1. Consider that Athanasius portrays Anthony as a lad who didn't want an education and so never went to school. He was an illiterate country boy who showed up the professors from Athens: "Which is better, the mind that creates book learning or the book learning that reflects the mind? Well, I have a mind and don't need book learning." Consider also that among the various forms that the demons take are those of troops of soldiers and tax collectors, and that Anthony would have ignored the greetings of the Emperor Constantine if he had been left to himself. Athanasius's Anthony is not simply rejecting the world of the flesh, but is also anti-intellectual and anti-governmental. Anthony is a basically a village hero.

2. What is the model upon which Anthony fashions his way of life? He claims that he is training, learning discipline, developing skills, hardening himself, learning to take punishment and ignore pain. What does this training lead to? Wrestling with demons, followers of Satan. These demons take the form of wild beasts, soldiers, giants, and so forth. The image seems to be that of a young man training to become a wrestler or boxer in the public games.

3. This imagery can be carried further. By this time, the great teams -- the Blues, Greens, Whites, and Reds into which sports in the Byzantine empire would be organized -- were already taking shape. Athanasius seems to portray the world as a sports match between the Blacks, owned and managed by Satan, and the Whites of God, managed in the person of Jesus Christ. The rules are that the Whites try to win their way through to God and the Blacks try to stop them.

4. This may be why the Eastern monks portrayed themselves as "Athletes of Christ" and often made public spectacles of the rigors of their "training."

5. Understand, of course, that this was not what they believed or actually practiced, but seems to have been one of the underlying images in Athanasius's mind when he was composing The Life of Saint Anthony.


1. The Rule of St. Benedict has a completely different feeling about it. There are no sense of excess here, no wrestling alone in the dark with shape-changing demons, no rejection of learning. Instead, the emphasis is upon balance, order, moderation, and collective action.

2. It is easy enough to see the model that Benedict had in mind. The monks live in a "fortified" camp under duly appointed officers, they wear a uniform drawn from a quartermaster, eat a set ration in a mess hall, and sleep in a barracks. Benedict refers to the congregation of monks as a "schola," a Latin work referring to an elite military unit, and the Western monks were often called "milites Christi," "Soldiers of Christ."

3. The monks may pursue individual prayer and meditation, but their function is to gather seven times daily to sing the "Holy Office," selected Psalms and prayers intended to praise God and plead for divine mercy, not for the individual monk, but, for the most part, for Christendom in general.

4. One could argue that The Rule of Saint Benedict is the most important single work in the shaping of Western society, embodying, as it did, the ideas of a written constitution, authority limited by law and under the law, the right of the ruled to review the legality of the actions of their rulers, a society without distinctions of birth, and one in which manual labor is regarded as a dignified occupation rather than one that demeans the laborer.


Lynn Harry Nelson
Professor Emeritus of
Medieval History
University of Kansas