The Exemplary Life


Ben Myers explores the importance of biography in shaping the spiritual lives of early Christians. He argues that it “was Christianity’s immense investment in the idea of incarnation – the belief that God has entered the world in human flesh – that made exemplary lives so important for the Christian moral imagination”:

Nothing is more illustrative of the whole Christian attitude toward life than the preponderance of biography in the early centuries of the faith. The first Christian biographies, like the Passion of Perpetua (circa 203 CE), commended the heroic death of martyrs as exemplars for others. …

In the fourth century, once Christians could not be martyred anymore, biographers turned their attention to a new kind of exemplary life: the person who cultivates self-martyrdom through acts of heroic asceticism. The first and greatest biography of this kind was Athanasius’s Life of Antony, written in Egypt around 356 CE. By now the moral dimensions of biography had been expanded to include all manner of details about the saint’s daily life – diet, dress, moods, habits of speech and so forth – culminating in a meticulously detailed account of his death. Though Antony’s own death is admittedly not the death of a martyr, it is nonetheless performed by Antony as something “worthy of imitation.”

(The Torment of St. Anthony, the earliest known painting by Michelangelo, 1487-88, via Wikimedia Commons)