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

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XVII. May 3, 2011

Introduction and Part II

Between chapters sixty nine and eighty one, we have more ascetical exhortations which encourage the reader to remember that the salvation and glorification of their soul is the most important thing they can acquire in life. Once again, we are told to pursue virtue, to keep to it, and to ignore anything in the world which would distract us from our goal.

To gain possession of one’s soul is the only acquisition which is safe and inviolable. It is achieved through a way of life that is holy and conforms to God’s will through spiritual knowledge and the practice of good actions. By contrast, wealth is a blind guide and a foolish counsellor, and he who uses wealth in an evil and self-indulgent manner loses his obtuse soul.[1]

We should pursue the holy life, not to be praised for it, but because it is what brings us to our salvation. What worldly glory we achieve can easily be lost by the winds of fortune, but death will come to all, and it is what we should prepare ourselves for.[2]  “We can choose to live with self-discipline, but we cannot become wealthy simply by an act of choice. Must we then condemn our soul by pursuing or even desiring a wealth which we cannot acquire by an act of choice, and which in any case is but a short-lived fantasy?” [3] While different people, with different levels of wealth, might enter an inn and have different kinds of luxury given to them, once they leave the inn all that luxury is left behind; so with our life – some people might be given more luxury than others, but none of it follows with us when we exit life and enter into eternity. Only what we have achieved will remain with us.[4]

We must realize our struggles will be life-long, and the prize is only attained at the end. Just as in the Olympics, one is not held as a champion just because one has overcome one’s first opponent, but only after one has overcome them all, so we must not hold ourselves as victorious until our whole life and all its struggles are over.[5] We are bodily creatures, and because we have been given bodies, we will suffer; it is in the natures of material bodies, as long as they are corruptible, that they can and will lead to our suffering; but we must realize it is in our bodies which we are to struggle and achieve our goal, our glorification, our salvation, and so we are not to blame God for our bodies but thank him for the opportunity he has given by giving us life.[6] “Intelligent people must ceaselessly remember that by enduring slight and passing sufferings in this life, we gain the greatest joy and eternal bliss after death. Therefore, if a man falls when struggling against the passions and wishing to be crowned by God, he should not lose heart and remain fallen, despairing himself, but should rise and begin again the struggle to win his crown.”[7]

Those deemed worthy by God will be given opportunities to show their true character, to be given “opportunities to be crowned by God.”[8] But they need to be ready for them, they need to detach themselves from the world, to die to the world, in order to be free from its wiles and capable of attaining heights of glory.[9] We must face the passions and overcome them. “A soul engaged in spiritual training, being deiform, must not cower with fear in the face of the passions, lest it be derided for cowardice; since if it is disturbed by fantasies of worldly things, the soul strays from its course. For the virtues of the soul lead to eternal blessings, while our self-willed vices result in eternal punishments.”[10]

Our senses are the means by which the passions attack us. “Through these five senses the unhappy soul is taken captive when it succumbs to its four passions. These four passions are self-esteem, levity, anger and cowardice.”[11] We must fight such passions, and put them under our control; when we have achieved such a victory, we will be at peace, the passions will no longer attack us, and we will find ourselves achieving our goal, that is, being glorified by God.[12]

The world and what is within it is good. God created them, as he created us, in an act of love. However, we must always remember the hierarchy of goods, and not become attached to a lesser good, making more of it than what it is. We must always remember that the greatest good is God, and we are to seek God, and once we have God, all that he has made will be able to be appreciated and enjoyed in the way God intended them to be. Until we reach our goal, we still live in the world, but we must not be attached to it, letting it detour us in our quest for God. We must appreciate the world for the good in it, and help preserve that good, not because we are attached to it, but because we love God. The problem for most of us is that we become attached to the world; we are more acquainted with it and its ways than we are with God and his ways.

Our senses, which are in themselves good tools have been abused by us. They have become a major source for our disproportionate attachment to the world. We do not know how to interpret what they offer properly, closing ourselves off, as we do, to the spiritual reality which underlies the physical world. We do not see properly, we do not hear properly, we do not taste properly, we do not smell properly, and we do not feel properly. We follow a fallen way of interpreting the senses, in a purely physical way, and so, much of the data of the world outside of us is lost. Saint Theodoros the Great Ascetic says that the physical, material glory distracted us, and became loved by us in a way beyond what was just, leading to the loss of our higher, spiritual perceptions. We have, since the beginning of human existence, closed ourselves off to the spiritual world, making it invisible to us, though this was not as it was meant to be.

 The first man could indeed, without any hindrance, apprehend and enjoy sensory things by means of the senses and intelligible things with the intellect. But he should have given his attention to the higher rather than to the lower, for he was as able to commune with intelligible things through the intellect, as he was with sensory things through the senses. I do not say that Adam ought not to have used the senses, for it was not for nothing that he was invested with a body. But he should not have indulged in sensory things. When perceiving the beauty of creatures, he should have referred it to its source and as a consequence have found his enjoyment and his wonder fulfilled in that, thus giving himself a twofold reason for marveling at the Creator.[13]

Those who have purified themselves from material attachments have been known to sense in a new, higher, superior way: in a way which joins together matter and spirit, where reality itself as it is is able to be sensed.   We can all get there, thanks to the grace of God who has preserved human nature, and allows us to return to its original glory before being deified. In order to attain our original purity, we must overcome all that lies within our lives which would prevent such an achievement. We must detach ourselves from the world, from our very selves, in order to realign ourselves so that we can participate in the world in and through our relationship with God. We must acquire the spiritual reality which we have lost, and we can only do that through the Holy Spirit; thus, as so many saints have said, we must acquire the Holy Spirit, that is, attune ourselves to the reality of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Until we have done so, this should be the goal of our life. It is described as acquiring, however, because we must work in the spiritual reality similar to how most people obtain worldly goods, as St Seraphim of Sarov points out:

You know well what it means in a worldly sense, your Godliness, to acquire. The aim in life of ordinary worldly people is to acquire or make money, and for the nobility it is in addition to receive honors, distinctions and other rewards for their services to the government The acquisition of God’s Spirit is also capital, but grace-giving and eternal; and it is obtained in very similar ways, almost the same ways as monetary, social and temporal capital.

God the Word, the God-Man, our Lord Jesus Christ, compares our life with a market, and the work of our life on earth He calls trading, and says to us all: Trade till I come [Lk. 19:13], redeeming the time, because the days are evil [Eph. 5:16], that is to say, make the most of your time for getting heavenly blessings through earthly goods. Earthly goods are good works done for Christ’s sake and conferring on us the grace of the All-Holy Spirit.[14]

It has been said that in order to generate wealth you must have some wealth; in the same way, in order to acquire the Holy Spirit, you must rely upon the gift of the Holy Spirit already given to you, taking it upon yourself to use that gift, the gift of grace, to cleanse oneself through works of charity and asceticism from all that would detract you from the Holy Spirit. Charity cleanses the heart, and it is only after the heart is pure that you can then overcome the passions and experience the perfect indwelling of the Holy Spirit in you. Until we have achieved this, we must keep going to the Lord, as beggars, working with the gifts he has given to plead for more, to  acquire the Spirit so that we can then live the holy life expected of us:

However, everyone should push himself to beg to the Lord to make him worthy to receive and find the heavenly treasures of the Spirit in order to be able easily and promptly to fulfill all the commandments of the Lord, without blame and with perfection, which before he could not successfully do, no matter how he tried. Being poor and stripped of the fellowship of the Spirit, how could he acquire such spiritual possessions without spiritual treasures and wealth? But the person who has found the Lord, the true treasure, by seeking the Spirit, by faith and great patience, brings forth the fruits of the Spirit, as I said earlier. All righteousness and the commands of the Lord which the Spirit orders he does, by himself, purely and perfectly and without blame.[15]

The things of the world may or may not be obtained by us if we work hard for them. Even if we choose to make wealth, fame, or earthly glory as our goal out of life, we cannot control the world and make sure we will attain our desire, or if we attain it, to keep it. The ways of the world are fickle, and, for everyone, such earthly goods will come to an end. But we have a God who loves us and will make sure, if we strive for him, that we can obtain him, not just now, but for eternity. However many goods we find in the world (goods which God wants us to enjoy), none of them will ever be able to give us the happiness we seek if we seek them apart from God.

There is little in these texts which would make us think they are not Anthonite in origin. Perhaps one might wonder whether or not he would use the Olympics as an example for the ascetic struggles, but athletics, of which the Olympics is a prime example, is typically used as an image for the ascetic life. St. Athanasius called St. Anthony an athlete.[16] The disdain for worldly goods, such as wealth, we have already seen.[17] We have also seen Anthony’s interest in purifying the senses, of making them operate as God intended.[18] And, it is typical of Anthony to exhort people to accept their lot in life, to accept the sufferings they have as a trial, in which if they hold out and do not despair, they will be able to attain real, eternal beatitude, making all the suffering they have had seem as if nothing, as we see Athanasius records him as saying:

Wherefore, children, let us not faint nor deem that the time is long, or that we are doing something great, ‘for the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us-ward’ Nor let us think, as we look at the world, that we have renounced anything of much consequence, for the whole earth is very small compared with all the heaven. Wherefore if it even chanced that we were lords of all the earth and gave it all up, it would be nought worthy of comparison with the kingdom of heaven.[19]

All in all, these chapters are typical of an ascetic and, save for the Olympics imagery, give no reason for us to believe it could not have been by Anthony, and even the Olympics imagery gives little reason for us to doubt an Anthonite connection to our text.


[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 340 (#70).

[2] Ibid., 340 (#74).

[3] Ibid., 340-1 (#75).

[4] Ibid. 341 (#80).

[5] Ibid., 340 (#71).

[6] Ibid., 340 (#72).

[7] Ibid., 341 (#76).

[8] Ibid., 341 (#77).

[9] Ibid., 341 (#77).

[10] Ibid., 341 (#78).

[11] Ibid., 341 (#79).

[12] Ibid., 341 (#79).

[13] St Theodoros the Great Ascetic, “Theoretikon,” in The Philokalia: the Complete Text. Volume II. Trans. and ed. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), 44.

[14] “The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit” in Little Russian Philokalia Vol. I: St. Seraphim. Trans. and ed. Seraphim Rose (Platina, CA: St. Herman’s Press, 1991), 88.

[15] Pseudo-Macarius, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and The Great Letter. Trans. George A. Maloney, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), 142.

[16] See Athanasius, Life of Antony,  199.

[19] Athanasius, Life of Antony, 200.

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