Revista Studii Teologice


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Între deșert și agora. Sf. Antonie cel Mare și remodelarea filozofiei antice grecești

Between desert and agora. St Anthony the Great and the revisiting of ancient Greek philosophy

Autor(i): Daniel LEMENI

The Life of Saint Anthony exemplifies several hallmarks of Saint Athanasius’ episcopate. The best-known one is the fight of the Alexandrian bishop against the Arian heresy. It has been often stated that Saint Athanasius wrote the Life of Saint Anthony in order to counter Arianism, a heresy that had become widespread in 4th-century Egypt. As a monk, Abba Anthony best epitomizes human deification, which makes the Egyptian hermit a personification of the dogmatic tenets of Nicea. By presenting the ideal figure of the saint, in the person of Abba Anthony, St Athanasius was actually attempting to gain the support of monastic circles in his fight against Arianism. Abba Anthony is a living testimony to Nicene Orthodoxy and implicitly a promoter of the theological agenda which St Athanasius endeavored to impose in his eparchy. Also, the Church writer explicitly expressed his intention to enrol the ascetic movement in the service of his institutional policy, a policy whose major aim was to achieve the administrative unity of the Egyptian Church. The ascetic movement was, therefore, engaged in promoting the theological and political goals pursued by St Athanasius the Great, which made Abba Anthony into an expounder of the ecclesias-tical policy carried out by the Alexandrian bishop within his eparchy. Abba Anthony was placed in the service of the Church, while Egyptian monasticism was “affiliated” to the ecclesiastical agenda of St Athanasius. His political and theological vision de-eply pervaded his writing, so it would be naive to read it as a mere historical account. In other words, the Life of Saint Anthony offers a “transfigured, rather than distor-ted” (S. Rubenson) view on Abba Anthony’s biography, a view informed by the politi-cal and theological agenda of St Athanasius.
Thus we may assume that the Alexandrian bishop was not interested only in a Christian audience. As bishop of an eparchy populated of Christians as well as pa-gans, we believe that St Athanasius also targeted a pagan audience, preponderantly including the intellectual and philosophical elite of the times. This assumption is sup-ported by the final paragraph in the Life of Saint Anthony: “Read these words, the-refore, to the rest of the brethren that they may learn what the life of monks ought to be... And if need be, read this among the heathen, that even in this way they may learn that the Christians who truly serve Jesus Christ and religiously believe in Him, prove that the demons, whom the Greeks themselves think to be gods, are no gods” (Life of Saint Anthony XCIII). This exhortation to address the pagans (especially the pagan intellectual elite), expresses, in our opinion, the complex approach of the Ale-xandrian bishop in the Life of Saint Anthony. Regrettably, with a few notable excep-tions (Samuel Rubenson, Arthur Urbano, Philip Rousseau or David Brakke), the relationship between Saint Anthony and ancient philosophy has been insufficiently explored by exegetes, while in Romania such research is virtually absent. The tenet we put forth in this paper is that Saint Athanasius, by constructing the image of abba Anthony, intended to “outshine” the function and role of the spiritual master of ancient philosophy. In other words, through the figure of Abba Anthony, the Alexan-drian bishop caused an irreversible decline of the figure of the spiritual master, as shaped by the Greek-Roman Antiquity.
As we know, Saint Athanasius openly showed his hostility to the ancient Gre-ek paideia, as he doubted the benefits which Greed education could possible have for Christians. This is why, in his apologetic writings, mainly Against the Arians and On the Incarnation, he put forth a Christian philosophy envisaged as an alternative to the ancient Greek culture. In these early works, Saint Athanasius carries out his anti-heathen polemics, which was part of a much wider controversy between the compe-ting schools of philosophy of Greek-Roman Antiquity, on the one hand, and Christia-nity on the other hand, a controversy centered on the contents of true philosophy. Saint Athanasius rejected the assertion that true wisdom could be found in the Gre-ek culture of the Antiquity. By so doing, the Alexandrian bishop questioned the pe-dagogic authority of ancient philosophers, precisely in order to encourage Christian asceticism and Nicene Orthodoxy. He reiterated this anti-pagan attitude in the Life of Saint Anthony, where Abba Anthony is described as the true philosopher. In other words, the task of the teacher, or spiritual master of ancient philosophy, was taken over in the 4th century by the Christian heremit, namely Abba Anthony. By rejecting the ancient Greek paradigm, Saint Athanasius endeavored to diminish its influence on the Christians, as well as the pagans living in his diocese. Of course, this was not Saint Athanasius’ only purpose in writing the Life of Saint Anthony, but our point is that this hagiographic writing was part of a much ampler strategy, by which the Ale-xandrian bishop opposed the pagan culture of the Antiquity.
From the very beginning of his work dedicated to the Egyptian hermit, he sta-ted that the Greek paideia had played no role in the education of young Anthony. Paraphrasing Arthur Urbano, we might say that instead of reading Homer, young Anthony preferred to read the Holy Scripture. Moreover, this polemic culminates in the three successive encounters between Abba Anthony and the pagan philosophers. During the three meetings, Abba Anthony is constantly described as a simple, “une-ducated” hermit, deploring the “demonstration by arguments” employed by philo-sophers, and replacing it with the inworkings of faith. In this context, the Alexandrian bishop – through the words of Abba Anthony – harshly attacks ancient Greek philo-sophy. As we know, relying on revelation and faith is, to a philosopher’s mind, tanta-mount to accepting irrational principles, so from the standpoint of ancient philosophy Abba Anthony appeared as an “irrational”, “unreasonable” man. However, in his three encounters with the philosophers, Saint Athanasius casts Abba Anthony as the “uneducated” monk precisely in order to point out that he does not engage in a debate, but speaks plainly. Clearly, “the voice speaking behind the uneducated An-thony, is that of the learned Athanasius” (A. Urbano), who, on the one hand, harshly criticizes the cultural elevation of Antiquity pedagogy, and on the other hand, asserts the worth of the ascetic model epitomized by Abba Anthony.
Ultimately, this competition between ancient philosophers and Christian asce-tics ends with the definite victory of Saint Anthony, who tells his philosopher interlo-cutors: “So the inworking through faith is better and stronger than your professional arguments” (Life of Saint Anthony LXXVI) since “we Christians therefore hold the mystery not in the wisdom of Greek arguments, but in the power of faith richly sup-plied to us by God through Jesus Christ” (Life of Saint Anthony LXXVII). Based on the image of the saint, thus “constructed” in the Life of Saint Anthony, one may assert that the idea which St Athanasius intends to propagate within pagan intellec-tual milieus is obvious: from now on the Christian monk, epitomized by Abba Antho-ny, is the true philosopher, while Christian asceticism is the true philosophical life. In this case, the tenet put forth by R. Reitzenstein, who sees in the Life of Saint An-thony a Christian version of the Life of Pythagoras, cannot be defended convin-cingly. This is why we debunk this theory.
Contemporary scholars investigating early monasticism speak of the replace-ment of the pagan paradigm of wisdom, with a Christian paradigm of saintliness. The Life of Saint Anthony may be perceived as a programmatic text, by which the Ale-xandrian bishop endeavored to redefine and amend the classical paideia in order to gain access to a non-Christian audience, significantly marked by the mentality of pagan Atiquity. The figure of the pagan wise man is now presented in the guise of the saint, epitomized by Abba Anthony in the Egyptian desert. In other words, by reconfiguring the education paradigm shaped by the Antiquity, Saint Athanasius attempted to convince the pagan philosophical milieus – adhering to Neoplatonism and Neopythagoreanism – that Christian saintliness can be an equally good alternati-ve to, or rather a better choice than, the wisdom of ancient philosophy. Abba Antho-ny gained through asceticism what the ancient philosophers had been unable to ac-quire through their notorious wisdom: the purity imparted by chastity. From then on, Christian ascetics, epitomized by Abba Anthony, constitute the new order of Christian philosophers.
Far from being a mere Christian version of the Life of Pythagoras, the her-mit’s biography written by St Athanasius can be seen as an apologetic treatise, aiming to subvert or at least diminish an illustrious philosophical tradition, namely the Neo-Pythagorean philosophy, then blooming. Moreover, the Life of Saint Anthony is ar-guably a text that promoted an integral ascetic model, that is, a model addressing a Christian audience, as well as a pagan intellectual elite. Starting from this antago-nism between the two competing models, opposing Christian asceticism (Saint Antho-ny) to pagan philosophy (Pythagoras), the conclusion we put forth in the present study is that Abba Anthony decisively contributed to subverting the model of pagan philosophy, in late Christian Antiquity. To sum up, Abba Anthony is a novel instantia-tion of the venerable figure of the spiritual master present in the tradition of ancient philosophy – a figure that perfects this role and takes it further.

Pagini: 63-82