Aiming, both in his sermons and ascetical writings, at development of the religious view, the danger of the times as he saw it was not so much in the Protestant reformation, which was an outside influence, but in the direction that religion had taken among the masses.
Though it has resisted all attempts to reduce it to an ordered scheme, and probably was not written on any set plan, still it is possible roughly to indicate its contents: after the prologue and introductory chapter setting forth St Benedict's intention, follow instructions to the abbot on the manner in which he should govern his monastery (2, 3); next comes the ascetical portion of the Rule, on the chief monastic virtues (4-7); then the regulations for the celebration of the canonical office, which St Benedict calls "the Work of God" or "the divine work," his monks' first duty, "of which nothing is to take precedence" (8-20); faults and punishments (23-30); the cellarer and property of the monastery (31,32); community of goods (33, 34); various officials and daily life (21, 22, 35-57); reception of monks (58-61); miscellaneous (62-73).
St Basil's claim to the authorship of the Rules and other ascetical writings that go under his name, has been questioned; but the tendency now is to recognize as his at any rate the two sets of Rules.
St Benedict (c. 500) effected his purpose by a twofold break with the past: he eliminated from the idea of the monastic life the element of Oriental asceticism and extreme bodily austerity; and he put down the tendency, so marked in Egypt and the East, for the monks to vie with one another in ascetical practices, commanding all to live according to the rule.
In time, however, the tendency to withdraw from society and give oneself up wholly to the practice of religious and ascetical exercises set in; and at any rate in Egypt, at the middle of the 3rd century, it was the custom for such ascetics to live in solitary retirement in the neighbourhood of the towns and villages.