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

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XXV. August 8, 2011

Introduction and Part II

God is good, man wicked. There is no evil in heaven, and no goodness on earth. Therefore the intelligent man chooses the better part and acknowledges the God of all; he thanks and praises God, and before death he hates the body; and he does not allow his evil senses to carry out their desires, for he knows their destructiveness and their strength.[1]

“The wicked man delights in excess while he despises justice.”[2] A wicked person ignores the short span of life, and does not heed the uncertainty which lies before them.[3] Death cannot be stopped due to bribery.[4] “And if an old man is shameless and stupid, he is like rotten wood and no use for anything.” [5]

Our sense of pleasure is in part subjective; we get more pleasure out of an action if we have suffered its contrary affliction.[6] “One does not drink with pleasure unless one is thirsty, nor eat with pleasure unless hungry, nor sleep soundly unless very drowsy, nor feel joy without grief beforehand.”[7] In this manner, we will only be able to enjoy “eternal blessings” if we first “despise transient things.”[8]

If God created the world and saw it was good, why are we now being told that we are to hate the world because it is evil? Clearly, context is important. While there is a common theme which bring these paragraphs together to allow us to comment upon them here, we must remember the greater context in which they are found so as to prevent us from looking at these passages as dualistic and heretical. Though they might actually be thoughts stemming from a dualistic source, as we bring them together into the document as a whole, they become something else: they represent the use of exaggeration for the sake of a rhetorical argument, a kind of exaggeration we find in the Gospels: “”If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:26-27 RSV).

We see Jesus telling us to hate everything, from our families to our own lives, in order to be his disciples. We must be careful and understand what exactly he means. We are not expected to literally hate anyone; we know this because he has told us many times that we are to love others, even our enemies, and we are to do good for those who would persecute us. We are, however, to hate attachments which get in our way, which prevent us from following God.  We are to overcome attachments, to overcome anything which would block us from following God. If our parents, spouses or children want us to do something which conflicts with the path God has put before us, we must deny their request and follow God. To some, it might appear we no longer love them, even that we hate them, when we turn them down. So many of the saints discovered this in their lives, where they were accused of being ungrateful of their parents for disobeying their unreasonable requests.

It is an undue attachment to the world which destroys our relationship with God and with each other, and it is such an undue attachment which prevents us from moving in in our spiritual journey and making ourselves ready for eternity.  Jesus, we are told, promoted a transformed relationship with the world, telling us that everything which does not have a love for God as its base must be abandoned. Thus, we find in Matthew, Jesus’ demands upon us comes to us without the exaggeration found in Luke: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37-38 RSV). It is an issue of the proper ordering of our love, and allowing God and our love of God be the source of our interaction with the world, instead of allowing our interaction with the world as being the foundation for our interaction with God.

Everything which we find ourselves attached, which we try to hold on to separate from their place in God, becomes an idol. Our body, for example, is one such idol. These idols are, of course, the false perceptions which we use to override the real, and it is such false perceptions which must be detested and overcome. Our attachments make us suffer as what we expect from them does not happen. The process of detachment, however, can also be painful, but this pain is kind of pain we find in the process of healing. Once one has finally detached themselves from their idolized self, and have opened themselves fully to God, the pain is transformed to joy and happiness, and indeed, the process of detachment itself will be looked upon as the means by which one was able to find and experience beatitude. With free will, we have abandoned God, and have attempted to become gods in this world, to create a world of illusion based upon the projection of our thoughts unto the world itself. This world, this false world, is what must be hated and rejected, because it is fundamentally unreal and seeks to corrupt and destroy what is real. This is why this kind of world is said to be evil. It doesn’t exist, and it seeks to pull the world into its non-existence, to destroy what is real and true.

Our perceptions, as long as they are mixed with our attachments to a falsely-constructed worldview, will try to reify that false world. They will help find ways we can experience limited, transient pleasures which seem to confirm the value of our attachments, but, because they are leading us away further and further into attachments with that which does not exist, they will continue to lead us further and further away from God and more and more into that unreality itself, a situation which will not bring the pleasures we seek, but more and more disaster and ruin. One day we will die, and the idolatrous world the self tries to create will come crashing down if it has not already been eliminated before our death. If we have not detached ourselves from it, if we have not formed a proper relationship with God, who is the eternal source and foundation of all that is real, then at death we will be shown to be rotten to the core, like a piece of drift wood eaten up by insects. There might be the semblance of a person left, but there will be no true life within.

Thus, we are to see every attachment which leads us astray as something hateful. Our love for God must level every falsehood:

If you truly love God and long to reach the kingdom that is to come, if you are truly pained by your failings and are mindful of punishment and of the eternal judgment, if you are truly afraid to die, then it will not be possible to have an attachment, or anxiety, or concern for money, for possessions, for family relationships, for worldly glory, for love and brotherhood, indeed for anything of earth. All worry about one’s condition, even for one’s body, will be pushed aside as hateful.[9]

It is not the person, place or thing which gets in our way, but our improper attitude toward them which must be despised. We often confuse the two, and this is why language can be employed which seems to suggest a rejection of some person or thing; but it is not a real rejection of them, but the false person or thing we have created in our mind and attributed to be them. They come back alive, in their true self, in God when we have found God, and it is why we love our neighbor in and through our love for God.

Even those who have yet attained the fullness of selflessness should be able to see and understand why detachment is necessary, because it can lead to the happiness which they seek. They should be able to see how their current concepts and attachments lead only to suffering and so they should seek to move beyond them, and indeed, to be concerned about their spiritual life because their spiritual condition will establish their own happiness and sorrow:

A man who has own best interests at heart will therefore be especially concerned for his soul and will spare no pains to keep it stainless and true to itself. If his body is wasted by hunger or by its struggles with head and cold, if it is afflicted by illness or suffers violence from anyone, he will make small account of it, and, echoing the words of Paul, he will say in each of his adversities: ‘but though our outward man is corrupted, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.’[10]

In the material world, we project all kinds of systematic constructs which we try to use as a means of controlling and manipulating the world at large. They can be useful, and they can work for a time, but they cannot last. This is especially true in relation to economic concerns. Money, and all that is involved with it, has some value to it, but it disguises that value by making it appear as if it is more than it actually is, as if it is something of eternal value. The world of illusion loves it because it uses a truth to hide the bitter reality behind that truth. But that illusion ends when our life ends. Death might be postponed, and money might help pay for medicine which will postpone death, but in the end, death will get us all. One should learn this and see through the monetary system long before one dies, so that one will not consider money and its accumulation as the goal of life. Money which gets in the way of right relationships, which gets in the way of the universal distribution of goods, will ultimately demand more and more sacrifices of its subjects until, at last, there are no sacrifices left and the idol will no longer be able to help anyone as it is toppled down. Since so many depend upon that idol and live off its benefits, its toppling creates widespread devastation, leading to the ruin of so many people. However, such a time is also a time of opportunity, where real relationships and the universal distribution of goods can be better realized, if people realize the error of their ways and avoid the pitfalls of the past. But those who are attached to their ways find themselves wanting an excess of inordinate pleasures, the excess of which leads to the halting of the universal destination of goods and prevents justice from reigning in society. When the world markets are run by greed and not justice, then the excess accumulation of money involved with greed will be the ultimate undoing of the one who follows its ways. Needless to say, if we suffer here as a result of such injustice, it is only for a time, where we will find eternity with its blessings capable of turning our sorrow into joy, and indeed, allowing us to appreciate even more the joy of eternity because we have seen and understood real suffering. Indeed, it is in part our reaction to such suffering that we prove to ourselves and to God where we stand in relation to God: “To accept every affliction as God’s will is the very embodiment of piety, for true love is tested by hostile forces.” [11]

These passages appear to be dualistic and their dualism might make us question whether an orthodox source would write them down. However, as was said above, we must not take these passages out of the context of the whole document itself in order to establish a pretext. They can be read in an orthodox manner, if they are read as rhetorical flourishes which employ exaggeration to make their point. In relation to God, everything falls short. It is very common for monks to heighten this failing of creation, to point to the evils within creation as a reminder of why we should not be attached to it and why we must make God our aim. It is not to say that God created an evil world, but that the world is experienced as evil as a result of sin. And, without surprise, Anthony was known to tell his listeners to put Christ, and the following of Christ, before all things. Thus, Athanasius wrote:

And He gave grace to Antony in speaking, so that he consoled many that were sorrowful, and set those at variance at one, exhorting all to prefer the love of Christ before all that is in the world. And while he exhorted and advised them to remember the good things to come, and the loving-kindness of God towards us, ‘Who spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all’ he persuaded many to embrace the solitary life.[12]

The message in our root text, though exaggerated, is the kind of message one would give to tell people to abandon the world and all that is in it for the sake of God. We see a reminder of the good things to come to those who follow God, and we see this being used as a cause for the reader to detach themselves from the things of the world. And, just like these passages, Anthony was known to teach people to despise the body for the benefit of their soul:

And he used to say that it behoved a man to give all his time to his soul rather than his body, yet to grant a short space to the body through its necessities; but all the more earnestly to give up the whole remainder to the soul and seek its profit, that it might not be dragged down by the pleasures of the body, but, on the contrary, the body might be in subjection to the soul.[13]

We can see in these passages the kinds of statements which Anthony would have used in order to make this point. We see something similar in Anthony’s letters. In them, he uses the frailty of bodily, material nature and counters it with the eternal nature of the spirit. He wants his audience to know his love for them is not fickle, not “bodily, but transcendent, spiritual: “I want you to know that the love that is between me and you is no bodily love, but a spiritual, religious love. For bodily friendship has no firmness or stability, being moved by strange winds.”[14]

In this way, while we might be surprised with the kind of extreme rhetoric in these paragraphs, when looked within the context of the whole, and when looked within the context of what we know of Anthony’s relativizing of the body for the sake of the spirit, these passages look authentic. They show the sentiment Athanasius said Anthony held. And we should not use the extremity of the rhetoric to dismiss their authenticity, after all, Jesus is shown to use similar rhetoric, and it is likely Jesus’ employment of it would allow Anthony to do so as well.

[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 345 (#102).

[2] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 345(#103).

[3] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 345 (#103).

[4] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 345 (#103).

[5] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 345 (#103).

[6] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 345 (#104).

[7] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 345 (#104).

[8] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 345 (#104).

[9] St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Trans. Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 81.

[10] St Basil the Great, “On Detachment,” in Saint Basil: Ascetic Works. trans. Sister M. Monica Wagner, C.S.C. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950), 495.

[11] Mark the Monk, “On the Spiritual Law” in Counsels on the Spiritual Life. Trans. Tom Vivian and Augustine Casiday (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), 98.

[12] Athanasius, Life of Antony, 200.

[13] Ibid, 208.

[14] Chitty, Letters of Saint Antony, 12 [Letter IV].

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