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

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XXXVI. October 17, 2011

Introduction and Part II

“The soul is in the world because it is begotten; but the intellect transcends the world, because it is unbegotten. The soul which understands the world and wishes to be saved constantly reflects upon this as her inviolable rule: the time for combat and testing is now, and it is not possible to bribe the Judge, and a man’s soul may either be saved or lost through some small and shameful indulgence.”[1]

“On earth God has established birth and death; and in heaven, providence and necessity.”[2] God needs nothing, so everything which was made, was made to bless humanity and lead it toward salvation.[3]

“The mortal is inferior to the immortal, yet the immortal serves the mortal: thus the four elements serve man, through the inherent goodness of God the Creator and His love for man.”[4]

 

The human person is established by the integral unity of material and spiritual components. They can be seen, in a way, as two different persons which mirror each other, with the spirit being the primary foundation of the person, as St. Basil writes:

 

I recognize two human beings, one the sense-perceptible, and one hidden under the sense-perceptible, invisible, the inner human. Therefore we have an inner human being, and we are somehow double, and it is truly said that we are that which is within. For I am what concerns the inner human being, the outer things are not me but mine. For I am not the hand, but I am the rational part of the soul.[5]

We must not assume this to mean that the body is not an important component of the person; it is very important, it is an instrumental portion of the person, it is that which allows a person to be revealed to the external world and interact with it. We are relational in our makeup, and the body is a necessary part of how we are made to relate. It is visible image of the soul, and what a person makes of the body points to and shows the inner person behind the body. It demonstrates that a person exists, and it is the primary means by which we get to know that person.

In this way, according to matter, the person is a physical entity, one which has a beginning in time, one which will have an end in time, and one which follows the laws of material necessity. These laws of material necessity are often seen by the ancients in the heavens, in the stars and their procession, which follow predictable patterns established by divine providence.[6] If a person is only a material being, the person, through the working of natural forces, might think they are free, but they would not be; their life, their actions, their thoughts would follow the course of events dictated by material necessity. It would only be a physical being, and all it does would be necessary, with the most overriding necessary component which shapes the life of that person being death:

We experience the struggle for life as imprisonment by necessity, by the deadened mechanism of nature, by the ‘empty and bustling elements’ of the world, all of which threaten one thing: death. Cold and heat, fog, rain, drought, a hurricane, a river, an ocean – all are hostile, and all threaten life. Blind necessity, unintelligible raging elements, deadened mechanism, iron fate – these are all guises in which the spirit of nonbeing, ‘the prince of this world,’ Death, appears.[7]

It’s their spiritual makeup which allows a person to be free. The physical makeup of the person means a person’s freedom is not unlimited, that there are restrictions to it, but the spiritual aspect of the person allows the person to have a transcendent goal, the eschaton which lies in eternity. The spiritual side of the person already participates in the transcendent eschaton, giving the spirit a kind of eternal character in relation to their physical, material component. The soul, the bridge which keeps them together and unites them, is also (with the body) formed in time but is not physical in and of itself; it is the means by which the spirit interact with and engages the physical world. The soul forms the body under the guidance of the spirit, but it is also the seat of the passions, where the inclinations of the physical makeup meet the spirit and, if not confronted by the spirit and overcome by the spirit, it is through the soul that the spirit becomes manipulated and the physical being of the person takes over. Then that which is mortal forces the spirit, that which is transcendent, into slavery, making the spirit serve the necessary desires of the body.  The person who lets the body rule in this manner is less than what they should be, for they give up their freedom and serve the world with its temporal, transitory nature, and they serve the master of that world, death. That which is physical gains control over that is spiritual, and the spirit is weakened, it is no longer living up to its potential. The body, in a way, blinds the spirit, and as long as the body remains in absolute control, the spirit will be unable to attain and experience the spiritual truths necessary for it to properly guide and direct the body.

As long as one has life, this inordinate ordering of the human person, where physical necessity trumps spiritual freedom, can be overcome. The original integral nature of the human person can be healed through grace. As long as there is life, there is no complete abdication of freedom, and the spirit can work to cooperate with grace, to free itself from the shackles of necessity. It must strive to overcome the desires of the flesh, to guide the person beyond a life of pure necessity, of craving in to physical desires just because one has such desires. One must wrestle with God against the flesh, one must show that the calls of the flesh do not have to be obeyed. It requires one to struggle against the flesh, and then God will come in and help one become completely liberated, and this is necessary if one is to be united with God. “Liberation matter precedes the body with God.”[8]  In one’s struggles against the flesh, against material necessity, one slowly finds one’s spirit gaining strength, gaining back its proper vision of truth. The person who engages the trials and tribulations of life and overcomes them is the one who ends up saved, liberated from the plane of necessity and finding themselves enjoying union with God.

We must be careful here and not be dualistic in our notions. The world exists as a good created by God out of love. We are to live in it, with it, but we are not to be dominated by its material necessity. Matter is to serve humanity, to be the location of our blessed existence; when we have let material necessity exist without spiritual direction, matter continues to serve us. But without the indwelling of spiritual principles to guide it, to make sure its necessary conclusion is one which we would like, what the world serves up is often to our detriment. When we are blind to the spiritual principles behind creation, we might think the world acts in a way beyond our control, beyond any human influence. That lie, of course, only allows the onslaught of nature to become worse, to be more harmful to us due to our ignorance. We are meant to help shape the world, to guide it through our own spiritual freedom, to make it blessed. Christ has shown us the way; in his incarnation, the world itself is changed, and it is once again receptive of grace; the sacraments are the sign of grace over creation, of the transformation of nature which humanity is meant to bring forth through our cooperation with Christ. The world serves us joy when we render grace unto it; when we abuse the world, and try to take all we can from it instead of giving it all it needs, it serves us pain and sorrow. The laws of nature, when they are not perfected with grace, can only lead to death.

 

 

We have a rather typical ascetic passage here – where one is seen to have to struggle of fight for one’s own salvation. Asceticism recognizes this struggle, and indeed, says salvation is only had through it. If we are seeking salvation, if we are struggling to be liberated, we will find temptation after temptation confront us, but we must not be disturbed by that fact. Indeed, St. Anthony in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, says salvation is had through temptation (with, of course, the expectation one overcomes temptation): Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”[9] Salvation is possible with struggle, and this struggle is a major part of Anthony’s practical wisdom. It is what we see here, though because of the universal nature of such a discourse in ascetic literature, we cannot identify this as being from Anthony but we can see it is in accord with his thought.


[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 350 (#136).

[2] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 350 (#137).

[3]  “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 350 (#137).

[4]  “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 350 (#138).

[5] St. Basil, “On the Origin of Humanity, Discourse 1” in On The Human Condition. Trans. Nonna Verna Harrison (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005), 36.

[6] In other words, in our text, we must not confuse the heavens here with our eschatological, “heavenly,” goal, though the way providence was seen to more directly work on the heavens,  many in ancient times equivocated the two.

[7] Sergei Bulgakov, Philosophy of Economy: The World As Household. Trans. Catherine Evtuhov (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 70.

[8] St. Isaac of Nineveh, On the Ascetic Life. Trans. Mary Hansbury (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989), 63.

[9] Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 2 (#5).


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