living in the cities and towns; there is also evidence for strong economic and social interaction between rural monks and the towns.4 The great recorded variety of monastic lifestyles makes it difficult to specify formal criteria for monasticism other than a celibate life, an emphasis on ascetic practice and a strong sense of independence in relation to society - and often in relation to church institutions as well.
All the varieties of monastic life exhibit an emphasis on renunciation of traditional forms of social life (including marriage, private wealth and secular responsibilities), deprivation of bodily needs and concentration on spiritual goals. In one way or another, all of them also link this to a zeal for communion with God through Christ and interpret this communion in eschatological terms. The basic ideal is therefore freedom, that is, liberation from social as well as bodily concerns in the pursuit of a new status characterised by detachment, peace and invulnerability. These basic ascetic ideas can be found already in the earliest strata of Christian tradition as a practical expression of eschatological ideas, as well as in several of the philosophical traditions of antiquity in which they are linked to a quest for unity and simplicity in the face of diversity and disorder. In Manichaean as well as in the heterodox Jewish and Christian literature that is usually labelled Gnostic, the same ideals are combined with strongly dualistic views about the necessity of liberating the spirit from the body. The ascetic framework and the ascetic reading of the scriptures is thus not an invention of emerging monasticism; rather, it is deeply rooted and universally attested in the church from the apostolic age, as indeed in late ancient society generally.
In addition to Christian ascetic practices, early monasticism drew heavily upon the Greek philosophical tradition. Philosophy was primarily understood as the pursuit and teaching of the perfect way of life, the precondition for pure knowledge and illumination by the divine. A philosophical life was thus a life characterised not only by intellectual activity but also by detachment from social and political affairs and freedom from concern for wealth or bodily pleasure.5 The first Christian writers to present a philosophical and theological setting for the ascetic ideals were Clement of Alexandria and Origen, who were both to have a great impact on the ideas of the earliest monastic leaders, especially in Egypt. Clement's basically Stoic understanding of ethics (with its emphasis on virtues and passions), as well as his emphasis on esoteric
4 The evidence for Egypt is collected in Ewa Wipszycka, 'Le monachisme égyptien et les villes', and for Syria and Asia Minor in Daniel Caner, Wandering, begging monks.
5 For ancient philosophy as a main influence on the development ofmonasticism see Pierre Hadot, Exercises spirituels.
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