Secular historians sometimes misrepresent early Christian monks as fanatical madmen. An excellent analysis and refutation of this charge was recently published by Paul Federer in “Uncertain Transformation: The Role of Asceticism in Death in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.” Federer cites Edward Gibbon (among others) for this negative view:
The rigorous ascetic regime of Christian monks has tempted many historians to conclude that monks believed salvation from death was the result of works preformed to atone to for sin and appease God’s wrath. Edward Gibbon provides one of the earliest incarnations of this view in his Decline and Fall of the Rome Empire, when states “inspired by a savage enthusiasm which represents man as a criminal and God as a tyrant [monks] embraced a life of misery as the price of eternal happiness.”
Federer goes on to show the fallacy of this perspective:
These criticisms paint Christian monks as dangerous fanatics and subtly link them with an intellectual decline in Late Antiquity. These audacious indictments rely on a misunderstanding of asceticism’s role in the monastic vocation. Gibbon, Dodds, and Fox impose a ghoulish God on the church of Late Antiquity who revels in the suffering of his servants. The Apothegmata rejects this view arguing that asceticism was the means of Christians’ transformation as opposed to an end that allowed them to escape the wrath of an angry God. In her introduction to The Sayings, Benidicta Ward provides an eloquent explanation of ascetic practices and their role in monastic life, “Monks went without sleep because they were watching for the Lord; they did not speak because they were listening to God; they fasted because they were fed by the Word of God. It was the end that mattered, the ascetic practices were only the means.” Gibbon, Dodd and Fox portray ascetic practices as a frantic scramble to endure sufficient personal suffering in exchange for a pardon from a vindictive God. Ward demonstrates that individual transformation and not divine pardon was the goal of such acts, “All ascetic effort, all personal relationships, life in all aspects was brought slowly into the central relationship with God in Christ.” Salvation was not a reward for a life spent in misery atoning for sin; it is a state of being.
The complete article can be read here.