Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Monks as Anti-Reason

While reading selections from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire I came across this passage describing Christian Monks.
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. 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.
I think Gibbon's appraisal, which differs so markedly from how a contemporary intellectual might evaluate an undiluted adherent of faith, illustrates the degree to which rationality was esteemed during the Enlightenment, and how far its value has fallen in modern times.


Blogger Paul Hsieh said...

My favorite monk joke:

A young person decided that he wanted to leave the world and become a reclusive monk. He climbed the Himalayan mountains until he came upon a monastery hidden deep in the forest. After sharing his wish to live a cloistered life with the head monk, he was told, "This is the most austere monastery; people stay in their rooms all the time and take a vow of silence. Monks may only speak 2 words every 10 years."

The young man assured the head monk that this was the life he wanted, so he was shown to a cell, told food was slid under the door for meals, and with that, the young person was left alone in complete solitude.

Ten years went by and the head monk visited the young monk. The senior held up two fingers, reminding the person that he could speak two words now.

The young monk said, "Bed's hard."

The senior monk nodded his head and left, closing the door behind him.

Another 10 years elapsed and the senior monk visited the junior monk, again holding up two fingers to listen to the youngster's thoughts.

The young monk said, "Food's bad."

And the senior monk nodded his head and left, closing the door behind him.

On the 30th year, ten years after the last visit, the head monk again came to vist the now not-so-young monk; holding up his two fingers, the young monk replied, "I quit."

The senior monk said, "I'm not surprised; you've done nothing but complain ever since you got here."

9:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aha, now we know where the SS got their ideas: from the monks' superiors. GAG

12:05 AM  

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