David Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (1995)
Thesis: “Athanasius’ embrace of ascetic Christians and their values strengthened his political position and helped him to build an Egyptian Church more dependent on the Alexandrian episcopate. . . . My goal . . . is to provide this oft-repeated picture of Athanasius and asceticism with a stronger historical foundation and a more precise understanding of how asceticism advanced Athanasius’ political programme” (13-14).
Ch. 1: “Chapter 1 studies Athanasius’ efforts to control the life of virgins [= female ascetics] in the city of Alexandria” (11) in order to isolate them from city life, and thus prevent them from associating with the Arians.[i] In fourth-century Alexandria, groups of Christian intellectuals attracted female ascetics, who, by eschewing sex (and, thus, marriage) had the leisure to study philosophy. Athanasius found this practice distasteful. He emphasized the female ascetics’ title of “brides of Christ,” arguing that, just like normal wives, they should remain cloistered in their homes, attending on their bridegroom (i.e., Christ) through prayer. Athanasius’ arguments about virgins fit in with his larger political program: he was attempting to refute the position of Hieracas, who said that marriage belonged to the era before Christ and that only sexual renunciants could truly be Christians. Athanasius, on the other hand, affirmed that both virgins and married people could be Christians. Likewise, Christian academies (the locus of Arian Christianity) had many women ascetics for members; in attempting to sequester virgins, Athanasius was trying to deprive the Arians of a large part of their support base while increasing the size of his own.
Ch. 2: “Chapter 2 turns to Athanasius’ dealings with the desert monks, the semi-eremitical monks of the Nitrian desert and the coenobitic monks of the Thebaid, and describes a strategy not of isolation, but of inclusion” (11-12), to win them over to his cause. In dealing with the Nitrian monks, Athanasius developed his idea that monastics and clergy should intersect—he argued that (the desert) monks should be subordinate to (the city-bound) clergy, and he appointed monks to clerical positions. He applied this framework in his dealings with the Pachomian monastic community: he brokered a truce between two Pachomian leaders, and he all but appointed a successor after another leader’s death. Finally, during his desert exile, he launched a literary campaign to rally the desert monks to his cause against the Arians—that is, arguing that they should stop being hospitable to everyone, regardless of theological commitments (a hallmark of monastic Christianity), and only recognize Athanasian Christians as real Christians. Broadly speaking, Athanasius believed that withdrawing into the desert (anachoresis) “did not sever [a monk’s] more basic tie to the wider Church” (139).
Ch. 3: “Chapter 3 outlines Athanasius’ spirituality and shows how it assimilates ascetic values into a vision that can also encompass ordinary Christians.” Where chapters 1 and 2 are social-historical in nature, this chapter is historical-theological.[ii] This chapter outlines how Athanasius de-emphasized philosophical meditation about God as a Christian spiritual practice, instead emphasizing (physical) asceticism. For Athanasius, asceticism was a virtue that all Christians—not just monks—should strive for. However, since Athanasius believed that the Church consisted of different kinds of people (e.g., monastics and non-monastics alike), this ascetic ideal found different practical outworkings; Athanasius believed all Christians could resist temptation and ward of the devil through prayers, vigils, renouncing some sex, food, and wealth, and studying the Scriptures—hallmarks of ascetic discipline. This limited ascetic program was an especially good fit for the wealthy Christians “whose allegiance to the Athanasian episcopate was the glue that held together the fragile earthly counterpart of the heavenly ‘single symphony in the faith’ that Athanasius so eloquently praised” (144).
Ch. 4: Deals with the Life of Antony, which “epitomizes Athanasius’ ascetic program in both its practical and theoretical aspects,” portraying Antony as “the perfect instance of human appropriation of the Word’s victory over sin and death,” as opposed to other fourth-century Egyptians, who cast Antony “as a spiritual patron, a teacher of wisdom, or a monastic party leader” (13). Athanasius claims to have met Antony several times; Brakke finds evidence that Athanasius’s claims to have been a student of Antony’s were exaggerated; Athanasius probably met Antony only once, and briefly, at that. Brakke then situates the Life of Antony within the broader fourth-century reception of Antony’s legacy, showing that Athanasius dramatically reworked the Antony tradition to paint a picture of his ideal monk (who was non-philosophical, anti-Arian, deeply ascetic, and loyal to the Athanasian episcopate), set up that ideal as a model to be imitated, and thereby consolidate support for his position over against those of his adversaries.
[i] Brakke uses Athanasius’ terminology of “virgin” to refer to “female ascetics,” though he acknowledges that it is unsatisfactory. I choose to refer to them, by and large, as “female ascetics” or “women ascetics.”
[ii] Richard Valantasis, review of Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism, Journal of Religion 77 (1997): 293.