The monk in the desert

Thinkers such as Thomas Merton have been preoccupied with the question why did monks (or other religious seekers after the truth) go into solitude in the desert (or into a sort of solitude in monasteries). More exactly, Merton asks what should be the real purpose of doing this? Is it to escape the sinful ethos and temptations of the city or society of normal life? Or, more meaningfully, to escape from one’s one problematic self, or ego, into nothingness, as a preparation for engagement with God? As Merton says, even though the monk is living in a community, he is bound to explore “the inner waste of his own being as a solitary”. Merton quotes from the sixth century Syrian ascetic Philoxenos, who comments on the monk who follows Christ into the desert to fight the power of error: “And where is the power of error? We find it was after all not in the city, but in OURSELVES”.

Decline of Religion: A view from 1904

In 1904 R. H. Tawney (the author of famous books such as “The Acquisitive Society”,1921) made a note that, as a result of his voluntary work at Toynbee Hall, he was seeing the decline of religious observance, the fact that “one of the great social forces of history is gradually and reluctantly drifting out of the lives of no inconsiderable part of society”. He attributed this to squalid conditions and the “ethical atmosphere” of the times (he was referring to the uncaring and self-centred ethos of unregulated capitalism, a topic he was to address in his influential books).

Capitalism as Creaking System [R. H. Tawney]

The Harvard scholar Ross Terrill has this to say:

“Tawney saw the capitalism of his day as a creaking system; a jungle wherein economic struggle took priority over social purpose; with persons treated as means and wealth as an end; encouraging not solidaristic instincts but acquisitive instincts; shrivelling culture into a matter of personal possession and pretension, when it should be the energy of a cooperative common life; inculcating not only arrogance in the successful, but an unworthy subservience in the stragglers; prone to make war, because of its concentrations of economic power; a threat to democratic forms for the same reason; and an enemy of religion, because if its uncreaturely exploitation of nature, and because its purse was where its heart should be.

He became an historian to understand the origin and dynamics of this system he abhorred. Tawney was the first figure in Britain to take a comprehensive, critical view of capitalism”.