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SECTION III. The Utility of Monasteries considered.
That extremes are productive of one another, is a position whose truth meets us in every view in which mankind can be considered, whether we regard them in their social or individual, their civil or religious capacities.
To omit other obvious instances in illustration of the above maxim, I shall here confine myself to the case of monastic institutions. The genius of popery, it is well known, has led multitudes of its votaries, in former ages, to immure themselves in cells and convents, and so to withdraw themselves from the duties as well as comforts of social life. This secession appeared so criminal in the eyes of our first reformers, that it induced them to condemn without reserve the whole monkish system, to exert every endeavour to destroy its credit, and throw open its cloisters, which they considered at best as the retreats of indolence and superstition; and at the same time, to enforce the relations and duties of common life in a manner, which might seem to fix an unqualified censure on sequestered piety.
Man doubtless was formed for society; in paradise itself it was not good for him to be alone. He was not placed in this garden of delight for no higher purpose than to regale himself with its fruits, or as a philosopher merely to speculate upon the heavens and the earth; to trace the motions of the planets, or to search out the virtues and qualities of plants and animals; nor even only to cultivate a solitary converse with his great Creator; but likewise to glorify him, in concert with his fellow-creatures, by acts of social worship, and in the discharge of social duties.
Had our first parents preserved their original innocence, it is probably supposed that an intercommunity of interests and affections would have subsisted among their descendants; that man had never shunned the face of man; nor any monastery or hermitage been projected in an order of things, in which the law of divine charity would have been inscribed in every human bosom.
The reader will excuse this frequent recurrence to a state of primitive perfection; for who, in the present sinful and calamitous condition of the world, can forbear to look back from time to time, upon a period when no disorder existed in nature or man, when his bodily temperament and appetites were regular and conformable with his situation, and his reason and affections moved in harmony with the laws of his Creator; and, consequently, when there was no cause to banish him into a solitude, or to subject him to any particular mode of life or peculiarity of regimen.
But in his present depraved state there is great need to put him under a course of discipline, and at intervals to reduce him to a life of silence and retreat, which now is become no less necessary to the health of his mind, than occasional abstinence to that of his body. In society he generally contracts a surfeit, his reason grows obscured, his principles enfeebled, and his passions sickly and irregular; and he requires seasons of abstraction, in order to restore a proper tone to his faculties, both moral and intellectual.
This consideration, among others of less account, has doubtless contributed to the establishment of many monastic institutions. When contemplative and pious men have looked abroad into the world, and observed the danger to which religion and virtue are there exposed, they would naturally wish to place them in circumstances of greater security; and such a wish would be much strengthened in those who, by their former engagements in public life, had actually experienced the danger themselves. Hence it cannot be thought surprising, that many princes and great men, in ages more devout though less enlightened than the present, should have appeared amongst the most zealous patrons and members of monastic communities.
The first founders of religious orders, such as Anthony in the fourth, and Benedict in the sixth century, probably meant well; and their establishments seem to have partly answered the end intended. It is certain that, during some of the middle ages, monks were the principal depositaries of whatever piety, or learning, or humanity, there remained in Christendom; amidst all their superstitious practices a spirit of true devotion was not totally extinct; they were the chief instructors of youth, and almost the sole historians of their times; as landed proprietors they were remarkably easy to those who held under them, insomuch that leases from abbies were often preferred