Justice to Life and Society According to St. Basil the Great



Fr. Dr. Bijesh Philip – December 2014

St. Basil the Great(330-379) was a man of high spirituality, deep social commitment, excellent education, and exemplary faithfulness to the Church. His life is a good example for an authentic Orthodox Christian spirituality. A study of him will help us to be free from the enslaving materialism today and distorted spiritual traditions and it bring us closer to the Gospel of our Lord.

St. Basil was born and brought up in Cappadocia which is in Asiatic Turkey. Caesarea (today’s Kaeseri) was an important city in Cappadocia and as bishop, his headquarters was here. Pontus was another district close to Cappadocia. Most of St. Basil’s life was spent in Cappadocia and Pontus.

The existence of Jews in Cappadocia(Acts 2: 9, 11) probably prepared the ground for the spread of gospel in Cappadocia. The Jews who came to Jerusalem to attend the feast of Pentecost and listened to the speech of St. Peter on the day of Pentecost might have brought the gospel to this region. A remark at the opening of I Peter indicates the existence of Gentile Christians here by AD 100. Third century witnessed the missionary labors of Gregory the wonderworker who came to be known as the ‘Apostle of Cappadocia’. St. Basil and his family members used to venerate his blessed memory highly. Gregory the wonder worker was from Pontus and became bishop of Neo-Caesarea in AD 240.

St. Basil was born about the year 330 into a rich Christian family in Cappadocia. His father also called Basil who was from Pontus and his mother Emmelia from Cappadocia had four sons and five daughters. Basil the elder, with the wealth of his estates behind him, used to teach rhetoric, the effective use of language and oratory, at Neo-Caesarea. Basil, Gregory and Naucratius, the eldest three sons, followed their father’s footsteps with a traditional classical education. The family is indebted to Basil’s paternal grandmother Macrina, the elder who had been converted by Gregory the wonderworker, to the Christian faith. St. Basil’s sister Macrina the younger, decided to lead a life of virginity and slowly developed a community of virgins. In 380 his younger brother Peter succeeded Eustathius as bishop of Sebaste.

St. Basil’s primary classic education especially rhetoric was under his own father Basil the elder. Grandmother Macrina gave basic religious education to the young Basil. Most probably at an early age he was sent to a school at Caesarea. From there Basil went to Constantinople and there studied rhetoric and philosophy successfully primarily under Libanius. From Constantinople he proceeded to Athens in 351 for higher education. It was in Athens his friendship with Gregory, another Cappadocian who later came to be known as St. Gregory of Nazianzus, was strengthened. Even during his studies in Athens St. Basil was particular about the strictness of his devout life.

When he came back to Cappadocia, there was plenty of opportunities for pursuing a worldly successful profession. But he devoted his life fully to lead a life pleasing to God by being committed to the Church. His sister Macrina’s life and intervention influenced him towards this wholehearted self surrender. St. Basil visited ascetics in Palestine, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt etc. This spiritual tour of monastic foundations was shortly after St. Antony died in 356 and shortly before setting up his own monastery in 357/358. In addition to these experiences and insights, one of the greatest influences for the ascetic experiment was from Eusthathius of Sebaste. Eusthathius who became a bishop of Sebaste in Armenia was active and famous in Pontus and Cappadocia for his rigorous ascetic practices. In a strict sense St. Basil was not the founder of monasticism in Asia Minor but the reformer of it there. It was with his friend St. Gregory that St. Basil started his monastic experiments. By renouncing his properties, he began his monastic life in Annesi in Pontus on the side of River Iris opposite to that of St. Macrina’s convent. Socially committed services were integral part of his vision of monasticism. Community experience is central to his monasticism. The solitary efforts and individual initiatives of the monks of Egypt and Syria here become a community activity.

Manual labour was also important as prayer for the monks of St. Basil. It is noteworthy that highly educated and well-born aristocrat St. Basil used to engage in manual labour. He condemned in strong terms the danger of idleness. In Letter 22 ‘On the perfection of the monastic life’, probably written in 356 he writes that those who are lazy, and can work but do not, should not eat.

It is noticeable that serving the poor and sick was integral part of St. Basil’s vision of spiritual life. He insists that service to the poor and needy is as important as prayer. The second commandment of the Lord to love your neighbor as yourself is the heart of his understanding of charity and social commitment. He explains this by quoting St. Mathew 25.40, John 13: 35, 15: 13, etc. His sermon 6 on the text from Luke 12: 18 (I will destroy my barns and build greater ones) and sermon 7 addressed To the Rich condemn avarice of the rich and their insensitivity to the poor and the needy. He unceasingly reminds the need to share the God given resources with the poor. Basileiados, the great project of St.Basil to assist the needy and the poor was a practical expression of his vision of love. He and his monks literally served in this new city of charity. It is commendable that despite the religious difference between the Emperor Valens and St. Basil, the former gave his support to this great charitable project of St. Basil.

St. Basil was ordained as Bishop of Caesarea after Bishop Eusebius’s death in 370. As a bishop he was an efficient administrator and also a strong defender of the Nicene faith.

In spite of his time consuming tasks, he used to make enlightening theological treatises. His writings bear witness to his philosophical approach as well as to very practical aspects of ethics and Christian message. St. Gregory Nazianzen testifies that St. Basil’s writings were highly appreciated by his contemporaries for their content as well as for their form. In addition to numerous letters and sermons, he has written a few dogmatic, ascetic, pedagogic, and liturgical treatises. Against Eunomius, On the Holy Spirit, Hexameron, Moralia, Monastic Rules etc are a few of his classic theological and spiritual writings.

Even if St. Basil has not written any scholarly commentaries to the books of Holy Bible, his numerous homilies display his skills in biblical interpretation and ancient rhetoric. As Quasten rightly observes, “He is certainly one of the most brilliant ecclesiastical orators of antiquity, who combines rhetorical display with simplicity of thought and clarity of expression. Above all, he appears as the physician of souls, who does not want to please his listeners, but to touch their consciences.”[1]

According to St. Basil the real human being is inner man. That is why he says “we are that which is within”. By creating man in the image of God man is bestowed with reason. He describes “reason as mastery of the passions.” This is the meaning of the command to rule given immediately after the creation of man. Based on this insight he highlights the contradiction in man concerning authority and freedom: “First the power to rule was conferred on you. O human, you are a ruling being. And why do you serve the passions as a slave? Why do you throw away your own dignity and become a slave of sin? For what reason do you make yourself a prisoner of the devil? You were appointed ruler of creation, and you have renounced the nobility of your own nature.”[2]

Ultimate goal of human existence is to be like God especially in kindness. There is a God given potential in all human beings to grow towards perfection. Human efforts- acts of disciplining oneself and compassion to all – have a significant role in fulfilling human being. There is no contradiction or conflict between grace and work in the process of spiritual progress. St. Basil interprets the power to rule given to man in terms of taming the beasts, birds etc as well as in terms of the rule over passions and thoughts. He describes anger, greed, hypocrisy, lust etc., as beasts and asks the question: “Have you truly become ruler of beasts if you rule those outside but leave those within ungoverned?”[3]

Two root causes of social injustice and the huge gap between the rich and the poor are the failure to rule passions like greed and lack of compassion. St. Basil’s teaching especially his anthropology gives a sound basis for addressing these issues to build up a just society as well as the spiritual fulfillment of the being of man.

Since both man and woman have inherited image of God equally, there is equal potential in both to be like God. “You become like God through kindness, through endurance of evil, through communion, through love for another and love for the brethren, being a hater of evil, dominating the passions of sin, that to you may belong the rule.”[4] This is a summary statement of his anthropology

He criticizes the consumerist culture of his time. The rich are forced to spend their money on many unnecessary things: “It is not on account of food or clothing that wealth is sought by most. Rather, some device has been concocted by the devil, suggesting innumerable spending opportunities to the wealthy, so that they pursue unnecessary and worthless things as if they were indispensable, and no amount is sufficient for the expenditures they contrive.”[5] Insensitivity and injustice of the rich are further exposed thus “You gorgeously array your walls, but do not clothe your fellow human being; you adorn horses, but turn away from the shameful plight of your brother or sister, you allow grain to rot in your barns, but do not feed those who are starving; you hide gold in the earth, but ignore the oppressed! And if your wife happens to be a money loving person, then the disease is doubled in its effects. She stirs up the love of luxury and inflames the craving for pleasure, spurring on fruitless pursuits.”[6]

For St. Basil those who directly kill or rob alone are not murderers and robbers. Those who refuse to support the marginalized and those pave the for the slow death of the needy can also be counted like murderers and robbers. He explains this insight in his treatise I will Tear Down My Barns, “Who are the greedy? Those who are not satisfied with what suffices for their own needs. Who are the robbers? Those who take for themselves what rightfully belongs to everyone. And you, are you not greedy? Are you not a robber? The things you received in trust as a stewardship, have you not appropriated them for yourself? Is not the person who strips another of clothing called a thief? And those who do not clothe the naked when they have the power to do so, should they not be called the same? The bread that you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none and the silver that you keep buried in the earth is for the needy. You are thus guilty of injustice toward as many as you might have aided and did not.”[7]

St. Basil thinks that disorder in nature is primarily because of human injustice and lack of love. He views natural calamities as Judgment of God on the selfishness of man. After describing the miseries of a severe famine, he gives a rational explanation for it thus: “Our storehouses groan with plenty, yet we have no mercy on those who groan with want. For this reason we are threatened with righteous judgment. This is why God does not open his hand: because we have closed up our hearts towards our brothers and sisters. This is why the fields are arid: because love has dried up.”[8]

Trust in God means conviction about Divine providence also. When wealth is spent as per the direction of the Lord, it will come back in a miraculous way. Trust in His providence is the inspiration for giving even limited resources. So St. Basil goes to the extent of advising those who suffer famine and drought to share their bread with the needy: “If you have only one remaining loaf of bread, and someone comes knocking at your door, bring forth the one loaf from your store, hold it heavenward, and say this prayer, which is not only generous on your part, but also calls forth the Lord’s pity: ‘Lord, you see this one loaf, and you know the threat of starvation is imminent, but I place your commandment before my own well-being, and from the little I have I give to this famished brother. Give, then , in return to me your servant, since I am also in danger of starvation. I know your goodness, and am emboldened by your power. You do not delay your grace indefinitely, but distribute your gifts when you will.’ And when you have thus spoken and acted, the bread you have given from your straitened circumstances will become seed for sowing that bears a rich harvest, a promise of food, an envoy of mercy.”[9] This is a strong reference to a deep faith which encourages to put into practice the commandments of the Lord.

After describing the oppression of the poor by the rich, St. Basil draws their attention to their mortality or transience. He challenges them for an active reflection on their destiny: “you might carefully consider to what end your pursuit of material things has led you. You have acres and acres of arable land: fields and orchards, mountains and dells, rivers and springs. But what comes after this? Is not all that awaits you a six- foot plot of earth? Does not a small quantity of rocks and soil suffice to cover this mortal flesh?”[10] On another occasion while explaining his anthropology he takes up this theme which is a salient feature of all ancient spiritual traditions thus: ““Be Attentive to yourself, mindful that you are mortal, that you are earth, and to earth you will return. Look around, examining those of like eminence before you. Where are those who possessed civil authority? Where are the unconquerable orators? Where are the leaders of public assemblies, the brilliant horse breeders, the generals, the governors, the despots? Are they not all dust? Are not the memorials of their lives a few bones? Stoop and look into the tombs to see if you can distinguish which is the slave and which is the master, which is the poor one and which is the rich. ..So having remembered your nature you will not then be conceited.”[11] Since life is transient and death can come at unexpected time St. Basil exhorts to give to the needy as early as possible what belong to them

Highlighting the example of life in jungles, St. Basil teaches the need of considering wealth as a resource to be used commonly: “Let not we who are reasonable show ourselves to be more savage than the unreasoning animals. For even the animals use in common the plants that grow naturally from the earth. Flocks of sheep graze together upon the same hillside, herds of horses feed upon the same plain, and all living creatures permit each other to satisfy their need for food. Bu we hoard what is common, and keep for ourselves what belongs to many others.” His vision of humankind as one family helps him to think all resources given by the Creator as common wealth which is to be distributed equally to all. Seeds of an ideal socialism are seen in this Basilian teaching. As a summary statement of his vision of social justice he says, “if we took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor and no one would be in need.”[12]

Cappadocian Fathers generally and especially St. Basil the great has written a lot to substantiate the Nicene creed by refuting the teaching of Eunomius, a follower of Arius. They distinguish reality basically into two; the divine and temporal or Creator and creation. For them Father, Son and Holy Spirit, belong to the first category. So the Son and the Holy Spirit are not created beings. It is their foundational teaching that essence of God is unknowable or incomprehensible. We know God through his revealing activities. As St. Basil puts it in one of his letters: “God’s activities descend to us, but his essence remains inaccessible.”[13]. Theology is basically reflection on God’s own revelations. So none of the names applied to God can give us a full picture of the essence of God.

They unambiguously taught that Father Son and the Holy Spirit share the same divine essence (ousia) or nature but having three different hypostasis. Ousia and hypostasis were two Greek words which had been used as synonyms before St. Basil. But he distinguished the implications of these terms and used ousia to imply that which is common and hypostasis to mean that which is particular. The names Father Son and the Holy Spirit point to particular property of each person in the Holy Trinity. But they are having a common nature which is the principle of unity of the Holy Trinity. Ousia can be translated as nature, essence or substance and homoousios in the Nicene creed means of the same essence, nature or substance. Based on the revelation fathers like St. Basil describes the non-temporal begetting of the Son from the Father and also His eternal presence with the Father. The Holy Trinity means three persons having the same essence and existing eternally with one will and goal.

Even if the exemplary life of St. Basil the Great in history came to an end on January 1st 379 AD, his life and teachings continue to enlighten and encourage many to grow in Christ and fulfill their being.


[1] Quasten, Johannes. Patrology Vol. III Maryland: Christian Classics INC, 1992 p.216

[2] On the Human Condition tr. By Nonna Verna Harrison. New York: SVS Press, 2005 p.37

[3] On the Human Condition tr. By Nonna Verna Harrison. New York: SVS Press, 2005 p.47

[4] On the Human Condition, p.46

[5] On Social Justice. tr. By C. Paul Schroeder. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009p.44

[6] On Social Justice. tr. By C. Paul Schroeder. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009 p.47

[7] On Social Justice. p.70

[8] On Social Justice. p.76

[9] On Social Justice p.83

[10] On Social Justice p.51

[11] On the Human Condition p.100, 101

[12] On Social Justice p.69

[13] Epistle 234.1