Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Antonius
Antonius, St. (Abbas), termed by Athanasius "the founder of asceticism" and his life a "model for monks" (Praef. Vit. St. Ant.). We have a tolerably complete, but probably interpolated, biography of him by Athanasius, derived in part from his own recollections, in part from others who had known him, as well as frequent mention of him by the ecclesiastical historians; and we shall here treat Anthony as a historic character, despite the recent assumption that he is "a myth" (see, e.g., Gwatkin's Arian Controversy, 1891, and cf. F. W. Farrar, Contemp. Rev. 1887, pp. 617‒627).
Anthony was born c. A.D. 250 at Coma, on the borders of Upper Egypt (Soz. Hist. i. 13). By his parents, who were wealthy Christians, he was trained in pious habits (Athan. Vit. St. Ant.; Aug. de Doct. in Prol.). Six months after the death of his parents, being then 18 years of age, he chanced to hear in church the words "If thou wilt be perfect," etc., and resolved to obey the precept literally, reserving only a small portion for his sister. Returning into the church he heard, "Take no thought for the morrow." On this he resolved to commend her to the care of some devout woman, and gave away all his property to the poor (Athan. cf. Soz. i. 13).
At that time cells of Anchorites (μοναστηρία) were very rare in Egypt, and none far from the habitations of men. Anthony retired by degrees farther and farther from his native village, fixing his abode first in a tomb, afterwards in a ruined castle near the Nile. Here he remained some 20 years, shut up for months at a time with only bread and water (the bread of the country is said to be good for keeping), and issuing forth only to instruct the multitudes who flocked to see and hear him; at other times communication was prevented by a huge stone at the entrance. During the persecution of Maximinus (A.D. 311), in which their bishop had fallen, he went to comfort the Christians of Alexandria; and though the presence of monks at these trials was forbidden as encouraging the martyrs in their disobedience to the emperor's edict, he persisted in appearing in court. When the storm had ceased he withdrew, though now an old man, to a more complete isolation than ever, near the Red Sea; and here, to save his disciples the trouble of bringing him food, he made a small field of wheat, which he cultivated with his own hands, working also at making mats. From time to time he revisited his former disciples in the Thebaid, always, however, declining to preside over a convent. About A.D. 335 he revisited Alexandria, at the urgent request of Athanasius, to preach against the Arians (Theod. Hist. iv. 27), and there was followed by crowds as "the man of God." But he soon returned to the congenial seclusion of his cell, and there died, at the great age of 105, in the presence of the two disciples, Amathas and Macarius, who had ministered to his wants during the last 15 years. To them he bequeathed his hair-shirt; and the rest of his worldly goods, his two woollen tunics and the rough cloak on which he slept, to bp. Serapion and St. Athanasius (Athan. Vit. St. Ant.).
The fame of Anthony spread rapidly through Christendom; and the effect of his example in inducing Christians, especially in the East, to embrace the monastic life is described by his biographers as incalculable. In the next century he began to be venerated as a saint by the Greek church, and in the ninth by the Latin. St. Jerome says he was the author of seven Epistles to certain Eastern monasteries, which have been translated from the Egyptian into the Greek (Hieron. de Script. 88), but whether these are the same as those now extant in Latin is doubtful (cf. Erdinger's ed. of them (Innsbruck, 1871). Though by all accounts far from being a learned man (Soz. Hist. i. 13; Niceph. Hist. vii. 40; Athan. Vit. St. Ant.), his discourses are evidence that he was not altogether illiterate. His influence was great at the court of the emperor. Constantine the Great and his sons wrote to him as a father (Athan.), and when Athanasius was contending with the Meletians, Anthony wrote from his cell to the emperor in behalf of his friend (Soz. ii. 31). His austerities were great; as a rule he fasted till sunset, and sometimes for four days together. Of sleep he was equally sparing. His coarse rough shirt is said to have lasted him for a lifetime; and his only ablutions seem to have been involuntary in wading occasionally through a river. Yet he lived to an unusual age, robust, and in full possession of his faculties to the last. He was not morose to others; only to heretics was he austere and repulsive, refusing to hold any intercourse with them even for a moment. He was careful always, though so universally revered, not to arrogate to himself priestly functions, shewing, even in his old age, a marked and studious deference even to the youngest deacons.
Anthony was evidently a man, not merely of strong determination, but of ability, and the discourses, if indeed they are his, which his disciples record as addressed to themselves and to the pagan philosophers who disputed with him, shew that if he read little he thought much. He met objections against the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Resurrection as mysterious by the retort that the pagan mythology, whether in its grossness as apprehended by the vulgar or as the mystical system of philosophers, was equally above reason. From their dialectical subtleties he appealed to facts, to a Christian's contempt of death and triumph over temptation; and contrasted the decay of pagan oracles and magic with the growth of Christianity in spite of persecutions. He taught that prayer to be perfect must be ecstatic (Cass. Coll. ix. 3). Mingled with sound and practical advice are strange stories of his visions, in which he describes himself as engaged continually in deadly conflict with evil spirits.
Beyond these encounters and powers of exorcism it is not clear how far and in what manner Anthony believed himself able to work miracles. It would indeed be strange if so lonely an existence did not breed many involuntary and unconscious illusions; still more strange if those whose eyes were dazzled by the almost more than human self-abnegation of the great eremite had not exaggerated this aspect of his story. Among the many in whom the marvellous experiences of Anthony awoke a longing to renounce the world was Augustine himself (Aug. Conf. viii. 6, 12). A. Verger, Vie de St. Antoine le Grand (Tours, 1898).