(A Brief History of Basil the Great : 329-379 A.D.)
By: Philip Schaff
Excerpted from: "History of the Christian Church": Volume III, Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity, A.D. 311-390 Chapter X., P. 893-903 (§ 164.)
Excerpt from our Christian History Timeline:
§ 164. Basil the Great.
The Asiatic province of Cappadocia produced in the fourth century the three distinguished church teachers, Basil and the two Gregories...
Basil was born about the year 329, at Caesarea, the capital of Cappadocia, in the bosom of a wealthy and pious family, whose ancestors had distinguished themselves as martyrs.
The seed of piety had been planted in him by his grandmother, St. Macrina, and his mother, St. Emmelia. He had four brothers and five sisters, who all led a religious life; two of his brothers, Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, and Peter, bishop of Sebaste, and his sister, Macrina the Younger, are, like himself, among the saints of the Eastern church.
He received his literary education at first from his father, who was a rhetorician; afterwards at school in Constantinople (347), where he enjoyed the instruction and personal esteem of the celebrated Libanius; and in Athens, where he spent several years, between 351 and 355, studying rhetoric, mathematics, and philosophy, in company with his intimate friend Gregory Nazianzen, and at the same time with prince Julian the Apostate.
Athens, partly through its ancient renown and its historical traditions, partly by excellent teachers of philosophy and eloquence, Sophists, as they were called in an honorable sense, among whom Himerius and Proaeresius were at that time specially conspicuous, was still drawing a multitude of students from all quarters of Greece, and even from the remote provinces of Asia.
Every Sophist had his own school and party, which was attached to him with incredible zeal, and endeavored to gain every newly arriving student to its master. In these efforts, as well as in the frequent literary contests and debates of the various schools among themselves, there was not seldom much rude and wild behavior.
To youth who were not yet firmly grounded in Christianity, residence in Athens, and occupation with the ancient classics, were full of temptation, and might easily kindle an enthusiasm for heathenism, which, however, had already lost its vitality, and was upheld solely by the artificial means of magic, theurgy, and an obscure mysticism.
Basil and Gregory remained steadfast, and no poetical or rhetorical glitter could fade the impressions of a pious training. Gregory says of their studies in Athens, in his forty-third Oration:
"We knew only two streets of the city, the first and the more excellent one to the churches, and to the ministers of the altar; the other, which, however, we did not so highly esteem, to the public schools and to the teachers of the sciences. The streets to the theatres, games, and places of unholy amusements, we left to others. Our holiness was our great concern; our sole aim was to be called and to be Christians. In this we placed our whole glory."
In a later oration on classic studies Basil encourages them, but admonishes that they should be pursued with caution, and with constant regard to the great Christian purpose of eternal life, to which all earthly objects and attainments are as shadows and dreams to reality.
In plucking the rose one should beware of the thorns, and, like the bee, should not only delight himself with the color and the fragrance, but also gain useful honey from the flower.
The intimate friendship of Basil and Gregory, lasting from fresh, enthusiastic youth till death, resting on an identity of spiritual and moral aims, and sanctified by Christian piety, is a lovely and engaging chapter in the history of the fathers, and justifies a brief episode in a field not yet entered by any church historian.
With all the ascetic narrowness of the time, which fettered even these enlightened fathers, they still had minds susceptible to science and art and the beauties of nature. In the works of Basil and of the two Gregories occur pictures of nature such as we seek in vain in the heathen classics. The descriptions of natural scenery among the poets and philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome can be easily compressed within a few pages.
Socrates, as we learn from Plato, was of the opinion that we can learn nothing from trees and fields, and hence he never took a walk; he was so bent upon self-knowledge, as the true aim of all learning, that he regarded the whole study of nature as useless, because it did not tend to make man either more intelligent or more virtuous.
The deeper sense of the beauty of nature is awakened by the religion of revelation alone, which teaches us to see everywhere in creation the traces of the power, the wisdom, and the goodness of God.
The book of Ruth, the book of Job, many Psalms, particularly the 104th, and the parables, are without parallel in Grecian or Roman literature.
The renowned naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, collected some of the most beautiful descriptions of nature from the fathers for his purposes. They are an interesting proof of the transfiguring power of the spirit of Christianity even upon our views of nature.
A breath of sweet sadness runs through them, which is entirely foreign to classical antiquity. This is especially manifest in Gregory of Nyssa, the brother of Basil.
"When I see," says he, for example, "every rocky ridge, every valley, every plain, covered with new-grown grass; and then the variegated beauty of the trees, and at my feet the lilies doubly enriched by nature with sweet odors and gorgeous colors; when I view in the distance the sea, to which the changing cloud leads out—my soul is seized with sadness which is not without delight. And when in autumn fruits disappear, leaves fall, boughs stiffen, stripped of their beauteous dress—we sink with the perpetual and regular vicissitude into the harmony of wonder-working nature. He who looks through this with the thoughtful eye of the soul, feels the littleness of man in the greatness of the universe."
Yet we find sunny pictures also, like the beautiful description of spring in an oration of Gregory Nazianzen on the martyr Mamas.
A second characteristic of these representations of nature, and for the church historian the most important, is the reference of earthly beauty to an eternal and heavenly principle, and that glorification of God in the works of creation, which transplanted itself from the Psalms and the book of Job into the Christian church.
In his homilies on the history of the Creation, Basil describes the mildness of the serene nights in Asia Minor, where the stars, "the eternal flowers of heaven, raised the spirit of man from the visible to the invisible."
In the oration just mentioned, after describing the spring in the most lovely and life-like colors, Gregory Nazianzen proceeds: "Everything praises God and glorifies Him with unutterable tones; for everything shall thanks be offered also to God by me, and thus shall the song of those creatures, whose song of praise I here utter, be also ours...Indeed it is now (alluding to the Easter festival) the spring-time of the world, the spring-time of the spirit, spring-time for souls, spring-time for bodies, a visible spring, an invisible spring, in which we also shall there have part, if we here be rightly transformed, and enter as new men upon a new life."
Thus the earth becomes a vestibule of heaven, the beauty of the body is consecrated an image of the beauty of the spirit.
The Greek fathers placed the beauty of nature above the works of art, having a certain prejudice against art on account of the heathen abuses of it.
"If thou seest a splendid building, and the view of its colonnades would transport thee, look quickly at the vault of the heavens and the open fields, on which the flocks are feeding on the shore of the sea. Who does not despise every creation of art, when in the silence of the heart he early wonders at the rising sun, as it pours its golden (crocus-yellow) light over the horizon? when, resting at a spring in the deep grass or under the dark shade of thick trees, he feeds his eye upon the dim vanishing distance?" - John Chrysostom
So Chrysostom exclaims from his monastic solitude near Antioch, and Humboldt adds the ingenious remark: "It was as if eloquence had found its element, its freedom, again at the fountain of nature in the then wooded mountain regions of Syria and Asia Minor."
In the rough times of the first introduction of Christianity among the Celtic and Germanic tribes, who had worshipped the dismal powers of nature in rude symbols, an opposition to intercourse with nature appeared, like that which we find in Tertullian to pagan art; and church assemblies of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, at Tours (1163) and at Paris (1209), forbid the monks the sinful reading of books on nature, till the renowned scholastics, Albert, the Great († 1280), and the gifted Roger Bacon († 1294), penetrated the mysteries of nature and raised the study of it again to consideration and honor.
We now return to the life of Basil. After finishing his studies in Athens he appeared in his native city of Caesarea as a rhetorician. But he soon after (a.d. 360) took a journey to Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, to become acquainted with the monastic life; and he became more and more enthusiastic for it.
He distributed his property to the poor, and withdrew to a lonely romantic district in Pontus, near the cloister in which his mother Emmelia, with his sister Macrina, and other pious and cultivated virgins, were living.
"God has shown me," he wrote to his friend Gregory, "a region which exactly suits my mode of life; it is, in truth, what in our happy jestings we often wished. What imagination showed us in the distance, that I now see before me. A high mountain, covered with thick forest, is watered towards the north by fresh perennial streams.
At the foot of the mountain a wide plain spreads out, made fruitful by the vapors which moisten it. The surrounding forest, in which many varieties of trees crowd together, shuts me off like a strong castle. The wilderness is bounded by two deep ravines. On one side the stream, where it rushes foaming down from the mountain, forms a barrier hard to cross; on the other a broad ridge obstructs approach.
My hut is so placed upon the summit, that I overlook the broad plain, as well as the whole course of the Iris, which is more beautiful and copious than the Strymon near Amphipolis.
The river of my wilderness, more rapid than any other that I know, breaks upon the wall of projecting rock, and rolls foaming into the abyss: to the mountain traveller, a charming, wonderful sight; to the natives, profitable for its abundant fisheries.
Shall I describe to you the fertilizing vapors which rise from the (moistened) earth, the cool air which rises from the (moving) mirror of the water? Shall I tell of the lovely singing of the birds and the richness of blooming plants? What delights me above all is the silent repose of the place.
It is only now and then visited by huntsmen; for my wilderness nourishes deer and herds of wild goats, not your bears and your wolves. How would I exchange a place with him? Alcmaeon, after he had found the Echinades, wished to wander no further."
This romantic picture shows that the monastic life had its ideal and poetic side for cultivated minds. In this region Basil, free from all cares, distractions, and interruptions of worldly life, thought that he could best serve God.
"What is more blessed than to imitate on earth the choir of angels, at break of day to rise to prayer, and praise the Creator with anthems and songs; then go to labor in the clear radiance of the sun, accompanied everywhere by prayer, seasoning work with praise, as if with salt?
Silent solitude is the beginning of purification of the soul. For the mind, if it be not disturbed from without, and do not lose itself through the senses in the world, withdraws into itself, and rises to thoughts of God." In the Scriptures he found, "as in a store of all medicines, the true remedy for his sickness."
Nevertheless, he had also to find that flight from the city was not flight from his own self.
"I have well forsaken," says he in his second Epistle, "my residence in the city as a source of a thousand evils, but I have not been able to forsake myself. l am like a man who, unaccustomed to the sea, becomes seasick, and gets out of the large ship, because it rocks more, into a small skiff, but still even there keeps the dizziness and nausea. So is it with me; for while I carry about with me the passions which dwell in me, I am everywhere tormented with the same restlessness, so that I really get not much help from this solitude."
In the sequel of the letter, and elsewhere, he endeavors, however, to show that seclusion from worldly business, celibacy, solitude, perpetual occupation with the Holy Scriptures, and with the life of godly men, prayer and contemplation, and a corresponding ascetic severity of outward life, are necessary for taming the wild passions, and for attaining the true quietness of the soul.
He succeeded in drawing his friend Gregory to himself. Together they prosecuted their prayer, studies, and manual labor; made extracts from the works of Origen, which we possess, under the name of Philocalia, as the joint work of the two friends; and wrote monastic rules which contributed largely to extend and regulate the coenobite life.
In the year 364 Basil was made presbyter against his will, and in 370, with the co-operation of Gregory and his father, was elected bishop of Caesarea and metropolitan of all Cappadocia. In this capacity he had fifty country bishops under him, and devoted himself thenceforth to the direction of the church and the fighting of Arianism, which had again come into power through the emperor Valens in the East.
He endeavored to secure to the catholic faith the victory, first by close connection with the orthodox West, and then by a certain liberality in accepting as sufficient, in regard to the not yet symbolically settled doctrine of the Holy Ghost, that the Spirit should not be considered a creature.
But the strict orthodox party, especially the monks, demanded the express acknowledgment of the divinity of the Holy Ghost, and violently opposed Basil. The Arians pressed him still more. The emperor wished to reduce Cappadocia to the heresy, and threatened the bishop by his prefects with confiscation, banishment, and death.
Basil replied: "Nothing more? Not one of these things touches me. His property cannot be forfeited, who has none; banishment I know not, for I am restricted to no place, and am the guest of God, to whom the whole earth belongs; for martyrdom I am unfit, but death is a benefactor to me, for it sends me more quickly to God, to whom I live and move; I am also in great part already dead, and have been for a long time hastening to the grave."
The emperor was about to banish him, when his son, six years of age, was suddenly taken sick, and the physicians gave up all hope. Then he sent for Basil, and his son recovered, though he died soon after. The imperial prefect also recovered from a sickness, and ascribed his recovery to the prayer of the bishop, towards whom he had previously behaved haughtily. Thus this danger was averted by special divine assistance.
But other difficulties, perplexities, and divisions, continually met him, to obstruct the attainment of his desire, the restoration of the peace of the church. These storms, and all sorts of hostilities, early wasted his body.
He died in 379, two years before the final victory of the Nicene orthodoxy, with the words: "Into Thy hands, O Lord I commit my spirit; Thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth." He was borne to the grave by a deeply sorrowing multitude.
Basil was poor, and almost always sickly; he had only a single worn-out garment, and ate almost nothing but bread, salt, and herbs. The care of the poor and sick he took largely upon himself.
He founded in the vicinity of Caesarea that magnificent hospital, Basilias, which we have already mentioned, chiefly for lepers, who were often entirely abandoned in those regions, and left to the saddest fate; he himself took in the sufferers, treated them as brethren, and, in spite of their revolting condition, was not afraid to kiss them.
Basil is distinguished as a pulpit orator and as a theologian, and still more as a shepherd of souls and a church ruler; and in the history of monasticism he holds a conspicuous place.
In classical culture he yields to none of his contemporaries, and is justly placed with the two Gregories among the very first writers among the Greek fathers. His style is pure, elegant, and vigorous. Photius thought that one who wished to become a panegyrist, need take neither Demosthenes nor Cicero for his model, but Basil only.
Of his works, his Five Books against Eunomius, written in 361, in defence of the deity of Christ, and his work on the Holy Ghost, written in 375, at the request of his friend Amphilochius, are important to the history of doctrine.
He at first, from fear of Sabellianism, recoiled from the strong doctrine of the homoousia; but the persecution of the Arians drove him to a decided confession. Of importance in the East is the Liturgy ascribed to him, which, with that of St. Chrysostom, is still in use, but has undoubtedly reached its present form by degrees.
We have also from St. Basil nine Homilies on the history of the Creation, which are full of allegorical fancies, but enjoyed the highest esteem in the ancient church, and were extensively used by Ambrose and somewhat by Augustine, in similar works; Homilies on the Psalms; Homilies on various subjects; several ascetic and moral treatises; and three hundred and sixty-five Epistles, which furnish much information concerning his life and times.
(Text of "History of the Christian Church" by Philip Schaff is in the Public Domain).
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Influenced by Pachomius, he founded monasteries in Cappadocia (eastern Asia Minor; modern-day Turkey).
He writes his own Rule, which greatly influenced the later Rule of St. Benedict.
He was the brother of Gregory of Nyssa (330-395 A.D.) and the friend of Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389 A.D.). _________