Tag Archives: monasticism

Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (1995)

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.


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Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity” (1971)

Peter Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971), pp. 80-101.

This article is social functionalist examination of the role of the “holy man” (i.e., male ascetics; female ascetics were apparently excluded from the dominance of the ascetic) in Late Antiquity, arguing that the late antique holy man played the same social role as the patrons of classical antiquity—that is, the late antique holy man stood up for the rights of the oppressed, acted as mediator for village disputes, and interacted in the larger world on behalf of the village. It is worth noting, also, that Brown explicitly rejects the notion that the dominance of the holy man represents a decline from the ideals of Greek civilization (as argued by, e.g., Gibbon). Instead, he seeks to paint an empathetic portrait of holy man in his social environment.

Brown begins his article by tracing the rise of the ideal late antique holy man, who lived in and acted at the margins of society. He notes that, even though wilderness asceticism developed in Egypt, the environment shaped the Egyptian ascetics’ practices—because the Egyptian desert is so harsh and inhospitable, desert monks had to adopt civilized practices (like earning a living by manual labor in order to be able to afford food, or living together in order to share water); therefore, even though Egyptian wilderness ascetics lived on the margin of society, they could not afford—literally—to act at the margin of society.

Syrian holy men, on the other hand, had sources of food, water, and shelter readily available in the wilderness, so they did not need to cling to civilized practices in order to survive; therefore, they were completely marginal figures, living and acting outside the bounds of society—a status that gave them great authority within the social structure. Moreover, the social conditions in late antique Syria enabled the Syrian holy men to gain fame quickly—a large portion of the Syrian population were unemployed itinerant agricultural workers, so large numbers of them were able to flock to the holy man and live with him. For these unemployed workers, the holy man was a patron figure—he possessed δύναμις (on account of his special relationship with God), and he used that δύναμις “to smooth over the thorny issues of village life” (85), like distributing water among the villagers, cancelling debts, and settling disputes between villagers. Moreover, the miracle stories told about holy men often reflect the holy man using his δύναμις in order to keep a village society running smoothly.

In the second part of the paper, Brown examines the roles that the holy man played in the wider Byzantine world, outside the confines of the Syrian village. In Byzantine society, the holy man was an outsider—a stranger—largely because of his ascetic practices, through which he resisted being classified in the society’s terms. These ascetic practices resulted in παρρησία (intimacy [with God]), which gave them an intrinsic authority, not deriving from anywhere in the social structure. The late antique holy man was thus a liminal figure, who, because he operated outside the social structure, was able to enact change; for instance, by resolving disputes between the society’s insiders, be they villagers or patricians. Even into the Middle Ages, the holy men retained their liminal power, which was encapsulated in their relics and icons, and which had the power, for instance, to heal and kill people.

Therefore, holy men filled four specific roles in Byzantine society. First, they mediated between the people and God, who, like the emperor, “was at one and the same time remote and unflinching, and yet, ideally, the ever-loving Father of his people” (97). Second, they made a full-time profession of contrition for sin, whereas a normal Byzantine person only occasionally expected to feel contrite for their sins. Third, therefore, they allayed people’s anxieties, allowing people to manage their guilt through acts of penance. And thus, fourth, they were important decision-makers within society, settling questions of ethics, morals, medicine, and science.


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