Competitive Christians on poles


The Roman emperor Constantine (above) caused a counterintuitive problem for early Christians.

By converting to Christianity and making it the official religion of the Roman Empire in about 313 AD, Constantine made it impossible for early Christians to be either confessors or martyrs.

  1. To be a confessor meant to acknowledge openly to the Roman bureaucracy that you were a Christian. This carried the risk of martyrdom.
  2. To be a martyr then meant actually going through with the process and dying for your faith.

Why was this a problem?

Because these were the two main ways in which early Christians competed for religious kudos — and those Christians were (are?) a competitive bunch. Both confessing and martyrdom constituted a sort of second baptism and suggested spiritual excellence.

Being martyred, in particular, was surprisingly difficult, since the Romans (with rare exceptions, as under Diocletian) did not actually want to kill anybody because of religion. Historians have recovered trial transcripts that show how eager the Roman administrators were to accommodate Christians. The administrator might ask the confessor whether he might, please, consider a small sacrifice — not to any pagan gods but merely to the Emperor. No? OK, how about a pinch of incense just to acknowledge the Emperor? No? OK, how about….

But when the Roman Empire officially became Christian, this form of Christian achievement came to a complete and screeching halt.

Christians had to find some other way to excel….

(What follows is based on Lecture 5 of Philip Daileader’s excellent course on the Early Middle Ages.)

The first monk

In perhaps the strangest psychological twist in human history, the most competitive Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries AD responded by, in effect, martyring themselves (ie, attacking their own bodies).

Perhaps the most famous to do so was Anthony, who lived in Egypt. Early in his career, when it was still possible, he tried and failed to get himself martyred in Alexandria. When that didn’t work, he went far into the desert to live as a hermit.

He was, in Greek, a Monakhos, a lonely one (as in mono, one; and of course monk).

He ate nothing, slept little, did everything to punish the human senses. (No sex ever, it goes without saying.) When that made him delirious, he imagined that demons and Satan himself attacked him, but he despatched them heroically. Here is Michelangelo’s depiction of that cheerful anecdote:

Word of Anthony’s self-torture got out, and other Christians traveled to the desert to see him. Anthony, of course, wanted to be a Monakhos, so he moved further into the desert to lose his groupies. Eventually, he gave up and accepted that his followers were going to live together in the desert near him, in a sort of … monastery (not that lonely anymore, obviously).

Anthony’s fame soon spread west and throughout the Roman Empire. The reason was that a man named Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria and a publisher with a sense of Zeitgeist, wrote a book called Life of Saint Anthony, describing what Anthony got up to in the desert.

From the book’s title, you notice that Anthony is now a “saint”. And thus a new genre is born: the hagiography. (Greek hagio = saint, as in Hagia Sophia; graphe = writing.)

To put this in contemporary perspective, Life of Saint Anthony was the Eat, Pray, Love of the late Roman Empire. Everybody suddenly wanted to try it out…

Grazers, fools and stylites

The result was a competitive free-for-all, as Christians tried to one-up each other in search of spiritual kudos.

  • The Grazers, for example, ate only grass and shoots and chained themselves up as barnyard animals.
  • The Holy Fools behaved as though they were insane, or tried to be insane. The most famous of them once paraded into the women’s bathhouse and disrobed, at which point the women, suspecting that he might be less foolish than he pretended, beat and ejected him.
  • The Stylites lived on top of pillars (Greek stylos) or poles.

The most famous Stylite, named Simeon (above) and also sainted before long, lived on top of his pole for some 40 years. (He reminds me of some tree sitters in Berkeley that I wrote about in The Economist once.) People sent food up to him via ladders and pulleys and presumably received and disposed of Simeon’s detritus by the same method.

Simeon became a tourist spectacle. Crowds watched from below as he performed painful exercises. He once touched his feet with his head 1,244 times in succession.


Let’s sit back for a moment, perhaps with a glass of sensual Cabernet Sauvignon and a cavalier mindset, and reflect.

Regular readers of The Hannibal Blog already know that I have a recurring Diogenes fantasy. Diogenes was the guy in classical Greece who lived in a barrel like a dog (the first “cynic”).

But Diogenes did that to be free, not to compete with other barrel-dwellers. He was an eccentric.

You may also recall that I admire Patanjali and his contemporary, the Buddha. Many yogis and Buddhists also (then as now) practice asceticism.

But, like Diogenes, they also do so in search of freedom. (The Sanskrit word for this kind of freedom is moksha, which is achieved at the highest stage of yoga, which is called kaivalya or detachment.)

For them, asceticism is a way to reclaim our peace of mind from the oppressive push and pull of our desires (appetite, lust, jealousy, et cetera). It is a path toward clarity, serenity and humility.

Somehow, this kind of freedom seems not to have factored as a motivation for the pole-sitting Christians.

A seconds difference:

Christianity soon turned lifelong asceticism and total chastity into a virtue.

By contrast, asceticism in antiquity and in Eastern philosophy was a temporary effort, practiced at a certain stage of life.

Vestal Virgin

The Vestal Virgins in ancient Rome, for example, were expected to remain chaste while serving the goddess of the hearth (Roman Vesta or Greek Hestia). But only until they were 30! Then they were expected to do the natural and healthy thing, which was to get married and start a family.

Hindus and yogis first make a living, marry and have sex, start a family, and then, at the end of life, withdraw into asceticism to contemplate the absurdity of it all. (This is called sannyasa, and it is the last of the life stages, or asrama.)

So, asceticism has a place in many spiritual traditions.

But what were these early Christians up to? Were their stunts not huge ego trips?

Worse, did they not begin what Nietzsche would later consider the ultimate perversion of nature — by slandering every one of nature’s instincts to be evil? Were they not fundamentally … sick?

Bookmark and Share

46 thoughts on “Competitive Christians on poles

  1. A good many of them, today, would be categorized as suffering from religious psychosis. But remember that fools were then considered as either inspired by God or possessed by some demon (not always a bad demon, the Greeks had good and bad demons who were half-gods).
    The martyr concept is very strong with Muslim Shias as attested by the intifadas and suicide bombers, also self flagellation at some religious cermonies or feasts. The Hindus also do it, there was a religious festival recently, it happens once a year, at an Ashram, in Val-Morin in the Québec Laurentides Mountains, where the believers rivaled as to who would endure the most physical pain piercing their bodies, hanging from poles suspended by their ears or by rings inserted in their bellybutton, and so forth.
    Nihil novi sub sole.

    • Not just Shia, also Sunni (al Qaeda, for example, is almost all Sunni). Strong religious feelings can induce obsessive behavior.

    • Interesting, Paul.

      Regarding fools and spirituality: that idea is of course also behind the Zen Monks and Zen Anecdotes. The moment of enlightenment often comes through laughter, perhaps at a bizarre joke or absurd riddle (koan), such as ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ But many Zen anecdotes are a lot saucier than that.

      Shias and martyrdom is an obvious connection, because Ali was martyred. The current revival of martyrdom among Sunnis, via this suicide-bombing fad, is a more puzzling phenomenon. Arguably the vilest perversion of spirituality in all of human history. (I can’t think of anything more perverse off the top of my head.)

      Very sad to hear that even the Hindus are at it now.

  2. Thought I’d add some thoughts about the perversion of asceticism:

    In the Third Essay, Nietzsche addresses his topics of Darwin, asceticism, and his term will to power. Ascetic philosophers and musicians (Schopenhauer and Wagner), along with ascetic priests “…display the vile and dismal form of a caterpillar…” (84), cozy in the dark mud and afraid to emerge into the sun with “…enough pride, daring, courage, self-confidence, will of spirit…” (84) Nietzsche posits that the ascetic ideal, whether lived by artist, philosopher, or priest is counter-intuitive to the evolutionary and teleological development of man, a man Darwin identifies as one with Natural Selection, one where strength in a jungle is “good” and “moral.” The beast
    in Nietzsche’s garden kills bees when he wants to, raids the hives, avoids low-hanging fruit, bends or breaks the tree when he feels like it, skewers and barbeques the sheep when he’s hungry in his Natural state because he has, what Nietzsche calls, “…the will to power…” (100) and resists “…that dominating lethargy…that reduces the awareness to life to the lowest point (96). The beast operates alone (and is comfortable with that state).

    The herd of sheep, formed by what Nietzsche calls “…the will to reciprocity…” (100) huddles together, feeling safe and secure in their togetherness and thus, becomes fodder for the shepherd, the priest, the Church. All of this, Nietzsche scorns and rejects from his garden. However, he does invite the reader into his garden in the last line of the Preface. Which animal is allowed?

    • God, you gotta love Nietzsche’s way of writing.

      Surprised that he included Wagner among the ascetics, however. Wagner was quite a bon vivant, as Nietzsche must have known because he hung out with the Wagners so much before their break. (And he had a crush on Cosima, Wagner’s wife.)

      Alright, which animal is allowed? A lion? (aka “blond beast”) Or is that too obvious?

      I recall somewhere, perhaps in Zarathustra, that man first needs to become a camel, shouldering the burden of bad values, then a lion, roaring in defiance, then a child, creating something new.

      given all the bee metaphors, I was thinking of a bear, too.

    • Ah, yes, now I remember. He wants us to swallow his aphorisms, digest them, vomit them up, chew them again….

      The German word for ruminate is wiederkäuen, “again-chew”.

      All writers, of course, would like cows as readers….

      Instead we tend to get bees: they alight, stick their butts in our pollen and take off again to the next flower… 😉

    • Andreas,

      Your comparison between the tree-sitters of today and the pole sitters of yesteryear suggests a broader analogy. Perhaps, the modern equivalent of the ancient ascetic is the “ecological ascetic”, who shops and vacations locally, eats no non-local food, installs double-paned windows, eschews air-conditioning, heats his home to 55 F, drives a car that gets 55 mpg, drives 55, grows his own vegetables, sorts his garbage, scratches the labels off bottles before recycling, and so forth.

      By further analogy we have:

      the “ecological peripatetic”, a peripatetic non-ascetic who flies — not walks — from place to place, to demand ecological asceticism from others; and,

      the “ecological indulgence”, which allows the ecological peripatetic his large carbon footprint — the ecological indulgence being a variant of the indulgences Martin Luther opposed at the Diet of Worms.

      It could all go too far, of course — some ecological ascetics propose banning meat in favor of protein-rich wasps and ants, and so forth.

      Which would be a whole nother Diet of Worms.

    • Indeed. That comparison came up here somewhere recently under another post. There is definitely an emerging psycho-pathology of The Eco-Monk to be commented on.

      You sketched it quite nicely. As I’ve said before, I don’t know now to do it without being excommunicated from my social circles. I might have to build a composite character….

    • @Jim: That is VERY funny. I imagine that you are already familiar with the website (and book)”Stuff White People Like”. I cringe when I read it.

      I, myself, am busy lately organizing the Green Tea Party Movement. Watch for it.

    • @ Jenny

      “……I, myself, am……organizing the Green Tea Party Movement…….”

      Will this include creating a website called “Stuff Tea Party People Like”?

    • @Phil: Ahem. I create no websites of any kind until you contribute your unique variety of effulgence to our bildungsroman at Richard’s place. (It’s not really a bildungsroman. I just wanted to use that word.)

  3. Hi Andreas,

    Thank you for you thought provoking post. I’m a Christian, and it’s good to hear others tell us how competitive we can be sometimes. In my opinion, some of us Christians still do “competitive” things even today.

    I quoted your post and added some comments on my blog. I hope I added to the conversation.

    I include below a quote from my comments. I tried to inject a little humor into the comments.

    “I will now mention those Christians who like to handle snakes because of what they read in Mark 16, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” (Mark 16:17-18.) I think these people know the letter of what is written but miss the spirit of what is written.

    When the average Christian lays their hands on someone with a cold, the person with the cold just passes it on to the Christian. When the average Christian drinks even soda, it’s bad for their health. I wouldn’t recommend drinking deadly poison. The average Christian is probably afraid of snakes and wouldn’t even go near one, let alone pick one up with their hands. When the average Christian wants to speak in a new tongue, what do they do? They take a language class. And when the average Christian wants to drive out demons, they go to school to become a psychologist, not an exorcist.”

    • Welcome to The Hannibal Blog, Matthew5Sixteen.

      We love your examples. Perhaps the Buddhists, Hindus, Sunnis, Shias, Jews, Jains and atheists here might find their own favorite competitive perversions to share….

  4. Not to take away from your excellently argued thesis but I think human beings are, by nature, very competitive. Quite possibly a “good” evolutionary trait. Competitiveness leads to all sorts of thing, both good and bad. I would not attribute competitiveness to Christians only. Rather, I would say that human beings brought competition into the religious mix.

  5. i’m not nearly as intelligent as you or most of your readers, but i never have given much thought to the competitive nature that may have been involved in asceticism. i thought it had more to do with a gross misunderstanding of christianity itself:

    1) a dualistic mindset in which it is possible to separate the physical and spiritual, and in which all things physical are evil — many of them necessary for now, but still evil.

    2) the more pleasurable a thing is, then, the more evil it carries. [ie. eating grass or bread rather than steak, and refusing sex]

    3) a desire (and some pretty twisted attempts) to not be “of the world.”

    but it does make sense that these forms of “godliness” would bring competition; it’s human nature to gain worth by comparing myself to others. i don’t know much about the asceticism of buddhists, hindus, and the like, but i would assume it also has produced some competition.

    • That’s probably a pretty good summary of the main tenets of Christianity for a bit less than two millennia, James Brett.

      Of course, all those Christians in the past (and some today) might challenge you for calling it a “misunderstanding” of Christianity. That might actually be Christianity.

      Points 1) and 3), in particular, are still pretty much part of the Christian worldview, no?

      Ie, the presumption of spirit/matter dualism (at a time when science, esp quantum physics, is going in the direction of monism).

      And the desire to not be “of the world” (Most of Christianity seems to be about what happens AFTER this world.)

      PS: “i’m not nearly as intelligent as you or most of your readers, but…”

    • well… if challenged by these (or those) christians, i’ll stand by my words: “gross misunderstanding.” i don’t believe Jesus taught #’s 1 and 2 in any way. the body i’ve been given is a physical one, and the only way in which i can worship God is through my use of this very body. i think Jesus actually desired to wipe away the idea of a dualistic existence where spiritual and physical are at war with one another, good versus evil, that which was intended by God versus our accidental (?) bodies.

      as for #3, i do believe christians should not be of the world (having the same goals and aspirations, motivations and purposes, as humanity in general). christians often throw around the phrase “in the world, but not of the world.” i’ll buy that, though i wish we’d live it rather than quote it. i think much of what you discussed in this post (and monasticism as a whole) is a poor attempt at not being “of the world.” rather than living life among life to the glory of God, these decided they should remove themselves from humanity and community. that’s so incredibly counter to the life of Jesus.

      and i’d agree most of christianity (as we see it today) seems to be about “AFTER this world.” but i can’t ascribe to that view either. if i am a true follower of Christ, i’ve already entered into a new and abundant life. i’m guessing Jesus is really offended at our turning a religion, in which the primary expectation is that we love one another, into a debate about who’s going to heaven and hell.

    • Powerful, eloquent words, James.

      Incidentally, I saw on your blog that you and your wife are “servants” in Africa. As in somebody’s house? Or missionaries, perhaps?

    • you caught me. i am a missionary. i prefer to be called a development worker, though. i’m just getting started (18 months in) on an 8-10 year commitment in tanzania doing agriculture development, but i’m part of a larger team doing all sorts of “holistic ministry.” hopefully it is also a team that is growing — we’ve got no one who knows economics, and we’re hoping to get into micro-finance at some point. you busy the next 6 or 7 years?

    • 🙂

      Yes, a bit busy for the next 6 or 7 years.

      Fascinating work. You might make a book or documentary out of it. (I guess that could be what your blog becomes…).

    • Jenny,

      You must be a Cohn Brothers fan.

      The dude more than abides in our household.

      I’m embarrassed to admit that Judge Blah and I have watched The Big Lebowski over 50 times (and own the Bowling Ball anniversary edition of the movie).

      Judge Blah gets very excited at the part when Walter asks, ” Doesn’t anybody care about the rules??

      When he does this, I tend to be difficult and say, ” I don’t, dude.”

    • I’d like to correct my spelling of the Coen Brothers. Sort of like ice cream coen.

      Anyway, since Catholics are weighing in, I’d like to add that although I am not a Christian, I was threatened with Christen punishment most of my childhood.

      My father told me that if I did stop trying to get the last word in, amidst all family discussions, he would put me in a Carmelite Nunnery where I would have to take a vow of silence for life.

      I’ve never really understood that concept either. After all, if one believes in God, then God created vocal chords, right?

      (That was a typical one-liner from yore)

  6. Fascinating–I did a little more research and if anything you are being too kind! I’m sure JC would be appalled if he saw how far and how quickly “his” religion lost the message of the sermon on the mount.

    • Fi8rst, I think JC would be surprised to find out there were Christians as we know them today. He apparently thought he was there to save Jews and to advance Judaism.

    • @ Thomas

      “……I’m sure JC would be appalled if he saw how far and how quickly “his” religion lost the message of the sermon on the mount…….”

      What you said is propitious, for the novelist, Anne Rice, has just announced that she’s quitting being a Christian because of this religion’s attitude to *birth control, homosexuality and science.*

      However, she remains committed to Christ, saying, “……commitment to Christ means not being a Christian.”

    • @Phil

      Then maybe she should join the Unitarian Church or one like it, if she thinks one must be a member of a church in order to be a Christian. I like Anne Rice’s works but you don’t have to be a member of any Christian sect in order to be a Christian. At least, not the way I see it. I always though belief in a deity was a personal thing.

  7. At first I thought you hit me with your broad brush, but I think you are really on to something. Just at Easter, I remember reading about Catholics in the Philippines who experienced crucifixion to celebrate the Resurrection. I am a Catholic, I know that Christ is risen, but I certainly can’t compete with that. Are they sick? Are they perverting faith? I know that faith is a gift, meaning, just like an aptitude in physics or philosophy, not all have this aptitude. Is my gift inferior to theirs and those you describe? Andreas, your post is a call to conscience. Why do we believers do what we do? JC anticipated this and called it out in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew Chapter 6. Jesus was no stranger to poseurs. In fact, one such poseur betrayed Him three times before the cock crowed, and still became the rock of the Church. Gives me hope for a loser poseur such as myself.

    • What did he say in Matthew 6 to call them out?

      Regarding the “aptitude” for faith: You’re onto something, since scientists increasingly think that faith evolved, giving certain groups an adaptive advantage over others (group cohesion etc). So there may be a genetic component to it, which would show up differently in different phenotypes (> different aptitudes).

    • “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Matthew 6:1 Please read the first 18 verses to understand (as I am an inadequate substitute) Jesus tells us to examine our motivations — are we seeking kudos or a state of grace? If it is the former, well, he tells us outright the attention we receive from people is our only reward. Problem for us observers: knowing another’s motivation is a mare’s nest — only two will ever know, the actor & God.

    • Interesting passage indeed. Thanks for pointing us to it. Quoting:

      “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them…. When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting….”

      All from Matthew 6.

  8. I do not know what exactly motivated earlier Christians to become monks, but, after four years of Catholic education, I do know a little bit about what motivates modern Catholic priests into monasticism. A very smart priest who taught me my senior year seriously considered becoming a Carthusian ( He seemed to want freedom from sin–something that, from my understanding, mirrors the desires of the Hindus.

    If you believe in one of the basic premises of Christianity, these monks do also provide a service to humanity. They pray. If you believe prayer does nothing, then obviosly they are wasting their lives. If you believe that prayer does have an effect, however, then they contribute to humanity greatly.

    PS: My priest/teacher had us watch a great documentary about the Carthusian Order called Into Great Silence. I highly recommend it. (

    • Thank you, Luke Carlson. I knew nothing about the Carthusians until now. I was amazed to learn that the word Charterhouse comes not from “a chartered house” but from “Chartreuse”, the mountains where Saint Bruno built his first hermitage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s