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.