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§3. Personal characteristics (see Stanley’s Eastern Church, Lect. vii.).
To write an elaborate character of Athanasius is superfluous. The full account of his life (chap. ii.), and the specimens of his writings in this volume, may be trusted to convey the right impression without the aid of analysis. But it may be well to emphasise one or two salient points.8888 Of his personal appearance little is known. Gregory Naz. praises his beauty of expression, Julian sneers at his small stature. Later tradition adds a slight stoop, a hooked nose and small mouth, short beard spreading into large whiskers, and light auburn hair, (See Stanley ubi supr).
In Athanasius we feel ourselves in contact with a commanding personality. His early rise to decisive epoch-making influence,—he was scarcely more than 27 at the council of Nicæa,—his election as bishop when barely of canonical age, the speedy ascendancy which he gained over all Egypt and Libya, the rapid consolidation of the distracted province under his rule, the enthusiastic personal loyalty of his clergy and monks, the extraordinary popularity lxviienjoyed by him at Alexandria even among the heathen (excepting, perhaps, ‘the more abandoned among them,’ Hist. Ar. 58), the evident feeling of the Arians that as long as he was intact their cause could not prosper, the jealously of his influence shewn by Constantius and Julian, all this is a combined and impressive tribute to his personal greatness. In what then did this consist?
Principally, no doubt, in his moral and mental vigour; resolute ability characterises his writings and life throughout. He had the not too common gift of seeing the proportions of things. A great crisis was fully appreciated by him; he always saw at once where principles separated or united men, where the bond or the divergence was merely accidental. With Arius and Arianism no compromise was to be thought of; but he did not fail to distinguish men really at one with him on essentials, even where their conduct toward himself had been indefensible (de Syn.). So long as the cause was advanced, personal questions were insignificant. So far Athanasius was a partisan. It may be admitted that he saw little good in his opponents; but unless the evidence is singularly misleading there was little good to see. The leaders of the Arian interest were unscrupulous men, either bitter and unreasoning fanatics like Secundus and Maris, or more often political theologians, like Eusebius of Nicomedia, Valens, Acacius, who lacked religious earnestness. It may be admitted that he refused to admit error in his friends. His long alliance with Marcellus, his unvarying refusal to utter a syllable of condemnation of him by name; his refusal to name even Photinus, while yet (Orat. iv.) exposing the error associated with his name; his suppression of the name of Apollinarius, even when writing directly against him; all this was inconsistent with strict impartiality, and, no doubt, placed his adversaries partly in the right. But it was the partiality of a generous and loyal spirit, and he could be generous to personal enemies if he saw in them an approximation to himself in principle. When men were dead, unlike too many theologians of his own and later times, he restrained himself in speaking of them, even if the dead man were Arius himself.
In the whole of our minute knowledge of his life there is a total lack of self-interest. The glory of God and the welfare of the Church absorbed him fully at all times. We see the immense power he exercised in Egypt; the Emperors recognised him as a political force of the first order; Magnentius bid for his support, Constantius first cajoled, then made war upon him; but on no occasion does he yield to the temptation of using the arm of flesh. Almost unconscious of his own power, he treats Serapion and the monks as equals or superiors, begging them to correct and alter anything amiss in his writings. His humility is the more real for never being conspicuously paraded.
Like most men of great power, he had a real sense of humour (Stanley, p. 231, sq., ed. 1883). Even in his youthful works we trace it (infr. p. 2), and it is always present, though very rarely employed with purpose. But the exposure of the Arsenius calumny at Tyre, the smile with which he answered the importunate catechising of an Epiphanius about ‘old’ Marcellus, the oracular interpretation of the crow’s ‘cras’ in answer to the heathen (Sozom. iv. 10), the grave irony with which he often confronts his opponents with some surprising application of Scripture, his reply to the pursuers from the Nile boat in 362, allow us to see the twinkle of his keen, searching eye. Courage, self-sacrifice, steadiness of purpose, versatility and resourcefulness, width of ready sympathy, were all harmonised by deep reverence and the discipline of a single-minded lover of Christ. The Arian controversy was to him no battle for ecclesiastical power, nor for theological triumph. It was a religious crisis involving the reality of revelation and redemption. He felt about it as he wrote to the bishops of Egypt, ‘we are contending for our all’ (p. 234).
‘A certain cloud of romance encircled him’ (Reynolds). His escapes from Philagrius, Syrianus, Julian, his secret presence in Alexandria, his life among the monasteries of Egypt in his third exile, his reputed visits to distant councils, all impress the imagination and lend themselves to legend and fable. Later ages even claimed that he had fled in disguise to Spain and served as cook in a monastery near Calahorra (Act. SS. 2 Maii)! But he is also surrounded by an atmosphere of truth. Not a single miracle of any kind is related of him. To invest him with the halo of miracle the Bollandists have to come down to the ‘translation’ of his body, not to Constantinople (an event surrounded with no little uncertainty), but to Venice, whither a thievish sea-captain, who had stolen it from a church in Stamboul, brought a body, which decisively proved its identity by prodigies which left no room for doubt. But the Athanasius of history is not the subject of any such tales. It has been said that no saint outside the New Testament has ever claimed the gift of miracles for himself. At any rate (though he displays credulity with regard to Antony), the saintly reputation of Athanasius lxviiirested on his life and character alone, without the aid of any reputation for miraculous power.
And resting upon this firm foundation, it has won the respect and admiration even of those who do not feel that they owe to him the vindication of all that is sacred and precious. Not only a Gregory or an Epiphanius, an Augustine or a Cyril, a Luther or a Hooker, not only Montfaucon and Tillemont, Newman and Stanley pay tribute to him as a Christian hero. Secular as well as Church historians fall under the spell of his personality, and even Gibbon lays aside his ‘solemn sneer’ to do homage to Athanasius the great.
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