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Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. IV:
Prolegomena.: Athanasius as an Author. Style and Characteristics.

Early Church Fathers  Index     

§2. Athanasius as an Author. Style and Characteristics.

Athanasius was not an author by choice. With the exception of the early apologetic tracts all the writings that he has left were drawn from him by the stress of theological controversy or by the necessities of his work as a Christian pastor. We have no systematic doctrinal treatise, no historical monograph from his pen, although his writings are rich in materials for history and dogmatics alike. The exception to this is in the exegetical remains, especially those on the Psalms, which (supra, No. 45, sqq.) imply something more than occasional work, some intention of systematic composition. For this, a work congenial to one who was engaged in preaching, his long intervals of quiet at Alexandria (especially 328–335, 346–356, 365–373) may well have given him leisure. But on the whole, his writings are those of a man of powerful mind indeed and profound theological training, but still of a man of action. The style of Athanasius is accordingly distinguished from that of many older and younger contemporaries (Eusebius, Gregory Naz., &c.) by its inartificiality. This was already observed by Erasmus, who did not know many of his best works, but who notes his freedom from the harshness of Tertullian, the exaggeration of Jerome, the laboured style of Hilary, the overloaded manner of Augustine and Chrysostom, the imitation of the Attic orators so conspicuous in Gregory; ‘sed totus est in explicanda re.’ That is true. Athanasius never writes for effect, but merely to make his meaning plain and impress it on others. This leads to his principal fault, namely his constant self-repetition (see p. 47, note 6); even in apologising for this he repeats the offence. The praise by Photius (quoted below, Introd. to Orat.) of his πέριττον seems to apply to his freedom not from repetition but from extravagance, or studied brilliancy. This simplicity led Philostorgius, reflecting the false taste of his age, to pronounce Athanasius a child as compared with Basil, Gregory, or Apollinarius. To a modern reader the manliness of his character is reflected in the unaffected earnestness of his style. Some will admire him most when, in addressing a carefully calculated appeal to an emperor, he models his periods on Demosthenes de Corona (see p. 237). To others the unrestrained utterance of the real man, in such a gem of feeling and character as the Letter (p. 557) to Dracontius, will be worth more than any studied apology. With all his occasional repetition, with all the feebleness of the Greek language of that day as an instrument of expression, if we compare it with the Greek of Thucydides or Plato, Athanasius writes with nerve and keenness, even with a silent but constant underflow of humour. His style is not free from Latinisms; πρέδα (= præda) in the Encycl., βετερᾶνος (= veteranus), βῆλον (= velum), μάγιστρος, &c., are barbarisms belonging to the later decadence of Greek, but not without analogy even in the earliest Christian Literature. ξυνωρίς is used in an unusual sense, p. 447. Αρειομανῖται seems to be coined by himself; καθήκων, ἀποξενίζειν, ἐπακούειν (= answer), γκυκλεῖν, &c., are Alexandrinisms (see Fialon, p. 289). On the whole, no man was ever less of a stylist, while at the same time making the fullest use of the resources furnished by the language at his command. When he wrote, seven centuries of decay had passed over the language of Thucydides, the tragedians, Plato and the Orators. The Latin Fathers of the day had at their disposal a language only two centuries or so past its prime. The heritage of Thucydides had passed through Tacitus to the Latin prose writers of the silver age. The Latin of Tertullian, Cyprian, Jerome, Augustin, Leo, with all its mannerisms and often false antithesis and laboured epigram, was yet a terse incisive weapon compared with the patristic Greek. But among the Greek Fathers Athanasius is the most readable, simply because his style is natural and direct, because it reflects the man rather than the age.

Next: Personal characteristics (see Stanley's Eastern Church, Lect. vii.).

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