J. N. Bremmer: "Symbols of Marginality from Early Pythagoreans to Late Antique Monks" in Greece and Rome vol. 39, no. 2, 1992, p. 205-214.

Author Bremmer describes the common use of certain identifiers and practices applied to ascetics from ancient Greek to early Christian times. Habits of the 4th-century B.C.E. followers of the philosopher-mathematician Pythagoras are found reproduced in the Christian desert hermits of 5th-century Syria and Egypt -- not because of a cause-effect relationship over centuries but because shared values and ideas promote similar styles and behaviors.

In the fourth century B.C., Pythagoras makes a sudden appearance in Attic comedy. These characters are conspicuous for their deviant lifestyle and appearance. They wear only a single garment, go barefoot, and probably stink to high heaven, since they never wash. In addition they are taciturn and of sombre appearance. Moreover, they take only water and otherwise subsist on vegetables and herbs, totally abstaining from meat.

As Bremmer notes, comic drama exaggerates. But clearly the Pythagoreans presented a contrary philosophy of life to that of their contemporaries. So it is all the more fascinating that writings on the lives of early Christian monks and hermits show "the same phenomena," even so far as to be explicit in citing the Pythagoreans. In describing the hermit Anthony, Athanasius used Porphyry's biography of Pythagoras; Palladius cites Pythagoras, and Iamblichus draws the analogy between desert hermits and Pythagoreans, the analogy between those, as he puts it, "living in the solitude of the desert."

While obvious differences exist between Greek philosophy and the evangelical ideals of the Christian hermits, one common factor affecting both groups is marginalization, the "increasing alienation from urban society." The process in ancient Greece is paralleled in early Christianity. The Pythagoreans dwelled within the city but separated themselves from its daily life. Their successors, the Cynics, renounced urban values altogether. Finally, Christian ascetics, pursuing a similar evolution, left the cities for villages, then the villages for deserts and mountains -- the final self-elected marginalization. (A similar process could be studied in central and eastern Asia, but Bremmer does not mention this since it is obviously not the scope of his article.)

The author looks at several symbols of marginality common to Pythagoreans and Christian desert monks and hermits: "the simple garment, resistance against laughter, the drinking of water, and ... vegetarianism."

1. The simple garment

The ordinary citizen of ancient Greece wore a tunic and an outer cloak. To own a single garment was a sign of poverty. And the single garment could be made a sign of humiliation, as when the Athenians forced the Potidaeans into exile (in 428 B.C.E.) allowing them to wear only a single garment.

The Cynic Diogenes and his followers deliberately began wearing a single garment, attributing this in part to the example of Pythagoras. Then the Stoics Zeno and Chrysippus recommended the Pythagorean example and their followers Cleanthes and Cato Minor began wearing a single garment, Cato going so far as to not wear shoes, even during official duties.

By analogy, we see Jesus, in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, sending forth his disciples to preach and instructing them to wear no more than a single garment. In the 3rd century, the church historian Eusebius mentions that the theologian Origen wore a single garment as part of his "philosophic way of life." The hermits Apollo, Isadore, and Gelasius are cited as wearing a single garment, and even as late as the 7th century St. John the Almsgiver wore a single garment.

2. Laughter.

Austerity manifested outwardly in countenance is a hallmark of Pythagoras. He never laughed, and neither did his disciples. Bremmer cites examples among Christian desert hermits: Pachomuus chides Silvanus for boisterous laughter and forewarns a monk who will be visiting a neighboring monastery not to laugh. Melania tells her sisters to not laugh too much. Pambo reportedly never laughed, nor did Anthony according to Athanasius, who borrows the description from Porphyry's description of Pythagoras (as mentioned above), as does Sulpicius Severus in describing the hermit Martin.

3. The drinking of water.

Pythagoras and his followers abstained from wine. The literary sources are late and conflictive but certainly the Cynics, who consciously imitated the Pythagoreans, renounced wine. Interestingly, the Egyptian (pagan) priests did not drink wine, nor did the ascetic Jewish Therapeutae (associated with the Essenes).

So it is not surprising that the drinking of only water is mentioned of many Christian hermits: Anthony, Isadore, Xious, Poemen, and Pionite. Bremmer argues that not all the hermits and monks renounced wine, and mentions Macarius, Xanthias, and Paphnutius. Poemen and Athanasius often made gifts of wine to monasteries, so the practice may have been an ideal rather than an expectation. However, Bremmer does not mention the significance of the use of wine in the Eucharist, which may account for the gifts, distinct from the use of wine versus water in general.

A more important distinction between Greek and Christian arises with the issue of abstention from wine. In ancient Greece wine was associated with aristocracy and wealth. To deliberately abstain from wine was to identify oneself with a lower class, to reject an obvious symbol of affluence. Because wine was an integral part of a social ambience in ancient Greece, the rejection meant a rejection of social class and, indeed, social participation -- a voluntary ostracism.

Such a decision was a bold confirmation of ethical and social conviction. The ancient Greek philosopher would not attend (or be able to attend) social events such as festivals and dinners where wine flowed freely. It was not merely a matter of attending and obstinately abstaining, but of no longer socializing with a governing class and tolerating its values. "To aristocrats, then," sums Bremmer, "total abstention meant first and foremost a total break with their milieu."

The motive for abstention differed among the Christian monks and hermits. Nearly all originated in the peasant class that never knew wine or at least saw it as a class privilege, so that rejecting wine was for the monks and hermits a continuity of their habits and less an ascetic statement, although it was a statement incorporated into their rejection of a symbol of luxury. The eremitic life rejected the ways of the world, among those ways being the drinking of wine.

4. The consumption of meat

The same social dynamics in the abstention of wine recurs in the abstention from meat. Pythagoras rejected the animal sacrifice of contemporary religion, but, moreover, saw abstention as a social statement. As Bremmer emphasizes: "He who converted himself to vegetarianism at once severed himself from Greek community life." Is it not more or less the same today?

Differences about the consumption of meat did arise among the Christian monks and hermits. On the one hand, Pachomius (like St. Benedict of Nursia after him) was willing to sanction meat to the sick or infirm monk. On the other hand, Poemen refused meat even to visitors.

Ascetic practices among the hermits extended to bread (wheat was the grain of the wealthy, barley that of the humble) and to the use of fire in cooking (whether to eat cooked or uncooked food only). Concerning the use of fire in cooking, Theodoret of Cyrrhus reports that all the hermits of Syria ate without fire. But cooking was an occasional practice in Egypt, as Pachomius indicates.

Here we see the environmental contrast of the lush Syrian landscape versus the desolate Egyptian desert -- options for food were governed in part by the availability of wood. However, it was not a matter of being able to cook meat or not; the rejection of the consumption of meat was universal. Rather, the Syrian might make a lentil soup, for example, while the Egyptian hermit would sprout his lentils. (My example, not Bremmer's.)

Food and diet are central to many stories about hermits, demonstrating a concern about survival as much as asceticism or ethics. Dreams and miracle stories are common in framing these concerns. The hermit Apollo had only dry loaves and pickled vegetables to offer visiting brothers at Easter. He prayed for food and angelic strangers appeared bearing grapes, figs, dates, nuts, honey, milk, and warm loaves of bread. Patermuthius visited and returned from heaven with similar foods. John of Lycopolis, Sourous, and Helle all relate stories of hermits who ate no earthly food whatever but were fed by visiting angels.

Such stories reflect the hermits' desire to champion asceticism. Renunciation of food, like deprivation of sleep, was part of the hermit's spiritual virtue (strength or force).  Another practice was the preference for eating alone, to avoid a brother's temptation but also out of shame that others would see that he must eat and in what quantities and manner.


Bremmer offers two insightful conclusions to his comparison of the symbols of marginality. First is that

we can not simply derive symbols of Christian asceticism from Pythagorean customs: these symbols should be understood in their social context. On the one hand, there are symbols, such as wearing a single garment and resisting laughter, which have retained their meaning. Although one cannot entirely discount the influence of pagan tradition, these symbols could also be explained from the availability of the human body as a source of "natural symbols," or from the cultural community ...

Although writers like Athanasius may have cited Pythagoras, it is not an historical continuity but a collective human consciousness that crafts symbols -- usually the same ones, as demonstrated here -- to express values elicited by the times and circumstances. Thus the psychological openness of Jesus or the grasshopper-eating of John the Baptist were not imitated by the hermits. But the ascetic vehicle of biblical counsel in general did help fuel the goals of the hermits in identifying new symbols.

Secondly, Bremmer notes that "the Pythagorean way of life had its origins in the growing loss of influence of the aristocracy" in the Archaic Age of ancient Greece, characterized by growing militarization and tyranny. The vacuum of values induced alternative movements to redefine cultural and ethical values -- not only among the Pythagoreans in their era but among Jewish and Christian ascetic groups in their respective eras as well.

From Bremmer's conclusions may be drawn broader insights into a sociology of eremitism. Characteristics of historical hermits reflect the sense of recreating a new ethic in the face of the public collapse of institutional and class norms. The presence of such complex factors presents eremitism as a set of historical issues not yet fully addressed, a challenge Bremmer offers.