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

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XXXII. September 19, 2011

Introduction and Part II

“A true man is one who understands that the body is corruptible and short-lived, whereas the soul is divine and immortal and, while being God’s breath, is joined to the body to be tested and deified. Now he who understood what the soul is regulates his life in a way that is just and conforms to God; not submitting to the body, but seeing God with his intellect, he contemplates noetically the eternal blessings granted to the soul by God.”[1]

God, being good, “gave man power over good and evil.”[2] He provides spiritual wisdom as a gift to all, so that those who accept it can contemplate all things and through such contemplation, “come to know Him who created all things for man’s sake.” [3] Nonetheless, it is a choice; “the impious are free to choose not to know. They are free to disbelieve, to make mistakes and to conceive ideas which are contrary to the truth.”[4] This is what God has granted humanity over good and evil. [5]

God has made it that the soul is “filled with intellect as the body grows, so that man may choose from good and evil what conforms to God.”[6] When the soul chooses evil, it loses its intellect.[7] Thus, “all bodies have souls, but not every soul has intellect.”[8] One who is pious and disciplined, filled with the virtues such as mercy, will have an intellect which enjoys the love of God.[9]  Through the intellect one can be drawn toward God.[10]

“One thing alone is not possible for man: to be deathless. But it is possible for him to attain union with God, provided that he realizes that he can do so. For if he seeks God with his intellect, with faith and love through a life of holiness, man can enter into communion with God.”[11]

As has been said many times in our text already, we live in the world knowing that we will die.  There is no way we can avoid it. We must prepare for it. We must seek out God and find a way to be united with him so that God can take us into his immortality and make what is impossible for us possible. But to do so, we must find God, and we do this through the use of our intellect. We have been made with an intellect, a powerful spiritual tool:

The intellect is joined to the soul like an arm in the body. For as the arm, joined to the hand with its fingers, branches out from the body, so the intellect, working with the other powers of the soul, by which it understands human actions, most certainly proceeds the soul. For before all the other powers of the soul it understands whatever is in human works, whether good or evil, so that through it, as through a teacher, everything is understood; for it sifts things as wheat is purified of any foreign matter, inquiring whether they are useful or useless, loveable or hateful, pertinent to life or death. Thus, as food without salt is tasteless, the other powers of the soul without intellect are insipid and undiscerning.[12]

The intellect is capable of leading us to God, because, when it is properly used, it shows us the path toward the good. If we let the intellect follow through with its natural pursuit for the good, we can reach out for more and more of the good, transcending the good which we currently have, until we are with God, the source and foundation of every good. However, the intellect has the power for good or for evil, that is, while it can discern the good, it can be misdirected the will, and lead us to a lesser good as willed by us. When it is no longer entirely under its own power, when it is limited toward a pursuit for lesser goods, it will discern the good the will seeks, but if we remain where it takes us, we will find that lesser good has become the foundation of our own  sin and our own abandonment of God. We will remain with pleasure of the body and trapped in the self instead of being with God:

For just as if a charioteer , having mounted his chariot on the race-course, were to pay no attention to the goal, toward which he should be driving, but, ignoring this, simply were to drive the horse as he could, or in other words as he would, and often drive against those he met, and often down steep places, rushing wherever he impelled himself by the speed of the team, thinking that thus running he has not missed the goal—for he regards the running only, and does not see that he has passed wide of the goal—so the soul too, turning from the way toward God, and driving the members of the body beyond what is proper, or rather, driven herself along with them by her own doing, sins and makes mischief for herself, not seeing that she has strayed from the way, and has swerved from the goal of truth, to which the Christ-bearing man, the blessed Paul, was looking when he said, “I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of Christ Jesus:” so that the holy man, making the good his mark, never did what was evil.[13]

Once we embrace some sin, our intellect is slowly molded by our will. It is weakened, indeed, imprisoned, cut off from the fullness of the good it needs for it to live, so that, it will slowly die similar to a way a brain will perish due to lack of oxygen. If this deprivation continues, it can and will lead to the end of the intellect – that is, while it will remain as a part of us, it will be, in all practical purposes, dead; we will have no way to transcend ourselves – we will have achieved spiritual death.

The intellect needs its spiritual nourishment; if it takes in the grace of God, it slowly forms itself upon that grace, becoming what it takes it. As a spirit is like a breath (and the word for spirit is the same word for breath, πνεύμα or pneuma), so the best way to understand the intellect’s spiritual activity is to see it as breathing in the grace of God through contact with the Holy Spirit. We can understand the intellect as the Spirit of God living in us – it is not because it is the Holy Spirit, but rather, the place where we have union with the Holy Spirit and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit can be discerned. “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 one who has opened themselves up to the Holy Spirit, who has been enlightened by the Spirit, will find the influx of grace will allow them to act on their own, and to discern further if they will continue to follow God.  Thus, one who has a conversion of heart and begins to move toward God will have much joy – and then, they will be tested to see their resolve:

You must know how, in the beginning of the spiritual life, the Holy Spirit gives people joy when He sees their hearts becoming pure. But after the Spirit has given them joy and sweetness, He then departs them and leaves them. This is a sign of His activity and happens with every soul that seeks and fears God: He departs and keeps at a distance until He knows whether they will go on seeking Him or not. Some, when He moves away from them, are weighed down, and sit in their heaviness without moving; for they do not ask God to remove the weight from them, and to give them again the joy and sweetness they had known; but, as a result of their neglect and self-will, they are alienated from the sweetness of God. For this cause they become carnal and only bear the habit while denying its meaning. These are they who are blinded in their eyes, and do not recognize the work of God in them.[15]

We breath in the Holy Spirit through our intellect, through our own spirit, and find our intellect enlightened, capable of guiding us through the restoration of its powers by the grace of God. The Holy Spirit puts into us the seed of salvation. However, we must still choose good over evil; we must choose the transcendent Good, God, above every other, relative good.  Anything else will slowly destroy the seed of salvation and lead to our perdition. And once that seed is gone, we find ourselves once again destroying the powers of our intellect through sin; but the Holy Spirit, again and again is capable of bringing us grace and to restore our spirit, to give it life, to put in the seed of salvation, every time we find ourselves contaminated by sin. We just need to open up to grace.

We can see in our daily life a constant reminder of the fall, and indeed, we find ourselves constantly taking the path of evil, the lesser good, the imaginary good, over the real good which is God. Until we have achieved spiritual perfection, we must struggle to do what is good. We are being tested: will we divert ourselves away from God? Will we focus upon ourselves and try to become like god or will we attain real deification through union with God?  That is the test we face, and it is a test which we find being administered every moment of our life.

The contents of these passages show striking similarity and content to what we have already seen in the writings and life of St. Anthony: an interest in the pursuit of the intellect, of reason, over the pleasures of the body.  The one who has purified their intellect knows themselves and, having come to know themselves, they are open to God. They are able to have communion with God. What we find here, for the most part, reads as if it follows what we know from Anthony’s thought.  The only striking statement which seems out of place is when it says the soul is the “breath of God.”   This sounds pantheistic, and not what we would expect from Anthony, who normally talks about the Spirit dwelling in the soul instead of the soul as being equivocal to the spirit.  But, as it common with mystical writing, we must be careful and be legalistic with our reading; indeed, there is a hint of Origen’s thought behind such  a text which allows us an opening for how to interpret this and to understand it as being by Anthony.


[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 348 (#124).

[2] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 348 (#125).

[3] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 348 (#125).

[4] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 348 (#125).

[5] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 348 (#125).

[6] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 348 (#126).

[7] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 348 (#126).

[8] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 348 (#126).

[9] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 348 (#126).

[10] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 348 (#126).

[11] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 348 (#127).

[12] Hildegard of Bingen, Scivas. Trans.Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), 121.

[13] St. Athanasius, Against the Heathens in NPNF2(4):6.

[14] Chitty, Letters of St. Antony, 2 [Letter I].

[15] Derwas J. Chitty, trans., The Letters of Ammonas (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1995), 12-3 [Letter IX].


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