Monday, February 20, 2023

Older monks

It hadn't registered with me that before there were Christian monks, there were Jewish contemplatives living in the Egyptian "desert".

Philo wrote about them: it isn't a long work, and there's quite a bit of description of how other people live for contrast. Ascetic, but not flagellant. Not solitary--for safety's sake. Men and women had walls to separate them, but weren't far apart. "And the interval between morning and evening is by them devoted wholly to meditation on and to practice of virtue, for they take up the sacred scriptures and philosophise concerning them, investigating the allegories of their national philosophy, since they look upon their literal expressions as symbols of some secret meaning of nature, intended to be conveyed in those figurative expressions."

But they also composed songs and hymns of praise to God, and their sabbath feasts included these.

And after the feast they celebrate the sacred festival during the whole night; and this nocturnal festival is celebrated in the following manner: they all stand up together, and in the middle of the entertainment two choruses are formed at first, the one of men and the other of women, and for each chorus there is a leader and chief selected, who is the most honourable and most excellent of the band. (84) Then they sing hymns which have been composed in honour of God in many metres and tunes, at one time all singing together, and at another moving their hands and dancing in corresponding harmony, and uttering in an inspired manner songs of thanksgiving, and at another time regular odes, and performing all necessary strophes and antistrophes. (85) Then, when each chorus of the men and each chorus of the women has feasted separately by itself, like persons in the bacchanalian revels, drinking the pure wine of the love of God, they join together, and the two become one chorus, an imitation of that one which, in old time, was established by the Red Sea, ... When the Israelites saw and experienced this great miracle, which was an event beyond all description, beyond all imagination, and beyond all hope, both men and women together, under the influence of divine inspiration, becoming all one chorus, sang hymns of thanksgiving to God the Saviour, Moses the prophet leading the men, and Miriam the prophetess leading the women.

The monks had given up their wealth and families to become poor/unattached, but it seems as though it was a life for the educated.

Philo used allegorical interpretation a lot and may have magnified his report of its use among the "therapeutae" (the idea was to heal the soul). His description of drunken dinner parties seems a little exagerated: some do require an ambulance and the police, but most don't, and I doubt the ancients were that much worse. I could be wrong


Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think because of technology, limited resources, and the labor-intensive crafts of brewing and winemaking, the answer may lie in the relatively low alcohol content of these beverages. 3.2 beer was legal for 18 y/o's when I started college in Virginia. You could drink that stuff all night without significant impairment.

james said...

"However, as the quotes from Hávamál above clearly show, it was considered
poor form to become drunk at the sumbel." That struck me the other way. We don't give solemn advice to people to not chew gravel--that's not a big social problem. We do tell them to go easy on alcohol, because people aren't "wary with ale." The warning implies a problem.