BASIL THE GREAT (Greek Βασιλεις [Basileios]

He was educated initially by his father Basil, a rhetorician, and then in schools. In 348 he began studies in Constantinople, and in 325 in Athens. Initially he worked as a civil servant. In 358 he began to lecture in Caesarea, and in the same year he was baptized. Subsequently he moved to place in Neocaesarea near Annesis and led the life of a hermit. Between 360 and 362 he founded abbeys in provinces of Asia Minor. He was ordained a priest in 364. In 370 he became the Bishop of Caesarea, the Metropolitan of Cappadocia, and the Exarch of Pontus. He opposed Emperor Valens who supported Arianism. He tried to end the Antiochian schism. He fought the pneumatomachists whose views were opposed to the Holy Spirit. He was renowned as an ascetic, a defender of orthodox Christianity, a pastor, a speaker, and as a protector of the poor and beggars.

Basil the Great was the author of theological dogmatic works: Ανατρεπτικος του απολογητικου του δυσσεβους Ευνομιου [Anatreptikos tou apologetikou tou dyssebous Eunomiou—around 364; Περι του ‘αγιου Πνευματος [Peri tou hagiou Pneumatos]—around 375; ascetic writings (together with Gregory of Nazianzus); Τα ηθικα [Ta ethika]—around 360; Φιλοκαλια [Philokalia], a selection of Origen’s thoughts and opinions—around 360; homilies and addresse: Εις την ‘Εξαημερον [Eis ten Heksaemeron]; letters (365 have been preserved) and works on liturgy: Λειτουργια του ‘αγιυ Βασιλειου [Leitourgia tou hagiou Basileiou].

Basil the Great was the author of a brief but important treatise Speech to youth (PG 31, 563–590), which contains directions for the formation of young Christians in the country about Greek culture, that is, pagan culture, in literature, ethics, and philosophy. The treatise is at the same time an exhortation to study pagan authors and draw skillfully from their work, and a warning against their pernicious influences.

In opposition to Arian doctrine, he taught the consubstantiality of the Son of God with the Father, and the divinity of the Holy Spirit, who proceeds not only from the Father, but also from the Son. He emphasized the equality of the persons of the Holy Trinity, and in this sense he interpreted the sense of the doxology—“Glory to theFather, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit”, which replaced the earlier doxology—“Glory to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit”; the new doxology clearly showed the equality of the three divine persons. Basil’s doctrine on God had an important influence on the formulation of the dogma of the Holy Trinity. He thought that man can acquire only limited knowledge of God’s nature; God possesses the attribute of infinity and cannot be grasped conceptually even in eternity.

Basil codified his doctrine of the perfection of the Christian life, especially monastic life; with Gregory of Nazianzus (at the request of ascetics who were striving for Christian perfection in a community) he composed (around 358) the first sketch of a rule for religious life. He organized small cloisters in which the ideal of cenobitism was realized—a form of religious life in which monks dwelt, worked, and prayed together under the direction of a superior. He thought that the ideal of religious life can be realized in a community that provides the possibility of realizing the commandment to love one’s neighbor. The essence of religious life is complete trust in God, which is a condition sine qua non for pastoral work. The contemplative life should be indissolubly tied with action. The religious, whom he recommended should fight Arianism, should study the Sacred Scriptures and theology. The Basilians follow Basil’s rule. He formed an exposition of religious truths in accordance with the principles of rhetoric (he is regarded as the author of the Greek ecclesial art of oratory).

Basil’s philosophically important work is nine homilies on the six days of creation, the Hexaëmeron, in which the author looks to the Sacred Scriptures to resolve philosophical and scientific views on creation. Basil tried to show that the biblical description of the origin and nature of things possesses a philosophical meaning. These homilies are not a systematic exposition of philosophy but the philosophical concepts they contain have a connection with the text of the Sacred Scripture that is explained.

In 1979, an apostolic letter by Pope John Paul II was published on the 1600th anniversary of the death of St. Basil—Patres Ecclesiae (OsRomPol 1 (1980) n. 3, 14–16).

Y. Courtonne, Un témoin du IVe siècle oriental. Saint B. et son temps d’après sa correspondance, P 1973; L. Schucan, Das Nachleben von B. Magnus “Ad adolescentes”. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des christlichen Humanismus, G 1973; P. Scazzoso, Introduzione alla ecclesiologia di san B., Mi 1975; S. Longosz, Rodzinne wychowanie dziecka wg św. B. [Family education of the child according to St. Basil], Tw 1980; R. Andrzejewski, Myśl społeczna św. B. Wielkiego w nauce św. Ambrożego [The social thought of St. Basil the Great in the teaching of St. Ambrose], Lb 1981; P. J. Fedwick, B. of Caesarea. Christian, Humanist, Ascetic, I–II, Tor 1981; S. Longosz, Rodzina wczesnochrześciańska i jej zadania w nauczaniu św. B. Wielkiego [The early Christian family and its tasks in the teaching of St. Basil the Great], Lb 1981; J. Gribomont, Saint-B. Évangile et Église, I–II, Begrolles-Manges 1984; D. S. Wacławik, Szanse człowieka na uświęcenie (próba odzytania nauki św. B. Wielkiego) [Man’s chances for sanctification (an attempt to interpret the teaching of St. Basil the Great)], Pz 1995.

Eugeniusz Sakowicz

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