Basil of Caesarea Introduction

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(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...

(The entire section is 1,778 words.)