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

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part IV March 2, 2011

Introduction and Part II

We have received from God self-control, forbearance, restraint, fortitude, patience, and the like, which are great and holy powers, helping us to resist the enemy’s attacks.[1]

We must exercise the virtues given to us by nature, to make them grow with use, if we want to overcome the temptations which come before us on a daily basis. It is normal to suggest that the way to defend oneself from temptation, from the enemy’s attacks, is to practice those virtues which actively oppose our temptations. Since temptation often includes some short-sighted good, usually some sort of pleasure, those virtues which help us pause and reflect upon our actions are very important for us to put into practice. If we are patient, not expecting immediate rewards, self-control is much easier to attain. And self-control is necessary if we want to overcome those thoughts and desires which would distract us from the holiness which we desire. We must be able to restrain ourselves; ascetic disciplines, such as fasting, are put forward as a means by which we acquire such self-restraint. Monks often say gluttony leads to the rest of the vices because if one is unable to control one’s eating habits, something which is simple, and easily put under control, those vices which are harder to control, such as lust, will easily overtake us when confronted by them. In this way, it is like any other exercise; one starts off light, and develops the stamina and strength needed for greater feats. The prize which we seek is the holiness which leads to our eternal happiness, to be crowned by God at the end of our life as a reward for what we have done and achieved in it. “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).

What is said in this passage we find reiterated by monks throughout the centuries; spiritual warfare, confrontation against demonic assaults, is seen as a battle between virtue and temptation, with one’s thoughts the battlefield. When confronted by a demonic suggestion, we should confront it in our thoughts, and overcome the passions which these suggestions find their strength. Thus, Anthony’s disciple, Pityrion, tells us that we must attain self-mastery, so that when we overcome one passion, such as anger, the demonic spirit tempting us will also be vanquished.[2] Perhaps one of the most important presentations of this fact is Evagrius’ Antirrhetikos.[3] This, of course, comes out of the Anthonite tradition. We must remember that one of the primary ways Anthony has been presented by Athanasius is as the monk who went out into the world to combat and overcome demons (through the aid of Jesus Christ).[4] He is the model of self-discipline which other monks are to imitate. “And I know that you, when you have heard, apart from your admiration of the man, will be wishful to emulate his determination; seeing that for monks the life of Antony is a sufficient pattern of discipline.”[5] We find, moreover, Anthony speaking to his fellow monks, to those who have followed him in the desert, reminding them of the powers of anger, lust, and other demonic temptations, pointing out the Christian, through the grace of God, is able to overcome them; moreover, and important for our consideration here, he also points out that what is natural to the soul is what is good, and the natural powers given to it by God should be used by the one confronting temptation so as to be victorious:

For rectitude of soul consists in its having its spiritual part in its natural state as created. But on the other hand, when it swerves and turns away from its natural state, that is called vice of the soul Thus the matter is not difficult. If we abide as we have been made, we are in a state of virtue, but if we think of ignoble things we shall be accounted evil. If, therefore, this thing had to be acquired from without, it would be difficult in reality; but if it is in us, let us keep ourselves from foul thoughts. And as we have received the soul as a deposit, let us preserve it for the Lord, that He may recognise His work as being the same as He made it.[6]

We see this also in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Here, however, we find Anthony presenting our conflict as three-fold: against the passions of the flesh, against the passions which develop when over-eat (exemplifying the principle that a lack of self-control in our eating habits ends up increasing the other passions of the body), and finally, the passions stirred up within by demons.[7] But, it is also important, that Anthony finds these conflicts, these temptations, are important for us, because it is by overcoming them, we are saved – just as we find this passage from “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life” suggests.“He also said, ‘Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.’ He even added, ‘Without temptation, no-one can be saved.’”[8] In this way, Anthony encourages people to follow his example, to put up a struggle against temptation, knowing it is possible to come out victorious, and that this struggle is necessary in order to make us ready for eternal life. One can say that such a struggle helps in the purification of the soul, for one confronts and overcomes those inclinations inside which lead us away from God.

[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 329.  The rest of this paragraph continues with this theme, indicating the need to develop these powers within ourselves, and to realize that what confronts us in our life is able to make us stronger, more virtuous, so that we end up victorious and “crowned by God.”

[2] See The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 200.

[3] See David Brakke, trans. and intr., Evagrius Pontus. Talking Back: A Monastic Handbook for Combatting Demons (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2010).

[4] It is because Christ has defeated the powers of darkness, someone like Anthony can be successful in routing demonic influences, not only in his life, but in the world around him. See William Harmless, S.J. Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 85-7.

[5] See Athanasius, Life of Antony, 195. While Athanasius points out the faith, prayer, and fasting of Anthony gave him the grace needed to be victorious against the demonic assaults which followed him throughout his life, Athanasius also points out, time and again, the discipline Anthony needed to develop as a way to prove himself to God. Thus, after one grueling experience in the tombs of Egypt, Anthony is helped by God, but wonders why it took God so long to give his aid. God’s response is: “Antony, I was here, but I waited to see thy fight; wherefore since thou hast endured, and hast not been worsted, I will ever be a succour to thee, and will make thy name known everywhere” (199). It is after this experience, he goes into the desert, to turn it into the battlefield of the soul, where we know he continued his struggles against demons, initially in solitude (200), and later, with all kinds of disciples (208).

[6] Ibid. 201.

[7] See The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 6 (#22).

[8] Ibid., 2.

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