Basil the Great

4th century Christian theologian


AD 329
AD 379
Related topics
Biography, Early works, Basil,--Saint, Bishop of Caesarea,--ca. 329-379, Gregory,--of Nazianzus, Saint, Christian saints,


St. Basil was one of the group of great oriental theologians to whom, under God, we owe our right belief in the Trinity and the Incarnation, and also the chief organizer of ascetic community life in the East. He was born in 329 at Caesarea, the capital of Cappadocia, far up in the interior of Asia Minor. A surprising number of his family are honored as saints: his grandmother St Macrina the Elder, his father and mother, St Basil the Elder and St Emmelia, his brothers St Gregory of Nyssa and St Peter of Sebaste, and his sister St Macrina the Younger. He studied at Constantinople and went on from there to Athens, which was still the great university city of the Greek-speaking world. Here his fellow student and close friend was another young Cappadocian, St Gregory Nazianzen, who with the two brothers Basil and Gregory of Nyssa makes up the trio of Cappadocian doctors of the church.

When Basil returned to Caesarea he taught rhetoric for some years in the city. Then he retired from the world, inspired by the example of his elder sister Macrina, who with her widowed mother had already founded her own community of nuns on one of the family estates at Annesi on the river Iris. He traveled through all the monastic centers of the east, Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia, to study the monastic life wherever it was flourishing. Then he returned and founded his own community not far from that of his sister; and the way of life which he worked out for it, on the basis of what he had seen on his travels, is still that which is followed by all the monks of the eastern Orthodox churches and by some Catholic monks of the Byzantine rite. Furthermore it deeply influenced St Benedict, who knew St Basil's ascetic writings in a Latin translation by Rufinus, and through him the whole of western monasticism. It was a way of life better balanced and more humane than the most important earlier form of ascetic common life, the Egyptian monasticism of St Pachomius. There was more loving obedience and less harsh discipline; a moderate communal asceticism (extreme enough, certainly, by modern standards) instead of individual competition in austerities; and an emphasis on work, intellectual (the prayerful study of the Scriptures) and manual (useful labor for the benefit of the monastic community). St Basil only lived for five years as a monk in his monastery. But what he did and wrote then was the most immediately and lastingly successful part of his life's work.

In 370 he became archbishop of Caesarea. At that time the Arian heresy, which denied that Christ was God, in the sense of his being of the same substance with the Pather, was at the height of its influence. The Emperor Valens was an Arian, and was vigorously persecuting the Catholics. St Basil's primary task as archbishop was the defense of the Catholic faith, which he carried out for the rest of his life with unflinching courage, great intellectual power, and a charity and desire for agreement with his opponents (though not at the price of orthodoxy) unusual among theological controversialists. He so overawed the Prefect of the east, Modestus, and the Emperor Valens himself, that he and his diocese were left alone, though there was persecution everywhere else. His answer to the Prefect, recorded (perhaps with some embellishments) by St Gregory Nazianzen, may explain why, and gives an excellent idea of the quality of the man. Modestus had threatened him with confiscation, exile, torture and death. St Basil said, 'Well, in truth, confiscation means nothing to a man who has nothing, unless you covet these wretched rags and a few books; that is all I possess. As to exile, that means nothing to me, for I am attached to no particular place. That wherein I live is not mine, and I shall feel at home in any place to which I am sent. Or rather, I regard the whole earth as belonging to God, and I consider myself as a stranger wherever I may be. As for torture, how will you apply it? I have not a body capable of bearing it, unless you are thinking of the first blow you give me, for that will be the only one in your power. As for death, this will be a benefit to me, for it will take me the sooner to the God for whom I live . . .' The Prefect said that nobody had ever spoken to him like that. St Basil replied, 'Perhaps that is because you have never had to deal with a bishop.'

Besides defending the Catholic faith against heresies, St Basil was a model diocesan bishop. He visited every part of his diocese continually, he organized a great hospital for the sick poor, and like all ancient bishops he preached very frequently, some of his courses of sermons, which are major theological works, have been preserved. Heresy was by no means his only trouble. There was every sort of division among the Catholics of the east and very considerable misunderstandings between east and west. St Basil's life as a bishop, in fact was lived in the midst of the sort of miserable muddles so common in the history of the church, when everybody is more or less in the wrong, no one trusts anybody else, and Christian charity is very little in evidence. His own charity never failed, and he worked unceasingly for peace and unity. But he was misunderstood and misrepresented; all his efforts to unite the Catholics seemed to go wrong. He did just live to see the death of Valens, which meant the end of the Arian persecution: but he died very soon after, worn out, at the age of only forty-nine, on January 1st (the date on which the eastern churches keep his chief feast) 379.

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