This Essay copyright of Seumas Macdonald, 2004. May be reproduced freely if this Copyright notice is included



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Q. Describe and assess the importance of Antony (c251-356) to monastic history.


Antony has long been hailed as the first monk, a pioneer of monastic life. Such a view has been founded in the wide success the Vita Antonii enjoyed in the ancient world. However it belies a murkier reality. The Vita is the product of Athanasius, who wrote with his own purposes. There are other sources which shed independent light on the figure of Antony. Also, there remains evidence for both predecessors and traditions independent of the Egyptian. Yet Antony, for a variety of reasons, commands a central place in the history of early monasticism.

One of the questions to be considered is the relationship of asceticism to monasticism. There is certainly an overlap in terminology. By ‘asceticism’, I will refer to practices and methods of self-regulation for self-perfection. ‘Monasticism’ refers to the organised pursuit of an ascetic life, primarily within anchoritic and coenobitic forms, characterised by solitude or isolation1.

Perhaps the chief problem when considering the impact of the figure of Antony on monastic history is the relationship between historical Antony and the record of Antony in literary sources. It seems almost impossible to divorce the two, or to reconstruct an historical Antony. The scope of this paper hopes to achieve a number of things, to consider the sources concerning Antony himself, their inter-relation and impact; to form some hypothesis about the impact of historical Antony, and Antony as mediated through literature, and to do something else as well.
It is useless to talk about Antony without considering how he is mediated to history. This is primarily through three document sources: the Vita Antonii, a biography generally regarded as being composed by Athanasius, and subsequently biased by Athanasius’ purposes; the Apophthegmata, collections of sayings of the desert fathers, some of which portray Antony or purport to record some of his teachings; and the letters of Antony, seven having a strong claim to legitimacy.
Antony: not the First
A common view of monastic history is one that sees Antony as both first and foremost, exemplar and establisher, or the tradition. Goehring describes such views as “prime examples of such oversimplified and erroneous conclusions [concerning monastic history]”2. In refutation of Antony-as-progenitor, two main lines of argument can be mustered. The first is the evidence for predeccesors of Antony in the ascetic endeavour. Geohring, in his article, presents evidence for the existence of “village ascetics”3, including indications with the Vita itself that Antony knew and interacted with ascetics existing prior to his own endeavours.

Karl Frank argues along similar lines, “the origins of christian monasticism lie is christian asceticism”.4 He pushes ascetic practice back further, finding roots in the gospel message, in the context of early 1st Century Greek and Jewish asceticism, and within a Christian tradition of village asceticism.5

This village asceticism was characterised particularly by withdrawal from normal social interactions, but not geo-physical isolation. Often it would revolve around a family unit. Such ascetic practice, it seems, was widespread before Antony’s time.

Within the Vita itself, mention is made of Antony placing his sister with “known and trusted virgins” and of apprenticing himself to an old man who appears to have been a village ascetic of some kind.6

Even contemporaries of Antony seem to have begun their ascetic life quite independently of him, for example Macarius the Egyptian (later a disciple of Antony) in the 330s, and Pachomius in the 310s. 7
The second line of argument reflects the independent origins of non-Egyptian asceticism. Syrian asceticism develops out of a similar context of both village asceticism and competition with non-Christian ascetic practices. Frank argues that asceticism was a drawcard for attracting adherents, and in Syria Christianity had to compete with the extreme asceticism of the Manichees, thus leading to extreme forms of asceticism. 8 9

Similarly, some form of village asceticism appears to have existed throughout the empire, evidenced by the references to the avpoktiktoi. If the appearance of the Vita does anything, it is the beginning of a Macdonaldisation of ascetic practice in its wake.


Sources about Antony
The three major sources on Antony are the Vita Antonii, the Apophthegmata Patrum, and the letters of Antony. Antony also appears in a number of other documents from the time period, until after the ‘ascendancy’ of the Vita, when these become derivative of that tradition.

The Vita, presumably10 was composed shortly after Antony’s death (ca. 356), by Athanasius. The portrayal of Antony is decidedly as a hero of orthodoxy and of the church, especially anti-Arian. There can be little doubt that Athanasian authorship involves bias and propaganda, but the question raised is one of whether this obscures the real Antony. An Antony-Athanasius connection is possible, and not inherently unlikely, and there is no need to discount out-of-hand Antony as anti-Arian.

It is beyond my skill and scope to properly analyse the Vita. However, studies done from the assumption of Athanasian authorship point to Athanasius taking Antony and shaping him as a figure for his own purposes. Not only an anti-Arian champion, but a model of asceticism. This is the Antony of the Vita: pursuing solitude, fleeing the world, battling demons, and dispensing wisdom. He exerts a powerful influence throughout the Christian world in the following century, but the historic Antony is inextricably bound into his literary counterpart. The innovation of Antony is in his location. He is the first, or at least the first named, to apply avnacwresij, withdrawal, as withdrawal into the desert.
The Apophthegmata Patrum present at least as much of a problem as a historical source as the Vita. The collected sayings of desert fathers, ascetics and monks, the historical authenticity of any particular saying or pericope is a question in itself, compounded by the way the collections have been collated and then ‘polished’ in its transmission. The textual history of the various collections is complex11. The nature of the Apophthegmata is that it is a collection of sayings that gravitate towards a norm. an ideal of later monasticism. So, the Antony that emerges from it is the model ascetic, an idealised monk presented for emulation and for instruction. Rubenson concludes12 that from the 119 sayings Antony appears often, if not predominantly, as a figure being sought out for approval of monatic and ascetic practices or otherwise affirming them. This reinforces the view of Antony as being influential – regardless of the actual impact of his teaching, his position with monastic tradition meant that any monastic practice was eager to be associated with his name. This very likely stems from an Antony with real influence and fame in his own time.
The Epistulae Antonii offer the hope of the most true-to-life representation of Antony, since they purport to be authored by Antony himself. The most exhaustive study of this source is Rubenson’s.13 His work concludes strongly for the letters as being the most reliable source of information concerning Antony’s teaching. The letters themselves lack more than scant biographical data; their content revolves around instruction in ascetic life, with an emphasis on gnosis, although Antony’s teaching beholds more to Origen than gnosticism. The Antony that emerges from the letters is certainly not the unlettered monk that monastic tradition has carried forward, but a sophisticated philosopher and ascetic theologian.

Interestingly, Epistula IV contains a strong anti-Arian passage, hinting that not all the glossing presumed in the Vita is necessarily Athanasian invention.14

The influence of the Epistulae is not ascertainable from the documents themselves. At best, the contents might be traced in later thought (for example the use made of Origenist thought by Evagrius of Pontus, and Antony’s own links to Origenist monks and theologians within Egypt).15
The Antonine Legacy
The Legacy of Antony stems in two divergent streams. The first of these is the influence of Antony via the Vita. The second is the impact of Antony during his life, as seen in references to him from sources independent of the Vita tradition.
The early translation of the Vita into Latin, in two translations, within years of its appearance, testifies to its importance in the Western Empire. By 380 Gregory of Nazianzus is preaching on Antony, and perceptively observes that Athanasius ‘composed a rule for the monastic life in the form of a narrative’.16 Jerome, by 392 in his De uiribus illustribus, is referencing Antony, and his keen imitation of the Vita in his own Vita Pauli and a subsequent flood of hagiography with propagandist purpose, further attests the impact of the Vita.

Perhaps the best example of the influence of the Vita can be seen in the reference Augustine makes to it in Confessions VIII.vi.14-15 and VIII.xii.29, in effecting his conversion and influencing his friends. Augustine himself follows, and exhorts, an ascetic and monastic approach to the Christian life. This is seen in his own development of ascetic practice and prescription of a monastic rule (the Ordo Monasterii and Praeceptum).


Rubenson examines references to Antony in other sources, and I draw upon his work at this point, as well as Harmless.17 The importance given to Antony in texts not dependent on the Vita demonstrate that Antony’s importance is not limited to the Vita’s success.

The Vita Pachomii, recording the approval of Antony given to the Pachomian form of monasticism, in dialogue with Pachomius’ disciples, shows that Antony as a figure held enough gravitas that his approval should be sought (or appropriated) to authentic a form of monasticism. Clearly then, early monasticism looked to Antony for some of its inspiration.

The evidence of the Historica Monachorum in Aegypto (Late 4th Century) and Historia Lausiaca (early 5th Century) is primarily valuable for the connections made between Antony and other early ‘greats’ of Egyptian monasticism. The links of discipleship made, for example to Macarius the Egyptian (‘the Great’), involve Antony as a teacher to the Egyptian tradition, and ultimately to the ascetic theologians Cassian and Evagrius18 19.
Conclusion
I confess that it is beyond my skill and resources as a historian to properly assess the importance of Antony to early monasticism. However, a survey of the critical literature and an acquaintance with the primary sources allows a number of preliminary conclusions. Antony was certainly not the first ascetic, emerging in a context where asceticism had been practiced both in pagan and Christian forms for several centuries. Furthermore, the existence of village-ascetics, who had withdrawn from normal social interactions yet not completely isolated themselves from church or world, provides a historical context to Antony. The evidence for this within the Vita surely undermines any suggestion that Antony is an originator of ascetic practice.

Antony does make a significant new contribution to ascetic practice, by withdrawing into the desert. For the first time, recorded if not actual, an ascetic isolates himself from church and world. This solitude forms the basis of monasticism, as a development from asceticism. It seems likely that Antony was only one of several beginning to practice this form of asceticism, but the sources point to Antony as gaining prestige and influence among ascetic circles. This is attested by the association of his name with monastic practices seeking orthodox approval.

As such, Antony can certainly be seen as the exemplar for monastic practice, and his anchorite ideal is held up even in cenobitic practice as something to be imitated.
The three main sources on Antony offer access to his figure in various ways. The Epistulae hold the best hope of getting close to Antony himself and his teaching. The Vita presents an Antony mediated by Athanasius, idealised and propogated for doctrinal and ecclessio-political purposes. However, the Vita exercises an influence on monastic history far beyond Antony would have exerted without it, but also in directions he would not necessarily be a party to. The relationship of the Antony of history to the Antony of the Vita is an open question.20 The Apophthegmata suffer from a number of problems in terms of historical reliability, but the Antony proffered within them preserves the sense of his importance and authority for the emergent monastic tradition.

In the final analysis, Antony’s legacy diverges in two differing streams. On the one hand, the Vita, especially in its Latin incarnation, exerts a powerful rhetorical effect on Christianity, inspiring Christians everywhere to practice asceticism, and giving rise to a ‘flight to the desert’, both in search of devout monasticism, and as religious tourism. On the other, the teaching of Antony, through his letters and to his disciples at the Outer Mountain, shaped an ascetic theology that influenced such theologians as Cassian and Evagrius, themselves influential for the development of monastic thought and practice in the centuries to come.

Antony may not be the figure he has often been portrayed as, but behind the shadows of history stands a man who vigourously pursued an ascetic Christianity, and through text and person left a definitive impact on the shape of monasticism even to the present day.


Primary Sources Consulted and/or Cited

Gregory of Nazianzus Oratio 21 in Patrologia Graeca


Epistulae Antonii in Rubenson The letters of St. Antony : monasticism and the making of a saint.(Minneapolis, MN : Fortress Press, 1995)
TheDesert Fathers: sayings of the early christian monks trans. by Benedicta Ward (London: Penguin Books, 2003)
Vita Antonii in Athanasius The life of Antony, and The letter to Marcellinus trans. by Robert C. Gregg


Works Cited

Frank, Karl Suso With greater liberty : a short history of Christian monasticism and religious orders trans. Joseph T Lienhard. (Kalamazoo, Mich. : Cistercian Publications, 1993)


Goehring, J. E. ‘The origins of monasticism’ in H.W. Attridge & G. Hata, eds., Eusebius, Christianity and Judaism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992), 235-55.
Harmless, William Desert Christians: an introduction to the literature of early monasticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Top of Form 1
Rubenson, Samuel The letters of St. Antony : monasticism and the making of a saint.(Minneapolis, MN : Fortress Press, 1995)
---- ‘Christian asceticism and the emergence of the monastic tradition’ in V. Wimbush, ed., Asceticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)


Works Consulted

Brakke, David Athanasius and the politics of asceticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.)


Chadwick, H. ‘Bishops and Monks’ Studia Patristica 24 (1993)
Rousseau, P. ‘Christian asceticism and the early monks’ in I. Halett, Early Christianity (London: SPCK, 1991)
Van Loveren, A. ‘Once again: “the monk and the martyr”: St Anthony and St. Macrina’ Studia Patristica 17 (1979)



Primary Sources Consulted and/or Cited

Gregory of Nazianzus Oratio 21 in Patrologia Graeca


Epistulae Antonii in Rubenson The letters of St. Antony : monasticism and the making of a saint.(Minneapolis, MN : Fortress Press, 1995)
TheDesert Fathers: sayings of the early christian monks trans. by Benedicta Ward (London: Penguin Books, 2003)
Vita Antonii in Athanasius The life of Antony, and The letter to Marcellinus trans. by Robert C. Gregg


Works Cited

Frank, Karl Suso With greater liberty : a short history of Christian monasticism and religious orders trans. Joseph T Lienhard. (Kalamazoo, Mich. : Cistercian Publications, 1993)


Goehring, J. E. ‘The origins of monasticism’ in H.W. Attridge & G. Hata, eds., Eusebius, Christianity and Judaism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992), 235-55.
Harmless, William Desert Christians: an introduction to the literature of early monasticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Top of Form 1
Rubenson, Samuel The letters of St. Antony : monasticism and the making of a saint.(Minneapolis, MN : Fortress Press, 1995)
---- ‘Christian asceticism and the emergence of the monastic tradition’ in V. Wimbush, ed., Asceticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)


Works Consulted

Brakke, David Athanasius and the politics of asceticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.)


Chadwick, H. ‘Bishops and Monks’ Studia Patristica 24 (1993)
Rousseau, P. ‘Christian asceticism and the early monks’ in I. Halett, Early Christianity (London: SPCK, 1991)
Van Loveren, A. ‘Once again: “the monk and the martyr”: St Anthony and St. Macrina’ Studia Patristica 17 (1979)


1 Cf. Rubenson, S. ‘Christian asceticism and the emergence of the monastic tradition’ in V. Wimbush, ed., Asceticism (New york: Oxford University Press, 1995) p50.


2 Goehring, James E. ‘The Origins of Monasticism’ in H.W. Attridge & G. Hata, eds., Eusebius, Christianity and Judaism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992), p235.

3 Ibid., p240f.

4 Frank, Karl Suso With greater liberty : a short history of Christian monasticism and religious orders trans. Joseph T Lienhard. (Kalamazoo, Mich. : Cistercian Publications, 1993) p16

5 Ibid. p15-32.

6 Vita Antonii 3

7 Harmless, W. Desert Christians: an introduction to the literature of early monasticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) p419.

8 Ibid., p23-4 and p47-8.

9 One of our prime sources for information on Syrian Asceticism is Theodoret of Cyrrus’s Historia Ecckesiastica

10 I follow the weight of scholarly opinion on this matter, though am aware that it is contested.

11 Rubenson, Samuel The letters of St. Antony : monasticism and the making of a saint.(Minneapolis, MN : Fortress Press, 1995). p144-152

12 Ibid. p157.

13 Ibid.

14 Epistula IV, 17. trans. by Rubenson, op cit. p211

15 vide Rubenson, op cit. p189, 163-184.

16 Oratio 21.5 (SC 290.118) quoted from Harmless, op cit. p69

17 Ibid. p163-184. Harmless, op cit.

18 Note especially the links between Antony, his disciples, and the Origenist party in Egypt and Alexandria.

19 vide Stewart, Columba ‘Anthony of the Desert’ in The Early Christian World Vol II. ed. Philip F. Esler. Routledge: London p1100.

20 And may prove as fruitless as the Quest for the Historical Jesus.








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