Posted by: ken98 | May 6, 2010

Grazing for God with the Common Herd, the Meaning of Life, and More Monk Hating

Day 237 – Ken here (Th)(5-6-2010)
(DEF II, v.3, ch.37 pp.420-430)(pages read: 1520)

I have to apologize from the outset if this rambles a bit today. Not feeling the best, and having to do this on the run. But here goes, such as it is –

We continue chapter 37 today with a long review of Monks, a review of the beginning of the barbarian conversions to Christianity, and a long, meandering digression on How Late Roman’s Might View Life Differently – or something to that effect.

Gibbon indulges in non-stop Monk-hating the whole 10 pages – I was going to pull out a select few, but found I was starting to quote almost the entire text – so I didn’t. But take it from me – pointed invective is definitely not in short supply here.

The Story
Monk’s Housing, Dress, Diet, Solitude, Occupations, Riches, Visions
  • Originally all monks were enjoined to dress as the poor dressed in each country they were in – not in a special monkish outfit
  • the Original Egyptian Model – where all monks started – early 300’s
  • Their housing was lean-to’s made of palms
  • Lean-to’s were gathered together in streets – and “families of brothers” of 40 or so, 40 families made a town
  • Food was minimal – and poor – 12 ounces of biscuit a day – not eating at all – (ie fasting) was considered even more spiritual – no flesh, except on holidays – no wine only water
  • Later relaxations of the “severe” rules of the Egyptians (esp in Europe, Gaul) allowed wine, beer, birds (fowl)
  • Example of later relaxations: the Benedictine Rule allowed wine
  • Occupations mostly manual labor, trades and crafts. Much later, book-making (ex. Cassiodorus and Monte Cassino) and scriptoriums were included. Originally, most monks were common laborers, farmers (Gibbon’s mechanics), so “white-collar” work was not a part of monastic life – and indeed wasn’t the point
  • Later, monasteries were allowed to accept monk’s earthly goods as bequests, and also accept bequests from any deceased – within a short time a significant portion of the empire was held by monastic communities – and these communities were exceedingly rich
  • Monks solitude – encouraged not to speak again to relatives, not allowed to receive visitors without supervision, not allowed to talk with visitors (anyone staying over at the monastery would not be allowed to speak to inhabitants)
  • Devotion – extravagant prayers and fasts encouraged

    2 Kinds of Monks: Coenobites, Anchorites
  • Coenobites – monks living in a community under rules – (regula in latin, therefor a Regular Community)
  • Anchorites (Gibbon’s Anachoretes) – live alone and with wild, difficult, and extravagant penance practices
  • Anchorites were the rock stars of Later Roman Empire – famous and followed by millions

    The Evil Anchorites – Gibbon Hates Them
  • They assume greater and greater ways of subduing their bodies
  • lived weighed down with chains and metal bars, went naked except for their hair, lived in the dens of lions, or grazed with the cattle in the fields

    Simon Stylites – Lived On Top Of A Column for 40 Years
  • Simon Stylites – the first column sitter – Gibbon calls it “aerial penance”
  • Started out as a shepherd, @13 went into a long painful novitiate, then left and lived on top of a mountaintop, near Antioch, chained to a circle of stones called a mandra
  • he later began to raise himself off the ground, living on the platform on top of the rising column until he was 60 feet off the ground – living in the open, winter and summer
  • Visited by the rich and famous – even the emperor Theodosius came to ask his advice

    Conversion of the Barbarians
  • Gibbon’s thesis – many, many Christian Roman provincials led away into salvery during the Goth raids of the later 300’s
  • These slave-Romans eventually succeeded in converting the Goths to Christianity

    Ulphilas and the Goths (360)
  • Bishop Ulphilas, bishop to the Goths, translated the Bible (omitting Kings in the Old Testament to avoid promoting the already warlike nature of the Goths)
  • Ulphilas had to create a new alphabet to translate the Latin/Greek Bible into Goth – this alphabe is the precursor of the Cyrillic alphabet


    Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem.  Personal salvation requires - if it is sincere - a drastic re-ordering of your priorities.  Building a just, strong society isn't high up on the list, learning to live with yourself and getting yourself ready for the next life is.  Late Roman society was obsessed with the spiritual powers around us, and how they might be manipulated by those on still on Earth

    Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem. Personal salvation requires - if it is sincere - a drastic re-ordering of your priorities. Building a just, strong society isn't high up on the list, learning to live with yourself and getting yourself ready for the next life is. Late Roman society was obsessed with the spiritual powers around us, and how they might be manipulated by those on still on Earth

    On Larger Issues – The Meaning of Life – It’s Me, Me, Me

    The Cult of Personal Salvation in the Later Roman Empire

    It’s easy to plead misunderstanding, or even willful unfamiliarity when confronted with the unusual or the distasteful in Late Roman behavior. It all seems so strange and bizarre to us now. But it is exactly this sense of the bizarre which has always drawn me to history. Feeling like you’re in unfamiliar territory – like you’re not in Kansas anymore – is a feeling I live for; because it means I have blundered past my own boundaries, stretched my own personal envelope, and am in the process of learning something new, something different. It is the explorer’s passion for pushing past the next bend, for wanting to see what is over the next hill, for seeing the world through the eyes of others. The more reference points you have, the larger your universe is, and the richer even the simplest sight in your own backyard becomes. It’s an addictive experience.

    The view of the Late Romans was that they were onto something. The were modern. They got it. Finally. Late Romans were interested in the 2 things that really mattered: the ‘physics” of spiritual power, and personal salvation. Who could argue with that?

    Miracles, angels, devils, spiritual forces – these physics of spiritual power were a common, everyday thing – something that common sense told you was important, true, and not to be trifled with. Raising people from the dead, changing the substance of a thing into another thing, walking on water, making metal float, etc etc – breaking all the previous “common-sense” principles happened every day of the week. It was obvious that the air was peopled with spiritual powers – both good and bad – and you had to know about them or you paid for it. This was different from previous understandings of the world – in Late Rome, they KNEW they were onto the physics of spirituality. Christianity just fed off this general trend and made it almost an article of faith. Holy power resided in people (monks), their remains (relics) just like electricity resides in electrical outlets in our walls today. You just had to know how tap into it. You had to be a spiritual engineer. It was all do-able. It would just take work, and Late Roman society would have it all.

    Peter Brown (of The Making of Late Antiquity fame), proposes in that book, and many other books, an interesting thesis – his view of the end of the Roman Empire is that the Romans themselves just lost interest in it (the empire that is). It was boring. It was unimportant. It was a pale power in comparison with the might of nature. If you were a Christian, the politics of the empire paled in importance with the angelic powers and divine plans of Almighty God. If you were a pagan, the politics of empire paled before the majesty of Ideal Platonic Hierarchies, perfect, incorruptible Ideals, the Infinite, Unchanging Perfection of the planes of existence existing above this corrupt, dirty, flawed material plane. The real power in the Universe lay in the spiritual, and the spiritual power was real, much more real than petty power of Roman magistrates, barbarian generals, plague, famine, or even death.

    If you truly believed that this life was an illusion, material life was a snare, and spiritual life was perfect and beautiful, then it would naturally follow that the maintenance of an empire was a useless task, the creation of a just, compassionate society was an impossibility. The most important thing was your personal connection with the infinite. And that would be the same whether you were a rich Roman citizen or a destitute Roman slave to the Goths.

    The reduction of society to meaningless, the elevation of the personal to the all – it all makes sense. It’s hard to create a Great Society, or defend the Pax Romana, when the most important thing is your own personal salvation – for both pagans and for Christians. The great civil societies of Antiquity died away unnoticed, replaced by societies of society-hating individuals. No wonder the Late Roman world collapsed entirely.


    The Role Models of Certain Late-Roman (and possibly some Modern) ascetics.  It makes sense in a Literal Biblical sort of way

    The Role Models of Certain Late-Roman (and possibly some Modern) ascetics. It makes sense in a Literal Biblical sort of way

    Last Word…
    The Grazing Monks of Mesopotamia: the Boskoi

    Scorn for the physical and the human and a passion for the ideal and the angelic manifested itself in many ways in Later Roman society – ways which not only seemed surprising, but repulsive to Gibbon (and his narrow Enlightenment perspective on a rational, human life). Even to us with a little more allowance for diversity within our general society, some seem extreme. It was hard to know what to do with yourself, your life, and your time if you adopted a truly otherworldly perspective on this material life. Imitating the animals always seemed a safe choice. Some literally became lambs and cattle for God.

    Grazing for God with the Common Herd

    This from Gibbon:

    The fervent monasteries of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria were surrounded by a Laura, a distant circle of solitary cells; and the extravagant penance of the Hermits was stimulated by applause and emulation. They sunk under the painful weight of crosses and chains; and their emaciated limbs were confined by collars, bracelets, gauntlets and greaves of massy and rigid iron. All superfluous incumbrance of dress they contemptuously cast away; and some savage saints of both sexes have been admired, whose naked bodies were only covered by their long hair.

    They aspired to reduce themselves to the rude and miserable state in which the human brute is scarcely distinguished above his kindred animals; and the numerous sect of Anachorets derived their name from their humble practice of grazing in the fields of Mesopotamia with the common herd. (68) They often usurped the den of some wild beast whom they affected to resemble; they buried themselves in some gloomy cavern, which art or nature had scooped out of the rock; and the marble quarries of Thebais are still inscribed with the monuments of their penance.

    and this from the footnote:

    Note 068
    Sozomen, 1. vi. c. 33. The great St. Ephrem composed a panegyric on these or grazing monks (Tillemont, Mem. Eccles. tom. viii. p. 292).

    (DEF II, v.3, ch.37, p.436, fn.68)

    Apparently, this is a common practice – and it makes sense in a literal-take-the-bible-word-for-word kind of way.

    See – Grazing Hermits (here)

    Present day:

    Bishop Kallistos Ware on his site mentions a few Boskoi near the Great Lavra monastery in Greece in the 60-ties:

    There are even solitaries on Athos today who follow the same way of life as the boskoi [browsers] in primitive monasticism—dwelling with the animals like Adam in Paradise, not building cells but remaining in caves or in the open air, wearing no clothing and eating no cooked food. Although I have not myself seen any such, I have spoken with monks who know about them. They are to be found chiefly near the tip of the peninsula, on the wooded slopes above the Great Lavra and Kerasia. For a description of one such monk, see J. Valentin, The Monks of Mount Athos (London 1960), pp.36-38. – Grazing Hermits


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