Introduction to Vita S. Antoni
(Written Between 356 And 362)
The Life of St. Antony is included in the present collection partly on account of the important influence it has exercised upon the development of the ascetic life in the Church, partly and more especially on the ground of its strong claim to rank as a work of Athanasius. If that claim were undisputed, no apology would be needed for its presence in this volume. If on the other hand its spurious and unhistorical character had been finally demonstrated, its insertion would be open to just objections. As it is, the question being still in dispute, although the balance of qualified opinion is on the side of the Athanasian authorship, it is well that the reader should have the work before him and judge for himself. To assist his judgment, it will be attempted in the following paragraphs to state the main reasons on either side. In doing so, I can honestly disclaim any bias for or against the Vita, or monasticism. Monasticism, with all its good and evil, is a great outgrowth of human life and instinct, a great fact in the history of the Christian religion; and whether its origin is to be put fifty years earlier or later (for that is the net value of the question at issue) is a somewhat small point relatively to the great problems which it offers to the theologian, the historian, and the moralist. But the point is at any rate worthy of careful and dispassionate examination. In attempting this, while holding no brief for either side, I may as well at once state my opinion on the evidence, namely that, genuine as are many of the difficulties which surround the question, the external evidence for the Vita is too strong to allow us to set it aside as spurious, and that in view of that evidence the attempts to give a positive account of the book as a spurious composition have failed.
1. Bibliography. a. Sources. The only reference to Antony in other writings of Athanasius is in Hist. Ar. 14. See also Fest. Index x. Vita Pachomii in Act. SS. Mai., Tom. iii. Appx. (written late in the fourth century, but by a person who had known Pachomius). Coptic fragments and documents (for early history of Egyptian monasticism with occasional details about Antony) in Zoega, Catalogus codd. Copticorum, (Rome, 1810), Mingarelli, Codd. copticorum reliquioe, (Bologna, 1785), Revillout, Rapport sur une mission, etc. (in Archives des Missions scientifiques a littéraires, 3me, série, 1879, vol. 4), Amiélineau, Hist. de S. Pakhôme, &c. (Annales du Musée Guimet, vol. xvii. Paris, 1889).
b. Modern discussions. Since the Reformation the general tendency of protestant writers has been to discredit, of Roman Catholics to maintain the authority of the Vita. To the former class belong the Magdeburg Centuriators, Rivet, Basnage, Casimir Oudin; to the latter, Bellarmin, Noel Alexandre, and above all Montfaucon in the Benedictine edition of Athanasius (especially in the Vita Athanasii, Animadversio II. in Vitam et Scripta S.A., and the Monitum in Antonii Vitam, which latter may still claim the first rank in critical discussions of the problem). We may add, as more or less unbiassed defenders of the Vita, Cave (Hist. Lit. i. 193), and Tillemont (Mem. vol. vii.). All the above belong to the period before 1750. In more recent times the attack has been led by Weingarten (Ursprung des Mönchtums in nachkonst. zeitalter, reprinted in 1877 from Zeitschrift für K.G. 1876, and in Herzog, vol. x. pp. 758 sqq.), followed by Gass (in Ztsch. K.G. II. 274), and Gwatkin (Studies, &c. pp. 98-103). Israel, in Zeitsch. Wiss. Theol. 1880, p. 130, &c., characterises Weingarten's attack on the Vita as `too bold.' Keim (Aus dem Urchr. 207 sqq.) and Hilgenfeld (in Zeitsch. f. Wiss. Theol. 1878) put the book in the lifetime of Ath. without absolutely pronouncing for him as the author, while Hase (J. Prot. Th. 1880), Harnack (especially in Th. Ltz. xi. 391, see also `Das Möonchtum' u.s.w., Giessen, 1886), Möller, Lehrb. der K.G. i. 372, and Eichhorn (`Athanasii de vita ascetica testimania,' Halle, 1886, the most convincing discussion of recent date, and indispensable) decide without hesitation in its favour. The discussion of Bornemann (In investigando monachatus origine, quibus de causis ratio habenda sit Origenis, Leipzig, 1885) may also be mentioned as bearing on the general subject; also the articles `Monastery,' `Coenobium,' and `Hermits' in D.C.A. The article `Antony' in D.C.B. passes over the question without discussion, excepting the trite, but untenable, statement that the Vita `is probably in interpolated.' Farrar (Lives of the Fathers, and Contemp. Review, Nov. 1887) follows Gwatkin. Picturesque representations of Antony (from the Vita) in Kingsley's Hermits and Newman's Historical Sketches, vol. 2.
2. External Evidence as to Authorship and Date. This is given by Montfaucon in the Monitum and reproduced by Eichhorn, pp. 36 sqq.
i. The Version of Evagrius. Evagrius, presbyter (Eustathian) and subsequently (388) Bishop at Antioch (in Italy 364-373), translated the Vita Antonii into Latin. He prefaced with a short apology (see below, Vit. Ant. §1, note 1) for the freedom of his rendering, addressed `Innocentio carissimo filio.' Now this Innocent, the friend of Jerome and Evagrius, died in the summer of 374, almost exactly a year after the death of Athanasius (D.C.B. iii. 31, 251). Of this identification there is no reason to doubt; still less ground is there for the hesitation (Hist. Lit. I. 283, `non una est dubitandi ratio') of Cave and others as to the identity of the version, printed by Montfaucon and transmitted by very numerous mss. (`quae ingenti numero vidi,' Migne xxv. p. clviii.) with that actually made by Evagrius. Therefore, even if we make the two very improbable assumptions that the Dedication to Innocentius falls within a few weeks or days of his death (i.e. during the journey from Italy to Syria!), and that the Vita was translated by Evagrius almost immediately upon its composition, the composition of the Vita falls within a few months of the death of Athanasius. Its antiquity then `is fully conceded' even by Mr. Gwatkin (Studies, p. 103, who yet, p. 98, puts it down to `the generation after Athanasius!'). The translation of Evagrius also preserves what looks like the original heading It should be added that the Evagrian version (read in the light of its preface), entirely excludes the hypothesis that the Greek text of the Vita is interpolated. Evagrius avowedly abridges at times, while in some cases he embellishes (see §82, note 16).
ii. Jerome wrote his Vita Pauli in the Syrian desert, between 374 and 379. He mentions both the Vita and its Latin Version in the prologue: if he had seen the latter he can scarcely have been ignorant of its heading. The non-mention of Athanasius as the author is an argumentum ex silentio of the most precarious kind. Some fifteen years later (de Script Eccles. 87, 88, 125) he repeatedly mentions Athanasius as the author, and specifies Evagrius as the translator.
iii. Ephrem the Syrian (Opp. ed. 1732-43, I. p. 249) quotes `Saint' Athanasius by name as the biographer of Antony. Ephrem died in 373. But little stress can be laid upon this testimony, in view of the lack of a critical sifting of the works which bear the name of this saint (so Tillemont viii. 229, and vii. 138). More important is
iv. Gregory Naz. Or. 21, `Athanasius compiled the biography of the divine Antony tou monadikou bio/ nomoqesian en plasmti dihghsewj' (cf. Vita, Prologue). This oration was delivered in 380, seven years after the death of Athanasius. Gregory, it is true, is not a good judge on a point of criticism. But he expresses the opinion of his time, and confirms and is confirmed by the evidence of Evagrius and Jerome.
v. Rufinus, Hist. Eccl. I. viii. He would give an account of Antony, but `ille libellus exclusit qui ab Athanasio scriptus etiam Latino Sermone editus est.' This was written 400 a.d.: if in a later work (Hist. Mon. 30, and see also 29) he happens to allude to the Vita without mentioning its author, we are not entitled to say that to Rufinus `the work is anonymous' (Gwatkin, p. 103).
vi. The Life of Pachomius, which (as above mentioned) has details of Antony's life independent of the Vita, also mentions the latter (c. 1) as the work of Athanasius. Though written perhaps as late as 390, this document is of great weight as evidence in the case (see Krüger in Theol. Ltzg. 1890, p. 620).
vii. Paulinus in his prologue to the Life of Ambrose (after 400) refers to the Vita as written by Athanasius.
viii. Fifth-century historians, Palladius, Hist. Laus. 8, Socrates (H. E., i. 21) Sozomenus (i. 13) attest the established tradition of their day at Athanasius was the author of the Life.
ix. (Conf. viii. 14, 15, 19, 29) and Chrysostom (Hom. 8 on S. Matthew) mention the Vita without giving the name of the author. But we are not entitled to cite them as witnesses to its (alleged) anonymity, which they neither affirm nor imply.
The above witnesses, all of whom excepting No. viii. come within 50 years of the death of Athanasius, are a formidable array. No other work of Athanasius can boast of such external evidence in its favour. And in the face of such evidence it is impossible to place the composition later than the lifetime of the great Bishop. We have therefore to ask whether the contents of the Vita are in irreconcileable conflict with the result of the external evidence: whether they point, not indeed to a later age, for the external evidence excludes this, but to an author who during the lifetime of Athanasius (i.e. not later than the year of his death) ventured to publish a hagiographic romance in his name (`Evagrian' heading, and §§71, 82).
3. Internal Evidence. It may be remarked in limine that for the existence of Antony there is not only the evidence of the Vita itself, but also that of many other fourth-century documents (see above 1. a. under `sources'). Weingarten quite admits this (R.E., X. 774, but he implies the contrary in his Zeil-tafeln, ed. 3, P. 228); and Mr. Gwatkin is certainly far ahead of his evidence when he pronounces (Arian Controversy, p. 48) that Antony `never existed.'
a. Origin and early history of Monasticism. According to the Vita, the desert was unknown to monaxoi (solitary ascetics) at the time (about 275? Vit. §3) when Antony first adopted the ascetic life. About the year 285 he began his twenty years' sojourn in the ruined fort. To the end of this sojourn belongs the first great wave of Monastic settlement in the desert. During the later part of the great persecution `monasteries' and monks begin to abound (§44, 46). The remainder of his long life (311-356) is passed mainly in his `inner mountain,' where he forms the head and centre of Egyptian monasticism. Now it is contended by Weingarten and his followers that the Vita is contradicted in this important particular by all the real evidence as to the origin of monasticism, which cannot be proved to have originated before the death of Constantine. But Eichhorn has I think conclusively shewn the hastiness of this assumption. Passing over the disputable evidence of the De Vita Contemplativa ascribed to Philo, (which Weingarten endeavours, against Lucius and others, to put back to a date much earlier than the third century and out of relation to Christian asceticism14 ), the writings of Athanasius himself are the sufficient refutation of the late date assigned to the rise of monachism.
In the writings of the supposed date (356-362) of the Vita, references to monks are very frequent (e.g. Apol. Fug. 4, Apol. Const. 29): but previous to this (339) we find them mentioned in Encyl. §3, and yet earlier, Apol. Ar. 67 (see below). In the letter to Dracontius (Letter 49 in this vol.), corporate monasticism is implied to be no novel institution. Dracontius himself (about 354) is president of a monastery, and many other similar communities are referred to. (Gwatkin deals with this letter in an unsatisfactory fashion, p. 102, see the letter itself, §§7, 9, and notes.) The letter to Amun, probably earlier than that just mentioned, is clearly (sub. fin.) addressed to the head of a monastic society. Again, the bishops Muis and Paulus of Letter 49, §7, who were monks before their consecration, had been in the monastery of Tabennae before the death of Pachomius, which occurred almost certainly in 346 (Eichhorn 12, 13. The whole history of Pachomius, who was only a year or two older than Athanasius, although personally but little known to him, his monastery being at Tabennae, an island near Philae, is in conflict with Weingarten's theory). Lastly15 one of the most characteristic and life-like of the documents relating to the case of Arsenius and the Council of Tyre, namely the letter of Pinnes to John Arcaph (Apol. Ar. 67) carries back the evidence earlier still. Pinnes is `presbyter of a monastery' (monh): that monh here means a society of monks, and not a posting station (Weing. in R. E.,X. p. 775) is clearfrom the mention of `Helias the monk,' and `I, Paphnutius, monk of the same monastery.' This letter proves that there were not only Catholic but Meletian monks, and these not hermits but in societies: and thus the origin of the solitary type of monasticism goes back as far as the Meletian schism. (The existence of Meletian monks is attested independently of this letter, see Eich. p. 347.) Weingarten is quite unable to deal with this obstacle to his theory. His argument is simply this: either the letter has nothing to do with monks and monasteries (he overlooks Paphnutius), or it must be rejected as spurious! What reductio ad absurdum could be more complete? In an equally desperate way he deals with the clear evidence of Aphraates, Hom. vi., as to the existence of (at any rate) solitary monasticism in Eastern Syria as early as 336.
See Texte und Untersuchungen iii. 3, pp. xvi. 89, &c. (Leipzig, 1888.)
b. Historical misstatements. i. It is better to include under this head rather than under the last the title ad peregrinos fratres. Who were the `foreign monks' (touj en th cenh monaxouj)? The introduction of monasticism into the West seems to belong to the time of S. Ambrose (Aug. Conf. viii. 6, cf. Sozom. III. 14, `the European nations [before 361] had no experience of monastic societies') or rather Martin of Tours (D.C.B. iii. p. 840). The statement (Encycl. Brit. `Monachism') that Athanasius carried the Vita Atonii to Rome in 340 is based on a misunderstanding of Jerome (Ep. 127), who really says no more than that the existence of monachism in Egypt first became known at Rome from the visits of Athanasius and of his successor Peter. If then the `peregrini fratres' are to be looked for in the West, we have a serious difficulty, and must choose between the Vita and Sozomen. But the foreign monks may have belonged to the East. (I cannot see that §93 `assumes,' as Mr. Gwatkin maintains, `the existence of numerous monks in the West.' What is said is simply that Antony had been heard of-hkousqh-in Spain, Gaul, and Africa.) However, the point must be left uncertain, and so far allowed to weigh against the Vita.
ii. Early intercourse of Athanasius with Antony (Prologue, and note 2). If the Benedictine text is correct, the reference must be to the period before Athanasius became deacon to Bishop Alexander, in fact to a period previous to 318 a.d. Tillemont (viii. 652), who maintains the other reading, mainly relies upon the impossibility of finding room for the intercourse in question in the early life of Athanasius. But his only source of knowledge of that period is Rufinus, a very poor authority, and Montfaucon replies with some force (Animadv. 11) that we have no sufficient information as to how Athanasius passed the years previous to his ordination by Alexander. He also suggests that Athanasius may have been one of those who followed Antony's example (§46, of. Apol. c. Ar. 6) after his first visit to Alexandria. I may add that the notes to the Vita will call attention to several points of contact between the teaching of Antony and the earliest treatises of Athanasius. Yet the impression left on the mind is here again one of uncertainty (cf. Prolegg. ch. ii. §1 fin.).
iii. The narrative about Duke Balacius (§86: see note there) is another genuine difficulty, only to be got over if we suppose either that Athanasius in one place tells the story inaccurately, and corrects himself in the other, or that the Hist. Arian. was partly written for Athanasius by a secretary.
iv. Supposed learning of Antony. His ignorance of letters and of the Greek language does not prevent his forcibly employing the most effective arguments against Arianism (69), vindicating the Incarnation (74) much in the manner of Athanasius, and above all showing a fair acquaintance (72-74) with Platonic philosophy (see notes there). But everything in the biography points to a man of robust mind, retentive memory (3) and frequent intercourse with visitors. If he were so, he can scarcely have been ignorant of the theological controversies of his day, or of the current philosophical ideas. Nor can I see that the philosophy of his argument against the Greeks goes beyond what that would imply. His allusion to Plato does not look like a first-hand citation. And even an Athanasius would not so entirely rise out of the biographical habits of his day as to mingle nothing of his own with the speeches of his hero (`Equidem quid Antonio quid Athanasio tribuendum sit uix diiudicari posse concedo,' Eich. p. 52).
c. Inconsistencies with Athanasius. It is the most serious objection to the Athanasian authorship of the Vita that Athanasius (with the exception of the `antilegomenon' Hist. Ar. 14) nowhere else mentions Antony by name. Especially in the letter to Dracontius, who at first refused the Episcopate in the supposed interests of his soul, we might, it is argued, have expected a reference to the deep reverence of Antony (§67) for even the lowest clergy (the persons enumerated, Letter 49, §7, are bishops who had previously been monks, and have nothing to do with this question). That is true. We might have expected it. But as a matter of fact Athanasius uses another argument instead (see Letter 49, §3, note 8a). It does not follow that he did not know of the Antony of the Vita. But although the letter in question has been pressed unduly, the general objection, as an argumentum ex silentio on a rather large scale, remains16 . Some more detailed points must now be considered.
a. Demons and Miracles The writings of Athanasius are singularly free from the tendency to indulge in the marvellous. The death of Arius he regards as a judgment, and relates it with a certain awe-struck sobriety. The fhmh of Julian's death in the Narrat. ad Ammon. comes less under the head of ecclesiastical miracle than under that of ta qeia twn prhgmatwn (Herod. ix.100, cf. Grote v. 260 sq.); whereas the Vita swarms with miraculous and demoniacal stories, some (passed over in silence by Newman and other apologists for the Life) indescribably silly (e.g.§§53, 63). Hence even Cave allows that the Vita contains things `tanto viro indigna.' But it must be observed (1) that Antony disclaims, and his biographer disclaims for him, inherent miraculous power. His miracles are wrought by Christ in answer to prayer, and he prefers that those who desire his help should obtain what they want by praying for themselves (cf. also §49). (2) That again and again (esp. §§16-43) he insists on the absolute subjection of all evil powers to God, and their powerlessness to injure believers in Christ. (3) That Athanasius recognises shmeia (in the sense of miracles, see Letter 49, §9, note 9) as a known phenomenon in the case both of bishops and of monks. (4) That his language about demons and the power of the sign of the Cross in dispersing them is quite of a piece with what is related in the Vita (see notes passim). (5) On the clairvoyance of Antony, and one or two kindred matters which offer points of contact with phenomena that have been recently the subject of careful research, notes will be found below giving modern references. On the whole, one could wish that Athanasius, who is in so many ways surprisingly in touch with the modern mind (supra, introd. to de Incar and Prolegg. ch. iv. §2 d and §3), had not written a biography revealing such large credulity. But we must measure this credulity of his not by the evidential methods of our own day, but by those of his own. If we compare the Vita, not with our modern biographies but with those, say, of Paul and Hilarion by Jerome, its superiority is striking (this is pointed out by W. Israel in Zeitschr für Wiss. Theol. 1878, pp. 130, 137, 145, 153). For myself I should certainly prefer to believe that Athanasius had not written many things in the Vita: but I would far rather he had written them all than the one passage Hist. Ar. §38 fin.
b. Theology. That there should be certain characteristic differences from the theology of Athanasius is what one would expect in an account of Antony that bore any relation to the historical person. Such is the anthropomorphic tendency, shewn especially in the corporeal nature ascribed to demons. Such perhaps is a tinge of naive semi-pelagianism about the Hermit's language (§20 and elsewhere); we cannot forget the connection of Cassian's Collations with Egyptian monasticism. Once again, `Antony's shame of the body is not in the spirit of the writer ad Amunem' (Gwatkin, Studies, p. 102). Lastly, in Antony's account of the heathen gods (§76) we miss the characteristic Euhemerism of Athanasius (see supra, pp. 10, 62, &c.). Throughout, in fact, the ruder monastic instinct crops up from under the Athanasian style and thought of the biographer. But the latter is also unmistakable (see the notes passim), and the differences have been certainly made too much of. I will give one example from Mr. Gwatkin, who says (ubi supra), `Athanasius does not speak of pronoia like the Vita (c. 49, 66, 74), for de Fuga 25 specially refers to his providential escape from Syrianus, and c. Gent. 47, pronoia twn pantwn is very incidental.' Now certainly the constant introduction of pronoia, which Mr. Gwatkin has understated, is a marked feature of the Vita. But I am not prepared to say that Athanasius could not speak in this way. The word is common, and even characteristic, in his writings. A few examples will support this statement; more will be referred to in the index to this volume.
De Incarn. 2.1. thn twn olwn pronoian kaq eautwn ouk einai muqologousin.
14. 6. tou dia thj idiaj pronoiaj ...didaskontoj peri tou patroj.
Epist. Aeg. 15. blepontej...panta tacei kai pronoia kinoumena.
Apol. Fug. 17. emele gar au0oij...mhte thn wrismenhn para thj P r o n o i a j krisin prolambanein (and so in §§9, 16, 22, 25 of this short tract).
Orat. iii. 37. o Pathr en tw Uiw twn pantwn thn pronoian poieitai.
If each one of these and numberless other references to Providence is `very incidental,' those in the Vita may surely claim the benefit (whatever that may be) of the same formula.
The above are the principal materials for a decision as to the genuineness of the Vita: and I do not see how they can justify any opinion but that stated at the outset. Against the Vita we have certain historical difficulties (intercourse with Athanasius, peregrini fratres, Balacius), and arguments ex silentio, a kind of evidence seldom conclusive. For it, we have a quite unusual array of external evidence, including an almost contemporary version, the absence of any room for its date at a safe distance from its traditional author, and the many points of contact, as well as the characteristic differences between the Vita and the writings of Athanasius. Moreover on the kindred question of the origin of monasticism, Weingarten's theory breaks down, and leads him to suicidal steps in more than one direction. Although, therefore, it is permissible to keep an open mind on the subject, we must recognise that the enterprise of the recent assailants of the Vita is at present at a dead halt, that overwhelming probability is against them.
But if Athanasius wrote the Vita, it does not follow that all its less edifying details are true, nor that its portraiture is free from subjectivity17 . At the same time, to the present writer at least, the lineaments of a genuine man, omoiopaqouj hmin, stand out from the story. Doubtless there is idealisation, panegyric, an absence of sinfulness (Gwatkin, Studies, p. 100). But the moderate value set on miracles (38, 56), the absence of the element of fear from his religion (42, &c.), his serene courtesy (73) and uniform cheerfulness (67, 70), the caution against being tempted to excess in ascetic exercises (25), the ready half-humorous good sense (73, 85) of the man, are human touches which belong to flesh and blood, not to hagiographic imagination. But here the question is one of individual taste. At any rate the Vita embodies the best spirit of early monasticism. It was the pure desire to serve God and fulfil the spirit of the Gospel that led Antony to part with all that might make the world precious to him, and to betake himself to his long voluntary martyrdom of solitude, privation, and prayer. We see nothing but tenderness and love of men in his character, nothing of the fierce bloodthirsty fanaticism which in persons like Senuti made fifth-century monasticism a reproach to the Christian name. Had Antony lived in our time, he might have felt that the solitary life was a renunciation of the highest vocation of which man is capable, the ministry to the material and spiritual needs of others. But it is not given to man to see all aspects of truth at once and to our bustling, comfort-loving age, even the life of Antony has its lesson.
The Vita has undoubtedly exercised a powerful and wide-spread influence. Upon it Jerome modelled his highly idealised tales of Paul and Hilarion; at Rome and all over the West it kindled the flame of monastic aspirations; it awoke in Augustine (Conf. Viii. ubi supra) the resolution to renounce the world and give himself wholly to God. The ingens numerus of Latin manuscripts, and the imitation of its details in countless monastic biographies, testify to its popularity in the middle ages. Like monasticism itself, its good influence was not without alloy; but on the whole we may claim for it that it tended to stimulate the nobler of the impulses which underlie the monastic life.
A few words may be added on the evidence of the Vita as to the form and motive of early monachism. In the Life of Antony, the stages are (1) ascetics living in the towns and villages, not withdrawn from society (§§3, 4); (2) solitary monasticism in the desert, away from human society; and, as the fame of Antony increases, (3) the formation (§44) of clusters of cells centering round some natural leader, the germ of the laura (such as the community of Tabennae under Pachomius). Of organised monastic communities the Vita tells us nothing. With regard to the motive of the earliest monasticism, this has been variously sought in (1) the development of the ascetic element present in Christianity from the very first; (2) in the influence of the Alexandrian School, especially Origen, who again is influenced by the spirit of revolt against the body and detachment from the world which characterised neo-Platonism (see Bornemann's work mentioned above); (3) in the persecutions, which drove Christians to the desert (Eus. H. E. vi. 42), which some adopted as their home; (4) to the (not necessarily conscious) imitation of analogous heathen institutions, especially the societies of agneuontej which were gathered round or in the temples of Serapis (Weingarten, R.E., X. 779-785. Revillout, p. 480 n, refers to Zoega, p. 542, for the fact that Pachomius himself was a monk of Serapis before his forced baptism by his Christian neighbours; and that after it he continued his ascetic life with no external difference. (5) To the desire to avoid civil obligations, already marked in the Rescript of Valens (Cod. Th. xii. 1. 63, quidam ignauiae sectatores desertis civitatum muneribus, &c.). Of the above motives the Vita gives no support to any but the first, which it directly confirms, and perhaps indirectly to the second. The date of the Vita depends mainly on the view to be taken of §82, where see note 16.