St. Basil the Great
Bishop of Caesarea, and one of the most distinguished Doctors of the Church.
Born probably 329; died 1 January, 379. He ranks after Athanasius as a defender
of the Oriental Church against the heresies of the fourth century. With his
friend Gregory of Nazianzus and his brother Gregory of Nyssa, he makes up the
trio known as
The Three Cappadocians, far outclassing the other two in
practical genius and actual achievement.
St. Basil the Elder, father of St. Basil the Great, was the son of a Christian of good birth and his wife, Macrina (Acta SS., January, II), both of whom suffered for the faith during the persecution of Maximinus Galerius (305-314), spending several years of hardship in the wild mountains of Pontus. St. Basil the Elder was noted for his virtue (Acta SS, May, VII) and also won considerable reputation as a teacher in Caesarea. He was not a priest (Cf. Cave, Hist. Lit., I, 239). He married Emmelia, the daughter of a martyr and became the father of ten children. Three of these, Macrina, Basil, and Gregory are honoured as saints; and of the sons, Peter, Gregory, and Basil attained the dignity of the episcopate.
Under the care of his father and his grandmother, the elder Macrina, who
preserved the traditions of their countryman, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (c.
213-275) Basil was formed in habits of piety and study. He was still young when
his father died and the family moved to the estate of the elder Macrina at
Annesi in Pontus, on the banks of the Iris. As a boy, he was sent to school at
a metropolis of letters, and conceived a fervent admiration for
the local bishop, Dianius. Later, he went to Constantinople, at that time
distinguished for its teachers of philosophy and rhetoric, and thence to
Athens. Here he became the inseparable companion of Gregory of Nazianzus, who,
in his famous panegyric on Basil (Or. xliii), gives a most interesting
description of their academic experiences. According to him, Basil was already
distinguished for brilliancy of mind and seriousness of character and associated
only with the most earnest students. He was able, grave, industrious, and well
advanced in rhetoric, grammar, philosophy, astronomy, geometry, and medicine.
(As to his not knowing Latin, see Fialon, Etude historique et littéraire sur St.
Basile, Paris, 1869). We know the names of two of Basil's teachers at Athens -
Prohaeresius, possibly a Christian, and Himerius, a pagan. It has been affirmed,
though probably incorrectly, that Basil spent some time under Libanius. He tells
us himself that he endeavoured without success to attach himself as a pupil to
Eustathius (Ep., I). At the end of his sojourn at Athens, Basil being laden,
says St. Gregory of Nazianzus
with all the learning attainable by the nature of
man, was well equipped to be a teacher. Caesarea took possession of him gladly
as a founder and second patron (Or. xliii), and as he tells us (ccx), he
refused the splendid offers of the citizens of Neo-Caesarea, who wished him to
undertake the education of the youth of their city.
To the successful student and distinguished professor,
there now remained,
says Gregory (Or. xliii),
no other need than that of spiritual perfection.
Gregory of Nyssa, in his life of Macrina, gives us to understand that Basil's
brilliant success both as a university student and a professor had left traces
of worldliness and self-sufficiency on the soul of the young man. Fortunately,
Basil came again in contact with Dianius, Bishop of Caesarea, the object of his
boyish affection, and Dianius seems to have baptized him, and ordained him
Reader soon after his return to Caesarea. It was at the same time also that he
fell under the influence of that very remarkable woman, his sister Macrina, who
had meanwhile founded a religious community on the family estate at Annesi.
Basil himself tells us how, like a man roused from deep sleep, he turned his
eyes to the marvellous truth of the Gospel, wept many tears over his miserable
life, and prayed for guidance from God:
Then I read the Gospel, and saw there
that a great means of reaching perfection was the selling of one's goods, the
sharing of them with the poor, the giving up of all care for this life, and the
refusal to allow the soul to be turned by any sympathy towards things of earth
(Ep. ccxxiii). To learn the ways of perfection, Basil now visited the
monasteries of Egypt, Palestine, Coele-Syria, and Mesopotamia. He returned,
filled with admiration for the austerity and piety of the monks, and founded a
monastery in his native Pontus, on the banks of the Iris, nearly opposite Annesi.
(Cf. Ramsay, Hist. Geog. of Asia Minor, London, 1890, p. 326). Eustathius of
Sebaste had already introduced the eremitical life into Asia Minor; Basil added
the cenobitic or community form, and the new feature was imitated by many
companies of men and women. (Cf. Sozomen, Hist. Eccl., VI, xxvii; Epiphanius,
Haer., lxxv, 1; Basil, Ep. ccxxiii; Tillemont, Mém., IX, Art. XXI, and note
XXVI.) Basil became known as the father of Oriental monasticism, the forerunner
of St. Benedict. How well he deserved the title, how seriously and in what
spirit he undertook the systematizing of the religious life, may be seen by the
study of his Rule. He seems to have read Origen's writings very systematically
about this time, for in union with Gregory of Nazianzus, he published a
selection of them called the
Basil was drawn from his retreat into the area of theological controversy in
360 when he accompanied two delegates from Seleucia to the emperor at
Constantinople, and supported his namesake of Ancyra. There is some dispute as
to his courage and his perfect orthodoxy on this occasion (cf. Philostorgius,
Hist. Eccl., IV, xii; answered by Gregory of Nyssa, In Eunom., I, and Maran,
Proleg., vii; Tillemont, Mém., note XVIII). A little later, however, both
qualities seem to have been sufficiently in evidence, as Basil forsook Dianius
for having signed the heretical creed of Rimini. To this time (c. 361) may be
Moralia; and a little later came two books against Eunomius (363)
and some correspondence with Athanasius. It is possible, also, that Basil wrote
his monastic rules in the briefer forms while in Pontus, and enlarged them later
at Caesarea. There is an account of an invitation from Julian for Basil to
present himself a court and of Basil's refusal, coupled with an admonition that
angered the emperor and endangered Basil's safety. Both incident and
correspondence however are questioned by some critics.
Basil still retained considerable influence in Caesarea, and it is regarded
as fairly probable that he had a hand in the election of the successor of
Dianius who died in 362, after having been reconciled to Basil. In any case the
new bishop, Eusebius, was practically placed in his office by the elder Gregory
of Nazianzus. Eusebius having persuaded the reluctant Basil to be ordained
priest, gave him a prominent place in the administration of the diocese (363).
In ability for the management of affairs Basil so far eclipsed the bishop that
ill-feeling rose between the two.
All the more eminent and wiser portion of the
church was roused against the bishop (Greg. Naz., Or. xliii; Ep. x), and to
avoid trouble Basil again withdrew into the solitude of Pontus. A little later
(365) when the attempt of Valens to impose Arianism on the clergy and the people
necessitated the presence of a strong personality, Basil was restored to his
former position, being reconciled to the bishop by St. Gregory of Nazianzus.
There seems to have been no further disagreement between Eusebius and Basil and
the latter soon became the real head of the diocese.
The one, says Gregory of
Nazianzus (Or. xliii),
led the people the other led their leader. During the
five years spent in this most important office, Basil gave evidence of being a
man of very unusual powers. He laid down the law to the leading citizens and the
imperial governors, settled disputes with wisdom and finality, assisted the
spiritually needy, looked after
the support of the poor, the entertainment of
strangers, the care of maidens, legislation written and unwritten for the
monastic life, arrangements of prayers, (liturgy?), adornment of the sanctuary
(op. cit.). In time of famine, he was the saviour of the poor.
In 370 Basil succeeded to the See of Caesarea, being consecrated according to
tradition on 14 June. Caesarea was then a powerful and wealthy city (Soz., Hist.
Eccl., V, v). Its bishop was Metropolitan of Cappadocia and Exarch of Pontus
which embraced more than half of Asia Minor and comprised eleven provinces. The
see of Caesarea ranked with Ephesus immediately after the patriarchal sees in
the councils, and the bishop was the superior of fifty chorepiscopi (Baert).
Basil's actual influence, says Jackson (Prolegomena, XXXII) covered the whole
stretch of country
from the Balkans to the Mediterranean and from the Aegean to
the Euphrates. The need of a man like Basil in such a see as Caesarea was most
pressing, and he must have known this well. Some think that he set about
procuring his own election; others (e.g. Maran, Baronius, Ceillier) say that he
made no attempt on his own behalf. In any event, he became Bishop of Caesarea
largely by the influence of the elder Gregory of Nazianzus. His election, says
the younger Gregory (loc. cit.), was followed by disaffection on the part of
several suffragan bishops
on whose side were found the greatest scoundrels in
the city. During his previous administration of the diocese Basil had so
clearly defined his ideas of discipline and orthodoxy, that no one could doubt
the direction and the vigour of his policy. St. Athanasius was greatly pleased
at Basil's election (Ad Pallad., 953; Ad Joann. et Ant., 951); but the
Arianizing Emperor Valens, displayed considerably annoyance and the defeated
minority of bishops became consistently hostile to the new metropolitan. By
years of tactful conduct, however,
blending his correction with consideration
and his gentleness with firmness (Greg. Naz., Or. xliii), he finally overcame
most of his opponents.
Basil's letters tell the story of his tremendous and varied activity; how he worked for the exclusion of unfit candidates from the sacred ministry and the deliverance of the bishops from the temptation of simony; how he required exact discipline and the faithful observance of the canons from both laymen and clerics; how he rebuked the sinful, followed up the offending, and held out hope of pardon to the penitent. (Cf. Epp. xliv, xlv, and xlvi, the beautiful letter to a fallen virgin, as well as Epp. liii, liv, lv, clxxxviii, cxcix, ccxvii, and Ep. clxix, on the strange incident of Glycerius, whose story is well filled out by Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire, New York, 1893, p. 443 sqq.) If on the one hand he strenuously defended clerical rights and immunities (Ep. civ), on the other he trained his clergy so strictly that they grew famous as the type of all that a priest should be (Epp. cii, ciii). Basil did not confine his activity to diocesan affairs, but threw himself vigorously into the troublesome theological disputes then rending the unity of Christendom. He drew up a summary of the orthodox faith; he attacked by word of mouth the heretics near at hand and wrote tellingly against those afar. His correspondence shows that he paid visits, sent messages, gave interviews, instructed, reproved, rebuked, threatened, reproached, undertook the protection of nations, cities, individuals great and small. There was very little chance of opposing him successfully, for he was a cool, persistent, fearless fighter in defence both of doctrine and of principles. His bold stand against Valens parallels the meeting of Ambrose with Theodosius. The emperor was dumbfounded at the archbishop's calm indifference to his presence and his wishes. The incident, as narrated by Gregory of Nazianzus, not only tells much concerning Basil's character but throws a clear light on the type of Christian bishop with which the emperors had to deal and goes far to explain why Arianism, with little court behind it, could make so little impression on the ultimate history of Catholicism.
While assisting Eusebius in the care of his diocese, Basil had shown a marked
interest in the poor and afflicted; that interest now displayed itself in the
erection of a magnificent institution, the Ptochoptopheion, or Basileiad, a
house for the care of friendless strangers, the medical treatment of the sick
poor, and the industrial training of the unskilled. Built in the suburbs, it
attained such importance as to become practically the centre of a new city with
the name of he kaine polis or
Newtown. It was the motherhouse of like
institutions erected in other dioceses and stood as a constant reminder to the
rich of their privilege of spending wealth in a truly Christian way. It may be
mentioned here that the social obligations of the wealthy were so plainly and
forcibly preached by St. Basil that modern sociologists have ventured to claim
him as one of their own, though with no more foundation than would exist in the
case of any other consistent teacher of the principles of Catholic ethics. The
truth is that St. Basil was a practical lover of Christian poverty, and even in
his exalted position preserved that simplicity in food and clothing and that
austerity of life for which he had been remarked at his first renunciation of
In the midst of his labours, Basil underwent suffering of many kinds.
Athanasius died in 373 and the elder Gregory in 374, both of them leaving gaps
never to be filled. In 373 began the painful estrangement from Gregory of
Nazianzus. Anthimus, Bishop of Tyana, became an open enemy, Apollinaris
of sorrow to the churches (Ep. cclxiii), Eustathius of Sebaste a traitor to the
Faith and a personal foe as well. Eusebius of Samosata was banished, Gregory of
Nyssa condemned and deposed. When Emperor Valentinian died and the Arians
recovered their influence, all Basil's efforts must have seemed in vain. His
health was breaking, the Goths were at the door of the empire, Antioch was in
schism, Rome doubted his sincerity, the bishops refused to be brought together
as he wished.
The notes of the church were obscured in his part of Christendom,
and he had to fare on as best he might, - admiring, courting, yet coldly treated
by the Latin world, desiring the friendship of Rome, yet wounded by her reserve,
- suspected of heresy by Damasus, and accused by Jerome of pride (Newman, The
Church of the Fathers). Had he lived a little longer and attended the Council of
Constantinople (381), he would have seen the death of its first president, his
friend Meletius, and the forced resignation of its second, Gregory of Nazianzus.
Basil died 1 January, 379. His death was regarded as a public bereavement; Jews,
pagans, and foreigners vied with his own flock in doing him honour. The earlier
Latin martyrologies (Hieronymian and Bede) make no mention of a feast of St.
Basil. The first mention is by Usuard and Ado who place it on 14 June, the
supposed date of Basil's consecration to the episcopate. In the Greek
he is commemorated on 1 January, the day of his death. In 1081, John, Patriarch
of Constantinople, in consequence of a vision, established a feast in common
honour of St. Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom, to be celebrated
on 30 January. The Bollandists give an account of the origin of this feast; they
also record as worthy of note that no relics of St. Basil are mentioned before
the twelfth century, at which time parts of his body, together with some other
very extraordinary relics were reputed to have been brought to Bruges by a
returning Crusader. Baronius (c. 1599) gave to the Naples Oratory a relic of St.
Basil sent from Constantinople to the pope. The Bollandists and Baronius print
descriptions of Basil's personal appearance and the former reproduce two icons,
the older copied from a codex presented to Basil, Emperor of the East (877-886).
By common consent, Basil ranks among the greatest figures in church history and the rather extravagant panegyric by Gregory of Nazianzus has been all but equalled by a host of other eulogists. Physically delicate and occupying his exalted position but a few years, Basil did magnificent and enduring work in an age of more violent world convulsions than Christianity has since experienced. (Cf. Newman, The Church of the Fathers). By personal virtue he attained distinction in an age of saints; and his purity, his monastic fervour, his stern simplicity, his friendship for the poor became traditional in the history of Christian asceticism. In fact, the impress of his genius was stamped indelibly on the Oriental conception of religious life. In his hands the great metropolitan see of Caesarea took shape as the sort of model of the Christian diocese; there was hardly any detail of episcopal activity in which he failed to mark out guiding lines and to give splendid example. Not the least of his glories is the fact that toward the officials of the State he maintained that fearless dignity and independence which later history has shown to be an indispensable condition of healthy life in the Catholic episcopate.
Some difficulty has arisen out of the correspondence of St. Basil with the
Roman See. That he was in communion with the Western bishops and that he wrote
repeatedly to Rome asking that steps be taken to assist the Eastern Church in
her struggle with schismatics and heretics is undoubted; but the disappointing
result of his appeals drew from him certain words which require explanation.
Evidently he was deeply chagrined that Pope Damasus on the one hand hesitated to
condemn Marcellus and the Eustathians, and on the other preferred Paulinus to
Meletius in whose right to the See of Antioch St. Basil most firmly believed. At
the best it must be admitted that St. Basil criticized the pope freely in a
private letter to Eusebius of Samosata (Ep. ccxxxix) and that he was indignant
as well as hurt at the failure of his attempt to obtain help from the West.
Later on, however, he must have recognized that in some respects he had been
hasty; in any event, his strong emphasis of the influence which the Roman See
could exercise over the Eastern bishops, and his abstaining from a charge of
anything like usurpation are great facts that stand out obviously in the story
of the disagreement. With regard to the question of his association with the
Semi-Arians, Philostorgius speaks of him as championing the Semi-Arian cause,
and Newman says he seems unavoidably to have Arianized the first thirty years of
his life. The explanation of this, as well as of the disagreement with the Holy
See, must be sought in a careful study of the times, with due reference to the
unsettled and changeable condition of theological distinctions, the lack of
anything like a final pronouncement by the Church's defining power, the
lingering imperfections of the Saints (Newman), the substantial orthodoxy of
many of the so-called Semi-Arians, and above all the great plan which Basil was
steadily pursuing of effecting unity in a disturbed and divided Christendom.
Of the five books against Eunomius (c. 364) the last two are classed as
spurious by some critics. The work assails the equivalent Arianism of Eunomius
and defends the Divinity of the Three Persons of the Trinity; it is well
summarized by Jackson (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series II, VIII). The
De Spiritu Sancto, or treatise on the Holy Spirit (c. 375) was evoked in
part by the Macedonian denial of the Divinity of the Third Person and in part by
charges that Basil himself had
slurred over the Spirit (Gregory Naz., Ep.
lviii), that he had advocated communion with all such a should admit simply that
the Holy Ghost was not a creature (Basil, Ep. cxiii), and that he had sanctioned
the use of a novel doxology, namely,
Glory be to the Father with the Son
together with the Holy Ghost (De Sp. S., I, i) The treatise teaches the
doctrine of the Divinity of the Holy Ghost, while avoiding the phrase
Holy Ghost for prudential reasons (Greg. Naz., Or. xliii). Wuilcknis and Swete
affirm the necessity of some such reticence on Basil's part. (Cf. Jackson, op.
cit., p. XXIII, note.) With regard to Basil's teaching on the Third Person, as
expressed in his work against Eunomius (III, i), a controversy arose at the
Council of Florence between the Latins and the Greeks; but strong arguments both
external and internal, availed to place Basil on the side of the
dogmatic writings were edited separately by Goldhorn, in his
S. Basilii Opera
Dogmatica Selecta (Leipzig, 1854). The
De Spiritu Sancto, was translated into
English by Johnston (Oxford, 1892); by Lewis in the Christian Classic Series
(1888); and by Jackson (op. cit.).
These include nine HomilieEine Homilie (von griech.„ὁμιλεῖν”, „vertraut miteinander reden”) ist eine Art von Predigt. Während eine Predigt die Großtaten Gottes preist (lat. „praedicare”, „preisen”) und Menschen für den Glauben begeistern will, hat die Homilie lehrhaften Charakter. s
On the Hexaemeron and thirteen (Maran) genuine
HomilieEine Homilie (von griech.„ὁμιλεῖν”, „vertraut miteinander reden”) ist eine Art von Predigt. Während eine Predigt die Großtaten Gottes preist (lat. „praedicare”, „preisen”) und Menschen für den Glauben begeistern will, hat die Homilie lehrhaften Charakter. s on particular Psalms. A lengthy commentary on the first sixteen
chapters of Isaias is of doubtful authenticity (Jackson), though by a
contemporary hand. A commentary on Job has disappeared.
The Hexaemeron was
highly admired by Gregory of Nazianzus (Or. xliii, no. 67). It is translated
entire by Jackson (op. cit.). The HomilieEine Homilie (von griech.„ὁμιλεῖν”, „vertraut miteinander reden”) ist eine Art von Predigt. Während eine Predigt die Großtaten Gottes preist (lat. „praedicare”, „preisen”) und Menschen für den Glauben begeistern will, hat die Homilie lehrhaften Charakter. s on the Psalms are moral and hortatory
rather than strictly exegetical. In interpreting the Scripture, Basil uses both
the literal and the allegorical methods, but favours the literal system of
Antioch. His second homily contains a denunciation of usury which has become
Twenty-four sermons, doctrinal, moral, and panegyrical in character, are
looked upon as generally genuine, certain critical difficulties, however,
remaining still unsolved. Eight of these sermons were translated into Latin by
Rufinus. The discourses place Basil among the very greatest of Christian
preachers and evince his special gift for preaching upon the responsibilities of
wealth. The most noteworthy in the collection are the HomilieEine Homilie (von griech.„ὁμιλεῖν”, „vertraut miteinander reden”) ist eine Art von Predigt. Während eine Predigt die Großtaten Gottes preist (lat. „praedicare”, „preisen”) und Menschen für den Glauben begeistern will, hat die Homilie lehrhaften Charakter. s on the rich (vi
and vii) copied by St. Ambrose (De Nabuthe Jez., v, 21-24), and the homily (xxii)
on the study of pagan literature. The latter was edited by Fremion (Paris, 1819,
with French translation), Sommer (Paris, 1894), Bach (Münster, 1900), and
Maloney (New York, 1901). With regard to Basil's style and his success as a
preacher much has been written. (Cf. Villemain,
Tableau d'éloq. Chrét. au IVe
siècle, Paris, 1891; Fialon,
Etude Litt. sur St. B., Paris, 1861); Roux,
Etude sur la prédication de B. le Grand, Strasburg, 1867; Croiset,
la litt. Grecque, Paris, 1899.)
Moral and Ascetical
This group contains much of spurious or doubtful origin. Probably authentic
are the latter two of the three prefatory treatises, and the five treatises:
On the Judgment of God,
The Longer Monastic Rules,
The Shorter Monastic Rules. The twenty-four sermons on morals are a a cento of
extracts from the writings of Basil made by Simeon Metaphrastes. Concerning the
authenticity of the Rules there has been a good deal of discussion. As is plain
from these treatises and from the HomilieEine Homilie (von griech.„ὁμιλεῖν”, „vertraut miteinander reden”) ist eine Art von Predigt. Während eine Predigt die Großtaten Gottes preist (lat. „praedicare”, „preisen”) und Menschen für den Glauben begeistern will, hat die Homilie lehrhaften Charakter. s that touch upon ascetical or moral
subjects, St. Basil was particularly felicitous in the field of spiritual
The extant letters of Basil are 366 in number, two-thirds of them belonging
to the period of his episcopate. The so-called
Canonical Epistles have been
assailed as spurious, but are almost surely genuine. The correspondence with
Julian and with Libanius is probably apocryphal; the correspondence with
Apollinarus is uncertain. All of the 366 letters are translated in the
and Post-Nicene Fathers. Some of the letters are really dogmatic treatises, and
others are apologetic replies to personal attacks. In general they are very
useful for their revelation of the saint's character and for the pictures of his
age which they offer.
Liturgy of St. Basil exists in Greek and in Coptic. It goes
back at least to the sixth century, but its connexion with Basil has been a
matter of critical discussion (Brightman,
Liturgies, Eastern and Western,
Oxford, 1896, I; Probst,
Die Liturgie des vierten Jahrhunderts und deren
Reform, Münster, 1893, 377-412).
EDITIONS OF ST. BASIL
The editio princeps of the original text of the extant works of Basil
appeared at Basle, 1551, and the first complete Latin translation at Rome, 1515
(autograph manuscript in the British Museum). The best edition is that of the
Maurist Benedictines, Garnier and Maran (Paris, 1721-30), republished with
appendixes by Migne (P. G., XXIX-XXXII). For fragments attributed to Basil with
more or less certainty, and edited by Matthaei, Mai, Pitra, and others, see
Patrologie (Freiburg, 1901), 247. Portions of letters recently
discovered in Egyptian papyri were published by H. Landwehr,
Handschriften aus Fayûm, in
Philologus, XLIII (1884).
GREG. NAZ., Prationes, especially xliii; IDEM, Epistolae; Carm. de vit=E1 su=E2; GREG. NYSS., Vita Macrinae; IDEM, Or. in laudem fratris Basilii; IDEM, In Eunom., I; SOCRATES, Hist. Eccl., IV, xxvi; VI, iii; SOZOMON, Hist. Eccl., VI, xxvi; VI, xv, xvi, xvii, xxii; RUFINUS, Hist. Eccl., II, ix; THEODORET, Hist. Eccl., IV, xix; PHILOSTORGIUS, Hist. Eccl., VIII, xi-xiii; EPHILEM SYRUS, Encomium in Bas., ap. COTELIER, Mon. Eccl. Gr., II; JEROME, De Vir. Illust., cxvi. The Vita Basilii by AMPHILOCHIUS is a forgery of about the ninth century. NEWMAN, Church of the Fathers, I-III
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