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§ 28. Origin of Christian Monasticism. Comparison with other forms of Asceticism.

Hospinian: De origine et progressu monachatus, l. vi., Tig. 1588, and enlarged, Genev. 1669, fol. J. A. Möhler (R.C.): Geschichte des Mönchthums in der Zeit seiner Entstehung u. ersten Ausbildung, 1836 (in his collected works, Regensb. vol. ii. p. 165 sqq.). Isaac Taylor (Independent): Ancient Christianity, Lond. 1844, vol. i. p. 299 sqq. A. Vogel: Ueber das Mönchthum, Berl. 1858 (in the “Deutsche Zeitschrift für christl. Wissenschaft,” etc.). P. Schaff: Ueber den Ursprung und Charakter des Mönchthums (in Dorner’s, etc. “Jahrbücher für deutsche Theol.,” 1861, p. 555 ff.). J. Cropp: Origenes et causae monachatus. Gott. 1863.

In the beginning of the fourth century monasticism appears in the history of the church, and thenceforth occupies a distinguished place. Beginning in Egypt, it spread in an irresistible tide over the East and the West, continued to be the chief repository of the Christian life down to the times of the Reformation, and still remains in the Greek and Roman churches an indispensable institution and the most productive seminary of saints, priests, and missionaries.

With the ascetic tendency in general, monasticism in particular is found by no means only in the Christian church, but in other religions, both before and after Christ, especially in the East. It proceeds from religious seriousness, enthusiasm, and ambition; from a sense of the vanity of the world, and an inclination of noble souls toward solitude, contemplation, and freedom from the bonds of the flesh and the temptations of the world; but it gives this tendency an undue predominance over the social, practical, and world-reforming spirit of religion. Among the Hindoos the ascetic system may be traced back almost to the time of Moses, certainly beyond Alexander the Great, who found it there in full force, and substantially with the same characteristics which it presents at the present day.260260   Comp. the occasional notices of the Indian gymnosophists in Strabo (lib. xv. cap. 1, after accounts from the time of Alexander the Great), Arrian (Exped. Alex. l. vii. c. 1-3, and Hist. Ind. c. 11), Plinius (Hist Nat. vii. 2), Diodorus Siculus (lib. ii.), Plutarch (Alex. 64), Porphyry (De abstinent. l. iv.), Lucian (Fugit. 7), Clemens Alex. (Strom. l. i. and iii.), and Augustine(De Civit. Dei, l. xiv. c. 17: “Per opacas Indiae solitudines, quum quidam nudi philosophentur, unde gymnosophistae nominantur; adhibent tamen genitalibus tegmina, quibus per caetera membrorum carent;” and l. xv. 20, where he denies all merit to their celibacy, because it is not “secundum fidem summi boni, qui est Deus”). With these ancient representations agree the narratives of Fon Koueki (about 400, translated by M. A. Rémusat, Par. 1836), Marco Polo (1280), Bernier (1670), Hamilton (1700), Papi, Niebuhr, Orlich, Sonnerat, and others. Let us consider it a few moments.

The Vedas, portions of which date from the fifteenth century before Christ, the Laws of Menu, which were completed before the rise of Buddhism, that is, six or seven centuries before our era, and the numerous other sacred books of the Indian religion, enjoin by example and precept entire abstraction of thought, seclusion from the world, and a variety of penitential and meritorious acts of self-mortification, by which the devotee assumes a proud superiority over the vulgar herd of mortals, and is absorbed at last into the divine fountain of all being. The ascetic system is essential alike to Brahmanism and Buddhism, the two opposite and yet cognate branches of the Indian religion, which in many respects are similarly related to each other as Judaism is to Christianity, or also as Romanism to Protestantism. Buddhism is a later reformation of Brahmanism; it dates probably from the sixth century before Christ (according to other accounts much earlier), and, although subsequently expelled by the Brahmins from Hindostan, it embraces more followers than any other heathen religion, since it rules in Farther India, nearly all the Indian islands, Japan, Thibet, a great part of China and Central Asia to the borders of Siberia. But the two religions start from opposite principles. Brahmanic asceticism261261   The Indian word for it is tapas, i.e. the burning out, or the extinction of the individual being and its absorption into the essence of Brahma. proceeds from a pantheistic view of the world, the Buddhistic from an atheistic and nihilistic, yet very earnest view; the one if; controlled by the idea of the absolute but abstract unity and a feeling of contempt of the world, the other by the idea of the absolute but unreal variety and a feeling of deep grief over the emptiness and nothingness of all existence; the one is predominantly objective, positive, and idealistic, the other more subjective, negative, and realistic; the one aims at an absorption into the universal spirit of Brahm, the other consistently at an absorption into nonentity, if it be true that Buddhism starts from an atheistic rather than a pantheistic or dualistic basis. “Brahmanism”—says a modern writer on the subject262262   Ad. Wuttke, in his able and instructive work: Das Geistesleben der Chinesen, Japaner, und Indier(second part of his History of Heathenism), 1853, p. 593.—“looks back to the beginning, Buddhism to the end; the former loves cosmogony, the latter eschatology. Both reject the existing world; the Brahman despises it, because he contrasts it with the higher being of Brahma, the Buddhist bewails it because of its unrealness; the former sees God in all, the other emptiness in all.” Yet as all extremes meet, the abstract all-entity of Brahmanism and the equally abstract non-entity or vacuity of Buddhism come to the same thing in the end, and may lead to the same ascetic practices. The asceticism of Brahmanism takes more the direction of anchoretism, while that of Buddhism exists generally in the social form of regular convent life.

The Hindoo monks or gymnosophists (naked philosophers), as the Greeks called them, live in woods, caves, on mountains, or rocks, in poverty, celibacy, abstinence, silence: sleeping on straw or the bare ground, crawling on the belly, standing all day on tiptoe, exposed to the pouring rain or scorching sun with four fires kindled around them, presenting a savage and frightful appearance, yet greatly revered by the multitude, especially the women, and performing miracles, not unfrequently completing their austerities by suicide on the stake or in the waves of the Ganges. Thus they are described by the ancients and by modern travellers. The Buddhist monks are less fanatical and extravagant than the Hindoo Yogis and Fakirs. They depend mainly on fasting, prayer, psalmody, intense contemplation, and the use of the whip, to keep their rebellious flesh in subjection. They have a fully developed system of monasticism in connection with their priesthood, and a large number of convents; also nunneries for female devotees. The Buddhist monasticism, especially in Thibet, with its vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience, its common meals, readings, and various pious exercises, bears such a remarkable resemblance to that of the Roman Catholic church that Roman missionaries thought it could be only explained as a diabolical imitation.263263   See the older accounts of Catholic missionaries to Thibet, in Pinkerton’s Collection of Voyages and Travels, vol. vii., and also the recent work of Huc, a French missionary priest of the congregation of St. Lazare: Souvenirs d’un Voyage dans la Tartarie, le Thibet, et la Chine, pendant les années1844-1846. Comp. also on the whole subject the two works of R. S. Hardy: “Eastern Monachism” and “A Manual of Buddhism in its modern development, translated from Singalese MSS.” Lond. 1850. The striking affinity between Buddhism and Romanism extends, by the way, beyond monkery and convent life to the heirarchical organization, with the Grand Lama for pope, and to the worship, with its ceremonies, feasts, processions, pilgrimages, confessional, a kind of mass, prayers for the dead, extreme unction, &c. The view is certainly at least plausible, to which the great geographer Carl Ritter (Erdkunde, ii. p. 283-299, 2d ed.) has given the weight of his name, that the Lamaists in Thibet borrowed their religious forms and ceremonies in part from the Nestorian missionaries. But this view is a mere hypothesis, and is rendered improbable by the fact, that Buddhism in Cochin China, Tonquin, and Japan, where no Nestorian missionaries ever were, shows the same striking resemblance to Romanism as the Lamaism of Thibet, Tartary, and North China. Respecting the singular tradition of Prester John, or the Christian priest-king in Eastern Asia, which arose about the eleventh century, and respecting the Nestorian missions, see Ritter, l.c. But the original always precedes the caricature, and the ascetic system was completed in India long before the introduction of Christianity, even if we should trace this back to St. Bartholomew and St. Thomas.

The Hellenic heathenism was less serious and contemplative, indeed, than the Oriental; yet the Pythagoreans were a kind of monastic society, and the Platonic view of matter and of body not only lies at the bottom of the Gnostic and Manichaean asceticism, but had much to do also with the ethics of Origen and the Alexandrian School.

Judaism, apart from the ancient Nazarites,264264   Comp. Num. vi. 1-21. had its Essenes in Palestine265265   Comp. the remarkable description of these Jewish monks by the elder Pliny, Hist. Natur. v. 15: “Gens sola, et in toto orbe praeter caeteros mira, sine ulla femina, omni venere abdicata, sine pecunia, socia palmarum. Ita per seculorum millia (incredibile dictu) gens aeterna est in qua nemo nascitur. Tam foecunda illis aliorum vitae penitentia est.” and its Therapeutae in Egypt;266266   Eusebius, H. E. ii. 17, erroneously takes them for Christians. though these betray the intrusion of foreign elements into the Mosaic religion, and so find no mention in the New Testament.

Lastly, Mohammedanism, though in mere imitation of Christian and pagan examples, has, as is well known, its dervises and its cloisters.267267   H. Ruffner, l.c. vol. i. ch. ii.–ix., gives an extended description of these extra-Christian forms of monasticism, and derives the Christian from them, especially from the Buddhist.

Now were these earlier phenomena the source, or only analogies, of the Christian monasticism? That a multitude of foreign usages and rites made their way into the church in the age of Constantine, is undeniable. Hence many have held, that monasticism also came from heathenism, and was an apostasy from apostolic Christianity, which Paul had plainly foretold in the Pastoral Epistles.268268   So even Calvin, who, in his commentary on 1 Tim. iv. 3, refers Paul’s prophecy of the ascetic apostasy primarily to the Encratites, Gnostics, Montanists, and Manichaeans, but extends it also to the Papists, “quando coelibatum et ciborum abstinentiam severius urgent quam ullum Dei praeceptum.” So, recently, Ruffner, and especially Is. Taylor, who, in his “Ancient Christianity,” vol. i. p. 299 sqq., has a special chapter on The Predicted Ascetic Apostasy. The best modern interpreters, however, are agreed, that the apostle has the heretical Gnostic dualistic asceticism in his eye, which forbade marriage and certain meats as intrinsically impure; whereas the Roman and Greek churches make marriage a sacrament, only subordinate it to celibacy, and limit the prohibition of it to priests and monks. The application of 1 Tim. iv. 1-3 to the Catholic church is, therefore, admissible at most only in a partial and indirect way. But such a view can hardly be reconciled with the great place of this phenomenon in history; and would, furthermore, involve the entire ancient church, with its greatest and best representatives both east and west, its Athanasius, its Chrysostom, its Jerome, its Augustine, in the predicted apostasy from the faith. And no one will now hold, that these men, who all admired and commended the monastic life, were antichristian errorists, and that the few and almost exclusively negative opponents of that asceticism, as Jovinian, Helvidius, and Vigilantius, were the sole representatives of pure Christianity in the Nicene and next following age.

In this whole matter we must carefully distinguish two forms of asceticism, antagonistic and irreconcilable in spirit and principle, though similar in form: the Gnostic dualistic, and the Catholic. The former of these did certainly come from heathenism; but the latter sprang independently from the Christian spirit of self-denial and longing for moral perfection, and, in spite of all its excrescences, has fulfilled an important mission in the history of the church.

The pagan monachism, the pseudo-Jewish, the heretical Christian, above all the Gnostic and Manichaean, is based on in irreconcilable metaphysical dualism between mind and matter; the Catholic Christian Monachism arises from the moral conflict between the spirit and the flesh. The former is prompted throughout by spiritual pride and selfishness; the latter, by humility and love to God and man. The false asceticism aims at annihilation of the body and pantheistic absorption of the human being in the divine; the Christian strives after the glorification of the body and personal fellowship with the living God in Christ. And the effects of the two are equally different. Though it is also unquestionable, that, notwithstanding this difference of principle, and despite the condemnation of Gnosticism and Manichaeism, the heathen dualism exerted a powerful influence on the Catholic asceticism and its view of the world, particularly upon anchoretism and monasticism in the East, and has been fully overcome only in evangelical Protestantism. The precise degree of this influence, and the exact proportion of Christian and heathen ingredients in the early monachism of the church, were an interesting subject of special investigation.

The germs of the Christian monasticism may be traced as far back as the middle of the second century, and in fact faintly even in the anxious ascetic practices of some of the Jewish Christians in the apostolic age. This asceticism, particularly fasting and celibacy, was commended more or less distinctly by the most eminent ante-Nicene fathers, and was practised, at least partially, by a particular class of Christians (by Origen even to the unnatural extreme of self-emasculation).269269   Comp. vol. i. § 94-97. So early as the Decian persecution, about the year 250, we meet also the first instances of the flight of ascetics or Christian philosophers into the wilderness; though rather in exceptional cases, and by way of escape from personal danger. So long as the church herself was a child of the desert, and stood in abrupt opposition to the persecuting world, the ascetics of both sexes usually lived near the congregations or in the midst of them, often even in the families, seeking there to realize the ideal of Christian perfection. But when, under Constantine, the mass of the population of the empire became nominally Christian, they felt, that in this world-church, especially in such cities as Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople, they were not at home, and voluntarily retired into waste and desolate places and mountain clefts, there to work out the salvation of their souls undisturbed.

Thus far monachism is a reaction against the secularizing state-church system and the decay of discipline, and an earnest, well-meant, though mistaken effort to save the virginal purity of the Christian church by transplanting it in the wilderness. The moral corruption of the Roman empire, which had the appearance of Christianity, but was essentially heathen in the whole framework of society, the oppressiveness of taxes270270   Lactantius says it was necessary to buy even the liberty of breathing, and according to Zosimus (Hist. ii. 38) the fathers prostituted their daughters to have means to pay their tax. the extremes of despotism and slavery, of extravagant luxury and hopeless poverty, the repletion of all classes, the decay of all productive energy in science and art, and the threatening incursions of barbarians on the frontiers—all favored the inclination toward solitude in just the most earnest minds.

At the same time, however, monasticism afforded also a compensation for martyrdom, which ceased with the Christianization of the state, and thus gave place to a voluntary martyrdom, a gradual self-destruction, a sort of religious suicide. In the burning deserts and awful caverns of Egypt and Syria, amidst the pains of self-torture, the mortification of natural desires, and relentless battles with hellish monsters, the ascetics now sought to win the crown of heavenly glory, which their predecessors in the times of persecution had more quickly and easily gained by a bloody death.

The native land of the monastic life was Egypt, the land where Oriental and Grecian literature, philosophy, and religion, Christian orthodoxy and Gnostic heresy, met both in friendship and in hostility. Monasticism was favored and promoted here by climate and geographic features, by the oasis-like seclusion of the country, by the bold contrast of barren deserts with the fertile valley of the Nile, by the superstition, the contemplative turn, and the passive endurance of the national character, by the example of the Therapeutae, and by the moral principles of the Alexandrian fathers; especially by Origen’s theory of a higher and lower morality and of the merit of voluntary poverty and celibacy. Aelian says of the Egyptians, that they bear the most exquisite torture without a murmur, and would rather be tormented to death than compromise truth. Such natures, once seized with religious enthusiasm, were eminently qualified for saints of the desert.

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