Just as hermits are often viewed stereotypically as eccentric wilderness recluses, so, too, the typical introduction to historical hermits is often to Antony the Great through the paintings of 19th- and early 20th century romantic and decadent painters, and fiction like Flaubert’s. Here the popular image of the hermit is a pusillanimous object of pity, mockery, or scorn, a weakling battered by sexual temptation, surrounded by the heated projections of the painters and writers themselves.
Yet Athanasius’s Life of Antony barely dwells on sexual temptation, mentioning one incident early in the biography wherein one of the devil’s guises is as a seductive woman. For Athanasius, as with the standard collections of desert hermit sayings, sexual temptations are simply part of a range of temptations. Despite the absence of formal psychology or psychoanalysis, the hermits understood the power of the natural instincts of the body, specifically in survival, which are constantly asserting their presence through biological drives. Thus the drives for reproduction, food, water, shelter, temperature intervention (homeostasis), are fundamentally maintained by hormones (to simplify the science), which troll through the body as inevitable constituents of life.
Elder hermits regularly warn younger hermits not to despair of temptations. Antony is quoted by the Apophthegmata Patrum, for example, as saying that a brother must expect temptation “to his last breath,” and that from the body rises heat, movement, and energy, fed by food, by the will, and, externally, by demons. (Here food abets sources of greater temptation, while itself being a necessity).
Antony’s saying understands the necessary processes of the body and how they affect the will. Antony does not say that thoughts arise from temptations but rather that thoughts arise from the essential constituents of the body. Thoughts may be considered epiphenomena of the body’s heat and energy. But in order to become temptations, thoughts must be sustained, entertained, extended, and extrapolated, supported by the will, or, rather, supported by a subordinated will.
By viewing temptations as such a fundamental process, Poemen could thus argue that no one is saved if they have not suffered temptations. In short, being human means to suffer temptations because we are intrinsically bodies, even if bodies with will, mind, spirit, and soul.
The number of references to sexual temptations in written sources we have on the desert hermits and desert fathers and mothers is not many. Among worldly temptations, they had already confronted or had to confront family, property, money, fame, comfort, possessions, knowledge, power, social esteem, friendships, the proximity of people and objects common to daily life in the world. Among what was renounced was the potential for “more and better” in personal life, an aggrandizement or implied improvement for self, versus a diminution or effacement of self. For many this was assuaged by monasteries, where community still existed, though in modern times cenobitic settings have been problematic. For hermits, who did not want social interaction, there was Sunday as a ritual social encounter — and the occasional personal contact for the brutal purposes of confirming health and well-being.
Sexual temptations have been considered stronger than other temptations because pride and vanity are largely mental and social aberrations more readily broken down by social circumstances, nature, and solitude, while sloth and gluttony are cloying personality factors outwitted by vigorous physical pursuit, exertion, or regular exercise. Drives intended to preserve the species by propelling the behavior of individuals are more dogged in youth, which is more fluid in will and more readily affected by culture. But maturity is never exempt, especially as science and technology abet the vanity of age.
Meanwhile, society and culture respond by creating restricting codes while inevitably permitting the powerful and the disenfranchised to break them, secretly or otherwise. This tension has existed as long as society has existed, and no social mechanism can address this tension comprehensively — behavior and thought are only in the control of the individual. The sexual scandals of those in either church or state over history show the inadequacy of both institutions and individuals in addressing grand psychological and biological issues.
Violent punishment and shaming has been one historical response. Accommodation and hypocrisy has been another. Neither are solutions. Another response, presented in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World points to a more likely response in the future. The analogy to how society responds to ideology or political control and unrest is telling. In a letter of Huxley to George Orwell, author of 1984, Huxley wonders if totalitarian authorities in the future will not simply take the easy road to control via selective tolerance of drug-controlled drives versus the obsessive and constant policing of Orwell’s scenario. Ultimately, the sexual drive is seen as humanity’s greatest stumbling block.
But only the solitary understands that the response to nature’s mechanisms for reproduction is dichotomous: benign and constructive participation in the given culture’s mores and behaviors, or outwitting society, nature, and time — not by transcending the drives but by sidestepping them into a different perception of humanity and self. A practical wisdom for the hermit was to disengage from society. A practical wisdom for the lay person allows the drives to dissipate with age, to allow wisdom to overtake biology, a life-long process but one understood by the desert hermits as just as appropriate to themselves in the realm of temptations — all temptations. The hermits ultimately had to take up a lofty — and lonely — perch from which to view human existence and its many foibles.