BMCR 1996.07.08

1996.7.8, Rousseau, Basil of Caesarea

, Basil of Caesarea. The transformation of the classical heritage ; 20. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, 1998. 1 online resource (xix, 412 pages) : map.. ISBN 0520921062. $55.00.

Crafting a portrait of Basil of Caesarea is no small task. The corpus of Basil’s writings stretches over 4 volumes of the Patrologia Graeca (29-32), encompassing about 2,500 columns of text, proportions unheard of for most classical authors. Moreover, the task requires familiarity with the writings of Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa, another 6 volumes with c. 3500 columns. The secondary material is also legion, covering at least 18 monographs on Basil and many more on the Cappadocian fathers more broadly. Even so, the secondary literature in English is surprisingly scanty. With his Basil of Caesarea Philip Rousseau has produced only the second substantial study on Basil to appear in English since 1913. 1 But R. has not simply filled a gap, he has outdone all of his predecessors both in the scope of his treatment and the sophistication of his analysis. No other study covers so many aspects of Basil’s life or integrates so much material so successfully. This reader is both impressed and grateful.

Because R. ranges broadly across an entire life and corpus, the substance of the book becomes clear only in an extended summary. R. begins with three chapters on Basil’s family background, his education and his early engagement with asceticism. In the first (“A Cappadocian Family”), he poses two central questions: to what extent did Basil’s family affect his development and to what extent can we identify a “conversion” from aristocrat to cleric, from secular to spiritual? Previous scholars have reconstructed Basil’s early life based largely on Gregory of Nazianzus Oration 43 and Gregory of Nyssa Life of Macrina. R. demonstrates that these sources are inadequate, even contradictory. Both overemphasize the tradition of Christianity in Basil’s family, and, where Or. 43 indicates an unbroken spiritual progress, the Life of Macrina portrays a young Basil “excessively puffed up” before the guidance of his sister aroused his spirituality. Turning instead to Basilian material, R. finds no evidence for conversion in the early writings nor does the younger Basil appear particularly concerned with the influence of his family. The letters (esp. Ep. 223) indicate that only later did Basil lay stress on his conversion from a “piteous life” to “religion” and insist on the “conception of God … which I received from my blessed mother and grandmother.” This self-refashioning at the end of his career must be read, according to R., in light of Basil’s later preoccupation with the opposition to his orthodoxy and authority. The argument is masterful, though the paucity of early Basilian material warns against presuming too much about Basil’s early self-perception.

In his second chapter (“Athens”), R. examines the significance of Basil’s rhetorical education in the early 350s. He paints Athens as a scholarly world dedicated to principles which Basil continued to espouse throughout his life, a respect for tradition and an admiration for asceticism. Yet R.’s Basil, though he benefited from the polish of his secular education, was never comfortable with the “world of Athens” since, from early on, he was unable to reconcile it with the “world of Jerusalem.” As Basil grew older, his rejection of Hellenic paideia became more confident; R., concerned to plot stages of development, sees the point at which this reassessment occurred in Basil’s discourse Ad adulescentes. There, Basil continues to insist on the traditional curriculum as a prerequisite to the study of scripture, yet remains unable to explain its moral value in a Christian context. The “educational edifice had already been dismantled, like a neglected temple, and was to be recycled within the fabric of a Christian building.”

The third chapter (“The Philosophic Life”), describes Basil’s ascetic retreat to Pontus. There Macrina, Basil’s sister, together with his mother and brother, had already been practicing a form of asceticism prior to Basil’s arrival. R. is careful to distinguish between their way of life and that led by Basil. Indeed, his argument will offer a compelling challenge to S. Elm’s recent work which emphasizes the influence of Macrina on Basil’s ascetic development. 2 Taking a more traditional (and defensible) approach, R. connects Basil’s asceticism with the influence of Eustathius of Sebaste and the journey the two shared to Syria, Palestine and Egypt. New to R.’s portrait is a Eustathius deeply concerned with his pastoral responsibilities as Bishop. From this relationship sprang not only Basil’s passion for ascetic ideals but also his growing concern for ecclesiastical involvement and his desire to integrate ascetic practice into ecclesiastical structures.

The fourth chapter (“Eunomius”) treats Basil’s first serious involvement with Christological controversy, his participation at the Council of Constantinople and composition of the Contra Eunomium. R.’s investigation skillfully avoids the tedium of Dogmengeschichte by treating Basil’s theological debate as reflexive of wider contemporary preoccupations. He demonstrates that Basil’s allegiances in this period were not yet Nicene, but Homoiousian, like those of his mentor Eustathius. More interestingly, he shows how the Contra Eunomium foreshadows concerns which will continue to occupy Basil, particularly the emphasis on the authority of Scripture and the conviction that action rather than cognition reflect true faith. By his own admission, R. had less than adequate opportunity to take account of the important new work by Brennecke on Christological controversy in the mid-fourth C. 3 This would have affected his broader description of Arianism and helped provide more of a context for Basil’s shift from a “semi-Arian” to a Nicene position.

In Basil’s involvement with the Arian controversy, R. sees the stirrings of stronger impulses toward public involvement. These came fully alive in Basil’s pastoral activities first as a presbyter and later as Bishop in Caesarea. In his fifth chapter (“City and Church”), R. treats Basil’s early career, beginning with an account of his efforts to open the grain stores of the wealthy during a famine and his eventual construction of the Basileiados for the poor. In this practical charity we meet the intermingling of civic and religious activity which characterizes the Basil familiar to readers. R. proceeds through the tensions aroused by Basil’s activist role, through his illnesses and isolation from ecclesiastical peers, his correspondence with secular authorities, his confrontation with the emperor and his ministers, his cooperation with these same, and his intermingling of civic and spiritual ideals in a reverence for the martyrs. R.’s careful mediation of the tension between the spiritual and secular Basil has helped him wisely avoid the inappropriate distinction between church and state, but has also softened, perhaps too much, the hard edge of Basil’s political involvement.

R.’s sixth chapter treats Basil’s abundant “Ascetic Writings.” Much research has been devoted to the question and R wholly supports its conclusion, that Basil only gradually formulated his conceptions. He furthers the argument by contending that Basil’s distinction between ascetics and other church members is less firm than some have argued. He concentrates on the audience of Basil’s writings and the relation Basil defines between individual and group. By taking into account not only the Moralia and Regulae but also the letters and homilies, R. demonstrates that Basil’s ascetic audience differs from the broader church only in the intensity of its inner commitment and that Basil’s ascetic guidance was available to all. While the Regulae do establish a “frontier” between the communities they govern and the rest of the church (especially with regard to property, labor and discipline), the boundary is only conceivable inside a system intimately connected with that church. This interpretation fits well with R.’s larger portrait of a man deeply concerned with the social impact of all Christian activity.

Chapter seven (“Eustathius and Other Friends”) outlines patterns of friendship evident in the epistolography. It begins with Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil’s closest companion, whose friendship Basil marred by attempting to force upon Gregory the episcopacy of Sasima. This behavior demonstrates a readiness to sacrifice personal relationships in the interests of ecclesiastical authority, a tendency also reflected in Basil’s treatment of his mentor, Eustathius of Sebaste. R. skillfully plots the growth of the rift between Basil and Eustathius and appends a fascinating analysis of Basil’s early associations with Apollinarius, whose teachings were later condemned. He shows how Basil denied with increasing vigor Appolinarius’ friendship as evidence for it mounted. Interestingly, as R. indicates, Basil’s ongoing self-refashioning and reassessment of past relationships led above all to frustration and isolation. To demonstrate that he had not lost the capacity for friendship entirely, R. closes with two later friends, Eusebius of Samosata and Amphilochius of Iconium. Neither is an ideal example of late-found collegiality. Eusebius was in exile during most of his friendship with Basil and thus not a potential rival, and Basil’s dominance over Amphilochius, whose episcopacy he had arranged, explains much of Amphilochius’ devotion.

Chapter eight (“Basil on the World Stage”) treats Basil’s involvement in affairs outside Caesarea. R. concentrates on three areas, Neocaesarea, Armenia and Antioch. He shows how Neocaesarea’s hostility toward Basil contrasts with what would be expected given his family’s connections in the region. This opposition early in his episcopacy forced Basil to shape his self-definition around the bulwarks of family tradition and strict adherence to Nicaea. In Armenia as well, Basil’s efforts to exert influence outside his see were not entirely successful. Here he had been assigned by imperial authorities to appoint “bishops” but was dogged by resistance. On this question R.’s argument may need revision. Following a series of articles by Garsoian (cited at p. 280 nn. 42-45), R. is reluctant to accept the traditional view that Basil tried to make episcopal appointments for the independent kingdom of Greater Armenia rather than solely for the Roman province of Armenia Minor. There is no question that Basil’s assignment involved appointments in Armenia Minor, but it is likely that his efforts were also aimed outside Roman territory: the longest letter about the assignment ( Ep. 99) is addressed to the commander of forces then operating in the kingdom of Armenia; later letters (120-21) directly mention support for a rival episcopal candidate by a certain Papa, almost certainly Pap, then king of Greater Armenia; Pap’s resistance to Caesarean involvement in the choice of an Armenian Patriarch is attested independently in an Armenian Source (P’awstos 5.29); the same source confirms Caesarea’s traditional role in appointing the Armenian Patriarch (4.4). It seems that Basil’s efforts stretched outside Roman borders and that more was at stake politically and even militarily than R. allows. The chapter closes with a remarkably lucid analysis of Basil’s complicated relationship with the western church. R. demonstrates convincingly that Basil was actually more preoccupied with soliciting western support in the episcopal dispute at Antioch than with offering himself as champion of the Nicene cause throughout the East.

The final chapter (“‘We Seek the Ancient Fatherland'”) uses Basil’s Hexaemeron as a touchstone to help decode his life and thought. From these homilies, R. refines Basil’s conviction that meaning could be found only in scripture which in turn could be interpreted only in the context of asceticism conducted within a Christian community. By the time Basil wrote the Hexaemeron at the end of his life, he had thus shifted from the “individual ideals” of his youth to the “shared experience of church” in both thought and deed. By rejecting the values of secular culture and urban community, he could collaborate with God’s intended plan and thereby embrace the shared knowledge of truth available only through the spirit. One senses in this chapter more than others the theologian in R manifested in a way that complements and completes the book. Ultimately, Basil’s life can be understood only in light of his theology, which R. is especially qualified to interpret.

The volume is meticulously edited with almost no typographical errors 4 and the index of citations will be invaluable. For those who do not read Latin and Greek, R. has catalogued good translations in his primary source bibliography, carefully cited references to these in footnotes and offered translations of all quotations from primary texts. Given his concern for translation, it is notable that R. nowhere mentions the recent German translation of Basil’s letters by Hauschild. Though the third volume appeared too late, the first two should have been noted. 5 This absence is especially significant since Hauschild offers a new chronology for Basil’s letters and, in his introductions, for Basil’s life. Indeed, if there is any weakness in R.’s book it is chronology. Prior to Hauschild, no comprehensive reassessment of Basilian chronology had been undertaken since Dom Maran’s 18th C Vita Basilii (PG 29 v ff). The scholarship of the past two centuries has redated individual parts of the Basilian corpus and R. has been careful to rely on the most recent datings, using Fedwick’s Basil of Caesarea 6 as a general guide. Ultimately, however, Basilian chronology is a strange hybrid of parts assembled on a rather wobbly skeleton long overdue for reconstruction. Though R. admits in his preface that he is “content to remain uncertain about some dates (p. xiii),” readers of so comprehensive a treatment will regret that he did not make more efforts in this area, especially in a text which emphasizes changes and development over time. Three examples prove the point.

The chronology of Basil’s ascetic years (c. 357-365) in Pontus is not easy to establish. R. (p. 66 n. 26) follows Fedwick, though he occasionally diverges without explanation. The most significant difference regards the date of Basil’s baptism and ordination as lector, both of which Fedwick dates to 356 (a year earlier than Maran). R. dates the baptism to 357 and postpones the ordination as lector until after Basil’s return from the Synod of Constantinople in 360 (p. 66f; cf. 85). The effect, as R. emphasizes, is to make Basil’s approach toward church offices and ecclesiastical involvement more gradual, more of a process. This enhances the portrait of an evolving Basil, but is unsound chronologically. Philostorgius reports that Basil had already advanced to the rank of deacon when he participated at the Synod of Constantinople ( HE 4.12), a distinction nowhere mentioned by R. Basil’s commitment to active involvement thus began earlier than R. indicates. The date of the famine which prompted Basil to institute measures to feed the citizens of Caesarea is also open to question. Maran had fixed the famine to 368, but Bernardi first noticed that one of Basil’s sermons on the famine mentions what must be an earthquake datable from other sources to that same year. He thus shifted the date of the sermon (and thus the famine) to 369, which R. follows. 7 Jerome, however, mentions a famine in Phrygia in 370 ( Chron. s.a.), leading one to wonder if this date would not be preferable. Basil’s sermons indicate that the food shortage was brought on by drought which presumably affected a wider area in central Anatolia. A date of 370 would still take account of the earthquake and would shed new light on the importance of the event in Basil’s career. Basil’s efforts to win over the masses through food distributions become more pointed if they occurred in the summer following the death of Eusebius (June 370), his predecessor as Bishop of Caesarea, and preceding his own election to that see (September 370). These circumstances would also help explain resistance to Basil’s election among the Caesarean elite (Gregory Ep. 40-44; Or. 18 PG 35.1033), the distribution of whose surplus Basil had coordinated. Finally, the date of Basil’s death has been drawn into question in a series of recent articles. 8 This date is crucial since much of the chronology of Basil’s life, including the date of his ordination, is relative and dated retrospectively from this terminus. Though R. rejects the proposed redating in a brief appendix (App. III), enough questions remain to make further work on Basil precarious before a comprehensive response to the new date is undertaken.

In sum, R. has produced what must be regarded as the standard work on Basil. The scope and sophistication are remarkable, leaving us with complex portrait in the round of a man deeply interested in human nature, tradition, community, generosity, friendship and in politics. It is perhaps the political Basil who is most subdued, though his absence from the spotlight allows a clearer view of other aspects.

  • [1] See P.J. Fedwick Church and the Charisma of Leadership in Basil of Caesarea (Toronto, 1979) and W.K.L. Clarke St. Basil the Great: A Study in Monasticism (Cambridge, 1913). [2] S. Elm ‘Virgins of God’, the Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 1994) 60-105. [3] H.-C. Brennecke Studien zur Geschichte der Homöer (Tübingen, 1988). Brenneke’s study is accounted for only in the footnotes. Its absence is also felt in Ch. V (particularly on Homoian hagiography in Caesarea) and Ch. VIII (on contacts between East and West). [4] I mention only p. 255 n. 100 read GNaz Ep. 64-66 for 44-46. [5] W-D Hauschild, trans. Basilius von Caesarea, Briefe 3 vols. (Stuttgart, 1973, 1990, 1992). [6] P.J. Fedwick Basil of Caesarea: Christian, Humanist, Ascetic, A Sixteen-hundredth Anniversary Symposium 2 vols. (Toronto, 1981). [7] Jean Bernardi La prédication des pères cappadociens (Paris, 1968) 60f. [8] Most recently P. Maraval “La date de la mort de Basile de Césarée”REA 34 (1988) 25-38 with citations.