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Frederick Morgan PADELFORD, Essays on the Study and Use of Poetry by Plutarch and Basil the Great.  Yale Studies in English 15 (1902) pp. 33-43.  Introduction to St. Basil.


The Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature is not the anxious admonition of a bigoted ecclesiastic, apprehensive for the supremacy of the Sacred Writings. Rather, it is the educational theory of a cultured man, whose familiarity with classical learning and enthusiasm for it were second only to his knowledge of the Scriptures and zeal for righteousness. No student of the classics in Christian times has been more significantly placed for estimating justly the peculiar excellencies and defects of the Greek learning, and no other scholar has written with a truer perspective, and with more sanity, large-mindedness, and justice. These qualities in the address can be adequately appreciated only after the reader has become acquainted with the remarkable life of the author.

Moreover, the appreciation of the address demands not only that its pages be read in the light of the author's career, but also that the place of the essay in the development of ecclesiastical philosophy be understood.

Accordingly the following pages will attempt to give, first a survey of the life of Basil, and secondly, a review of the varieties of attitude assumed toward classical learning by those ecclesiastics who wrote prior to the time of Basil.

St. Basil was born at Caesarea in the year 329, in a home of culture and piety. His father, who came from a family which had stood high in military and civic affairs, followed the profession of rhetoric, and was a man of wealth and of public spirit, noted for his benefactions. His grandmother Macrina, and mother St. Emmelia, were to him a Lois and a Eunice, and trained him in the Holy Scriptures from his infancy. Thus Basil grew up in an atmosphere of gentleness, of learning, and of Christian fervor. It is a sufficient comment upon this home life that of the ten children four |34 became saints, St. Macrina, St. Gregory Nyssen, St. Peter, and St. Basil; that three became bishops; and that St. Basil is one of thirteen upon whom the Catholic Church has conferred the title of Doctor Ecclesiae.

When a lad, Basil was sent to Byzantium to study under Libanius, the celebrated rhetorician and sophist, then at the height of his popularity. Under this teacher the youth was trained in the felicities of Greek expression, and from him derived that love for Greek literature which led him, at the age of twenty-one, to seek the refined atmosphere of Athens, the centre of learning, and the home of arts and letters. To this city resorted the most promising young men of Europe and Asia, and there they devoted themselves to the acquisition of learning with an intensity which rivaled the most flourishing days of the schools at Alexandria,

Basil was welcomed to Athens by a Cappadocian youth who had himself but just arrived, Gregory Nazianzen, and the two young men soon became fast friends. They were well adapted to each other, for the judicial exactness of Basil, and his poise—one might almost say his melancholy— were happily complemented by Gregory's intellectual brilliancy, and his liveliness of disposition. Of this friendship Gregory wrote as follows: 'It was one soul which had two bodies. Eloquence, the most inspiring pursuit in the world, incited us to an equal ardor, yet without creating any jealousy whatever. We lived in each other. We knew but two walks: the first and dearest, that which led to the church and its teachers; the other, less exalted, which led to the school and its masters.' [Orat. 43.]

A third young man who shared to some extent in this friendship was Julian, the cousin of Constantius II, then a scholarly recluse and a Christian, but soon to become emperor and an apostate.

Within a very short time, their attainments in scholarship and their remarkable ability as public speakers gave Basil and Gregory an enviable reputation, not only in Athens itself, but in every other city where learning was fostered. |35 

After five years spent in Athens, and when he was giving every promise of an exceptional career, Basil suddenly announced his purpose to leave the city; he had been coming to feel that, with all of its learning, Athens laid emphasis upon the less essential things, that, as he expressed it, 'life there was hollow blessedness.' In this feeling Gregory to some extent shared, and accordingly decided to leave with his friend. When the day of departure arrived, companions and even teachers crowded around and besought them to stay, even offering violence; but although they prevailed for the time upon the more yielding Gregory, Basil was resolute, and retired to Caesarea.

For a short period he practiced law in his native city, yet, despite his brilliant début, his heart was not in his work, and he decided to escape from business cares and renounce the world. Accordingly, that he might determine what kind of retirement would prove most agreeable, 'he traveled over much sea and land,' 1 and visited the hermits in Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor. On his return he sought out a wild and beautiful retreat in Pontus, where, surrounded by lofty crags, a mountain stream tossing and leaping near by, and a lovely plain spread out beneath, he erected a monastery, and established a brotherhood. This was in 358.

For four years he led here a serene and joyous life, devoted to prayer and psalmody, the study of the inspired writers, and peaceful labor. In the course of time he experienced the pleasure of a visit from his beloved friend, and years later Gregory drew a charming picture of those happy days, in which he recalled with equal pleasure the songs of praise in the rustic chapel, and the little plane-tree which he had planted with his own hands.2

Occasionally Basil left his retreat to preach to the country people, or to perform deeds of mercy, as when, for example, in the course of a famine he sold his lands to provide bread for the starving inhabitants of the province. It was characteristic of the man that Jews, pagans, and Christians were treated with equal consideration. |36 

But this attractive life was not allowed to be permanent, for Basil was summoned to Constantinople to aid the bishop of Ancyrus in his struggle with Eunomius, the new and forceful exponent of the Arian heresy. Henceforth he was never long absent from public life.

In 362 occurred an event which occasioned bitter enmity between Basil and Gregory and their college friend Julian, and threatened great injury to the cause of the church. Julian, then emperor, had invited Basil to Rome, and he was preparing to embark, when word was received that upon the standards of the army the cross of Christ had been replaced by the images of the gods. Basil correctly interpreted this as indicative of apostasy, and refused to have any further intercourse with the Emperor. Julian was greatly angered, and in retaliation decreed that the study of the classics should be denied to Christians. These were his haughty and ironical words: 'For us are the eloquence and the arts of the Greeks, and the worship of the gods; for you, ignorance and rusticity, and nothing else, I fear; so, your wisdom.' 3 This was indeed bitter revenge, for the Church had found her hold upon classical learning the most effective weapon against the pagans. The indignation of Gregory gives some idea of the consternation which this decree occasioned, and of the value which he and his friend placed upon classical learning: 'I forego all the rest, riches, birth, honor, authority, and all goods here below of which the charm vanishes like a dream; but I cling to oratory, nor do I regret the toil, nor the journeys by land and sea, which I have undertaken to master it.' 4

This announcement promised to be but the beginning of a series of persecutions, but death providentially cut short the career of Julian in 363.

In the following year Basil was ordained priest by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, but the fame which his sermons upon the death of Julian secured for the young priest aroused|37 the jealousy of the bishop, and Basil retired to Pontus. However, by his modest conduct he succeeded in regaining the friendship of Eusebius, and after three years was recalled to help check the Arian heresy. His learning, his ability as an orator, and his fearless but gentle conduct, all fitted him for such a task.

In 370, despite much bitter opposition, not simply on the part of strangers, but from his own uncle as well, Basil was raised to the episcopate of Caesarea. The task which devolved upon him as bishop was to cultivate a spirit of harmony and of whole-hearted service among his clergy, and, both in his own province and indirectly in the neighboring provinces, to cherish the orthodox faith as outlined in the Nicene creed.

In many respects this was the most trying period in the history of the early Church. Christians were no longer called upon to be martyrs, as had been the case a century before, but the wealth and prestige to which the Church had attained was impairing that simplicity which had made the Church of the first centuries so effective. As a result, many selfish and ambitious men were attracted to ecclesiastical service, and it was more difficult for even an unselfish man to lead a godly life. Moreover, the Church was divided into many warring factions, such as the Arians, the Semi-Arians, and the Sabellians, the Arians being especially determined and overbearing, because they had gained the support of the emperor Valens. It is to the glory of Basil that at such a time he stood for the Apostolic ideals.

Immediately upon the assumption of his new office Basil set about gaining the good will and allegiance of those of the clergy who had opposed his election. This work was progressing with reasonable expedition, when suddenly he was confronted by the emperor himself and commanded to renounce the orthodox faith. This Basil flatly refused to do, and the cowardly Valens was awed into admiration. Henceforth Basil had nothing to fear from imperial intervention, and yet, because most of the other bishops of the |38 East had complied with the emperor's demands, the task of supporting the true faith was rendered correspondingly more difficult. The Arians opposed him at every turn, and, what was harder to bear, the Sabellians misinterpreted his motives in trying to win back the Semi-Arians to the true faith by mildness and sympathy, and accused him of heresy. Even some of those who professed the orthodox belief, and who should have supported him in his heroic efforts to preserve the integrity of the faith, misunderstood him, and, most distressing of all, his lifelong friend Gregory accused him of attempting to turn their friendship to selfish ends. Lastly, even the Pope and the bishops of the West turned a deaf ear to his appeals for help. Is it any wonder that a body already weakened by asceticism and wasted by disease gave way in this unequal struggle?

Basil did not live to behold the triumph of the Catholic faith. He saw but the dark hour before the dawn. And yet he was victorious, victorious because he kept the rank and file of the Church in Cappadocia true to the faith of the fathers. The simple folk who hungered and thirsted after righteousness loved and followed him, attracted by his austere living, the sweetness and integrity of his character, his singleness of purpose, and his high thoughts. Small wonder that this was so, for even when oppressed with the duties of his high office and broken in body, he frequently stole away to be with these simple people, to comfort them in their afflictions, and to teach them, in sermons which delight us to-day equally by their Hebraic fervor and their classical form and idiom, to behold God in his handiwork. Listen as he points out to them the glory of the heavens: 'There is our ancient native seat, from which the murderous demon has cast us down. If things created for time are so grand, what will be the things of eternity? If things visible are so beautiful, what will be the invisible? If the immensity of the skies surpasses the measure of human thought, what intelligence can fathom the depths of eternity? If this eye of nature, which so adorns it, this sun, which, though |39 perishable, is yet so beautiful, so rapid in movement, so well adapted in size to the world, offers us an inexhaustible theme for contemplation, what will be the beauty of the sun of divine righteousness?' 5

Or again: 'If the ocean is beautiful and worthy of praise to God, how much more beautiful is the conduct of this Christian assembly, where the voices of men, women, and children, blended and sonorous like the waves that break upon the beach, rise amidst our prayers to the very presence of God!' 6

Basil's death occurred on January 1st, 279, when he was but fifty years of age. Like many another valiant soldier of the Cross, he died with these words upon his lips: 'Into thy hands I commend my spirit.' The scene at his funeral was an impressive one. The entire province was given over to grief, and pagans and Jews united with Christians in their lamentations. As the funeral procession advanced, many perished in their desire to approach the coffin, but they were accounted happy to die on such a day, and the people called them the funeral victims.

So lived and died this scholar and man of God.


Let us now turn from the life of St. Basil to a brief consideration of the Address to Young Men in relation to the attitude assumed by earlier ecclesiastics toward Greek learning.

If we condense the thought of the essay into the fewest words, the result is something as follows: While classical philosophy, oratory, and poetry even at their best do not reveal the truth with absolute accuracy, they yet reflect it as in a mirror; the truth may be seen face to face only in the Scriptures, yet it is possible in the pagan writings to trace, as it were, its silhouette. Accordingly, for those who are not yet prepared for the strong meat of the Scriptures, the study of Greek literature is a valuable preparatory course.

This is virtually the attitude taken toward classical |40 learning by several of the early Church writers, and, therefore a survey of so much of the ecclesiastical philosophy as concerns Greek poetry and philosophy will help to establish the antecedents of Basil's essay.

It was inevitable that, when Christianity came in contact with the speculative genius of the Greeks and the Oriental pantheistic naturalism, there should be an effort to advance from Christian faith to Christian knowledge, and to discover a philosophic basis for the teachings of the Holy Scriptures. This first effort was made by the so-called Gnostics, who exerted their greatest influence in the middle of the second century. The Hellenic Gnostics attempted to employ the writings of the Greek philosophers to explain the Scriptures, but the many perplexing questions which they strove to answer soon led them as far away from the doctrines of Plato as from those of Paul. Beginning with the attempt to discover the allegorical significance of the Scriptures, Gnosticism ended in mere chimerical speculation, in mysticism, mythology, and theosophy. It exerted little permanent influence, and by the time of Basil was no longer a force in religious controversy.

Contemporaneously with the flourishing of Gnosticism, however, wrote Justin Martyr, who influenced very much the ecclesiastical writers of the East during the third and fourth centuries. As a young man Justin made a thorough study of the Greek philosophy, being especially attracted to the writings of Plato and of the Stoics, but as he grew older his admiration for the fortitude of the Christians, and for their sublime faith—an admiration which was intensified by his growing distrust in the sovereignty of human reason—led him to embrace Christianity. Henceforth he was the champion of the new religion. This, however, was not at the expense of Greek philosophy, for his breadth of view enabled him to recognize the worth both of the profane and of the Sacred Writings.

Justin bases his philosophy upon the Logos of John's Gospel. Wherever truth is found, it is an expression of the |41 divine Logos; Plato, Homer, Pythagoras, and Solon received partial revelations of it, and indeed it reveals itself somewhat to every man, though the one perfect and complete revelation is Christ, who is the Logos incarnate.

For our present purpose we need observe in detail only that phase of Justin's philosophy which is concerned with classical literature. Greek philosophy and poetry are to be esteemed highly, because, to an unusual degree, they express the divine revelation. Not only did such men as Homer and Plato experience revelations of the truth, but they were also familiar with the teachings of Moses, and indeed with all of the Old Testament. Such doctrines in Plato as eternal punishment, the immortality of the soul, and the freedom of the will, were borrowed from the early Jewish books.7

Of the other four prominent apologists of the second century, Tatian, Hernias, and Theophilus condemn and ridicule Greek philosophy, and Athenagoras assumes an attitude similar to that of Justin. Tatian, who was an Assyrian, abused all things Greek with barbaric severity,8 Hermas wrote an Abuse of the Pagan Philosophers, and Theophilus called the doctrines of the Greek philosophers foolishness.9 Athenagoras, on the other hand, esteemed the Greek philosophers, and quoted them in support of the unity of God, a truth which he believed the Spirit had revealed to them despite the prevailing polytheism of their country.10

The closing years of the second century and the first half of the third were engrossed in the controversy which the Gnostics had aroused. Anti-Gnosticism found its most spirited champion in Tertullian, the foremost Latin ecclesiastical writer of the early centuries. Tertullian believed that Christianity alone possessed the truth, that philosophy was the source of all heresies, and that Plato and other Greek philosophers, though they had stolen certain isolated truths |42 from Moses, which they arrogated to themselves, were exponents of falsehood. So extreme was his antipathy to philosophy that he eventually declared: Credo quid absurdum est.11

On the other hand Clement of Alexandria and his pupil, Origen, the founder of the school to which Basil, Gregory Nyssen, and Gregory Nazianzen adhered, endeavored to separate the true from the false in Gnosticism. Both of them laid much stress upon the value of Greek philosophy.

Ueberweg gives the following comprehensive digest of Clement's views concerning the relation of the pagan writings to the Scriptures: 'Clement adopts the view of Justin, that to Christianity, as the whole truth, the conceptions of ante-Christian times are opposed, not as mere errors, but as partial truths. The divine Logos, which is everywhere poured out, like the light of the sun (Stromata v. 3), enlightened the souls of men from the beginning. It instructed the Jews through Moses and the prophets (Paedagogus i. 7). Among the Greeks, on the contrary, it called forth wise men, and gave them, through the mediation of the lower angels, whom the Logos had appointed to be shepherds of the nations (Strom. vii. 2), philosophy as a guide to righteousness (Strom. i. 5; vi. 5). Like Justin, Clement maintains that the philosophers took much of their doctrine secretly from the Orientals, and, in particular, from the religious books of the Jews, which doctrine they then, from desire of renown, falsely proclaimed as the result of their own independent investigations, besides falsifying and corrupting it (Strom. i. i. 17; Paed. ii. i). Yet some things pertaining to true doctrine were really discovered by the Greek philosophers, by the aid of the seed of the divine Logos implanted in them (Cohortatio vi. 59). Plato was the best of the Greek philosophers (o( pa&nta a1ristoj Pla&twn, . . . . oi9on qeoforou&menoj, Paed. iii. 11; Strom. v. 8). The Christian must choose out that which is true in the writings of the different philosophers, i. e., whatever agrees with Christianity (Strom. i. 7; vi. 17). We need the aid of |43 philosophy in order to advance from faith (pi/stij) to knowledge (gnw~sij). The Gnostic is to him who merely believes without knowing as the grown-up man to the child; having outgrown the fear of the Old Testament, he has arrived at a higher stage of the divine plan of man's education. Whoever will attain to Gnosis without philosophy, dialectic, and the study of nature, is like him who expects to gather grapes without cultivating the grapevine (Strom. i. 9). But the criterion of true science must always be the harmony of the latter with faith (Strom. ii. 4).'12

Of Origen, who was the last ecclesiastical philosopher of influence in the Eastern church prior to the fourth century, it is enough to say that he assumed the same attitude toward the Greek writers as did his master.

One who has read Basil's essay will readily appreciate the similarity between the views of Basil and those of Justin, Athenagoras, Clement, and Origen. The chapters in the essay might almost be arranged as expositions of the various elements in the above digest from Clement's writings. There is the same belief in the partial inspiration of the Greek poets and philosophers, the same advocacy of the study of Hellenic literature as an introduction to the study of Christianity, the common credence in the indebtedness of Plato and other philosophers to Moses and the Prophets, and the like insistence upon life as a growth, and upon knowledge as the complement of faith.

To summarize this brief review: For at least two centuries before Basil wrote his Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature efforts had been made to determine the true relation between Greek learning and Christianity. Some writers bitterly opposed Hellenic philosophy and poetry, others recognized that it contained a partial revelation of the truth. To the latter view Justin and his followers inclined, and among these followers one of the most pronounced is Basil.

[Footnotes have been placed at the end and renumbered]

1. 1 Epistle 204. 

2. 2 Epistle 6. 

3. 1 Villemain, L'Éloquence Chrétienne au Quatrieme Siècle 106.

4. 2 Migne, Patr. Graec. xxxv. 636.

5. 1 Migne, Patr. Graec. 29. 118-119. 

6. 2 Ibid. 29. 94.

7. 1 See Apology i. 44 ; Cohortatio ad Graecos 14.

8. 2 See Oratio ad Graecos 2.

9. 3 See Ad Autolycus i. ii. iii. 

10. 4 See Supplicatio v.

11. Note to the online edition: this is in fact an error, although a common one.  Tertullian's objection to philosophy was that it was used as a means to introduce alien ideas.  'Credo quia absurdum' is a misquote of De Carne Christi 5, 4: 'Certum quia absurdum', which is a rhetorical flourish at the end of an argument, not against philosophy but against the heretic Marcion.  The form of that argument has been seen as derived from Aristotle.  See R.D.Sider, Credo quia absurdum?,  Classical World, 73, 1980, pp.417-9.

12. 1 Hist, of Philosophy i. 314.

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