Basil of Caesarea Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Basil of Caesarea c. 330-379

(Also known as St. Basil and Basil the Great.) Greek patriarch and theologian.

Revered as a saint in both the Eastern and Western Christian churches, Basil possessed an extraordinary range of natural talents and an indomitable spirit, all of which he devoted to the cause of unifying the fourth-century church in Asia Minor. As Bishop of Caesarea, he demonstrated a remarkable ability for administration, establishing a monastic tradition that survives to the present as well as developing a program of social assistance to the lay community that became a model for the early church. An ardent proponent of Nicene orthodoxy, Basil was in the forefront of the struggle against Arianism, working closely with the other Cappadocian fathers—his friend Gregory of Nazianzus and his brother Gregory of Nyssa—to establish a doctrine of the Trinity that would be accepted by all Christians. His writings on the Holy Spirit are among his most important contributions to the theology of the church. Together with Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom, Basil is regarded as one of the three supreme figures of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Biographical Information

Basil was born in Caesarea (in modern Turkey) around 330 into a family noted for its Christian piety. His father was a wealthy landowner and a teacher. Basil's grandmother, known as Macrina the Elder, and his mother, Emmelia, were members of the nobility and extremely devout; by precept and example, these women wielded a strong influence on Basil and his nine siblings. After receiving his early education at the family's home near Neocaesarea, Basil studied in Caesarea (c. 345-47), Constantinople (c. 348-50), and Athens (c. 350-55). In school at Caesarea he met Gregory of Nazianzus, and they became lifelong friends and confidants. Basil returned home around 355 and spent a brief period as a teacher, but within a year or so his sister Macrina had persuaded him to abandon this profession and convert to monasticism. In 356-57, after being baptized into the Christian faith, he toured monastic settlements in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia, then retired to relative seclusion on his family's lands at Annesi in Pontus, where he established, with his brother Gregory of Nyssa, a monastic community. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, ordained Basil as a priest in 364, and from 365 until 370, Basil divided his time between scholarly and administrative work. In 368 a disastrous famine struck Caesarea, and he spearheaded efforts to relieve the residents, selling off part of his inheritance to cover the cost of assisting them.

When Eusebius died in 370, Basil became Bishop of Caesarea and henceforth worked tirelessly to rid the church of heterodoxies and end the factionalism that threatened its survival. He openly defied the Arian emperor Valens and other powerful opponents, established important connections with Western bishops, and consolidated his authority in the East by appointing orthodox adherents to important positions in his diocese. During this period he also supervised the foundation of a new town in a suburb of Caesarea, where a church, a hospital, and guest quarters for travelers ministered to the needs of his communicants. Basil died on January 1, 379, at the age of forty-nine. Two years after his death, the Council of Constantinople proclaimed the con-substantiality of the Trinity, thus bringing to a close a period of vehement sectarianism and, in effect, validating Basil's long struggle against Arianism.

Major Works

The chronology of composition dates provided here generally follows that of Prudentius Maran, an early eighteenth-century French scholar, and the editor—with Julien Gamier—of Basil's complete works; it also takes into account adjusted dates proposed by twentieth-century commentators.

The collected letters of Basil, perhaps his most famous literary effort, number more than 360, yielding a wealth of information about his career and about social, cultural, and economic life in Cappadocia in the mid-fourth century. (They have not been arranged in chronological order, and the authenticity of a few of them is doubtful; the collection also contains epistles by some of his correspondents.) Written over the period c. 356-78, the letters are addressed to persons of every rank and stature: congregants, monks, and students as well as provincial governors, Eastern and Western bishops, military officers, and magistrates. They treat a broad range of topics—from theological controversies and ecclesiastical politics to education and the proper commemoration of saints and martyrs. The style of the letters is vigorous and frequently colloquial, though Basil's deft use of classical allusions demonstrates his wit and learning. As many commentators have pointed out, the tone of the letters varies; it is civil and kindly in those to friends and other persons who shared his views, but often harsh and critical in epistles to people who differed with him.

Basil's ascetical treatises, written and revised over an extended period (c. 361 to 376), constitute a second significant corpus. These treatises include the Morals and Obligations, an anthology of more than 1,500 verses from the New Testament intended to serve as a practical and spiritual guide to all Christians—lay persons as well as monks. This work was originally prefaced by Basil's essay "On the Judgment of God," in which he attacks factionalism within the church; he subsequently added a second preface, entitled "On the Faith," that constitutes a concise statement of his religious beliefs. Basil's recommendations for the regulation of monastic communities were compiled in a work known as the "great" Asceticon; this includes the so-called Short and Long Rules, and a series of questions and answers known as the Examination of the Brothers. Basil advocates here a life devoted to God through service to other members of the community as well as to the poor and the sick, and he sets forth times for liturgical prayers, manual labor, and contemplation. Although it requires obedience, the Asceticon does not encourage either extreme austerity or self-denial. Basil's Rules had a profound influence on St. Benedict (c. 480-547), the patriarch of Western monasticism.

Basil's doctrinal writings comprise a third category of his literary heritage. Of these, Against Eunomius (c. 364) and On the Holy Spirit (c. 375-76) are generally considered the most important. Written to defend orthodoxy against Eunomius's advocacy of extreme Arianism—the belief that God was of a different, higher order of existence than Christ, and that the Holy Spirit was not divine—Against Eunomius consists of five books, of which the first three are by Basil and the last two by another author, perhaps Didymus of Alexandria. Here Basil asserts the homoousianism (one substance) of the Son and the Holy Spirit with the Father, thus contributing significantly to the defense of orthodox Christianity. He continued to avow Trinitarianism in On the Holy Spirit. Though he does not affirm the equal divinity of the Holy Spirit in this work, he posits an innovative, extra-scriptural authority in support of his argument, claiming that the consubstantiality of the Trinity is traditionally part of the esoteric instruction given to baptized communicants.

Basil's sermons form a fourth subdivision of his work. Among the ones that survive are some delivered while he was a priest; others are from his tenure as Bishop of Caesarea. They deal with a variety of subjects—including personal morality and the veneration of relics—and were generally addressed to converts who were undergoing indoctrination before becoming full members of the church. Among the most famous of these sermons are the nine Homilies on the Six Days of Creation (c. 378), in which Basil draws on both Scripture and the scientific writings of Aristotle and the Stoics, though he places much greater reliance on biblical truth and revelation than on natural philosophy. He depicts the universe as a hierarchy whose parts are bound together in harmonious sympathy, and he discusses the order of elements, time and motion, and both the temporal and non-temporal worlds. This series of sermons has traditionally been much admired for its rhetorical grace.

Another of Basil's treatises that was highly regarded for many centuries is the "Address to Young Men on the Profitable Use of Pagan Literature" (perhaps c. 364, though some modern scholars have suggested that it was written in the last years of his life). Here he recommends that before embarking on the much more significant study of Scripture, students should read selectively from the classics of Greek literature in order to develop their intellects—as indeed he himself had done. A further example of his instructional work is the Philokalia, a collection of passages from Origen's theological writings that Basil compiled with his friend Gregory of Nazianzus while they were in seclusion at Annesi (c. 358-61) but that remained unpublished until after his death.

Critical Reception

Basil and his writings have had an indelible influence on Christian thought and practice. In addition, his ascetic treatises formed the basis of Eastern monasticism and profoundly affected the development of religious communities in Western Europe. Scholars have long been grateful for the evidence, in both his formal and informal compositions, of doctrinal controversies and ecclesiastical disputes in the fourth-century church. In the 1800s, commentators called attention to the rich and lively narrative of his era that Basil provided in his voluminous correspondence, and many of them rated these letters as his most important literary work. Throughout the twentieth century, critics have shown keen interest in what his writings reveal about Basil's many-sided role as Bishop of Caesarea: administering the organization of an extensive diocese; overseeing the foundation of charitable institutions; supervising the instruction of members of his congregation; counseling people in distress; dealing with secular authorities; resolving political issues within the church; and, above all, championing the principle of religious orthodoxy. Over the past few decades, commentators have become increasingly concerned with Basil's indebtedness to Greek culture and learning. They have looked closely at his letters, the Homilies on Creation, and the "Address to Young Men," attempting to determine the extent to which he employed classical authors in his own writings; several have concluded that despite his official, rather disdainful attitude toward Hellenic philosophers, he relied heavily on their work. Indeed, some late twentieth-century scholars have sharply criticized what they see as Basil's condescending attitude toward pagan writers in the "Address to Young Men." Basil's various compositions on the Trinity have also become a critical focal point in recent decades. Many commentators judge On the Holy Spirit to be Basil's most significant doctrinal treatise, especially in terms of the line of argument he developed there. Most recently, scholars have turned to an examination of Basil's concept of what it means to be a Christian and a member of the church. They have found that love of God and all humanity, the limitations of human understanding, and the need for steadfast faith are basic, recurring themes that appear throughout his pastoral, ascetic, and doctrinal compositions.