youth of Athens. What he really did was to speak out against the concept of 'timi', which to the vast majority of Greeks was fundamental to their way of life. Timi was public honour: a means of measuring a man's worth by his level of fame. Socrates believed on the other hand that a man should further himself through his own conscience rather than for glorification by others.

Socrates found his solitude through his independence. Almost alone of Greeks, he was happy with who he was, while the rest of society tried to be someone else. Once, he happily remarked in a thriving marketplace, 'How many things there are that I do not want!' The words could have come from Amos Wilson, who sought his personal enjoyment from the spiritual not the material.

The Cynics took all this a step further, a step that Amos Wilson would have applauded. They chose to scorn society totally, rejecting all material possessions as irrelevant to the pursuit of happiness, and embracing self-sufficiency as a means of separation from the rest of civilisation. They withdrew from society, something unthinkable to most Greeks, and probably would have been quite happy to live in a cave, carving mill stones.

Socrates taught Antisthenes and Antisthenes taught Diogenes, soon to be described by no less than Plato as 'Socrates gone mad'. Diogenes is the most famous Cynic of them all, having slept in a barrel in the city square to demonstrate his disdain for physical possessions. He underlined his point when Alexander the Great came to visit him, offering him anything that the greatest conqueror in history could give. Diogenes asked him to move out of his sunlight.

Amos Wilson would have had to think a little harder, as the sunlight doesn't penetrate deeply enough into Indian Echo Caverns to illuminate his ledge. I'm sure his answer would have been as intelligent, as quick and as dismissing, but we'd have to travel back a couple of centuries to hear it.

What about today?

I wonder if, given such a bureaucratic and interventionist society eager to impose its moral standards onto everyone else, some people have found that life would be much happier lived in the solitude of a cave. Of course, it might be hard to find a suitable cave, one free from hordes of gawping tourists.

Certainly it would be impossible to emulate Diogenes, as the police would be quick to arrest anyone masturbating in public or sleeping in a barrel outside the town hall. Anything that threatens the status quo is dangerous, and stating that it's all merely your right as a Cynic just wouldn't cut it.

I just remember Amos Wilson, who died a happy man, and wonder who in this modern enlightened world would be able to honestly do the same.

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