Egyptian monasticism is related to older models for spiritual life.8 Likewise the strong emphasis on homelessness and on a life in the wilderness in the texts from Syria probably have ancient roots. It has also been argued that the differences between Egyptian and Syriac monastic tradition are partly due to differences between an Egyptian agrarian and a Syriac mercantile tradition.9 Although the interpretation of ascetic behaviour and the social organisation of it are new in Christian monasticism, there is no reason to think that the monks did not avail themselves of existing social models. Even so, instead of seeing this as non-Christian influence, we ought to think of it as Christian re-interpretation and transformation of older forms and ideas.
In trying to understand how these various traditions combined into a gradually cohesive and ideologically united monastic movement, we have to focus on its two basic characteristics: the absolute emphasis on permanent celibacy and the renunciation of responsibility for the preservation of secular society. Here there is a radical break with ancient traditions. The concern is now almost entirely for the individual or the community to which one belongs, rather than for the family, the city or the empire. The liberation sought is not the liberation of the soul from the body, but of the entire self from the passing world. The transformation to be achieved is not a transformation of the world, but of the entire self. The universality of this idea, the invitation to anyone to join and the promises of real and visible results had a tremendous impact in a society where unrest, poverty and social insecurity were widespread. That such a strongly individualistic ideology could sustain an enduring social institution, which has made an immense contribution to the development of the society, is by and large due to the establishment of a new social organisation, the coenobitic monastery. Although monastic life in the East never became totally identified with life in a monastery, it was the creation of monasteries that saved the radical revival movement of the fourth and early fifth centuries.
It has been suggested that, on the social level, the rise of monasticism is linked to a demand for holy men as arbitrators in late ancient society.10 As independent persons with direct access to heavenly powers, the monks could intervene on behalf of the poor, the sick and the displaced. From an early text like the Life of Anthony to the biographers of later monastic saints such as the stylites on the
8 For Egyptian traditions see Miriam Lichtheim, Late Egyptian wisdom in the international context and Wolf-Peter Funk, 'Ein doppelt überliefertes Stück spatagyptischer Weisheit'.
9 A. Guillaumont, 'Le dépaysement comme forme d'ascèse', 50; R. Murray, Symbols of the church and kingdom, 28.
10 The discussion on the social role was initiated by the article by Peter Brown, 'The rise and function of the holy man'. A more recent addition is his 'Holy men'.
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