Today at Ethika Politika, I examine some ancient economic wisdom from one of the desert fathers: Abba Pistamon. Far from the newest of Nintendo’s Pokemon monsters (despite the sound of his name), Abba Pistamon was one of the first Christian monks. The dialogue between him and an unnamed brother that I examine from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers has a lot to say about production, labor, profit, and exchange.
Far from a gnostic allergy to any involvement with the material world, Abba Pistamon acknowledges the good of production and exchange, appealing to past precedent of other revered monks before him (“Abba Sisois and others”). Commerce, he says, was common. In fact, according to the size and expansive enterprise of ancient monastic communities, we can say that his assessment is more than anecdotal. In ancient Christian sources, contempt for the merchant and trader is common, but the reality is more complicated. Sometimes traders and merchants went by a more respectable name: monks. We should not be surprised, then, that Abba Pistamon displays a certain natural business sense. But he does not stop at the merely economic aspects of production and exchange.
Last summer I lectured at Acton University on the subject of Markets & Monasticism.
The history of monastic enterprise has been the subject of some of my academic research as well, with a research paper appearing in the volume John A. McGuckin, ed., Orthodox Monasticism Past and Present, Sophia Studies in Orthodox Theology, vol. 5 (New York: Theotokos Press, 2014). This was originally a paper I presented at the 2013 Sophia Institute annual conference.
I write in that paper,
As time went on, [James E.] Goehring notes, the scope of Egyptian monastic enterprise continued to grow from mats, baskets, and plaited ropes to sandals and other goods. “As the community obtained its own boats,” he writes, “the products were shipped down the Nile as far as Alexandria.” These “[c]ommercial dealings required careful control,” he continues, detailing the record keeping of each monastery’s “great steward,” the financial manager of the Pachomian communities. In addition, St. Shenoude’s White Monastery also “had considerable commercial exchange with the outside world.” It functioned as a sort of work cooperative, serving as “a source of relief to the poor Coptic farmers by offering them at reduced prices such necessities as cloth, mats, and baskets.”
When read outside of this historical context, sometimes ancient monastic teachings on wealth and poverty seem to hold commerce itself in contempt. That, however, does not align with the substantial historical record of Christian monastic enterprise from the very beginning and up to the present day. It is important to keep in mind that the Sayings of Desert Fathers is a collection of practical wisdom, not so often absolute principles as helpful heuristics. It is about what can be, but is not always, prudent, depending on one’s particular context. If not read in this way, one cannot reconcile the monks’ teachings with their own vast enterprise nor even with other seemingly contradictory sayings, such as that of Abba Pistamon that I examine at Ethika Politika today.
You can learn more by reading my full essay here.
And you can sign up for Acton University 2015, where I’ll be lecturing on the subject again, here.