Basil of Caesarea Criticism

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North American Review (essay date 1860)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Letters and Times of Basil of Caesarea, ART. IV," The North American Review, Vol. XC, No. 187, January-April, 1860, pp. 365-95.

[In the following, essay, the reviewer characterizes the collected letters of Basil as the most authentic surviving account of the late fourth-century Eastern church. The critic also discusses important aspects of Basil's life, including the period of his seclusion in Pontus and his tenure as Bishop of Caesarea. The abbreviation "Ep." used throughout stands for "epistle."]

The elder Pitt is said, in the later years of his life, to have deplored his elevation to the peerage, since he perceived that it had withdrawn him from the sphere of popular sympathy and affection, and thus forfeited the great element of his political and social power. The good and eminent men of early Christian times have had equal reason to lament that accession of historical dignity which has been attended with a like forfeiture of real and living power in the Church. The canonization which has made them titular "fathers" and "saints," while it has exalted them to a niche in the history of the Church, where they have been objects of distant and awful veneration, we had almost said of worship, has effectually eliminated them from all living contact with the heart, the memory, the thought and life of the Church.

It has fared especially hard with Basil in this particular. Though his birth and nurture were aristocratic, he was thoroughly, during his life, in spirit and in labors, a man of the people; and he says in a letter to Diodorus, that the highest aim of Christian authorship is "to leave behind one discourses which might be useful to the brotherhood." If we may accept his own declaration, he had no thought of posthumous fame as an author. He states in the same letter, which was written not long before his death, that his infirm health, and the scanty leisure allowed him by the active duties of his office, forbade the attempt to write. He lived heartily and laboriously in and for his own age, and is represented to later times principally by popular, and, as it would seem, extemporaneous homilies and expositions of Scripture, and by his extensive correspondence. But for the titles of "Father," "Saint," "Archbishop," and "the Great,"—for by all these orders and decorations ecclesiastical tradition has raised him to the highest rank of the spiritual peerage (prefixes and affixes, by the way, being alike unknown to his own time and to the two centuries following),—his fame in the Church would have been the natural, healthful, and influential memory of a good man, an eloquent preacher, a laborious pastor, a bold and somewhat sharp asserter of the faith of the Church, but at the same time an carnest advocate of her peace and unity.

By far the most important works which Basil has left to posterity are his letters. He was unrivalled among the great men of the fourth century in this description of writing. Athanasius surpassed him in dialectic and controversial skill and power. Chrysostom was, probably, his superior in eloquence. But neither the letters of Athanasius nor those of Chrysostom (though both of them wrote many which are in all respects worthy of their character and fame) will bear a comparison with those of Basil, either in the easy and captivating grace of their composition, or the variety and importance of their contents. What Voltaire said of the Provincial Letters of Pascal may with truth be affirmed of the letters of Basil,—"they abound in examples of every kind of eloquence." There is scarcely a question pertaining to the doctrine, government, worship, and life of the Church, agitated in that remarkable period,—when all the elements of historical Christianity were in a state of profound and universal fermentation, when the Church was in conflict with heathenism from without and dissent from within, when the imperial power acted at one time as a genial sunshine, stimulating even to an unhealthy luxuriance...

(The entire section is 114,154 words.)