1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Basil (Caesarea)

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BASIL,[1] known as Basil the Great (c. 330–379), bishop of Caesarea, a leading churchman in the 4th century, came of a famous family, which gave a number of distinguished supporters to the Church. His eldest sister, Macrina, was celebrated for her saintly life; his second brother was the famous Gregory of Nyssa; his youngest was Peter, bishop of Sebaste; and his eldest brother was the famous Christian jurist Naucratius. There was in the whole family a tendency to ecstatic emotion and enthusiastic piety, and it is worth noting that Cappadocia had already given to the Church men like Firmilian and Gregory Thaumaturgus. Basil was born about 330 at Caesarea in Cappadocia. While he was still a child, the family removed to Pontus; but he soon returned to Cappadocia to live with his mother’s relations, and seems to have been brought up by his grandmother Macrina. Eager to learn, he went to Constantinople and spent four or five years there and at Athens, where he had Gregory of Nazianzus (q.v.) for a fellow-student. Both men were deeply influenced by Origen, and compiled the well-known anthology of his writings, known as Philocalia (edited by J. A. Robinson, Cambridge, 1893). It was at Athens that he seriously began to think of religion, and resolved to seek out the most famous hermit saints in Syria and Arabia, in order to learn from them how to attain to that enthusiastic piety in which he delighted, and how to keep his body under by maceration and other ascetic devices. After this we find him at the head of a convent near Arnesi in Pontus, in which his mother Emilia, now a widow, his sister Macrina and several other ladies, gave themselves to a pious life of prayer and charitable works. He was not ordained presbyter until 365, and his ordination was probably the result of the entreaties of his ecclesiastical superiors, who wished to use his talents against the Arians, who were numerous in that part of the country and were favoured by the Arian emperor, Valens, who then reigned in Constantinople. In 370 Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, died, and Basil was chosen to succeed him. It was then that his great powers were called into action. Caesarea was an important diocese, and its bishop was, ex officio, exarch of the great diocese of Pontus. Hot-blooded and somewhat imperious, Basil was also generous and sympathetic. “His zeal for orthodoxy did not blind him to what was good in an opponent; and for the sake of peace and charity he was content to waive the use of orthodox terminology when it could be surrendered without a sacrifice of truth.” He died in 379.

The principal theological writings of Basil are his De Spiritu Sancto, a lucid and edifying appeal to Scripture and early Christian tradition, and his three books against Eunomius, the chief exponent of Anomoian Arianism. He was a famous preacher, and many of his homilies, including a series of lenten lectures on the Hexaëmeron, and an exposition of the psalter, have been preserved. His ascetic tendencies are exhibited in the Moralia and Regulae, ethical manuals for use in the world and the cloister respectively. His three hundred letters reveal a rich and observant nature, which, despite the troubles of ill-health and ecclesiastical unrest, remained optimistic, tender and even playful. His principal efforts as a reformer were directed towards the improvement of the liturgy, and the reformation of the monastic orders of the East. (See Basilian Monks.)

Bibliography.—Editions of his works appeared at Basel (1532); Paris, by J. Garnier and P. Maranus (1721–1730), and by L. de Sinner (1839). Migne’s Patrol. ser. graec. 29-32; De Spiritu Sancto, ed. C. F. H. Johnston (Oxford, 1892); Liturgia, ed. A. Robertson (London, 1894). See also the patrologies, e.g. that of O. Bardenhewer, and the histories of dogma, e.g. those of A. Harnack and F. Loofs.

  1. The name Basil also belongs to several other distinguished churchmen, (1) Basil, bishop of Ancyra from 336 to 360, a semi-Arian, highly favoured by the emperor Constantine, and a great polemical writer; none of his works are extant. (2) Basil of Seleucia (fl. 448–458), a bishop who shifted sides continually in the Eutychian controversy, and who wrote extensively; his works were published in Paris in 1622. (3) Basil of Ancyra, fl. 787; he opposed image-worship at the second council of Nicaea, but afterwards retracted. (4) Basil of Achrida, archbishop of Thessalonica about 1155; he was a stanch upholder of the claims of the Eastern Church against the widening supremacy of the papacy.