John J. Conley: "The Eremitical Anthroplogy of William of St. Thierry" in Cistercian Studies vol. 25, 1990, p. 115-130.

In his "Golden Epistle," William of St. Thierry (1075-1148) "defends and instructs the young hermits who had recently established a Carthusian community at Mont Dieu." William's defense reflects the context of monastic rivalry and reform among his contemporaries: the Cluniac reform of the Benedictine order, the Cistercian reform of the Cluniac to restore the primitive Benedictine observances -- and the contemporary Carthusian reform of both to establish a more austere and rigorous model inspired by the eremitism of the ancient Christian hermits of the Egyptian desert.

But William did not want to present himself as a radical and an innovator. He presented eremitism as consistent with scriptural tradition while boldly arguing that the goal of personal transformation and union with God could only be achieved by the hermit. William was not arguing for the Carthusian order as such but for an ascetical and spiritual method that would best cultivate the goal mentioned. He found solitude to be the means or context, while outlining this method is his essay, the "Golden Epistle."

William's method presumes a concept of the human being that is "anthropological" in the medieval sense -- hence what author Conley calls William's "eremitical anthropology."

The epistle is not a devotional treatise without a philosophical base. On the contrary, it rests upon a triadic scheme of man's nature and development. William envisions man as a creature who moves from the animal to the rational to the spiritual stage. ...

Each stage is marked by a distinctive psychology, spirituality and regimen. Only in the final stage is perfection (the goal of each man's life) achieved. William presumes that such a transformation can be consummated only in the privacy of the cell.

The goal of perfection is union with God and the divinization of the self. This goal is a Platonic, Plotinian, and Augustinian expression consistent with Eastern or Orthodox Christian theologizing, but which effectively ended in the Western world with the triumph of scholasticism. William's treatise is strongly philosophical and not dependent on a theological conclusion.

His anthropology is eremitical not simply because the treatise is addressed to hermits or is designed as a defense o f eremitical vocation. Rather William argues that by nature, man is destined to complete transformation into what God is. It is the hermit, in the solitude of his cell, who is fulfilled as a person in perfection. In William's anthropology, the hermit stands at the pinnacle, capable of solitary union with God only, through the rigors of asceticism and the grace of spirit. He no longer relies on the mediation of others (as does the animal man) or the mediation of his own intellect (as does the rational man). William's eremitical anthropology lies in the treatise's repeated conviction that man's one authentic desire is union with God, that the stages of man's growth inevitably lead him to greater and greater solitude, and that this solitude is most perfectly expressed in the vocation of the hermit.

Three stages

William's simple "triadic architecture of man" is: animal >  rational  >  spiritual.

By animal stage, William means a minimal understanding or self-direction that requires obedience on the part of the individual (that is, monastic novice) and guidance on the part of superiors. The object of this stage is control of bodily senses and worldly attachments, and the remedy is obedience or deference to a spiritual elder.

The neutrality or evil of bodily inclinations must be disciplined into virtues. William presents obedience as analogous to conversion, as a positive turning away and severing from dangerous habits. William maintains that the person at the animal stage lacks the discretion to realize self-understanding and to know what is prerequisite to the next stages.

Obedience, however, does not mean acquiescence, for the individual may be versed in formal knowledge and simple spirituality and therefore not to be treated as childlike. The disposition of the notice must be positive while the psychology may yet be weak or erratic.

Acedia, which Conley translates as "boredom," may be a problem even at this early stage. Corporal ascetic practices such as fasting and vigils, and more concrete meditations on the actions of Christ or details of saints' lives, is recommended for this stage, even if God is presented in a more anthropomorphic way. This is in keeping with the psychology of this stage, preparing for the greater contemplative and solitary transition to the rational stage.

The rational stage takes the discipline of the animal stage and applies it to the intellectual faculty. The object is to cultivate not so much reason but discernment and wisdom. Reason here is ethical and psychological conviction buttressing spirituality. Reason (in this Augustinian sense) is a mental tool facilitating contemplation.

With the external supports of the animal stage outgrown, reason now refines experience and conviction in preparation for spiritual ascendance. Thus, reason is concerned with directing the will, eliminating mental distractions, and focusing the mind on God. Conley explains:

The second stage is far more interior than the first stage. The object of discipline is the subtle soul rather than the all-too apparent body. Progress is made through reference to interior discernment ... rather than blind adherence to and imitation of a master.

Once mental asceticism is mastered, the third stage is possible.

With the spiritual stage, the asceticism of body and mind can transform the faculty of insight into a positive affection: love of God through infusion of the Spirit. This stage is not governed by thinking but by a passive receptivity, wherein the intellect and the will ultimately experience an ecstatic state. The body and mind are absorbed by the indwelling Spirit. In a sense, this divinization is the desire or affection for God, not merely identification with God or resemblance to God.

The spiritual stage itself involves three stages: 1) images of God in creation; 2) freely-willed semblance to God; and 3) identification with God through spiritual union.

These three stages of the spiritual stage are microcosms of the animal-rational-spiritual stages. In the first, God is identified as an external goal of conformity. In the second stage, God is discovered or revealed in the practice of virtues and imitative identification. But in the third stage is found a "radical unity" or "ecstatic likeness."

Yet this ecstasy is not a goal in itself. It brings about a deep transformation in the individual. Conley explains how William brings the stages back to centering on the individual.

The individual arrives at wisdom, knowing that God dwells within him, that his life is nothing but a calm, patient waiting for death. William's understanding of ecstasy is significant inasmuch as he considers the fruit of ecstasy a joy in accepting one's worldly existence rather than a contempt for one's life in the everyday world.

A further product of this ecstasy is realization of the human faculties. Reason is inadequate to an understanding of God -- only affection or love can draw out the selflessness needed to know God's essence. This knowledge is what William calls self-understanding, a self-identity that can eliminate distraction and vice.

Solitude and perfection

Important to the three stages or states discussed in the "Golden Epistle" is the transition from community to solitude. Conley explains that

In the animal stage, community plays a crucial role. There can be no progress unless one hands oneself over to the direction of an experienced guide. ...

In the rational state, the role of the community is more circumscribed. Radical obedience to others is no longer essential. The chief spiritual task is the discipline of the will, executed with few of the communal supports mandated for the initial asceticism of the animal man.

By the third stage,

the community is entirely absent. Radical solitude is the ground and end of the spiritual man. He is transformed in the Spirit in utter isolation from the community. There is no dependence upon the example or supports of others (indeed, anything external) since the stage is passive and intuitive.

This stage is the highest justification of eremitism.

The independence of the spiritual man from community is so strong that he is pulled out of time, in the ecstatic tastes of eternity, and pulled out of language, where silence supercedes the words of the community. Radical solitude ... snaps the bonds of the individual to the community to a superhuman extent.

William has not, however, made eremitism the goal of the spiritual life, but attempted to depict the hermit as the only possible candidate for spiritual perfection. In other words, the process of spiritual perfection points to perfection as the outcome only of an eremitical path. Conley notes,

William's anthropology, rooted in Christian Neoplatonic ascetical and mystical traditions, depicts man as perfectly realized only in the hermit. ... William's anthropology is radically eremitical inasmuch as it analyzes man as a creature who realizes himself only through movement away from everyday life to the graced solitude of the hermit.

Furthermore, Conley argues that William's anthropology is essentially an "anthropology of perfection (or perfections)." If the trajectory of life and virtue is perfection, then William's anthropology shows that that "the individual becomes more and more radically eremitical." Most people will never follow these stages, of course, but William is specifically addressing a monastic audience that presumably intends to embark on this path. But as an anthropology, William does argue that all human values have a trajectory towards perfection, and that "the conditions of perfection are deeply eremitical." Thus William addresses human nature, not individual circumstance. "Only in the spiritual stage of the eremitical life is this perfection achieved," concludes Conley.

Only in the eremitical solitude of the spiritual stage ... does man's dynamism acquire its proper object and does man truly come to know himself. In the eremitical vocation, so boldly pursued by the Carthusians of Mont Dieu, William not only finds the spiritual sons of the desert fathers; he finds in this life the only adequate end and representative of his highly mystical anthropology.