"The Oblique Ethics of the Letters of Antony" in L'identité à travers l'éthique Nouvelles perspectives sur la formation des identités collectives dans le monde greco-romain K. Berthelot, R. Naiweld, D. Stök

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"The Oblique Ethics of the Letters of Antony" in L'identité à travers l'éthique Nouvelles perspectives sur la formation des identités collectives dans le monde greco-romain K. Berthelot, R. Naiweld, D. Stökl Ben Ezra (eds.),

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  THE OBLIQUE ETHICS OF THE LETTERS OF ANTONY Blossom S TEFANIW  Johannes Gutenberg University 1 Ethics without Instructions The letters of Antony, composed roughly around 340, have been a sel-dom-used source on early Christian asceticism. They are increasingly rec-ognized as, however, a very valuable source for two reasons. Firstly, they constitute some of the earliest known Coptic literature, and, secondly, they  provide a view into a segment of Egyptian asceticism as yet unaffected by the new ascetic paradigm which would arise in connection with the popu-larity of the Vita Antonii  and the integration of asceticism into imperial church ideology. In other words, the letters provide the very view of early Egyptian asceticism which is so obscured by the redactional efforts evident in the  Apophthegmata Patrum , the political agenda of the  Historia Lausiaca   or the assimilative agenda of Athanasius. The letters provide an opportu-nity to observe a scheme of ethical formation which arose independently of later ascetic ideals of simplicity and anti-intellectualism. Antony’s teachings are focused on confrontation with and development of the mind, are highly intellectualist and introspective, and assume a good level of education in his readers. Rather than generalizing ascetic duties to all Christians, Antony is writing for ascetic specialists. The contours of his ethical teaching t his readers’ high degree of commitment.Although the letters of Antony are dedicated to the ethical formation of their readers, they do not include any clear ethical commands or prohibitions. The teaching that Antony gives is not aimed at the behavior of his readers and does not constitute instructions on correct comportment. Instead, Antony generates a thick and complex rhetorical fabric portraying the conditions for 1. Faculty of Protestant Theology, Mainz, Germany.   Blossom Stefaniw 170and the purpose of ethical progress, and giving indications of how to rec-ognize the fullled ethical life. Rather than forming his readers by means of direct instruction and exhortation, Antony uses metaphor, narrative, and intertextuality to create for his readers an identity of ethical privilege and excellence. This less direct and more textured approach to ethical formation uses a broad palette of metaphors based especially on sojourning, wounded-ness, solace and homecoming. A broad historicizing and eschatological nar-rative is also used both to argue for the urgency of the ethical life and to orient the readers within a narrative structure that gives that life special signicance. In addition, on the broadest level, ethical formation in the letters of Antony is cast within a transformed reception of strategies of self-presentation and a vocabulary of exhortation which uses intertexts from New Testament episto-lary literature. What are we to make of this manner of et hical teaching? In the fol-lowing discussion, the primary task will be to search for ways in which the means of ethical teaching manifest the particularities of the ethics of Antony and his circle. 2  The rhetorical media of ethical formation in the letters can be taken as indications of the nature of the larger religious project of which this course of ethical formation was a part, about how ethical development was to be achieved, and about who could be counted among those capable of eth-ical transformation. Firstly, the lack of concrete commands and prohibitions suggests that Antony’s concept of ethical formation is occurring on a level of religious excellence far beyond following basic moral rules. This ts well with the context of committed asceticism. 3  Antony’s program of ethical for-mation is focused on cultivating an identity of privilege, election, superior knowledge, and eschatological success in his readers. The repertoire of meta- 2. It is impossible to speak of the recipients of the letters in more precise terms. It is safe to say that the addressees were members of communities (since they are always addressed in the  plural) of ascetics who identify with Antony to some degree and value his teaching. In that sense, they can be referred to as his circle. It is not the case that a specic and sharply dif-ferentiated group, conceiving of themselves primarily as followers of Antony, can be postu-lated as the recipients of these letters. The letters are sent to various locations in the Fayyum, especially to Arsinoe and its environs, and are intended for circulation. Thus their readership is diffusely distributed among Egyptian ascetics. Further study will be needed in order to determine whether we can therefore take the ethics of Antony’s letters as typical or at least very widespread. (See S. R  UBENSON , The Letters of St. Antony: Origenist Theology, Monastic Tradition and the Making of a Saint  , Lund 1990, p. 46–7.3. Samuel Rubenson also points out that the readers of the letters are expected to be able to understand advanced philosophical and theological terminology, like the valorization of the nous  and the aim of cultivating the ousia noera . Terms of this kind are not introduced with a denition or explanation and can be taken as part of a common repertoire of concepts shared  by Antony and his readers. His readers are thus most probably part of an intellectualist tradi-tion of asceticism existing before or parallel to the popularity of the Vita Antonii  and the gen-eralization of asceticism in the later fourth century.  The Oblique Ethics of the Letters of Antony 171 phors and narratives being used as arguments indicate that Antony wants his readers to identify with gures like Abraham and Moses and model their own spiritual lives according to his descriptions of them. In addition, the idiosyn-crasies of Antony’s reception of New Testament hortatory rhetoric allow for the inference that the main priority of the letter is not mere imitation or repro-duction of Paul or the New Testament epistolary literature in general. Instead, the aim is to locate both Antony and his followers in an intertextual space which magnies the value and validity of their ethical odyssey and encour-ages participation in and commitment to a grand narrative.As a medium of ethical formation, letters are a familiar genre in late antiquity, for example in the protreptic letters of philosophical teachers like Iamblichus. 4  In the fourth century, we also see monastic teaching being car-ried out through letters by Ammonas (ca. 300–ca. 350) and later by Evagrius Ponticus (345–399). Such letters sometimes include incidental reactions to events or constitute a response to specic requests for favors, but their pri-mary purpose is to impart ethical instruction on a general level. That is, the author is not giving advice on a specic dilemma, but is acting to form the reader and facilitate his progress towards an ideal. Despite their tendency towards the general, protreptic epistles are a key resource in the history of ethical formation, especially because the very act of composing and receiving letters serves to consolidate teacher-disciple relationships and to arrange indi-viduals or communities in relation to an ethical expert. The attachment to such an expert which is manifest in the letters is as much an argument for the ethical commitment of the readers as their ascetic practices. 5 Due to their ethical import, it is tempting to locate the letters of Antony automatically amongst the paraenetic literature to which his age was heir. Antony’s reception of Paul would be a further argument in this direction, since the term paraenesis is most typically used in the New Testament and Pauline writings. However, the term paraenesis should not be used for any and every hortatory letter. If compared to the tradition of paraenesis, the letters of Antony are distinct precisely because of their disinterest in comportment and  behavior. There is, in the letters of Antony, nothing like a  Haustafel   or any command to do such things as give alms, respect one’s elders, protect orphans and widows, or refrain from associating with the licentious. In paraenetic lit-erature, such instructions are given in close conformity to traditional conven-tions deriving from Isocrates. Therefore the letters of Antony cannot properly 4. Cf. ed. J. M. D ILLON , W. P OLLEICHTNER  ,  Iamblichus of Chalcis: The Letters, Society of Biblical Literature, (Writings from the Greco-Roman World XIX), Leyde 2010.5. For more in-depth study of this relationship, see S. R  UBENSON , « Argument and Authority in Early Monastic Correspondence », in A. C AMPLANI , G. F ILORAMO  ( dir  .)    Foundations of Power and Conicts of Authority in Late-Antique Monasticism. Proceedings of the International Seminar Turin, 2004 , Louvain 2007, p. 75–88.   Blossom Stefaniw 172 be said to fall within this tradition. 6  The ethics of the letters of Antony is too closely imbricated with the cultivation of an exceptional identity to need to, or be able to, make use of a tradition of popular or general ethical instruction.The letters can more protably be located in a developing tradition of monastic literature. Taking the seven letters of Antony, fourteen letters of Ammonas and the two letters of Macarius known to be authentic, we have a corpus of twenty-three monastic letters from within Egypt composed between 340 and 380. 7  A great deal of further study is still needed on this literature, including fundamental philological work. However, some general characteris-tics of monastic epistolary literature in this early period have been identied. These include a strong emphasis on a close relationship between the author and addressees, especially using metaphors of fatherhood and expressions of care and affection as well as of intimate knowledge of and familiarity with the readers. Secondly, and closely related to this, a strong emotional color is characteristic of monastic letters, with expressions of anxiety or distress over the spiritual state of the readers or dangers which might assail them. Thirdly, monastic letters identify their readers as an elite or a group of the elect, using terms like heirs, Israel, children, those who have received the Spirit, etc. and distinguish them from another category of persons, whether other believers or other monks, who are described as lax or worldly. Fourthly, monastic letters  portray themselves as contiguous with scripture, especially through integra-tion with narratives from the Old Testament, identication with the gures of the patriarchs or prophets, and self-modelling according to Pauline epis-tles. Fifth and nally, monastic letters take an authoritative stance through a claim to know the order and functions of the spiritual life, setting out causal chains in ascetic practices and their results and the steps in spiritual progress, as well as promising that their teachings will allow the readers to attain an ultimate spiritual reward. All of these features can be found in the letters of Antony. It is possible that they are also found in the letters of Ammonas and Macarius because these two latter teachers stand in direct relationship to Antony and are reproducing what they have learned from Antony, but this 6. See J. S TARR   and T. E  NGBERG   P EDERSEN  (dir.),  Early Christian Paraenesis in Context  , Berlin 2004, p. 53, for a denition of  paraenesis  « Wherever we come across texts that reect this distinct type of practice [of giving injunctions to act in a certain way] […] and a spe-cic substantive content that articulates a traditional system of popular ethics – there we have  paraenesis  ». In the terms used in the ancient literature,  paraenesis  is also dened by Pseudo Libanius as follows « Now  paraenesis  is the advice we give to someone, moving him towards what to seek or what to abstain from.  Paraenesis  deals with two matters, what to adhere to and what to turn away from », (  Demetrii Et Libanii Qui Feruntur Τυποι ̓επιστολικοι  Et ̓ Επιστολιμαιοι Χαρακτηρες  , ed. V. W EICHERT , Leipzig 1910, p. 15ff).7. S. R  UBENSON , « Argument and Authority in Early Monastic Correspondence », p. 77–86. The  present paragraph largely summarizes Rubenson’s ndings in this study of monastic letters. The ve characteristics set out above are my adaptation of those identied by Rubenson.  The Oblique Ethics of the Letters of Antony 173does not contradict the view that these features are adapted to a particular reli-gious project of developing an exceptional identity.In the case of the letters of Antony, it is evident that the corpus continued to be valued long after Antony’s death. Seven letters, the case for whose authenticity is very strong, 8  have been passed down within multiple traditions including Coptic, Arabic, Syriac, Georgian, Latin and Greek. This makes the manuscript tradition highly complex and unwieldy. The letters will be read as a body in the following discussion, since there is marked continuity of inter-texts, consistent reigning metaphors, and a homogenous pattern of arguing from narrative to ethical urgency throughout. Indeed, the old principle of interpreting one section of a corpus in terms of another (interpreting Homer through Homer) is of use here: using Antony to understand Antony allows  phrases and themes which would otherwise appear obscure to reveal the system of ideas behind them. This is especially the case with the reigning nar-rative within which ethical life is oriented by Antony, because that narrative is repeated in different versions and with differing degrees of detail throughout the letter corpus. Further, this manner of reading Antony may serve both as an attempt to access the shared currency of terms and metaphors which the com-munities to which he srcinally wrote will have shared with him, and to reect the way in which later communities received these letters as a collection.Our discussion will proceed by looking at several techniques employed  by Antony to argue for the value and urgency of the ethical life. This, and not the setting out of specic commands or prohibitions, appears to be the aim of the letters. As such, eliciting from his readers dedication to their way of life becomes equivalent to construing a common identity as ethical elites. We can now turn to an examination of the formative media used by Antony. These include intertextuality, and the historicizing and eschatological narra-tive, with its emotionally laden metaphors. In order to articulate the quality of the identity of privilege which Antony is developing in these letters, the following discussion will then close with an examination of ethical praxis in Antony’s teaching, looking at the role of asceticism and knowledge in the reli-gious program to which Antony’s readers are committed. 8. An account of arguments for and against the authenticity of the letters can be found in Rubenson,  Letters of Antony , p. 35ff. Arguments for authenticity include consistent attribu-tion throughout a highly complex and diffuse manuscript tradition, reference to seven letters  by Antony in Jerome’s  De viris illustribus  of 392, quotations from the letters with consist-ent attribution by Shenute and Besa, literal agreement between passages from the letters and sayings attributed to Antony in later anthologies, close afnities to the sermon in the Vita  Antonii . Arguments against authenticity turn on methodological failures, the most severe of which is taking rhetorical ideals of early monks as uneducated and innocent of literary skill as reports on a factual state of affairs. On this view, if Antony was a Coptic peasant, he can-not have written letters with such a strong philosophical bent or representing an intellectualist strand in asceticism.
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