Peter Brown: "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity" in Journal of Roman Studies vol. 61, 1971, p. 80-101.
Brown's article is significant for the study of the history of eremitism because it shows that two distinct phases of eremitism existed in early Christianity and that the character of the hermits in those phases differ, qualifying the oversimplification of life, thought, and expression in the eremitism of this era.
The first phase was the Egyptian phase, the era of the desert hermits, where geography and environment were important material factors in the expression of eremitism. With its scarcity of resources and its forbidding geography, the desert was a radical contrast to urban areas. These factors shaped the fierce insights of the desert hermits: the extreme individualism, their hostility toward social life, and their separation from conventional ecclesiastical authority.
But in Syria, Palestine, and the Levant ("Syria was the great province for ascetic stars," notes Brown), a second stage of eremitism emerged under the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. These geographical areas, while arid, were not entirely desert nor isolated, forbidding landscapes. Economically, subsistence farmers and pastoralists lived in villages at the outskirts of arid areas inhabited by Bedouins. Hermits naturally separated themselves from cities and villages but they did not live in deserts but rather on the outskirts, in semi-arid areas of wilderness not distant from populated areas.
Hence the hermits of later antiquity living in this region developed a relationship with the peasants and villagers distinct from the separation experienced by the Egyptian hermits. This was a distinction not in content of faith or values but sufficiently different in material and social conditions to introduce an eremitical style that was to profoundly shape the Orthodox Church of the future.
The hermits of Syria were neither monks nor isolated desert-dwellers. They were known as eccentric heroes. Simon Stylites lived on a stone pillar. A hermit near Cyrrhus kept tame lions. Alexander the Sleepless numbered 400 followers as he roamed the countryside. And hermits, as everywhere, drew suspicion:
The hermit, an unattached stranger on the edge of the village, had an uphill task to allay initial hostility and suspicion: he could be framed in a murder; he was often held responsible for pregnancies among the village girls; he had the evil eye.
The fourth and fifth century Syrian villages were undergoing a crisis of leadership. The economic and social crises that would lead to feudalism were already apparent in the widening gap between wealthy landowners and indebted farmers. But the rise of patronage slowed this process and mitigated class stratification and conflict.
The large villas, the demesnes, and the ostentatious family tombs of the Roman citizens of the second and third century disappear. They are replaced by a self-confident and idiosyncratic local style. It was the villagers who had to look around to recreate, with the human material that lay at hand, the vital figure of the hinge-man.
The "hinge-man," as Brown calls him, or the patron, was none other than what the contemporary historian Theodoret (and Brown after him) call the "holy man." And that holy man is none other than the hermit.
The hermit is first of all a figure of power, supernatural power in the sense of miracles. But the miracle stories surrounding the hermit are really secondary,
often no more than a pointer to the many more occasions on which the holy man has already used his position in society. The miracle condenses and validates a situation built up by more discreet means.
The holy man simply converted the conventional powers of the curse and the exorcism into intervention and resolution of disputes through the power of his reputation. He became an "arbitrator and mediator," solving disputes among rich and powerful as adeptly as among poor. The hermit was summoned by all and respected by all for his absolute selflessness, his genuine disengagement from property, position, and worldly affairs. The same role was played by the hermit in resolving cases of demonic possession: he dissolved the conflicts, dissipated potential violence, and was ascribed an authority that no one else enjoyed.
Far from being bizarre fragments of folk-lore, such incidents have a social context: they condense -- in the same manner as did the belief in the curse of the holy man -- a widespread preoccupation among small, fissile communities to find some figure who would resolve tension and explosions of violence in their community.
This figure was ideally the hermit. Historian Theodoret writes of the holy man:
When men were at enmity with each other or had a grievance one against another he reconciled them, and those who were engaged in lawsuits he sought to bring to a better mind counseling them not to wrong each other.
Thus did the reputation for holiness grow into moral authority. Brown says:
It was by the intervention of such men that villagers sought a sense of communal identity. He [that is, the holy man] placed some check on the strong centripetal tendencies of Late Roman agricultural life. The holy man ... insisted that misfortune should be coped with by ceremonies that emphasized the communal activity of the village. ...
Through encouragement and ceremony, for example, Simon Stylites received "a constant trickle of delegations from neighboring villages, headed by their priests and elders, who trooped up the side of the mountain to hear 'the lion roar' as to how they should order their arbitration." Simon resolved lawsuits. In one village he sanctioned water rationing. In others he helped create low-interest loan systems. Simon, writes Brown, was the "good patron write large."
And there were many other hermits like him.
But why was the hermit cast in this productive role at this time and place in history? Why "the unlikely figure of the lone hermit, in so many different areas and for so many centuries?" The hermit was essentially a social "stranger;" not unlike the shaman or back country priest, the hermit's asceticism, perceptiveness, and lack of fear or craving are contrary to social norms: mysterious, transcendent, worthy of respect.
The holy man is the one man who can stand outside the ties of family and of economic interest; whose attitude to food itself rejected all ties of solidarity to kin and village. ... He was thought of as a man who owed nothing to society. He fled women and bishops, not because he might have found the society of either particularly agreeable, but because both threatened to rivet him to a distinct place in society. ... The holy man drew his powers from outside the human race: by going to live in the desert, in close identification with an animal kingdom that stood, in the imagination of contemporaries, for the opposite pole of all human society.
Simon Stylites offers one exemplar. Brown cities Daniel the Stylites of the late fifth century as another. And there were many others whose social roles have been overlooked not only by pious laity but especially by ecclesiastical authorities downplaying the social function of independent-minded hermits whose orthodoxy was nevertheless unimpeachable.
The holy man stands so ... because he is pleading for men before the King of Kings in the consistorium of heaven. Men entrusted themselves to him because he was thought to have won his way to intimacy with God.
The holy man's reputation was, however, the result of concrete acts on behalf of people. The report of their esteem reached higher and higher circles of power within Byzantine society. Though historians have often portrayed Byzantine politics as highly centralized and arbitrary, there is at levels just below the imperial bureaucracy a diffuse network, "a proliferation of little centres of power that competed with the vested hierarchy of Church and State." Byzantine society consisted of "a fibrous growth of informal, unarticulated relationships." In such a system, the holy man and hermit was seen as having a "grip on the keys of heaven."
Brown concludes that the holy man's role extended to healer and confessor, two essential psychological and symbolic functions. "The holy man resolved a dilemma inherent in early Christian piety." Whereas God is "remote and unflinching," the hermit, unlike any other human being, is visible, understanding, charitable but just; he is an "allayer of anxiety," a "professional in a world of amateurs" that included priests and bishops. And so, "caught between a bottomless God and an archaic system of public penance, laymen flooded to the holy man."
Anthropologically, too, one may see the hermit at this time filling a vacuum in a patriarchal society that sunders the roles of men and women, adding a voice of sympathy and holiness to a chaotic world. The hermit further assumes a prophetic function. He addresses the "silence of the oracle," that is, the absence of a sense of the future offered by the pagan oracles but lost to a society dominated by abstruse theological interests. Brown offers these observations as a challenge to future observers of the history and nature of eremitism, all prefigured or crystallized in the role of the holy man in Late Antiquity.