Simeon Stylites – a new Diogenes?

Earlier I posted Theodoret’s account of the life of Simeon Stylites.  Written while the saint was stil alive, and as an eyewitness of at least some of his life, it has considerable value as a historical source.  The portions in square brackets represent later interpolation, it should be added.

Reading the life raised some uncomfortable questions in my mind.

Simeon’s life can be summarised very briefly.  He is famous for making himself very uncomfortable indeed, in a variety of ways, until at last he found fame by standing upright(ish) on a pillar for many years.  He became famous for this, and people flocked to see him and admire him, on the basis that making himself uncomfortable was the same as being holy.  From these he received enough to live on, and admiration.  In consequence of his reputation, he was able to address powerful people in direct language and give orders to them.

Medieval Europe is in the back of all of our minds.  Castles and knights and Robin Hood and monks and hermits and the like are a ready source of ideas, even if taken mainly from Sir Walter Scott or Hollywood than a real historical knowledge.  We are all familiar with the idea of the hermit who lives in poverty in a cave, as a “holy man”.

But it seems fairly questionable whether this idea is very like what the New Testament teaches about Christian living.  In what way is such a man serving God?

That we are familiar with the idea of monks praying all day does not mean that it is a biblical idea.  The idea of a man alone in the desert might derive from John the Baptist, from the life of Christ, and some Old Testament ideas.  Yet … is this really what the bible teaches?

If our Lord could say that the law consisted of loving God, and loving your neighbour as yourself, then we may ask how this form of life, divorced from any normal neighbourly relationship, fulfils it.

While thinking in this way, I was uncomfortably reminded of the pagan philosophers, such as Diogenes the cynic.  These too made themselves uncomfortable in public, in order to acquire a reputation as moralists, and to earn their living by donations from admirers.  Once attained, they also had a reputation for direct speaking to powerful people.

There were many differences, of course.  But the similarities are profound.  Both involve strong healthy people who live by the donations of others, and sell an idea to them to do so.

The Greeks, indeed, were somewhat cynical about their philosophers.  Both Diogenes and Plato were sold into slavery, as sturdy vagabonds.  We may wonder about the fate of unsuccessful “holy men” in the 5th century, who somehow didn’t make the cut, and achieve enough notoriety to “break even”!  There were numerous pillar saints in Syria after Simeon had shown the way.

Did the acceptance of hermits and asceticism in the late 4th century have anything to do with the mass “conversions” of pagans in the same period?  Did the wandering philosopher turn into the stationary hermit?

We must recall that physical endurance was no great achievement to the peasants of antiquity.  No education was required to be a “holy man”, unlike their philosophical predecessor.  It merely required a knack for publicity; and if you started by entering a monastery and outshining the others (who might well resent your success!), you already had a pool of people willing to spread the word.  Once in the groove, you worked out your special “trick”, just as the philosophers did, and so long as you could live with the ascetic life, you were essentially made.

Of course we need not suppose that the ascetics were duplicitous.  They may well have believed sincerely in what they were doing.  But that does not make it godly of itself.

When we look at the life of Simeon, we see a man whose main achievement was self-torment.  But does making yourself tired and hungry and uncomfortable necessarily make you charitable, self-denying, good, kind, gentle and close to God?  Mastering your body is equally likely to make you proud of yourself and contemptuous of others.  Starving yourself may give you delusions, which you may mistake for visions; but there is no inevitable access to genuine visions of God just because you starve.  Is there?

It is hard to say what Simeon’s life truly achieved.  It feels wrong, on so many levels.

2 Responses to “Simeon Stylites – a new Diogenes?”


  1. Suburbanbanshee

    I’m not really clear why this bothers you. Obviously, there are tons of different Christian vocations out there, and nobody is saying you have to go live on a pillar. I thought the English liked eccentrics?

    There’s absolutely nothing that says that a man or woman is not doing service to God and man when he or she prays all day. Goodness knows that we need plenty more prayers than we get. And it’s plenty New Testament and post-Jesus; Paul went off alone into the wilderness and spent years praying, after his initial Christian training and before coming back to town and becoming a preacher.

    Also, the cherubim and seraphim don’t do anything other than praise God, and you don’t see God saying, “Push off and do some real work, you lazy bums!”

    Of course, even most contemplatives both pray and work to support themselves. Also, most hermits and anchorites found themselves constantly being consulted by their neighbors and finding opportunities to help. But if God calls you out to pray, He doesn’t always call you back into the world. It’s very nice that there are places which are a little more like eternal life than normal life, and I find that there is something different and beautiful about contemplatives. I’ve never gotten to meet someone who’s obviously a living saint, but I know people who have; and they’re a step further up toward being like Him. Real holiness draws people, much the same way that it tends to draw animals.

    (It also repels people; often people who live good, decent, hardworking lives — and know it — really resent the great saints they meet. So you see communities form around holy people, and then you often see members of that community fighting their own spiritual envy, because it seems unfair that some people get to another spiritual level closer to God, where everything seems so much easier.)

    Obviously those of us living in the world are also called to holiness; but focus and training count in life just like in athletics. (Of course, we who exercise less are also going to be less subject to spiritual training injuries, which do happen; but lukewarmness is our danger.)

    Anyway… I don’t know that Stylites is my cup of tea, but he seems to have impressed his contemporaries as sincere and serious, and he seems to have managed to evangelize the Arabs in his area.

    As for donations, we all live by gift. If some person living next door decided to gas your house, burn your house down, and knife you if you escaped, you’d most likely die. If everybody decided not to accept your Euros or pounds or credit cards, you couldn’t buy anything. And if God decided it was time for us to die, we’d be dead.

    Christians who live by charity donations are living off God and trusting Him. If He lets people like that starve, then obviously they’ve mistaken their vocation.

  2. Roger Pearse

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on this, I think. My instincts suggest that Simeon – or others like him – may have been a charlatan.