BASIL OF CASAREA
Basil, surnamed the Great, on account of his Chap.
learning and piety, was descended from Christian t Xllll.
ancestors, who suffered much during the persecution
of Dioclesian. His grandmother Macrina, herself
a Confessor for the faith of Christ, and a disciple
of Gregory Thaumaturgus, was eminently useful to
him, in superintending his education, and fixing his
principles. After a strict domestic education in
Cappadocia, his native country, he travelled for
improvement in knowledge, according to the custom
of those, whose circumstances enabled them to bear
the expence, and came to Athens. Here he met
with Gregory Nazianzen, with whom he had a very
cordial intimacy. At length, leaving him there, he
came to Constantinople, and put himself under the
• Divo Hilario, Urbis propugnatori, fidelissirno, assiduissimo, certissima, Pictavorum Episcopo.—"To Saint Hilary, the defender of the city, most faithful, assiduous, and certain, the bishop of Poictiers."
f The epistles of Basil still extant, with the writings of his friend Gregory Nazianzen, and the two historians, Socrates and Sozomen, afford materials sufficiently ample for his life. Cave has given 11s a connected view of his actions, and Du Pin has reviewed his letters.
Chap- care of the famous Libanius. It is certain, that he x*tir-. was possessed of all the secular learning of the age, and if he had chosen to give himself wholly to the world, he might have shone as much, as superior parts, strong understanding, and indefatigable in dustry united, can effect. But his mind was under a spiritual influence; he found an emptiness in the most refined enjoyments of literature; even Athens itself, he called a vain felicity. He was led to seek for food for his soul, and in conjunction with Gregory, he studied the works of Origen ; and some monuments of their veneration for that learned father are still extant *,
It will scarcely be needful to add, that, by this means, he contracted a taste for exposition, neither the most evangelical nor the most perspicuous. In his travels into Egypt he conversed with monks and hermits, and prepared himself for that excessive attachment to the spirit of Ascetics, which afterwards made him the great supporter and encourager of those superstitions.
It is my duty, however, to look for the spouse of Christ, wherever I can find her, although she may be disguised by an unsuitable and foreign garb. Julian the apostate had known him, when they studied together at Athens, and being now advanced to the empire, he invited Basil to his court. But the fear of God, and the love of heavenly things, which undoubtedly predominated in this saint, suffered him not to give way to the temptation for a moment . He wrote with Christian sincerity to the emperor, and provoked him by his faithful rebukes ; choosing rather to live in Caesareaa despised Christian, than to share in the honours and riches of the court, to which his uncommon endowments and abilities would have advanced him.
* Viz. The Phitocalia of Origen, consisting of ScripturnI Questions, and Origen's Comments, wbich these two friends compiled.
After some time, he lived in retirement at Neocsesarea in Pontus, and by his example, concurring with the spirit of the times, he not only drew over his friend Gregory, but also great numbers, to embrace a retired life, and to employ themselves in prayer, singing of psalms, and devotional exercises. And here, these two friends formed the rules of monastic dicipline, which were the basis of all those superstitious institutions which afterwards overran the church. The want of a more evangelical view of doctrine, and of course of that lively faith which would animate and enable the Christian to live above the world, though in the midst of it, was, doubtless, the principal cause of the overflowing of this spirit among real good men in these times. To flee from society seemed to them the only possible way to escape the pollutions of the world, which they sincerely abhorred. Self-righteousne$s and ignorance fomented the evil, which gradually degenerated into a vapid system of formality, and at length became a sink of secret wickedness. But he, who should, in these times, suspect the generality of monks of hypocrisy and profligacy, would injure them much. On the contrary, the flower of the flock of Christ, in these days, is to be looked for am on them.
While Basil was employed in founding monasteries in the neighbouring parts, he also caused hospitals to be erected for the poor ; and as he had been ordained priest before he left Caesarea, he was useful in preaching up and down the country.
Returning, after a time, to Caesarea, he distinguished himself by inducing the rich to supply the necessities of the poor during a grievous famine ; and all the world gave him credit both for his charity in relieving the distressed, and for his integrity in resisting the importunities of Valens the Arian emperor.
The see of Caesarea being vacant, the authority Chap- of the aged Gregory, bishop of Nazianzum, the father XXUI* , of his friend, was sincerely exerted for his promotion ; and to this see he was at length advanced, notwithstanding the opposition of the Arians. He was soon called to withstand the repeated attacks of Valens ; and though he was in the utmost danger of being banished from his see, he remained immoveable in the profession of the faith.
Let us attend a little to the pastoral character of Basil. He found that the church of Caesarea, before his time, had been scandalously neglected in its discipline. Officers, who were a disgrace to religion, ministered in the church, and the subaltern superintendents* ordained men without the knowledge of the bishop, and without any just examination ; and many pressed into the ministry for mere secular reasons : it was reported that some were even guilty of selling the priesthood for money, the crime usually known by the name of simony. Basil reminded his clergy of the strictness of the primitive discipline, and of the care formerly exercised by the presbyters and deacons in examining the lives and manners of the persons to be ordained : and he made earnest attempts to revive the laudable customs, inveighing against simony as most detestable.
It would be tedious to describe the diverse contests in which Basil was engaged. Calumny, malice, and the domineering power of Arianism, afflicted him with various trials, in which his patience was unwearied ; and as his body became enfeebled by increasing distempers, his mind seems to have collected more vigour. Finding himself rapidly declining, after he had governed the church of Caesarea eight years and some months, he ordained some of his followers, and was then obliged to take to his bed. The people flocked about his house, sensible of the value of such a pastor. For a time he discoursed piously to those who were about him, * Chorepiscopi. A sort of under-bishops in great dioceses.
and sealed his last breath with the ejaculation, Cent. " Into thy Itands I commend my spirit!" ,
It is much to be lamented, that a man so sincerely pious, so profoundly learned, and of so elegant and accomplished a genius, should have suffered so much, both in mind and body, from the monastic B«»u died, spirit. But his excessive austerities broke his con- A. D. stitution, and left him, for years, in a very imperfect 379> state of health. He died in the year 379. aged *u
His doctrine appears, from his works, to be too much clouded with self-righteous and superstitious mixtures, to contribute materially to the instruction and the consolation of sincere souls, though it is evident, that he reverenced the influences of the Holy Spirit, and placed his hope of salvation in Christ Jesus. Hear how Basil speaks of faith. " Faith, above all natural methods, draws the soul to a firm acquiescence in the word : Faith, which is the effect, not of geometrical conclusions, but the result of the energy of the Spirit *." So clearly spiritual was his religion, with all its imperfections ! To this testimony of Basil concerning divine faith, as distinct from that which is merely natural, it may be proper to add that of Nemes de homine, c. 2. another Greek lather, whose time seems not far remote from Basil's. " The doctrine of the divine oracles hath its credibility from itself, because of its divine inspiration." On one subject, namely, the love of heavenly things in opposition to earthly, he excelled, both in precept and example. In this, the power of grace appeared in him through life, and even the whole system of his errors in divinity was connected with it. The very principle of the ascetic life was with Basil a supreme desire to live above the world. Those who understand the foundation of the Gospel better than he did, may find it not amiss to attend to such pathetic exhortations as these:
* Basil on Psalm cxv.
" One says *, I will give to-morrow, to excuse himself from giving to-day. Alas ! do you know whether you shall be alive to-morrow ? Another says, I am poor, I have need enough myself of aU my means. Yes, you are poor, you are destitute, but it is of love, of benignity, of faith, and of mercy. A third says, whom do I wrong ? I keep only my own. I ask you, from whom did you receive those riches, and whence did you bring them ? Did you not come naked from your mother's womb, and shall you not return naked to the dust ? Whence did this wealth come ? from chance ? what is tliis but Atheism ? if you confess that you received it from God, why did it fall to your lot rather than to another's ? God is not unrighteous in the unequal division of property among men. Why are you rich, and why is this man poor? it is, that you may receive the reward of dispensing your goods faithfully, and that the poor may receive the recompense of his patience. When, therefore, you appropriate to yourself that wealth which belongs to many, and of which you are the steward, you are a robber.— We know not what necessities may happen. Can you make this apology, while you spend your wealth on a thousand superfluities ?—But I want it for my children.—But, is it from you, that your son received life ? is it not from God ? ought he, then, to hinder you from obeying God's commandments ? The riches that you will leave him, may be the occasion of his ruin. Who knows, whether he will make a good or a bad use of them ?"—The pretences of those, who think to exempt themselves from doing good in their lifetime, by leaving their goods, by will, to the poor, he thus refutes: " Wretched men, to practise no good works, but with ink and paper! It seems, you wish you could have enjoyed your riches for ever, and then you would never have obeyed the precepts of the Gospel: it is to * Basil's Homilies. Du Pin.
death, it seems, and not to you, that the poor are indebted. God will not be thus mocked ; that which is dead is not to be offered to the sanctuary : offer up a living sacrifice."—It is certain, that those, who rely on Divine Providence, are like the springs which are not dried up by drawing from them, but send forth their waters with greater force. If you are poor, lend your money upon interest to God, who is rich.
Different vices predominate in different periods. If, by reviewing various ages, I can gain a more enlarged way of thinking, and cease to admire exclusively that in which I live, this will be one advantage of my historical travel. Certain it is, that the present age is remarkable for a selfish and narrow mode of conception, and a contempt of antiquity. How many, whose reading has scarcely reached farther than a Monthly Review or Magazine, are apt to felicitate themselves on their exemption from superstition, and to deride all monks as perfect fools ? If we conceive a man in Basil's days, possessed of the same contracted spirit, and capable of foreseeing the excessively mercantile taste of the present race of men ; would not he be disposed to censure their covetousness 1 and would not the vice appear as ridiculous to such a one, as superstition does to the moderns ? Is it not as absurd and foolish in its nature?—The wisdom of man lies not in satirizing the vices of others, but in correcting his own.