A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Introduction and Part II

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Introduction and Part II February 27, 2011

I. Introduction

We know little about the early ascetic training of St. Anthony of Egypt. What St Athanasius tells us leaves us many questions. Perhaps the most interesting question, and one which we will never be able to answer, is this one: who exactly were the men Anthony associated with who first taught him how to be an ascetic?[1] While the assumption is that these men were Christians, and they were some sort of proto-monastics who lived in the city, this is not necessarily the case. Anthony did not have to learn how to be a Christian through them, but how to be a monk. The two are not exactly one and the same. It is quite possible that among those he learned from were Christian-friendly pagans.

We know there were many different pagan traditions in Egypt which encouraged some sort of ascetic practice – from native Egyptian traditions (it is said that the traditional monastic garb hard been borrowed, in part, from the vestments used by Egyptian priests) to imports, either Hellenistic (such as Stoic philosophers) or Indian (we know Buddhist monks had made their way into Alexandria). Anthony, having heard his monastic call, could easily have taken notice of any ascetic tradition around him, talked to their practitioners, and learned what he needed from them in order to adequately deal with his new way of life. He certainly would have listened to Christians during this phase of his life; but, because of the influence Origenism seemed to have on his thought,[2] these Christians could easily have encouraged his exploration of non-Christian traditions in order to find the truth in them and to adapt them for the Christian faith. The two do not have to be opposed to each other.  Of course, as we know Anthony would later dispute with pagan philosophers, if he took anything from paganism, it would have been done after he examined what he learned and saw if it were compatible with his Christian faith, and he wouldn’t accept anything he thought outright contradicted his beliefs. But, this leaves him with a wealth of material he could have studied or listened to, and it seems that some of it resonated with St. Anthony since he followed the dictum “know thyself” as a foundation of his way of life.[3]

This now brings us to the text attributed to Anthony found in the Philokalia: “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life.” Doubt has been raised as to whether or not it was written by, or dictated by, Anthony. [4] However, there are many elements to the text which resonate with what we know of Anthony, either as it is found in St. Athanasius’ biography, or in the letters he wrote, or in the sayings we have from St. Anthony in various texts describing the thought and way of life of the early desert fathers, that it is understandable why this text has become attributed to him. It will be impossible to prove it is his, however, if we understand this text as an anthology of texts from Anthony, either collecting what he heard from others which he appreciated, or the thoughts he had, either during his training or after, the kinds of objections used against it being attributed to Anthony seem to be rather weak. Even if it is not collected by Anthony himself, it seems likely it was collected by those associated with him, and it should be examined and studied if we want to understand Anthony’s monastic vision (similar to how attribution of Scriptural texts to different authors can be impossible to determine, but we can at least accept the texts were followed by communities which were associated with the attributed author).

What will follow will be a sampling of texts from “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” where I will observe, if possible, how it relates to other works associated with Anthony, as well as pointing out the value of said passages, if any, for us today. In doing so, I am hoping I will accomplish two things, one scholarly by pointing to a text which needs further exploration and examination,[5] and one practically by finding passages which can speak to us today, showing the value of this text, not just for monks, but for Christians in general.  This is not meant to be an in-depth exploration of the text, the kind needed in order to make a final assessment on its value and relationship with Anthony, but more as a preliminary text, to help justify its association with the saint.

II. True Intelligence

The opening paragraph should remind the reader of the way Athanasius portrayed Anthony: as a man filled with wisdom because of his walk with God, and not because of the text and theories he had studied. [6] This is the path the text wants us to follow; it is not, to be sure, a denial of study, but an understanding of the limits of such study, and the realization that what is most important can be gained without it. The true intellectual is not an academic, but one who knows the truth and lives it out for the benefit of their soul:

Men are often called intelligent wrongly. Intelligent men are not those who are erudite in the sayings and books of the wise men of old, but those who have an intelligent soul and can discriminate between good and evil. They avoid what is sinful and harms the soul; and with deep gratitude to God they resolutely adhere by dint of practice to what is good and benefits the soul. These men alone should truly be called intelligent.[7]

If goodness is truth put into practice, those who have intellectually ascertained greater truth would demonstrate it through their virtuous behavior. One can be book-learned, and know a great deal, but if it is not put into practice, that learning is for naught. One who is smart will not only know what they have studied, but realize it is important to put it into practice. Of course, if one can know what is right without such study, if one’s mind is capable of discerning the truth, and leads one to engage the truth and to live it out, have they not proven themselves more capable than those whose knowledge is purely academic? Those whose intellect can achieve success without such academic training have proven how bright they are; those who need to study to learn and understand the truth should not be ashamed of their learning, but neither should they be boastful or prideful over it. Instead, they should realize that there are those who know what they know without study. Such people are intellectually superior, even if they have not proven themselves in an academic environment. Academic inquiry is important, but its practice is not proof of intellectual greatness. Moreover, being thankful to God demonstrates one knows where one’s intellectual abilities come from and one remains open to God, to receive the grace necessary in order to continue their intellectual progress.

We find similarly in The Letters of Saint Anthony the Great a relationship between being a rational, intelligent, person, who knows oneself, one’s accumulation of virtues, and one’s relationship with God. Those who have proven themselves in monastic virtue and have remained faithful to the orthodox faith have, according to Anthony, proven their rational acumen and are worthy of being addressed as reasonable men[8]: “Truly, my beloved, I write to you as reasonable men, who have been able to know yourselves. For he who knows himself, knows God: and he who knows God, is worthy to worship Him as is right. My beloved in the Lord, know yourselves. For they who know themselves, know their time: and they who know their time, are able to stand firm, and not be moved about by divers tongues.”[9] And this, of course, is manifest in discernment: those who know themselves, those who know their time, will know what to do and will do it. “Truly, my children I want you to know that there are many who have pursued asceticism throughout their life, but lack of discernment killed them. Truly, my children, I think it is no great wonder, if you neglect yourselves and do not discern your works, that you should fall into the hands of the devil, when you think you are near to God, and that in your expectation of light, darkness should overtake you.”[10] It is not the wisdom of men which leads, but the wisdom of God which raises our intellect to be intellectual Israelites.[11] To know oneself is to understand one’s relationship with God, and to be forever grateful for all that God provides.


[1] See St Athanasius, Life of Antony in NPNF2 (4):196.  For example, “Now there was then in the next village an old man who had lived the life of a hermit from his youth up. Antony, after he had seen this man, imitated him in piety. And at first he began to abide in places out side the village: then if he heard of a good man anywhere, like the prudent bee, he went forth and sought him, nor turned back to his own palace until he had seen him; and he returned, having got from the good man as it were supplies for his journey in the way of virtue.”

[2] See Samuel Rubenson, The Letters of Saint Anthony the Great: Monasticism and the Making of a Saint (Minneapolis: MN: Fortress Press, 1995).

[3] See for example Derwas J. Chitty, trans., The Letters of Saint Anthony the Great (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1991), Letters III, IV.

[4] G.E.H Palmer, Philip Sherrad and Kallistos Ware put the text as an appendix to the first volume of their translation of the Philokalia. Their explanation is that although the text is spiritually insightful, it “seems to be a compilation of extracts from various Stoic and Platonic writer of the first to fourth century” and that “there are no citations from Scripture,” and finally, “Nowhere is there any allusion to Jesus Christ, to the Church or to the sacraments.”  The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume I.  Trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 327. This will be the translation which will be used in order to examine this text.

[5] I will not ignore problematic sections of the text; they must be acknowledged for a proper analysis and understanding of the text, especially if, as I think, the text should be used to help us understand St. Anthony the Great better.

[6] First, he is shown, even in his youth, as not caring about being a man of letters. “But when he was grown and arrived at boyhood, and was advancing in years, he could not endure to learn letters, not caring to associate with other boys; but all his desire was, as it is written of Jacob, to live a plain man at home.” St Athanasius, Life of Antony, 195.

Later, we can see how Athanasius presents Anthony as “unlearned” in relation to the philosophers who challenged him, yet on the other hand, showing his ignorance made him wiser than those same philosophers:

And Antony also was exceeding prudent, and the wonder was that although he had not learned letters, he was a ready-witted and sagacious man. At all events two Greek philosophers once came, thinking they could try their skill on Antony; and he was in the outer mountain, and having recognised who they were from their appearance, he came to them and said to them by means of an interpreter, ‘Why, philosophers, did ye trouble yourselves so much to come to a foolish man?’ And when they said that he was not a foolish man, but exceedingly prudent, he said to them, ‘ If you came to a foolish man, your labour is superfluous; but if you think me prudent become as I am, for we ought to imitate what is good. And if I had come to you I should have imitated you; but if you to me, become as I am, for I am a Christian.’ But they departed with wonder, for they saw that even demons feared Antony (ibid., 215).

[7] : “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 329.

[8] We should not read this as a rejection of holy women, but rather, we should remember that Anthony is writing to monks, to men put under his spiritual guidance.

[9] Derwas J. Chitty, trans., The Letters of Saint Anthony the Great, 12. [Letter IV]

[10] Ibid., 23. [Letter VI]

[11] See ibid., 24. [Letter VII]

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  • Henry if it would not trouble you could you explain what your take is on the meaning of Antony’s “become as I am”?

  • Gisher, that text was in relation to a group of pagan philosophers who went to St. Anthony to stump him. He was seen by them as unlearned.In this way, he says if his way of life, without need for formal education, has allowed him to have a holy life, and this is what they seek, and that is why they came to him, then they should took become like him– to be a Christian, but also, for these men, to become monks.

    • In this way, Anthony is not telling everyone to become like him, a monk, but these men, who came seeking him out, we told this. This is because he was willing to train them, as he trained others who came to him, to know what he knows by the way he knew it. He isn’t interested in debate (which the philosophers wanted), but in helping people achieve the end he knows. He isn’t saying being a monk is the only way this is possible, but it is the way he knows of how to attain it and what he can teach if people want him as a teacher.

      • This sounds as though Anthony had zero value for any knowledge that could not be applied directly to the real world. Rather utilitarian. Do I have this correct?

        • No, I wouldn’t see it as utilitarian. Again, he audience of that piece (both in the story, being the pagans, and the original audience, monks) must be kept in mind. I would say, when dealing with spiritual discipline, it can be quite pragmatic and prudential.

          Also, if you are familiar with Siddhartha, I would say Siddhartha’s practical approach and his “skillful means” is something quite common in all monastic traditions. It also explains how Jesus interacted with people — he tells the rich young man to sell all he has, but we don’t see him telling everyone this.

          • So it possibly be more a case of how little he thought of the philosophers or perhaps better, their intentions?

          • It has to do with their intentions — think again how Jesus would respond to those who came to challenge him. In many ways, St Anthony, though isn’t into subtle disputes, has shown he is capable of the disputation by engaging them on their intention.