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

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XL December 1, 2011

Introduction and Part II

If a person is forced to swim across a turbulent body of water, they must do so in all sobriety, with as much attention as possible; if they are drunk, the water will take them under and they will die.[1] “In the same way the soul, finding herself dragged down by the currents of worldly distractions, needs to regain sobriety, awakening from sinful materiality. She should come to know herself: that, though she is divine and immortal, yet to test her God has joined her to a body, shortlived, mortal and subject to many passions.”[2] We must not let bodily passions drag us down to “shameful pleasures.”[3]

“When the soul endowed with intelligence firmly exercises her freedom of choice in the right way, and reins in like a charioteer the incensive and the appetitive aspects of her nature, restraining and controlling her passionate impulses, she receives a crown of victory” and “granted life in heaven by God her Creator.”[4]

 

 

Though the world is good, through sin, the world and our experience of the world has become so perverted that our passions have addicted us pleasure; we now we look for and seek after those things which bring immediate satisfaction, ignoring the consequence of our action. We forget who we are, and indeed, we become like drunkards, going out into the world so that we can forget ourselves –we kill the person inside, the spiritual, intellectual capabilities which allow us to know ourselves, so that the shell of a self can live. We have given life to a simulacra, a false self, which imprisons the true person within its illusion of life. It seduces us with pleasures so as to keep us trapped within its grips. It perverts our minds. We become enslaved to it, slowly but surely, through its enticements, and as we do, we find our life is less and less meaningful, until we become, dead, soulless shells who have made our own hell. We must die to this self so that we can be set free. We must close ourselves to the epicurean siren call which its immediate gratifications and see where the siren is leading us – when we do so, we can be free, no longer controlled by the siren but rather, controlling our own bodies, properly, like a charioteer who makes sure none of his horses are out of control.

The way of the fallen world is the path of despair. It offers no hope. It reduces everything, destroying them from the inside out.  It tells us that all we have left are its pleasures, the pleasures it is willing to give us if we obey its dictates; that the goal of life is a life of pleasure before eternal death. There is nothing to save, there is only the act of pleasure, the act of doing, of following the flow, an act which connects our pursuit for pleasure with our capitalistic economic worldview as Jean Baurdillard explains:

 

Nowadays, one no longer says: ‘You’ve got a soul and you must save it,’ but: ‘You’ve got a sexual nature, and you must find out how to use it well.’

‘You’ve got an unconscious, and you must learn how to liberate it.’

‘You’ve got a body, and you must know how to enjoy it.’

‘You’ve got a libido, and you must know how to spend it,’ etc., etc. This compulsion toward liquidity, flow, and accelerated circulation of what is psychic, sexual, or pertaining to the body is the exact replica of the force which rules market value: capital must circulate; gravity and any fixed point must disappear; the chain of investments and reinvestments must never stop; value must radiate endlessly in every direction. This is the form itself which the current realization of value takes. It is the form of capital, and sexuality as a catchword and a model is the way it appears at the level of bodies.[5]

 

The person needs saving, the soul needs to be healed; our life is a test in which we determine whether or not we will turn in upon ourselves or open ourselves up to God. It is a test which we face every day, a test which comes to us with every temptation. We can slip up, we can stumble, but, when we do, we must rise back to the surface and swim, until at last, we are found by the raft of salvation and are carried across to the far shore where we can live in peace. We must understand the way the world traps us and tries to make us forget our true place in creation – we become drunk with pleasure, losing our ground until at last, if we do not sober up, we will end up eternally lost, drowned by the pleasures which we sought and trusted in.

We must choose love who we will love, the fallen self and its cheap pleasures, or God. The world tests us. The world helps us reveal who it is we will be – the shell of a self which has no hope, no future, no freedom, as it is dragged down away from God, or the one who chooses God and finds themselves entirely free and capable of enjoying even the smallest things as a gift of God. When we choose to love God, the world and all that is in it is returned to us, but if we choose the self, even the world will bring us despair:

Yes, everything that has been made by God is good and fair, so that we who use them may be pleasing to God. Yet, we, in our weakness and material-mindedness, preferred material and worldly things above the commandment of love; and clinging to them we fight with men, though love for every man must be preferred above all visible things, even the body. This is the sign of our love for God, as the Lord Himself shows in the Gospels: He that loves me, He says, will keep my commandments.[6]

We must silence the siren, we must prove ourselves worthy of God by choosing the path of love over the path of pleasure. Then true happiness, not its simulacra, will be had. Then we will know the meaning of the words of Braulio of Saragossa: “How happy are you for having abandoned the business of this world and chosen in advance the holy leisure!”[7]

 

 

This text reminds us, once again, to know the true self, and that we must struggle against the temptations of the world. It uses the traditional ascetic notion of the charioteer struggling to keep the chariot under control. All of this is very Anthonite. However, the description of the true self as something “divine and immortal,” is troubling. It certainly can be given an orthodox interpretation, but nonetheless, it seems to run contrary to the humility which Anthony himself otherwise promotes. We are made in the image of God,[8] and so, one could see something “divine” within, but we have destroyed ourselves through sin, and the original glory of our “intellectual substance” is now mired. Nonetheless, since this section of our text is clearly borrowing from older, pre-Christian sources (the charioteer being a popular Platonic metaphor), it is also probable that the author borrowed these words, expecting the reader to interpret them in an orthodox fashion – that is, to understand the “divine” element is the image of God within, an image which has not been destroyed even if it is now covered in mire. Nonetheless, we must keep this text as a place where Anthonite attribution to the text can be questioned, because it does demonstrate a rather non-Christian ascetic sense more than it presents the Christian vision of it, though they two can and do work together in Christian ascetic literature.


[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 350 (#142).

[2] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 350-1 (#142).

[3] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 351 (#142).

[4] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 351 (#143).

[5] Jean Baudrillard, Forget Foucault. Trans. Nicole Dufresne (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2007), 39-40.

[6] St Maximus the Confessor, “The Ascetic Life” in St. Maximus: The Ascetic Life, The Four Centuries on Charity. Trans. Polycarp Sherwood (New York: Newman Press, 1955), 107.

[7] Braulio of Saragossa, “Letter 44” in Iberian Fathers: Volume 2. Trans. Claude W. Barlow (Washington, DC: The CUA Press, 1969), 101.

[8] Cf. Chitty, Letters of St. Antony, 24 [Letter VII].


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