Whether the Egyptians or others are to be regarded as the founders of this philosophy, it is universally admitted that Antony, the great monk, developed this course of life, by morals and befitting exercises, to the summit of exactness and perfection. His fame was so widely spread throughout the deserts of Egypt, that the emperor Constantine, for the reputation of the man's virtue, sought his friendship, honored him with correspondence, and urged him to write about what he might need. He was an Egyptian by race, and belonged to an illustrious family of Coma, which was situated near the Heraclea which is on the Egyptian borders. He was but a youth when he lost his parents; he bestowed his paternal inheritance upon his fellow-villagers, sold the rest of his possessions and distributed the proceeds among the needy; for he was aware that philosophy does not merely consist in the relinquishment of property, but in the proper distribution of it. He obtained the acquaintance of the devoted men of his time, and emulated the virtues of all. Believing that the practice of goodness would become delightful by habit, though arduous at the outset, he reflected on more intense methods of asceticism, and day by day he augmented it by self-control just as if he were always recommencing his undertaking. He subdued the voluptuousness of the body by labor, and restrained the passions of the soul by the aid of the Divine wisdom. His food was bread and salt, his drink water, and he never broke his fast till after sunset. He often remained two or more days without eating. He watched, so to speak, throughout the night, and continued in prayer till daybreak. If at any time he indulged in sleep, it was but for a little while on a short mat; but generally the bare earth was his couch. He rejected the practice of anointing with oil, and the use of baths and of similar luxuries likely to relax the tension of the body by moisture; and it is said that he never at any time saw himself naked. He neither possessed nor admired learning, but he valued a good understanding, as being prior to letters and as being the very discoverer of it. He was exceedingly meek and philanthropic, prudent and manly; cheerful in conversation and friendly in disputations, even when others used the controverted topics as occasion for strife. By his own habit and a kind of intelligence he quieted contentiousness when on the increase, and restored them to moderation; he also tempered the ardor of those who conversed with him, and regulated their manners. Although on account of his extraordinary virtues, he had become filled with the Divine foreknowledge, he did not regard foreknowledge of the future as a virtue, nor did he counsel others to seek this gift rashly, for he considered that no one would be punished or rewarded according to his ignorance or knowledge of futurity; for true blessedness consists in the service of God, and in keeping his laws. |But,| said he, |if any man would know the future, let him continually be purified in soul, for then he will have power to walk in the light, and to understand things that are to happen, for God will reveal the future to him.| He never suffered himself to be idle, but exhorted all those who seemed disposed to lead a good life, to diligence in labor, to self-examination and confession of sin before Him who created the day and the night; and when they erred, he urged them to record the transgression in writing, that so they might be ashamed of their sins, and be fearful lest any one should find the many things recorded; for he would be fearful, lest if the document were traced to him he should become disclosed to other people as a depraved character. He above all others came forward spiritedly and most zealously for the defense of the injured, and in their cause often resorted to the cities; for many came out to him, and compelled him to intercede for them with the rulers and men in power. All the people felt honored in seeing him, listened with avidity to his discourses, and yielded assent to his arguments; but he preferred to remain unknown and concealed in the deserts. When compelled to visit a city, he never failed to return to the deserts as soon as he had accomplished the work he had undertaken; for, he said, that as fishes are nourished in the water, so the desert is the world prepared for monks; and as fishes die when thrown upon dry land, so monastics lose their gravity when they go into cities. He carried himself obediently and graciously towards all who saw him, and he was careful not to have, nor seem to have, a supercilious nature. I have given this concise account of the manners of Antony, in order that an idea of his philosophy may be formed, by analogy, from the description of his conduct in the desert.
He had many renowned disciples, of whom some flourished in Egypt and Libya, others in Palestine, Syria, and Arabia; not less than their master, did each disciple pass his life with those among whom he dwelt, and regulate his conduct, and instruct many, and wed them unto kindred virtues and philosophy. But it would be difficult for any one to find the companions of Antony or their successors by going carefully through cities and villages to discover them, for they sought concealment more earnestly than many ambitious men, by means of pomp and show, now seek popularity and renown.
We must relate, in chronological order, the history of the most celebrated disciples of Antony, and particularly that of Paul, surnamed the Simple. It is said that he dwelt in the country, and was married to a beautiful woman, and that having surprised her in the act of adultery, he laughed placidly and affirmed with an oath, that he would live with her no longer; that he left her with the adulterer, and went immediately to join Antony in the desert. It is further related that he was exceedingly meek and patient: and that, being aged and unaccustomed to monastic severity, Antony put his strength to the proof by various trials, for he was newly come, and detected nothing ignoble; and that, having given evidence of perfect philosophy, he was sent to live alone, as no longer requiring a teacher. And God himself confirmed the testimony of Antony; and demonstrated the man to be most illustrious through his deeds, and as greater than even his teacher in vexing and expelling demons.