Basil of Caesarea

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BASIL OF CAESAREA (c. 329379), called "the Great"; Christian theologian, bishop of Caesarea (modern Kayseri, Turkey), and one of three great Cappadocian fathers of the church (together with his friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, and his younger brother, Gregory of Nyssa).

Basil was born into a deeply Christian family of high social standing and extensive possessions. His grandmother Macrina, his parents Basil and Emmelia, his older sister Macrina, and his younger brothers Gregory of Nyssa and Peter of Sebaste are venerated as saints in both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Basil received a Christian education from childhood; his father, who was a rhetor, also gave him the beginnings of his secular training. After the early death of his father, Basil continued his secondary education in Caesarea (c. 345347) and then pursued further studies in rhetoric and philosophy in Constantinople (c. 348350), where he was probably a student of the famous pagan rhetor Libanius. Finally, he studied, together with Gregory of Nazianzus, in Athens (c. 350355). Returning home, Basil seems to have taught rhetoric for a short time, but soon gave up a promising worldly career for the Christian ascetic ideal.

In accordance with the fourth-century custom of late baptismeven in fully Christian familiesBasil was baptized and ordained a reader of scripture in Caesarea by Bishop Dianius, undertook a tour of monastic settlements in Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Egypt (c. 356357), and then joined his mother and his sister Macrina in a semi-eremitical type of asceticism on a family estate at Annesi in Pontus. Dianius's successor, Eusebius, ordained Basil a priest (c. 364), and he soon became the actual leader of the diocese. After the death of Eusebius (c. 370), Basil was elected bishop of Caesarea and as such became metropolitan of Cappadocia. He fulfilled his office in an exemplary manner and extended his pastoral care to all aspects of the life of the church. He led the faithful, especially through his sermons, to a deeper understanding of their Christian faith. He supported the needy with social institutions, financed in great part from the selling of his possessions. He gave direction to the thriving, but often "sectarian" monastic movement and integrated it within the Christian community as a whole. He worked unceasingly against doctrinal and political divisions within the Eastern church and between Eastern and Western Christianity. Consumed by hard discipline and labors, he died on January 1, 379.

Because of the respect he enjoyed during his lifetime, Basil's works have been relatively well preserved. They reveal both his own quest for Christian perfection and his concerns as leader of the church. The Philokalia, apparently published posthumously, is an anthology of excerpts from Origen's writings, compiled by Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus during their retirement in Annesi. It reflects their critical assimilation of the theology of Origen and preserves many of his texts in the original Greek. In this same period he composed the Moralia, an anthology of more than 1,500 verses of the New Testament, distributed under eighty headings (rules), as guidelines for a perfect Christian life; it is directed, for the most part, to all believers, not only to monks and clergy. It was originally published with a preface, On the Judgment of God, to which Basil later added a second preface, On the Faith. During Basil's years as a priest he composed his "little" Asceticon (preserved in the Latin translation of Rufinus); the full version (the "great" Asceticon ), completed during his later years as a bishop, consists of fifty-five "longer rules," or systematic regulations of the cenobitic life (i.e., monastic life in a community) and 313 "shorter rules," or practical answers to the questions emerging in such communities.

Basil's numerous letters (366 of which have been preserved) cover his life from the time of his return from Athens and contain precious information on the history of the church in the fourth century. His sermons are more difficult to date; some were preached during his priesthood, but the majority during his episcopate. Particularly famous are the nine Homilies on the Hexaemeron (i.e., on the story of creation in six days according to Genesis ).

The most important of his dogmatic works are Against Eunomius (c. 364), a refutation of extreme Arianism (books 4 and 5 are not by Basil), and his substantial treatise On the Holy Spirit (c. 375), which is directed against those who denied that equal glory is to be given to the third person of the Trinity. The small treatise On the Spirit, a radical rewriting in the sense of the Christian Trinity of Ennead 5.1 of Plotinus ("founder" of Neoplatonism, c. 205270), is probably not by Basil, although it seems to have influenced him. Particularly revered from the time of the European Renaissance is Basil's short treatise, To the Young, on How They Might Derive Benefit from Greek Literature, written probably in the last years of his life.

Basil's theology is both "theoretical" (i.e., contemplative) and "practical" (i.e., giving guidance for life). The strife-torn situation of the contemporary church, according to him, results primarily from the failure of Christians to live according to their faith (see On the Judgment of God). Only the grace of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit can accomplish salvation, but in order to receive this, one should live according to God's precepts as manifested in the gospel, especially the two greatest commands, the love of God and of neighbor. Insisting on fidelity in practice, Basil was equally concerned with the purity of faith. He defended the divinity of the Son against the denial of the Arians (especially Eunomius), and the equal glory of the Holy Spirit against the so-called Pneumatomachians ("fighters against the spirit"), even though, to the disappointment of his friends, he did not demand an explicit confession of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Clearly asserting, however, both the unity of the divine essence (ousia ) and the distinction of the three persons (hupos-taseis: that is, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), Basil anticipated the definitive formulation of the trinitarian faith by the Council of Constantinople (381).

Basil had a profound and far-reaching influence on both Eastern and Western Christianity. His trinitarian faith, further clarified by the other two great Cappodocians, became normative for subsequent Christianity, and a basis for overcoming the divisions of the church that arose from the trinitarian controversies. Eastern monasticism, of crucial importance throughout the history of the church, still follows (with modifications) the rule of Basil, which was also one of the important resources of Western monasticism. The so-called "Liturgy of Saint Basil," still in use in the Eastern church, originated in his practice and writings. There can be no doubt that his life and teaching have been a source of inspiration for many Christians through the ages.


Works by Basil of Caesarea

The only complete edition of the works of Basil in the original Greek with parallel Latin translation is that prepared by Julien Garnier and Prudentius Maran in 3 volumes (Paris, 17211730), reprinted in J.-P. Migne's Patrologia Graeca, vols. 2932 (Paris, 1857, 1886). The photomechanical reprints of these volumes (Turnhout, 19591961) contain new introductions by Jean Gribomont, giving a survey of all editions and translations of Basil's works, with information on authenticity and chronology. A complete listing of Basil's works, indicating the best edition for each, with information as to authenticity, is given in Maurice Geerards's Clavis Patrum Graecorum, vol. 2 (Turnhout, 1974), pp. 140178.

Basil's works can be found in English translation in Letters and Selected Works, translated by Blomfield Jackson, "Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers," 2d series, vol. 8 (1886; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich., 19781979); The Ascetic Works, translated by W. K. L. Clarke (London, 1925); Letters, 4 vols., edited and translated by Roy J. Defarrari, "Loeb Classical Library" (Cambridge, Mass., 19261934), volume 4 of which also contains the Address to Young Men on Reading Greek Literature (pp. 363435); Ascetical Works, translated by Monica Wagner, "Fathers of the Church," vol. 9 (Washington, D.C., 1950); Letters, translated by A. C. Way, "Fathers of the Church," vols. 13, 28 (Washington, D. C., 19511955); Exegetic Homilies, translated by A. C. Way, "Fathers of the Church," vol. 46 (Washington, D. C., 1963); and Saint Basil on the Value of Greek Literature, edited and translated by Nigel G. Wilson (London, 1975).

Works about Basil of Caesarea

Basil of Caesarea: Christian, Humanist, Ascetic; A Sixteen-Hundredth Anniversary Symposium, 2 vols., edited by Paul Jonathan Fedwick (Toronto, 1981), contains papers presented at an international symposium held in Toronto, June 1016, 1979, on all major aspects of Basil's life, works, thought, and influence, by leading specialists, with extensive bibliography.

David L. BalÁs (1987)