Athanasius: Life of Anthony (Part 2)

In the first post on Athanasius, I introduced the author a bit and began to talk about his famous work The Life of Anthony.  In today’s post I’ll finish my comments on this text.  (If you’re ahead, go ahead and start on Athanasius’s On the Incarnation — you can find an online translation at this link.

There are many important themes that come up in this text; if you have access to the translation of the Life of Anthony in the Classics of Western Spirituality series, then you can read the excellent introduction there, written by Robert C. Gregg.  If not, then I’ll offer some hopefully thought-provoking observations on the text.

Depicting Anthony

For quite a long time, people read this text in a generally straightforward way — that is, assuming that Athanasius is simply reporting the truth.  Now, with our modern sensibilities regarding literary criticism, we are aware that Athanasius is clearly crafting a portrait of Anthony for some kind of intentional ends.  Obviously, that does call some things into question — what parts can we actually assume are true? — but it also helps us see a little more about Athanasius and Anthony.

Two of the most intriguing aspects of Athanasius’s depiction are his portraits of Anthony as a wise man (not book-learnin’) and as a paragon of orthodoxy.  The former can be seen in places like sections 72-80, where Anthony outwits two “Greek philosophers” who came to test him.  (One is reminded here of the Gospel stories of Jewish leaders coming to put Jesus to a test.)  Athanasius clearly wants us to remember the early Christian leaders, who in places like Acts 4 are described as idiotes (or “uneducated”) people; the point is not to glorify them but rather the God who enables them to speak with such eloquence, just like Anthony does here.  The section closes with the philosophers “marveling at him” (like the leaders in Acts 4) and “acknowledging that they had benefited from him.”

The latter — that Anthony is depicted as unimpeachably orthodox — is a theme that Gregg describes well in his introduction.  You can see it clearly in places like sections 68 and 69, where Anthony as having nothing to do with one group who just happen to be Athanasius’s own theological opponents (the Arians), one group who were a historical problem in Egypt (the Meletians), and those general fourth-century bogeymen, the Manichaeans, urging them all to “change to right belief.”  Athanasius depicts him as welcoming guests (as is typical for him), but once he discerns that they are heretics, he runs them off, “for he held and taught that friendship and association with them led to injury and destruction of the soul.”  Of course, it is possible that Anthony would actually have rejected folks like this in exactly this way, but we can’t know that for sure.  What we can know is that Athanasius, the embattled church politician, is clearly trying to demonstrate that Anthony, the great holy man of Egypt, would have been on his side in the conflicts of the fourth century — not unlike politicians today seeking endorsements from famous pastors.

Classic Monastic Themes

It is not surprising that we also find some standard themes in Athanasius’s depiction of Anthony.  For example, his attitude toward personal property is one that is mirrored throughout the history of Christian monasticism; for centuries monks will struggle will the human tendency toward acquisitiveness.  But Anthony, in section 17 — and Athanasius, through the mouth of the blessed ascetic — says to us,

“Let none among us have even the yearning to possess.  For what benefit is there in possessing these things that we do not take with us?  Why not rather own those things that we are able to take away with us [that is, after death] — such things as prudence, justice, temperance, courage, understanding, love, concern for the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from anger, hospitality?  If we possess these, we shall discover them running before, preparing hospitality for us there in the land of the meek.

Second, we see the way that one person’s holiness attracts others to follow.  This aspect of Christianity is first visible in Paul’s writings, where we see him writing to the Philippians, holding up characters like Timothy and Epaphroditus as examples of self-giving love, or even himself as one who is pursuing Christ relentlessly.  In our text, Athanasius describes individuals wanting to imitate Anthony’s asceticism (sec. 14), and it actually becomes difficult for Anthony, since he really wants to pursue God in solitude.  In a later episode (sec. 46), Anthony goes to Alexandria to support those imprisoned in the persecution under Maximin — perhaps even to receive martyrdom himself — but he was spared.  Athanasius interprets this event as from the Lord, who was “protecting him to benefit us and others, so that he might be a teacher to many in the discipline that he had learned from the Scriptures.  For simply by seeing his conduct, many aspired to become imitators of his way of life.”


Third, Athanasius occasionally describes Anthony as an “athlete” — a descriptor that becomes classic in Christian literature about individuals pursuing ascetic lives.  The idea seems to come from 1 Corinthians 9, where Paul describes the spiritual life using an athletic analogy.  But it seems that Christians noticed the parallels between athletic training and Christian asceticism — denying oneself, having a special diet, etc. — and they began to talk about the monks as “spiritual athletes” or “athletes for God” (see section 12 for an example in the Life of Anthony).  Of course, you can probably anticipate the dangers — did that mean that the monks were sometimes excessively idolized, like modern athletes?  (Yes.)  Did that mean that sometimes people thought the monks were the real spiritual superstars, so that the “common people” weren’t that good spiritually?  (Yes.)  Did that cause problems for the church?  (Yes.)

Do Demons Have Bodies?

The last item I want to touch on — and just briefly — is an interesting feature of the text: Athanasius’ extensive reflections on the nature of demons.  Presumably, this topic comes up because of Anthony’s repeated encounters with them, but it also true that the third and fourth centuries witnessed quite a bit of discussion among Christian theologians about the nature of demons, especially their bodies.  (If you’re interested, you might check out this little monograph from my colleague Everett Ferguson.)

Athanasius’s comments on demons are focused in the middle of the text, starting in section 21.  In section 22 he reflects the traditional Christian mythology that demons are essentially fallen angels, and he says that their desire is to interfere with Christians, lest we ascend to the heaven from which they fell.  At the same time, in section 23, he says that “they are nothing” and need not be feared (perhaps echoing Old Testament ideas about idols, as in Isaiah 44).  But, as he goes on to say, they are treacherous and can take on many alluring forms to pull us away from God.  In section 31, he says that they even “pretend to prophesy,” but that this is actually because their bodies are “thinner” and thus allow them to move faster than we do; as a result, they can “prophesy” that someone is coming to see Anthony, when really they just saw him/her coming up the road and sped to the hermit’s cell to inform him.  Ultimately, Athanasius encourages his readers to “fearlessness against them,” because really they are “cowardly, always expectant of the fire that has been prepared for them” (secs. 42-43).

That’s it for Anthony, friends!  Feel free to comment below, and I’ll be back next week with the first of two posts on Athanasius’s classic On the Incarnation.

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