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

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part VIII March 14, 2011

Introduction and Part II

For the next several paragraphs, we have typical passages dealing with ascetic themes, the most interesting ones dealing with our confrontation with demons, immortality and theosis (deification).[1] For the casual reader, it might seem that this is getting repetitive. However, we must remember that this text was written with ascetics in mind. Looking at the same theme, from a variety of angles, not only helps them to remember what is being discussed, but to see its application and value from many different vantage points. And, in many situations, it is also important to re-establish themes if they will be used to make new points, for this will make sure the reader follows along with the point being. Now, even when we find themes which have been mentioned before, it is worth looking at the general progression of the text.[2]

We begin with commonly used metaphors for the spiritual life: the metaphor of the helmsman and the metaphor of the charioteer[3]. Both are used as representatives of the soul in life as it seeks to skillfully navigate through the trials of life. We are to make sure we follow a good path toward our goal instead of one which leads to our ruin.[4]

Interior freedom is an important and central theme in this sequence of paragraphs. While we might not be entirely in control of our exterior fate, we determine how we meet it and what we do with what is put before us. We are expected to continue to live as moral beings. But we can also sell ourselves short; we can bind ourselves in sin, indeed, we can sell ourselves for material gain, losing some or all of our interior freedom in the process. Thus, we can spiritually put ourselves into slavery, but it must be done willingly.[5] We must do what we can to keep our moral character; we are reminded that what happens to the body might not always be in our power, but what happens to our soul is: “Examine and test your inward character; and always keep in mind that human authorities have power over the body alone and not over the soul.”[6]

Seeking a holy, moral life can never be seen as a purely isolated affair. For example, our lives will be noticed by others, and it will serve as an example to them; thus, we should strive to give them the best example possible.[7] Indeed, if one lives a holy life, it’s quite possible that others will be able to discern it in them. “Holiness and intelligence of soul are to be recognized from a man’s eye, walk, voice, laugh, the way he spends his time and the company he keeps.”[8] Since life brings us a great deal of difficulties, in order to achieve such holiness, one must act according to prudence. “The intelligent soul endeavours to free itself from error, delusion, boastfulness, deceit, from jealousy, rapacity and the like, which are works of the demons and man’s evil intent.”[9]

Inordinate passions make us seek after and attach ourselves to things which are easily lost. We should seek for things which can never be taken away, things which we cannot lose. Thus, it is not wise to seek after wealth, because what one obtains one day is easily taken away the next, and all the work and effort is for naught. “For wealth may be seized and stolen by more powerful men, whereas holiness of soul is the only possession which is safe and cannot be stolen, and which saves after death those who have it.”[10] Therefore, reason should be employed to guide the soul, for it will be able to discern the probable outcome of our actions.[11]

We must avoid pride; we must not presume we are great in this world.[12] Knowledge, though it can be invaluable, is not enough; we must put what we know into practice, otherwise, even our pursuit for knowledge ends up being useless. Our freedom is important; when we sin, it is because we were free to sin, and so we can only blame ourselves for our sins.[13] Temptation can encourage us to sin, but we can and should overcome temptation, and when we fail, we must remember, in some fashion or another we have failed ourselves. We have not followed the holy path which leads to victory against temptation. “Concentration on holiness of living, together with attentiveness to the soul, lead to goodness and the love of God. For he who seeks God finds Him by overcoming all desire through persistence in prayer. Such a man does not fear demons.”[14]

To know the good is to know God, for God is good.[15] Since evil must be rebuked, evil doers are to be rebuked,[16] but such rebuke should be out of love, and so not harsh: “When talking with others all harshness should be avoided.”[17] Those who have not acquired holiness should not debate with those who have. Those who have attained holiness follow the example of God, and so speak little, “and only what is necessary and acceptable to God.”[18]

Though we follow the path of asceticism, this does not mean we cannot enjoy the things of the world; rather, it helps us to enjoy them in a proper fashion, realizing such things can be given or taken away as God ordains.[19] “In addition, whenever possible they take pleasure in such transitory things as come to them through God’s will and gift. Even if these things are rather scanty, they use them gladly and gratefully. Luxurious meals nourish the body; but knowledge of God, self-control, goodness, beneficence, devoutness and gentleness deify the soul.”[20]

Achieving a great and holy state takes time and effort. “A man cannot become good and wise immediately, but only through much effort, reflection, experience, time, practice and desire for virtuous action. The man who is good and enjoys the love of God, and who truly knows Him, never ceases to do ungrudgingly all that accords with His will. Such men are rare.”[21] Even if we have difficulty in attaining holiness, such that we are spiritually “dull,” this does not mean we profit nothing in our pursuit of it; rather, any increase in holiness profits the soul.[22] Our intellectual side is said to link us to God, while our physical, bodily nature, links us to animals; we should put our bodily passions put in check by using our reasonable faculty – those who do so are not enslaved by the passions, but rather, find unity with God, while tose who do not let their animalistic urges rule and ruin their lives.[23] Finally, it is said that we must keep our soul alive and thriving by acts of virtue and not let it wither away by spiritual laziness.[24] “Those who scorn to grasp what is profitable and salutary are considered to be ill. Those, on the other hand, who comprehend the truth but insolently enjoy dispute, have intelligence that is dead; and their behaviour has become brutish. They do not know God and their soul has not been illumined.”[25]

We were made in order to have an active, loving relationship with God. Such love is meant to unite us with God, to deify us. We are to participate in the divine nature itself; though we will not be what God is by nature, through grace we are able to be deified and participate in the divine life. And this grace is possible because of the incarnation: “For He was made man that we might be made God.”[26] God is eternal by nature. By being deified, by participating in the divine life through Jesus, we attain eternal life. This is what is meant by St Peter when he wrote, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4 RSV). Participation in the divine life raises us above our nature – and so, in doing so, we find ourselves spiritually healed. Where we have, through sin, harmed our soul, imprisoning it in sinful habits, making us less than what we are by nature, through grace, we find ourselves freed from the bondage of sin, healed from its defilements, and then raised up so that we become co-heirs of the kingdom of God with Christ (cf. Rom 8:17).

We are reminded that our deification can only happen if we allow it to, that is, we must cooperate with God in order to be deified by grace. Inasmuch as we find ourselves distracted by the things of the world, and inappropriately attached to them, we will not be deified. The ascetic program has been established as means by which we properly detach ourselves from the world. We should not claim to have a hold on the world, but to see ourselves as one in and with the world. The true ascetic sees the world as good. They know it is not theirs to possess, to claim as their own. The world and all that is within it is God’s. What is properly theirs is what makes them who they are, their personal character.

We can seek and direct ourselves to that which is changeable and perishing, or that which is unchangeable and immortal. We will get what we seek; and, we will make it a part of ourselves and we will become like it. The more we pursue Christ, the holier we become; the holier we become, the more we can act and react to the pressures of life and the world with the wisdom which Christ used. While deification finds itself fulfilled in eternity, it begins here. Holiness can and does begin to deify in our earthly life. This is what attracts us to the saints; they have attained such a level of holiness that Christ shines through them. Their extraordinary feats are the continued feats of Christ in this world, working in and through those who have found their unity with him.

As to the attribution of this text, many features in it once again resonate with an Anthonite connection, such as those passages dealing with demons. The general ascetic tone, once again, is in accord with what we would expect of this tradition. However, we find here the formation of a new line of thought, that of deification; and what is interesting here is that this resonates with Athanasius and Athanasius’ theology.  Athanasius is famous for his theological exploration of deification. And for Athanasius, deification connects to our salvation, to our immortality, just as we will soon find this text suggests.

But, as our point of entry into this discussion, which will be elaborated on in other sections, what is important to note here is that Athanasius is known to use Anthony as his example of what deified humanity would look like in this world. [27] What we find suggested in these paragraphs, that one who is being deified, who is attaining a great level of holiness, will manifest that holiness, is what Athanasius sets to prove with his life of Anthony. For example, Anthony’s body is shown to have been transformed, and anticipated in temporal life the gifts which will be given to bodies in eternity, giving his body a kind of ageless quality to it:

Who from his youth to so great an age preserved a uniform zeal for the discipline, and neither through old age was subdued by the desire of costly food, nor through the infirmity of his body changed the fashion of his clothing, nor washed even his feet with water, and yet remained entirely free from harm. For his eyes were undimmed and quite sound and he saw clearly; of his teeth he had not lost one, but they had become worn to the gums through the great age of the old man. He remained strong both in hands and feet; and while all men were using various foods, and washings and divers garments, he appeared more cheerful and of greater strength.[28]

Athanasius, it would seem, is trying to make Anthony fit the description of the holy man of God which we find described in “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life.”[29] This concordance, of course, could have many different causes. It could be a coincidence. It could be the editor of the text knew of Athanasius’ writings and tried to put some aspects of it in here. But, if we are correct in thinking there is some real association between Anthony and this text, then it could be something far more interesting going on here. Anthony’s exploration of deification could have been the foundation for Athanasius’ writing on Anthony’s life and a direct influence on Athanasius’ own theology.[30] As for where and how Anthony would have explored the concept, we must assume a part of it came from his own experience and his own understanding of theosis: he was said to have been “spirit-filled,” as was his disciple, Ammonas. [31] So the practical ways one’s life would be changed would have been seen and experienced by him, both inside his own person, but also in the people, in the monks, he knew. Secondly, he would have either studied, or heard from those who have studied, the theological texts and traditions which helped shape Athanasius’ theology. The theology of deification would have been seen as in accord with his own spiritual experiences, and so, as a teacher wanting to impart his experiences with others, it should not be surprising if we find it come out in a work associated with him. Though we cannot prove he would have said these things, we know that Athanasius has portrayed him as such that he did discuss with philosophers  Christ’s role in having us participate in the divine nature (¶74 of The Life of Antony).  And, it is clear, those surrounding him reflected upon this theme. This will become clearer as we explore the presentation of deification in this text, because we will begin to see an “Origenist” character to it, a character which, if not found with Athanasius, nonetheless is found with many of those associated with Anthony and Anthony’s monastic communities.


[1] Because many of these themes have already been addressed, or, for the discussion of theosis, develop beyond what we see here, our discussion of Anthonian authorship will be limited in this section.

[2] There will be some out-of-sequence discussion here, only because some texts work better in reflection with each other than others.

[3] The chariot is used for analogies in philosophical and theological reflections around the world. For example, in the Western tradition, Plato’s analogy has prominence. In it he has a chariot with two horses; the charioteer is the intellect which is meant to control the two horses, one white, representing heroic virtues, such as boldness, the other, the black, representing the bodily passions. In India, we can find many examples, such as with the Katha Upanishad, where the chariot is seen to be the body, the horses the senses, with the charioteer once again said to be the intellect. It is not surprising, therefore, that we find this analogy being used here.

[4] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 332 (#16, 17).

[5] Ibid., 332 (#18); 334 (#35, 37).

[6] Ibid., 332 (#21).

[7] Ibid., 332 (#19).

[8] Ibid., 332 (#20). See also, 334 (#38).

[9] Ibid., 332 (#22).

[10] Ibid., 333-4 (#32).

[11] Ibid., 332-3 (#23).

[12] Ibid., 333 (#25).

[13] Ibid., 333 (#28).

[14] Ibid., 333 (#27).

[15] Ibid., 333 (#29).

[16] Ibid., 333(#30).

[17] Ibid., 333 (#31).

[18] Ibid., 334 (#33). Likewise, the holy should not debate those who oppose self-evident truths, because such people have a “petrified” intellect. 335-6 (#44)

[19] Ibid., 334(#36).

[20] Ibid., 334 (#34).

[21] Ibid., 335 (#40).

[22] Ibid., 335 (#41).

[23] Ibid., 335 (#42, 43).

[24] Ibid., 336 (#44).

[25] Ibid., 336 (#46).

[26] Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation in NPNF2(4):65 [54.3].

[27] See Harmless, Desert Christians, 90-93.

[28] Athanasius, Life of Antony, 221.

[29] The beauty of Anthony’s soul is manifested in his body: “Everything is transformed and reflects an inner beauty,” “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 332 (#20).

[30] This is actually something which we should expect. Though the actual relationship between Anthony and Athanasius is difficult to discern (some authors, like Brakke, think they might have only met once, but I believe, if Athanasius had lied about meeting Anthony several times, his audience, the monks he was trying to convince to support him in Alexandria, would have known it and not respected Athanasius), it is clear that there was an association between the two, and Anthony worked with Athanasius in combating the Arians. Moreover, the kind of theology which underlies the theology of deification in our text can be found in Anthony’s letters. For example, Letter IV deals with the kind of perfection possible for those who follow Christ; they are led by the Spirit and capable of overcoming all defilements, so that they become adopted children and heirs of God. It is, moreover, a gnostic-like ascent, where confirmation is had in one’s self-knowledge – indeed, nearness to God is related to one’s self-knowledge. “For those who have drawn near, and have been taught by the Holy Spirit, have known themselves according to their intellectual substance,” Chitty, The Letters of Saint Anthony the Great, 12 [IV]. How this relates to our text will become more evident as we see more references to deification in it.

[31] See The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 7 (#30).

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