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

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XXIII. July 12, 2011

Introduction and Part II

“Life is the union and conjucture between intellect, soul and body, while death is not the destruction of these elements so conjoined, but the dissolution of their inter-relationship; for they are all saved through and in God, even after their dissolution.”[1]

The text then turns toward the intellect, giving us a glimpse of what the author believes it to be. “The intellect is not the soul, but a gift of God that saves the soul; and the intellect that conforms to God goes on ahead of the soul and counsels it to despise what is transitory, material and corruptible, and to turn all its desire towards eternal, incorruptible and immaterial blessings.”[2] For the intellect is able to instruct us, to help us meditate on what is important, such as God and heaven, and anything else which we would like to examine.[3] “Thus the intellect that enjoys the love of God is the benefactor and saviour of the human soul.”[4]

The soul, mixed as it is with the body, is able to be seduced by its pleasures and pains, allowing it to be darkened and manipulated.[5] “But the intellect that enjoys the love of God, counter-attacking, gives pain to the body and saves the soul, like a physician who cuts and cauterizes bodies.”[6]

While the intellect resides in the soul, it is not always able to control it. “There are some souls which the intelligence does not control, and the intellect does not govern, in such a way as to check and restrain their passions – that is, pain and pleasure. These souls perish like mindless animals, since the intelligence is carried away by the passions like a charioteer who loses control over his horses.”[7] But what hurts the soul the most is not to know God.[8]

“Soul is in the body, intellect is in the soul, and intelligence is in the intellect. When God is known and praised through all these, He makes the soul immortal, granting it incorruptibility, and eternal delight; for God has granted the gift of being to all creatures solely through His goodness.”[9]

The composition of the human person, when contemplated upon, helps us in our understanding of God. If we explore our very being, and see what it tells us about ourselves, we can slowly come to know more about God, in whose image we were created. Richard of Saint Victor explains, in one way, how we can understand this:

If it is acceptable, let us compare in one place what reason discovers in the divine nature by reasoning and what experience discovers in human nature. There is a unity and plurality in both cases: there is a unity of substance in divine nature, but a unity of persons in human nature; there is a plurality of persons in the divine nature, but a plurality of substances in human nature. In the divine nature indeed there is a plurality of persons in a unity of substance, but in the human nature there is a plurality of substances in a unity of person. Behold how human nature and divine nature seem to gaze mutually at one another and as if from an opposite direction, and either nature responds to the other as if through contrasts. [10]

We are, to be sure, compound beings while God is simple; nonetheless, we can see that vestiges of the Trinity within our very person. We can explore ourselves with our mind, and doing so be led to God. If we are to search for God within, we must open ourselves up to allow the light of grace to direct our search; in doing so, we will free our intellect from the stains which darken it and its ability to understand what it finds. To come to know God better will help us to love him more, and when we love him more, the freer we will be. Thus, it is important to realize that the vestiges of the Trinity within us help us understand, through analogy, the persons of the Godhead, so we can know and love them better.

The way to use these vestiges for our benefit is through appropriation, that is, by relating each person of the Trinity to one aspect of our being. The human person is Trinitarian, with a mind (intellection), a body and a soul. Each of these can be appropriated to one of the persons of the Trinity, as long as we remember the limitations such appropriations have. That is, while we know the divine simplicity behind the Trinity, so that all three persons are God, fully God, we nonetheless recognize the personal distinctions which differentiate the persons. These distinctions help us to know the Trinitarian persons.

When appropriating the persons to parts of our personal unity, the Father would be appropriated by the mind, the Son with the body, and the Holy Spirit with the soul. The appropriation of the Son with the body implies the incarnation, the fact that the Logos has become flesh. The appropriation of the Holy Spirit with the soul relates to the way we understand the Holy Spirit as the “Lord and Giver of life.” The appropriation of the Father with the mind might be a bit more difficult to understand. The Son is the Logos, the Word, which is shaped by the Father. As the mind forms the intellectual activity and gives it existence, so the Son comes from the Father and is the Logos or Word of God, expressing the fullness of God. When we come to know the Son through the body, through the incarnation, we come to know the Father, whose image the Son is in, and we see the work of the Spirit who dwells with the Son. And so we can see the Father as the one who generates the Son, the mind which thinks the word, even as our minds think and express themselves with humanly-generated words. The problems of human words, the limitations of such human constructs, do not exist in the divinity, so that the Logos, the Word of God, can be the perfect self-expression of the Father, generating a perfect image of Himself which will be all that He is, God.

Because we are not simple, but composite in nature, what joins us together can be taken apart. The human person is fully itself when all of its composite parts come together, and when they are together, the person can truly be said to be alive. Their point of dissolution is the time of death, when the body no longer is capable of being guided by a person’s intellect and soul. Since the intellect resides in the soul, the intellectual consciousness of the person continues to exist, with the soul, at the point of death, but they will exist in an unnatural state. The soul yearns for the body, because its nature is to give life to the body.  When the material nature of the body cuts itself off from the soul, or when the soul cuts itself off from the body, death occurs. The soul, yearning for the body, is in an unnatural state, and the intellect, conscious of this unnatural state, knows itself and yet knows itself as in an imperfect, and incomplete, mode of existence. Bodily life is desired, bodily life is needed for the fullness of the person, and in the resurrection of the death, bodily life is restored. While the consciousness of the person continues in incorporeal existence after death, it can be said to continue to live, for the soul, the source of liveliness continues to be with it; but in the full sense of the word, one’s personal life can only occur when the soul is united with a material body, and so there is a kind of death to the person which happens when the soul exits the body. The personal consciousness continues to exist, but the person is not fully themselves, and so exists in a shadowy like state of existence.

In the fallen mode of existence, bodily nature is changeable, constantly mutating, indeed, the body finds itself continuously embarking on the path of death. Life is given to cells, while old cells die and are removed from the body. The body takes on the life of others, converting what it eats to its own life, while discarding that which dies in the body, allowing other entities, other form of life to take our own bodies and convert it to their own use. The cycle of life and death exists within us, within our material being, and the soul is consistently finding itself guiding the production of life, of finding itself living in a constantly “new-but-dying” body, reincarnating itself instant from instant, as the body changes due to the life and death found within. Each moment gives birth to the next, and our choices in one leads to the creation we become in the next. Thus, St Gregory of Nyssa tells us that every moment is, in a way, a new birth for the person:

Now, it is certainly required that what is subject to change be in a sense always coming to birth. In mutable nature nothing can be observed which is always the same. Being born, in the sense of constantly experiencing change, does not come about as the result of external initiative, as in the case with the birth of the body, which takes place by chance. Such a birth occurs by choice. We are in some manner our own parents, giving birth to ourselves by our own free choice in accordance with whatever we wish to be, whether male or female, moulding ourselves to the teaching of virtue or vice.[11]

The weak nature of our body shows that the soul has already lost, in part, its unity with the body; the body is incapable of keeping the life it has. The soul, because of sin, has lost its perfect interaction with the body. The body is a kind of living tomb, never fully itself, but always dying and finding itself replaced. The soul can constantly take new matter, to change the body around, to keep recreating its physical form with new matter, but it does so like a cancer, recreating the body imperfectly. Sin has hindered the soul’s ability to generate a perfect body, and the more sin infects the soul, the more miserable and decayed the body would become. It would not be seen necessarily in the lifespan we currently have, but if a fallen soul was given immortality, the results of that sin would become apparent over time and cause great suffering to the one who is immortal.

Only through the process of death can the soul, if it has opened itself up to grace, be restored so as to be able to recreate a physical body and form, now with perfect unity with the body so as to be truly alive and immortal and without any blemish. But the soul needs to learn how to unite itself with the body through the example of bodily death, to know and find out how it has failed the body and to give up its imperfect mode of vivification. The soul currently does not entirely give itself to the whole body. To give itself entirely to the body, to give itself entirely out of love to the body, it must, at some time, separate itself from its imperfect creation, and allow itself to die to its false sense of vivification, so it can then see and understand its real nature and real ability. Not being limited to a fallen mode of bodily vivification, it will be able to restore itself to its proper mode of existence and establish itself perfectly in the body, keeping all of the parts of the body alive without any kind of death within. But for this to be, the intellect needs to work and guide the soul, to direct it from what it has learned and to guide it away from the error which happens from the corruption of sin.

Death is both a curse and a gift. It is a curse because it breaks up the integral order of the human person and makes our consciousness experience an unnatural mode of existence when it is separated from the body. But, it is a gift, because it is the normal means of bringing the human person to eternal beatitude. For the soul, stained with sin, which did not find a separation from the body would only create and recreate worse and worse forms of bodily existence for itself, with each recreation being tainted by more and more sin, leading to more and more suffering and anguish, which is the suffering of the damned. However, the soul which opens itself up to the grace of God is capable of learning from the process of death, to see the association of death with its way of life, and to come to know and learn the appropriate way to life in the body. It is to help give the body life, but also, it is to allow itself and the body by directed by the intellect. By itself, the soul, once separated from the body, once entirely separated and finding its conjunction with the body dissolved, it would not be able to recreate itself in bodily existence.

Death, of its own, though it can teach the soul guided by the intellect what is necessary for it to purge itself of all imperfections of act, nonetheless, will not allow the soul to regain a body and to act on its new insight. It is only through the reorientation of death in Christ, who took on death without sin, that death has become something more. Christ is the eschaton come into the world, and so in and through the eschaton, death itself is overcome, the soul is once again given a body, and the state of that body in the resurrection lies with whether or not that soul has learned from death and overcome all taint of sin or not.  The soul open to the intellect, and the intellect which has opened itself to the enlightening grace of God, will, in such enlightenment, be capable of beatitude and the beatific vision. The soul which, in its life, already sought for and said yes to God will be open to God in death and so will receive the grace of God, and this is why, in life, one must continue to live, to take the opportunity one has, so as to open to God and to begin the affirmation of all that God has given if one wants to be able to continue that affirmation and fulfill it in eternity. The soul which continues to draw itself only upon the body and its pleasures, which has not opened itself up to its intellect which transcends bodily passions, will find it difficult, if not impossible, to transcend itself and to use its life and death to the fullest. And this is why, if the soul is distracted by bodily pleasure, if it finds its gaze purely on the material form, it will help the person seek after such pleasure, even if the pleasure is momentary and leads to subsequent pain. It will have no guidance in how to get beyond the search for inordinate pleasures, and so will end up in a cycle of pleasure-seeking which ends in more and more personal grief and anguish, until it is so caught up in that cycle, all it has is various levels of grief and suffering with no apparent exit for happiness. The soul must see itself as the mediator between the spiritual and material realms of existence and so be with both; that is, it must be able to relate to the spiritual content behind the physical if it wants to overcome the materialistic trap, but more than that, it must not reject the physical, for in doing so, it will also find itself in another trap, one which rejects one’s personal nature and therefore, damning oneself in a different cycle of anguish.

Thus, the soul needs to open itself to the intellect and its promptings, but the intellect itself needs to be enlightened, to be open to the realization of truth in God, if it wants to properly direct the soul and body. The intellect can see in the Trinity the unity of the Trinity, a unity of love, and use this to guide the person and to understand how the mind, body and soul need to interact. The intellect has the potential for intelligence, but it is actualized only when it opens itself up, to see beyond itself, to see God and be enlightened by the vision of God. Then the intellect produces the intelligence needed for it to guide the soul and in its guidance, help the soul raise the body into eternal beatitude at the eschatological resurrection of the death. The three must work together, in and through a union of love, and if they exist in love, then they will be able to love others and God, all of which is necessary for eternal joy.

The anthropology in this section follows the anthropology we see typical with Anthony. The tripartite anthropology of Anthony differs from others with a similar anthropology in that he normally differentiates the intellect(nous) from the spirit (pneuma) so that one will not confuse the work of the Holy Spirit within one’s life with one’s own spirit.[12] Nonetheless, the general schematic of his anthropology is, as Samuel Rubenson comments, Platonic: “The basis for Antony’s anthropology is the Platonic dualism between the spiritual and the corporeal. As we have seen, man’s real self, his nature, is his ‘spiritual essence’. Though created, it is immortal: ‘we are all created from one invisible essence, having a beginning but no end.’ This essence is no hidden in the body, but it does not belong to it, and will not be dissolved with it.”[13] Thus, in the first letter, Anthony talks about the Spirit guiding the mind, and the mind will then be able to help direct the person away from a purely materialistic existence. “Then the Spirit that is his guide begins to open the eyes of his soul, to give it also repentance, that it may be purified. Then the mind also starts to discriminate between the body and the soul, as it begins to learn from the Spirit how to purify both by repentance. And, taught by the Spirit, the mind becomes our guide to the labours of body and soul, showing us how to purify them.”[14] The classic ascetic analogy of the charioteer, found in Platonic but also Buddhist traditions, can be seen as lying beneath what is written in Anthony’s letters. Thus, what we see here relates to what we know of Anthony from elsewhere. Indeed, telling the reader to allow their intellect to be their guide toward salvation is central to the letters. What we see here connects with what we know of Anthony elsewhere without much difficulty, and suggests an Anthonite hand.


[1] On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 344 (#93).

[2] On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 344 (#94).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 344 (#95).

[6] Ibid.

[7] On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 344 (#96).

[8] On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 344 (#97).

[9] On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 344 (#98).

[10] Richard of Saint Victor, On the Trinity in Trinity and Creation: Victorine Texts in Translation. Trans. Christopher P. Evans. Ed. Boyd Taylor Coolman and Dale M. Coulter (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2011), 254-5 (bk III c9).

[11] St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses. Trans. Everett Ferguson and Abraham J. Malherbe (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 55-6.

[12]  See Samuel Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, 68-69.

[13] Samuel Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, 68.

[14] Derwas J. Chitty, The Letters of Saint Antony the Great, 2.

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