Day 236 – Ken here (W)(5-5-2010)
(DEF II, v.3, ch.37 pp.410-420)(pages read: 1510)
Feeling really out of sorts today and out of it – I’ll try and make sense, but forgive me if I wander off a bit, or go into the next (figurative) room and forget to say goodbye or something like that. I’m thinking I’m dong pretty good just getting at another chapter on Gibbon, esp. a chapter on monasticism – not my favorite subject (although at one time I had thought of becoming a monk – but that’s another story for another time).
We begin chapter 37 (which will be 4 days long – and covers monasticism, and the conversion of the barbarian nations to Christianity – I’m not really looking forward to all this). We start with a brief rundown of early monasticism – how it wasn’t a part of early Christianity at all, but became a fad in the early 300’s, continue with some examples of famous monks and their founding of monastic communities (which were at first – very spiritual and very free – later they were very violent and very political and very un-free). We finish with some fine ranting and raving from Gibbon. There will be a lot of ranting etc in this chapter – after all – GIBBON HATES MONKS – a very English Protestant attitude to have. Their greatest sin is their voluntary exile from social life – a very Enlightenment attitude and a very Stoic attitude (see Marcus Aurelius) actually.
Gibbon defines monasticism as he opens chapter 37 with a long paragraph which is remarkable for the number and frequency of derogatory adjectives. Monks are common, lazy, seriously deranged, mistaken in their religious principles, peculiarly hateful towards this world and their bodies, learned without working at it, prophets without working at it, and prey on the gullible and the weak-witted to support themselves and increase their numbers. Gibbon has Pliny (a decent, rational, upper-class Roman) wondering at this strange social disease (the Essenes as a proto-monkish community). Gibbon obviously would have sided with Pliny. Here is his candid, neutral view on the matter of monks:
Prosperity and peace introduced the distinction of the vulgar and the Ascetic Christians. The loose and imperfect practice of religion satisfied the conscience of the multitude. The prince or magistrate, the soldier or merchant, reconciled their fervent zeal and implicit faith with the exercise of their profession, the pursuit of their interest, and the indulgence of their passions but the Ascetics, who obeyed and abused the rigid precepts of the Gospel, were inspired by the savage enthusiasm which represents man as a criminal, and God as a tyrant.
They seriously renounced the business and the pleasures of the age; abjured the use of wine, of flesh, and of marriage; chastised their body, mortified their affections, and embraced a life of misery, as the price of eternal happiness. In the reign of Constantine the Ascetics fled from a profane and degenerate world to perpetual solitude or religious society. Like the first Christians of Jerusalem, they resigned the use or the property of their temporal possessions; established regular communities of the same sex and a similar disposition; and assumed the names of Hermits,Monks, and Anachorets, expressive of their lonely retreat in a natural or artificial desert.
They soon acquired the respect of the world, which they despised; and the loudest applause was bestowed on this DIVINE PHILOSOPHY, which surpassed, without the aid of science or reason, the laborious virtues of the Grecian schools. The monks might indeed contend with the Stoics in the contempt of fortune, of pain, and of death: the Pythagorean silence and submission were revived in their servile discipline; and they disdained as firmly as the Cynics themselves all the forms and decencies of civil society. But the votaries of this Divine Philosophy aspired to imitate a purer and more perfect model.
They trod in the footsteps of the prophets, who had retired to the desert ; and they restored the devout and contemplative life, which had been instituted by the Essenians in Palestine and Egypt. The philosophic eye of Pliny had surveyed with astonishment a solitary people, who dwelt among the palm-trees near the Dead Sea; who subsisted without money; who were propagated without women; and who derived from the disgust and repentance of mankind a perpetual supply of voluntary associates.
(DEF II, v.3, ch.37, p.411)
This on the Causes of Monasticism’s Rapid Progress:
These unhappy exiles from social life were impelled by the dark and implacable genius of superstition. Their mutual resolution was supported by the example of millions, of either sex, of every age, and of every rank; and each proselyte who entered the gates of a monastery was persuaded that he trod the steep and thorny path of eternal happiness.
But the operation of these religious motives was variously determined by the temper and situation of mankind. Reason might subdue, or passion might suspend, their influence; but they acted most forcibly on the infirm minds of children and females; they were strengthened by secret remorse or accidental misfortune; and they might derive some aid from the temporal considerations of vanity or interest.
It was naturally supposed that the pious and humble monks, who had renounced the world to accomplish the work of their salvation, were the best qualified for the spiritual government of the Christians. The reluctant hermit was torn from his cell, and seated amidst the acclamations of the people, on the episcopal throne: the monasteries of Egypt, of Gaul, and of the East, supplied a regular succession of saints and bishops; and ambition soon discovered the secret road which led to the possession of wealth and honours.
The popular monks, whose reputation was connected with the fame and success of the order, assiduously laboured to multiply the number of their fellow-captives. They insinuated themselves into noble and opulent families, and the specious arts of flattery and seduction were employed to secure those proselytes who might bestow wealth or dignity on the monastic profession. The indignant father bewailed the loss, perhaps, of an only son; the credulous maid was betrayed by vanity to violate the laws of nature; and the matron aspired to imaginary perfection by renouncing the virtues of domestic life
(DEF II, v.3, ch.37, p.416)
The (Weird) case of Paula from Gibbon (who was called by Jerome the “Mother-In-Law of God” – I’m not sure what that means exactly – but she dedicated her daughter (did she ask her 1st?) to a convent and got that title):
Paula yielded to the persuasive eloquence of Jerom; and the profane title of mother-in-law of God tempted that illustrious widow to consecrate the virginity of her daughter Eustochium. By the advice, and in the company, of her spiritual guide, Paula abandoned Rome and her infant son; retired to the holy village of Bethlem; founded an hospital and four monasteries and acquired, by her alms and penance, an eminent and conspicuous station in the Catholic church
(DEF II, v.3, ch.37, p.417)
Gibbon (predictably) goes wild on the Irish Monks – as these were two (of many) topics he loved to wax venomous on during the long sojourn of 6 volumes of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (I wonder how he will treat the Carolingian Renaissance and the preponderance of Irish intellectuals in the re-booting of intellectual life in Europe in the late 700’s, early 800’s? we’ll see…)
This from Gibbon on Ireland and Monks:
The monastery of Banchors in Flintshire, which contained above two thousand brethren, dispersed a numerous colony among the barbarians of Ireland; and Iona, one of the Hebrides, which was planted by the Irish monks, diffused over the northern regions a doubtful ray of science and superstition.
and this from the footnote:
This small though not barren spot, Iona, Hy, or Columbkill, only two miles in length and one mile in breadth, has been distinguished – 1. By the monastery of St. Columba, founded A.D. 566, whose abbot exercised an extraordinary jurisdiction over the bishops of Caledonia- 2. By a classic library, which afforded some hopes of an entire Livy; and, 3. By the tombs of sixty kings, Scots, Irish, and Norwegians, who reposed in holy ground. See Usher (p.311, 360-370) and Buchanan (Rer. Scot. 1. ii. p. 15, edit. Ruddiman).
(DEF II, v.3, ch.37, pp.416, fn.24)
In a section of this chapter on Monks and Monasticism, Gibbon begins an innocuous tangent on obedience (meaning: the growth of rules in monasteries), but the his overview of monastic regulations quickly devolves into a long tirade on monastic peculiarities. Over and over again in this chapter, Gibbon makes a valiant effort to contain his scorn and enmity but loses the battle more often than not.
This from Gibbon (on Obedience):
The monastic profession of the ancients was an act of voluntary devotion. The inconstant fanatic was threatened with the eternal vengeance of the God whom he deserted, but the doors of the monastery were still open for repentance. Those monks whose conscience was fortified by reason or passion were at liberty to resume the character of men and citizens; and even the spouses of Christ might accept the legal embraces of an earthly lover.
The examples of scandal, and the progress of superstition, suggested the propriety of more forcible restraints. After a sufficient trial, the fidelity of the novice was secured by a solemn and perpetual vow; and his irrevocable engagement was ratified by the laws of the church and state. A guilty fugitive was pursued, arrested, and restored to his perpetual prison; and the interposition of the magistrate oppressed the freedom and merit which had alleviated, in some degree, the abject slavery of the monastic discipline. The actions of a monk, his words, and even his thoughts, were determined. by an inflexible rule or a capricious superior: the slightest offences were corrected by disgrace or confinement, extraordinary fasts, or bloody flagellation; and disobedience, murmur, or delay were ranked in the catalogue of the most heinous sins. (37)
A blind submission to the commands of the abbot, however absurd, or even criminal, they might seem, was the ruling principle, the first virtue of the Egyptian monks; and their patience was frequently exercised by the most extravagant trials. They were directed to remove an enormous rock; assiduously to water a barren staff that was planted in the ground, till, at the end of three years, it should vegetate and blossom like a tree; to walk into a fiery furnace; or to cast their infant into a deep pond: and several saints, or madmen, have been immortalised in monastic story by their thoughtless and fearless obedience.
The freedom of the mind, the source of every generous and rational sentiment, was destroyed by the habits of credulity and submission; and the monk, contracting the vices of a slave, devoutly followed the faith and passions of his ecclesiastical tyrant. The peace of the Eastern church was invaded by a swarm of fanatics, incapable of fear, or reason, or humanity; and the Imperial troops acknowledged, without shame, that they were much less apprehensive of an encounter with the fiercest barbarians.
and this from the footnote:
The rule of Columbanus, so prevalent in the West inflicts one hundred lashes for very slight offences (Cod. Reg. part ii. p. 174 [tom. i. p. 178, ed. 1759]). Before the time of Charlemagne the abbots indulged themselves in mutilating their monks, or putting out their eyes – a punishment much less cruel than the tremendous vade in pace (the subterraneous dungeon, or sepulchre), which was afterwards invented. See an admirable discourse of the learned Mabillon ((Euvres Posthumes, tom. ii. p. 321-336), who, on this occasion, seems to be inspired by the genius of humanity. For such an effort, I can forgive his defence of the holy tear of Vendome (p. 361-399).
(DEF II, v.3, ch.37, pp.418-419, fn. 37)