HISTORY OF IDEAS – Monasticism


We’ve come to see living on our own or in a small family unit of our own as a key step in growing up; it’s the dominant image we have of adult existence. So, monasticism, which involves unmarried people working and living together in highly organized communities, can seem very marginal and odd. We may not have anything particularly against monasticism, but it can seem just very unusual, something that might work for a very few individuals without being relevant to the lives of most people today. At its core, monasticism puts forward the bold thesis that people can actually lead the most fruitful, productive, and happy lives when they abandon the idea of coupledom and the single family dwelling, get together into controlled, very organized groups of friends, have some clear rules, and direct themselves towards a few big ambitions. The modern world insist that we’ll always be happier in a small home, on our own or with one or two very special people, but this ideal can be deeply problematic, leaving us occasionally looking around for some sort of an alternative. Even if we’re not planning on setting up a secular version of a monastery anytime soon, the history of monasticism deserves to be studied for the lessons it can yield about the limits to modern individualism. A site near Athens, 300 BC The philosopher, Epicurus, buys some land just outside the city of Athens and invites friends to come and live with him. It’s the world’s first proper commune based around philosophy. Epicurus has come to the view that we tend not to be very happy because we overrate the importance of three things: romantic love, having lots of money, and the enjoyment of luxury. The point of this commune is to help people avoid these mistakes and to focus instead on friendship, simple pleasures, and cultivating the mind. In the commune, everyone has a room and there are common areas downstairs and in the grounds. That way, the residents are always surrounded by people who share their outlooks, are entertaining and kind. Children are looked after in Rota, everyone eats together, one can chat in the corridors late at night. It’s a very succesful arrangement and a great many other epicurean communities are founded. The movement flourishes for almost 400 years. The big move that Epicurus makes is that people should live together not because they happen to be related by family ties, or were born in the same geographical region They should do so because they share values and ideals. Epicurus proposes that we need the presence and assistance of like-minded people able to free ourselves from the usual social preoccupations and get on with the sincere tasks of our lives. Monte Cassino, Italy, 529 AD, Inspired by the example of Epicurus, Saint Benedict establishes his first monastery halfway between Rome and Naples. It’s still there, although it had to be heavily rebuilt after it was damaged by allied bombing in 1944. Benedict writes an instruction manual for his followers with a simple and emphatic title, “The Rule.” In his book, Benedict lays out strict regulations about how to run a monastery; he details: what to eat, when it’s OK to talk and when you have to be silent, who has to do the cooking, washing up and gardening Everyone has to take turns: when to go to bed and went to get up, what sorts of clothes to wear and what kind of haircut to have. The list can seem like a huge denial of individual liberty, but Benedict’s contributions to the history of monasticism is his faith in the benefit of extensive, explicit and detailed rules to which members voluntarily agree. Benedict believes that only under regulated conditions can the best potential of people be harnessed. He works on the idea that although high level of personal freedom sounds like a lovely idea, it’s not in fact an optimum condition for most of us because we have a fatal tendency to veer towards dissipation, distraction, and wasting our time. North Yorkshire, England, 657 AD; St. Hilda of Whitby, one of the most powerful and accomplished women in the early history of England, founds a monestary. In her role as the head of the monastery of Whitby, she becomes a very senior administrator, runs a large cultural enterprise, is a management consultant to visiting kings and princes, and has an impact as a leading educationalist. And she does all this while being noted for her good temper. Of course, she’s unmarried. It’s not that because she’s a nun, she isn’t allowed to get married, and so has to make the best of her work opportunities without a supportive home-life– the line of thought runs the other way around. She’s able to have a stellar career and achieve so much for the community because she’s free of the demands of relationships and domestic life. Being a nun means she’s supplied with meals, laundry, and heating without having to organize everything for herself. She can be astonishingly productive. We tend to associate monastic life with religious devotion, but people like Hilda suggest that there are many benefits of monasteries, which are not really tied to religion at all. Most crucially, the monastery removes the problem of finding a work-life balance. Within the monastery, work and life are not really two separate things– you’re always at work. It’s an attitude summed up by the followers of Saint Benedict in one of their key mottoes, “Laborare est orare: to work is to pray.” That is, what you’re doing when you’re digging the fields, administering the accounts, deliberating policy, or involved in contemplation are not opposed activities to be weighed up against each other. You can fully immerse yourself in your work, which when it’s meaningful, can be the highest of pleasures. Kingdom of Bhutan, 1692: the establishment of the Takstang Palphug Buddhist monastery. Like Christianity, Buddhism has a long standing interest in communal living. The lofty and rather inaccessible location isn’t an accident. The point of going to a monastery is to avoid the distractions that might take one’s attention away from what’s really important. The Buddhists are acutely aware of the problems of distraction; what they call, “The Monkey Mind.” This is one of the recurrent themes around monasteries, so locating the monastery far away from the city, and in a setting where nature appears at its most impressive, is a careful, strategic ploy. It’s using geography and architecture in a struggle to get us to focus on the right things. Monasticism knows that human beings are pathetically prone to distraction. It’s almost comically easy to get us to stop concentrating on anything serious, or even a tiny bit challenging. But collectively, we’ve been very reluctant to take serious steps to address this mania for distraction. It’s almost shocking to imagine what one might be able to do where our attention’s not always wandering off. Buddhism’s leading figures are prepared to accept that asking for prolonged, non-distracted attention means making huge and specific adjustments. That’s what monasticism is for. Trinity college, Cambridge, England, October 1911. The philosopher, Ludwig Littgenstein, enrolls as a student at Trinity College, Cambridge to study under the great and eminent professor, Bertrand Russell. Trinity College is, like most of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, founded on the plan of a medieval monastery. It isn’t centered around a relationship with God, but it does have a belief system. One focused on the idea of academic work. Fellows of the college, such as Russell, lived a communal life and they have to be unmarried in order to admitted inside the community; married academics lived elsewhere in Cambridge. The arrangements are an admission that certain kinds of jobs, especially intellectual and creative ones, are not well-aligned with the demands of family life or even of running your own household. This academic monastery means you can socialize mainly with people who are involved in the same kind of work as you– who can offer you sympathy, help and advice and will never nag you about the laundry. The sneaking suspicion that someone who does your job might be harming their talents by emptying the bins or making the beds might, the college system argues, just be true. Russell and Wittgenstein weld together revolutionized 20th century philosophy. San Francisco, 1966. The first hippy communes spring up in the Haight-Ashbury district of the city. The hippies go in for a very particular style of communal living, involving: beards, lentils, chanting, free-wheeling attitudes to sex, suspicion of technology, and dislike of tidiness. They so gripped the public imagination that their way of doing things becomes what living together looks like to most people when they think of what it might mean to live in a commune. Almost by chance, it comes to seem as if being interested in shared property, collective responsibility, and mutual assistance with your work means you also have to be interested in dancing naked and sitting cross-legged on the floor with large a beard. It hence becomes hard to imagine a secular monastery with non-hippy values. For example, a commune devoted to entrepreneurship, traditional manners, or a strong enthusiasm for clean design and modernist architecture. Many options for communal living still lie before us. Monasteries and communes have not exhausted the possibilities, even if their examples can act as sources of ongoing inspiration. When we try to live together with just one special other person, the experiment often runs aground. We get bored, sexually frustrated or constrained. We often blame the other person for this, and rush off to repeat the experiment with someone else. We’d be wise to see that the institution of romantic marriage can place some intolerable burdens on otherwise very good people, who would hugely benefit from other ways of structuring their time and their laundry responsibilities. As an alternative to the dispiriting domestic bickering of certain couples, it may be time to revisit the fascinating examples of early modes of monastic and communal life.

Maurice Vega

100 Responses

  1. I love school of life because as a teenager just starting to consider what I will do in my life, what is important, the meaning of existence and humans as animals, it offers so many good points. If I were ever to establish a monastic group, I would most certainly like to be part of one such as the fellows of Cambridge. The most liberating and rewarding thing to do is to discuss ideas and beliefs with someone else equally as interested in the topic as you are, and I find that extremely rare in the general population. Indeed, I attend a prestigious school, and within it I find it hard to be successful searching for individuals with a passion for music, philosophy or physics.

  2. I have often seen Buddhist monks in their full attire hanging around in Bangalore's malls (it's an Indian city), checking out Sennheiser headphones and sipping milkshakes.

  3. But by being exposed to life with strangers and people who may not share the same passions and interests as you, you can widen your perspective on how everyone makes an individual contribution to a bigger picture. Which to some extent prevents people from looking down on people who do lower-paid jobs. Monasticism can seem like everyone is happy with pursuing their talents and maximising productivity by immersing themselves in the right environment, it must lead to ignorance on other people and their environments.

  4. I really like the ideas of epicurus you presented here, if you were to implement this kind of communities again I wonder if they would be successfull or if they would simply be rejected by the ignorant majority, I for my part would really like to live in one just for some time to experience how it feels and maybe for a longer period of time if it is like I imagine it would be ^^

  5. can you please make a video on Bruce Lee and his philosophy? His philosophy is super underrated. thank you!

  6. This filosophy is why some/most people who are in miltary, actually PREFER military life over civillian life.

  7. If there are no romantic relationships going on in monasteries, where do the children there come from? Are they just orphans then?

  8. Edward Gibbon stipulated in 'the decline and fall of the Roman Empire that "Monasticism" is a needless drain on society that leads to cultural stagnation. As seen in Europe between the rise of Christianity and the beginning of the renaissance, roughly lasting 1000 years… he also blames Christianity for destabilising the Roman Empire's bureaucratic system that was tied to the rather more tollelrent polytheistic state religion.

  9. Anyone else think it would be a dream come true to live in a academic monastery. Specifically I'd like to live in common contact with musicians, live with philosophers (ideally that like to admit when they are wrong because they realize that with that specific circumstance they never have to be wrong again) , and in common contact with scientists. I think if done correctly it could very well increase academic progress.

    Anyone wish to explore this thought further with me.

  10. So I'm wondering, where can I find such monasteries or communal living as I am a single parent however with a different belief system but I'm am fascinated to explore this more decent and educational community to live in? I would want to live in such an environment where I can grow professionally, personally and spiritually to some extend. Because I find British community or place of London to be a very cold place to live in. I would rather prefer to live as a collective with ppl from various communities and become a more productive individual via such living conditions and the benefits it provides us. I'm currently a student, volunteering for charity organization's and also a single parent with 2 children. If my children can benefit from such an environment with better education, upbringing and social life I'd definitely go for something like this.

  11. the first thing I thought of during this movie was my repulsion to communal living in the form of brainwashing cults, etc….but now I'm realizing… I would very much enjoy a secular commune in the form of a college dorm setting, or shared workspace ets….There are tons of examples of shared offices now, I just want to see it be experiemented with more

  12. Nice video, but I don't think we should encourage monastic life over the traditional family model. Even if the latter has some disadvantages for the individual as pointed out in the video, it has one big raison-d'être: it provides us with children, the people who will keep the world going round when we get old.

  13. I've been living a monastic life a good part of my life without even knowing it, sometimes feeling less worthy as a person than my married counterparts: such enormous influence has had the individual mentality on us that most people tend to assume not to get married and have children as a synonym of failure in life…. Now I understand there's nothing wrong with me, where can I sign in!

  14. i thought it was very good, one problem. I think you should have given greater emphasis on the fact that monasticism for christianity started in egypt not with benedict.
    i think you shouldve specified in greater detail that you were just going to stick with the western church and not include the eastern church where monasticism was founded.
    but overall, very good assessment.

  15. I think this video starts from the premise that finding a partner necessarily means finding someone who is not compatible with you and thus will drag your personal development. A life with a specific individual whom you feel free to exchange ideas, share values and grow with might be more interesting than with several others.

    This, of course, depending on each persons' dynamics.

  16. Could you do a video about the 'Hellenism' epoch and the cultural exchange following it? Most educating youtube channel by the way! Keep up the great work!

  17. +the school of life while I know that your focus is mostly eurocentric, topics such as these belong to the whole of humanity. I would've loved if you had brought Indian shamanic schools such as Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism which are founded on monasticism and have been practicing them since 800 BC

  18. I feel that associating with people of different ideas and breaking barriers by finding common ground is more effective

  19. This is hilarious, people want to be communist sheep so badly and yet I bet the same people never even cleaned up their room when their parents told them to. This whole video makes it look like a vacation, but the life of a Monk is fucking hard, they meditate so much it cuts deep into their sleep, they live on next to no food and the food they get is begged for, door to door.

    And don't deny it, you want a wife/husband, you fantasize about it every waking hour watching movies where the heroine falls in love and lives happily ever after. Think before you say you'd throw away your entire life and all of it's freedom, you won't know what you've got till it's gone.

  20. You forgot to mention the early proto monasticism of the desert fathers and mothers. The early desert dwellers preceeded Benedict and no doubt influenced him as much if not more so than Epicurus.

  21. Benedict was not inspired by Epicurius. The monatery he first joined was already founded when he was invited to be its abbot. Besides, Catholic monks gather together for religious purposes, i. e., be closer to God.

  22. Many monastic communities offer retreats for a weekend, a week, sometimes more. Here's a list of Trappist communities.

    I am sure some offer retreats.

    It is a completely refreshing break from the rat race. Really, everyone should try a retreat now and then…

  23. There are some mistakes:
    – A basic component of all monastic life is asceticism, and you haven't talked about it at all.
    – Epicureanism and the Hippy movement cannot be linked to monasticism because they are secular philosophies, mostly at odds with asceticism.
    – Not all monastic orders are centered on communal living, many are hermits who live secluded. Actually that's how it all began, with the first Egyptian monks living alone in the desert in the 3rd century AD, or the first Indian sramanas in the 5th century BC. Also, the words "monastic" or "monk" come from the Greek "mónos" which means "alone".
    – Medieval monks rarely worked in the fields and in other primary production jobs, they often worked as scribes to copy books and make miniatures. Anyway, their main work was to pray and say masses, that was the main purpose for which they received alms and donations.

  24. There are a few faulty details regarding Saint Benedict and Benedictine tradition in this video. Saint Benedict was NOT inspired by Epicurean ideals. Christian monasticism was already flourishing throughout Europe in the Sixth Century AD, and there was a great deal of monastic literature being shared among the monasteries. The Benedictine motto "Ora et labora" does NOT mean "to work is to pray" but "pray and work" which does not appear in the rule, but is an extremely simplified distillation of the Rule. Worship and prayer are given the HIGHEST priority in the Rule: "Put nothing before the Opus Dei (Work of God)" which refers to the Liturgy of the Hours, prayed in common several times throughout the monastic day. Oh, and the Rule says NOTHING about "haircuts"!!!

  25. 2:50 – "Inspired by the example of Epicureus, Saint Benedict establishes his first monastery…" I beg to differ – st. Benedict was, in fact, not inspired by epicurean communes, rather he lived according to the examples of the early christians, as we know them from the Acts of the Apostles, etc. Also, there was already a known tradition of eastern, so called "Desert fathers", the lives of whom Benedict sought to emulate.
    Love,
    Simon

  26. Saw this when I was drunk and thought it said monetarism and thought of the monk as milton friedman….

  27. Imo, humanity may have made much more significant advances in past if half the population's life goal wasn't just to settle down have kids. The institution of marriage and the cultures it was derived from basically halved the brain power the human race used dedicating to its own advancement by putting women into the roles that they had. Sure, not all of them were made housewives but the great majority were. We may have already been exploring space 100's of years ago if it were not for marriage. xD

  28. There is no such institution as "Romantic Marriage". There is one called Home. The primary purpose of this institution is to provide a safe and loving environment to the newcomers on this planet – the children. Any other benefits are just perks. Converting perks (Romance, etc.) to main objective of Home is plain selfish.

  29. I smiled when I heard the suggestion of a commune centred around 'enthusiasm for clean design and modernist architecture', as it's so Alain, like the fine dining dish he gave as an example of an average meal in another video. But then when the married dolls in the house appeared, I realised what a leech on everything most architects are. Why burden everyone's eyes with these flatpack new estates? A beautiful building near me was knocked down for another load of these, which was older than the library that was its last use. These soulless clones must damage people's mental health in the same way as the unforgiving terraces in say, Glasgow, did.

  30. Benedict was NOT inspired by Epicurus directly. Christian monasteries were already in existence and thriving. Benedict became famous because the monasteries had become worldly and carnal, and he enforced strict new rules. Benedict was an innovator in re-establishing order.

  31. 6:33 OH, LOOK! There's a KITTY! Precious kitty! (guilty pause) What? I'm not distracted! You're distracted. Why are you watching this YouTube video anyway? Go, flog yourself until you forget the cute little kitty cat with his precious little whiskers and those precious wide cat eyes…..Stop! Don't distract me! Damnmmit!

  32. 7:25 " Fellows of the college have to be unmarried…"
    1) No mention of homosexuality, which has always been a big attraction to monasteries.
    2) No credit given to the Apostle Paul, who told us in the first century AD that family life is a major distraction.

  33. La mayoria de las comunidades no funcionan por que hay droga , sexo y manipulacion…!!! Quizas en Tibet o India…los liederes o gurus se vuelven locos y arruinan todo.

  34. So, anti-religious it self contradicts itself. “A communal life oriented toward academics and not God.” Yet the photo from Cambridge show priests with Roman collars on the left hand side.
    Nice try taking St. Benedict’s words out of context. “To work is to pray.” If that doesn’t sound religious, I don’t know what is. Saint Benedict realized that a Monastic setting works best in communion first with God then to others.
    This is also inaccurate historically. It completely forgets Saint Anthony of the Desert. An Eremitic Monk and not a Cenobitic monk. This video makes no such distinction.

  35. HI… you say "first community" in Occident. Do you think monasticism is a inventions of one of the most young culture (Roma)? Begin from that condemn the narration to seem full of hemisferic biases… It's not e piky ask, is really obvious…

  36. I live with my husband, our kids and a lot of animals , and i mean A LOT of animals , in the middle of the mountains , with many people helping us taking care of the hundreds of animals (we are both vet and ethologists and run animal rescue centers and shelters . I don't think there is a healthier lifestyle . We have our privacy when we want it because the house is large enough and the other people live in their own houses too but we all spend a lot of time together every day and nobody is never alone unless that person wants to be . Solitude is a choice not a fatality for us and the mountain provides a lot of solitary spots to get away from the crowd . But it is nice to cook together , eat together several times a week, it is nice to know that the kids are always under supervision while not being controlled and left to learn from their mistakes . But i think it only works because we all share the same values (which i do not like to call rules) , we are all vegetarian or vegan , this is the first and most important value in our group and the number one reason to work with us. No animals are hurt or mistreated , they are not eaten either . We also do not discriminate against anyone , we have people from every religious background or lack of it like me, from every social status, ethnicity, sexual orientation , age etc . We take care of the animals and of each other, whether we work at the clinics, at the shelters or in an office and volunteering with us, our community functions perfectly and has been for over 15 years . No guru, no spiritual leader nobody imposes his or her rules we just respect each other and support each other .
    strangely enough , all the people who have been here the longest, only chose to stay because they see nature and animals as their spiritual path , nothing matters more and everybody has also developed or brought arts or crafts skills , we have painters, sculptors, master seamstress , carpenters , architects, cooks, gardeners, computers nerds (not me) and everybody brings his or her skill(s) to the table .
    I think this is only possible because we do not consume meat and hurt animals . The basic understanding that all life is to be preserved is the basis of respect . If you do not respect animals, sooner or later you stop respecting others and yourself .
    I am also sure that meat makes people more aggressive and living a life where meat is off the menu make people more pacific and living in nature, automatically creates a form of serenity which city life doesn't.
    I am married to a Japanese and used to live in Japan (Tokyo and Kyoto) for many years myself (i am Icelandic) before moving back to nature . And i think i brought with me my teachings at the zen monastery of Eiheiji where i have spent a lot of time when questioning myself and a lot of things during my two decades in Japan . My master there liked me particularly because i was raised by vegans and have never consumed anything of animal origin in my life and have always had a passion for animals . he is the one who pushed me to become a vet and create a sanctuary for animal , which i did but out of Japan first .
    I remember him telling me Niku which means meat make people Nikunikushi , which means aggressive , while Yasai, meaning vegetable, make people Yasashi , which means gentle . I think there is a lot of truth there .

    This was my life for a few years and though i am not a Buddhist , i think that the universal concepts of Zen are a good way to live your life by .
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOHHS8rG8TQ

    For the ones who prefer english !

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZEP_AkT7oqY

  37. In ancient Greece we were calling them ριψασπιδες, mean" drop the shield", now, we call them δειλοί.mean cowards. Face the modern society, adopt and prosper, is the challenge. Cannot? You are useless, go institutionalized.And they are. They become monks. Worse are priests and the worst are politicians. It is much better to feed them, than work for.

  38. the way editor arranges timelines seems like every idea grown from west. It is funny how christian people distort history nd set up sequence of history on their terms, try to find their connections with Greek ideas whereas early Christians were opposed to any sort of ancient Greek ideology. Monastics institutions were build many more years before Epicureans. There r thousands old Monasteries all over Asia dated at least 500 bc.

  39. Rooting Christian monasticism in Epicureanism is beyond a little weird. In the Judeochristian tradition Epicureanism is a metaphor for worldliness & materialism.
    Actually, Christian monasticism, like most of the best bits of Christianity, are rooted in the mother religion of Judaism. It appears the ancient prophets founded communal groups, they gathered followers who preserved the teachings of the prophets. There followers being called the "sons of the prophets." In Alexandria Egypt there was a Jewish group called Theraputai who lived a kind of celibate commune. Then there were the Essenes who apparently created the Dead Sea Scrolls. From the beginning Christianity had what were called the desert fathers & mothers living as hermits.

  40. I love your stuff – if I could make a suggestion – Hyon Gak Sunim is worthy of studying – especially his videos on the diamond sutra.

  41. 1:28 What makes you think this was the world's first commune, 300BC? Humans have been present on Earth for millions of years and 2319 years is not so long ago, relatively speaking.

  42. How is this any different from military service? They both, at their core, continue to function on the same basic set of ideals

  43. Ok just right off the bat I’m gonna stop u there the weird part isn’t the community of like minded singles living together it’s the overbearing religious aspect that throws people off too many rules of what one is allowed to do and say and think and feel

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