image with the sign of Myriobiblos

Main Page | Library | Homage | Seminars | Book Reviews





Internet Dept.



Main page of text | Previous Page
Andrea Sterk

Renouncing the World Yet Leading the Church: The Monk-Bishop in Late Antiquity (excerpts)

From "Renouncing the World Yet Leading the Church: The Monk-Bishop in Late Antiquity", Harvard University Press.

Asceticism and Leadership in the Thought of Basil of Caesarea

Basil's connection of asceticism with the Christian life in general and even more strongly with the leader of the Christian community had roots in the Cappadocian milieu of his youth. Unfortunately Basil himself maintains almost complete silence on the subject of his family and upbringing. He remarked in passing that he was preserved from error and raised in the knowledge of sacred Scripture by Christian parents. In several letters he mentioned the nurturing role of his grandmother Macrina (1). Gregory of Nazianzus described in greater detail the hardships of Basil's paternal grandparents. Α noble and pious Christian couple from Neocaesarea, they endured seven years of exile in the Pontic forests during the persecution of Maximinus ΙI (310-313) [(2]. We also hear of the piety of Basil's parents. Gregory pointed specifically to their care for the needy, their austere lifestyle, and their dedication of a portion of their goods to God. The elder Basil, a teacher of rhetoric, is said to have trained his son in both learning and virtue (3). Even from his earliest years, then, Basil's family provided a model of serious religious life -devoted to God, to Scripture, and to meeting practical needs.

Formative Influences

Basil's exposure to varieties of ascetic living dates from this early period as well. His own family seems to have practiced a form of household asceticism, a custom that was popular in Asia Minor and Syria through the middle of the fourth century (4). He probably came into contact with ascetic groups of Eustathian inspiration living in or near the urban centres of northeast Anatolia during his youth (5). He passed part of his childhood years on property belonging to his father's family in the vicinity of Neocaesarea, where the elder Basil seems to have practiced his profession as a rhetor for some time. Bishop Musonius, whose life Basil would later eulogize, was the bishop of Neocaesarea during his youth and was himself probably an ascetic (6). Sοοn after his father's death, while Basil was studying in Athens, his mother, Emmelia, and his sister, Macrina, moved from Neocaesarea to the more remote family estate at Annesi in Pontus. Macrina convinced her mother to adopt the ascetic life, and gradually the whole household -mother, children, and slaves- was transformed into an ascetic community (7). Not only did Macrina have considerable influence on her mother and her younger brother Peter, but she also seems to have played a significant role in Basil's own monastic vocation. While Basil was in Athens it was probably Macrina who kept her brother informed through letters of the ascetic ideals and growing renown of Eustathius of Sebaste. Although Basil himself is silent about his sister's influence, Gregory of Nyssa suggests that it was Macrina who won him over to the "philosophic life" after his return home (8). Basil's brother Naucratius, who preceded him in abandoning rhetorical, pursuits for ascetic solitude and whose more isolated, rustic lifestyle Basil initially imitated, also stands in the background of his early ascetic experiments (9).

Basil has more to say about another important factor in his early formation, the heritage he received from Gregory Thaumaturgus. Highly esteemed as the missionary-apostle of Cappadocia and Pontus, Gregory became bishop of Neocaesarea around 240. His words were preserved and passed down to Basil's generation through the oral tradition and liturgical practices of the church. But Basil could also claim more intimate links with Gregory, for the great bishop had converted, baptized, and instructed his grandmother, Macrina the Elder. Basil often referred to the words, the customs, or the tradition of Gregory, and he clearly regarded him as a standard of orthodox doctrine and practice (10). He frequently appealed to Gregory's life, teaching, and connection with his family when defending the orthodoxy of his own beliefs or practices (11). Perhaps just as significant an influence on Basil's convictions and direction in life was Gregory's career as both an ascetic and a bishop. Born to a wealthy pagan family in Neocaesarea, Gregory was groomed for a career in law. While visiting Caesarea in Palestine before commencing his legal studies, the young man came under the spell of Origen of Alexandria. Captivated by the great Christian teacher and ascetic, Gregory postponed his plans to study law in Beirut and became a student at Origen's school, where he devoted himself to study, prayer, and contemplation. After approximately
five years he returned to Neocaesarea. According to Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Thaumaturgus initially withdrew from the bustle of city life and worldly affairs to be alone with God (12). Despite this alleged proclivity for solitude he soon became the city's first bishop and is reputed to have successfully evangelised the largely pagan city. These main features of Gregory's career were well known to the Cappadocians. Basil certainly knew of his biblical and spiritual training under the great Alexandrian.

Whether or not it was actually intended for the Thaumaturge, Origen's "Letter to Gregory" is included in the Philocalia, an anthology of his spiritual writings that Basil and Gregory Nazianzen compiled during their retreat together in Annesi (c. 358) [13].

Not only were Gregory's theology and spiritual preparation exemplary for Basil but stories about his life and exercise of Episcopal authority also must have deeply impressed the future bishop. Both he and his brother Gregory of Nyssa referred to the Thaumaturge as "Gregory the Great," and in a number of passages Basil portrayed him as an ideal leader (14). His most complete eulogy appears in De spiritu sancto. Against the background of heresy and the weak and factious ecclesiastical leadership of his own day, Basil presented Gregory Thaumaturgus as a model Christian and bishop:

As for Gregory the Great, what place shall we assign to him and his words? Why not place him among the apostles and prophets, for this was a man walking in the same spirit as they. His whole life he followed the track of the saints and during the course of his entire existence he strictly maintained the life of evangelical citizenship. As for myself, Ι say that we shall wound the truth by not counting among the intimates of God that soul who was like a great resplendent flame whose glow shone through the Church of God. By the help of the Spirit he had a fearful power over demons. But in order to lead the nations to the obedience of faith, he received such a grace of speaking that having found only seventeen Christians, he led the entire people, city dwellers and villagers, to the knowledge of God (15).

Alongside the influence of family and spiritual models from the past, Basil's education played a role in the formation of his character and ideals. After brief periods of study in Caesarea and Constantinople, he went on to Athens to continue his education in rhetoric. According to Nazianzen, however, he never lost sight of the "philosophic life" that the two friends so longed to pursue (16). In fact the Cappadocian's classical education in philosophy and rhetoric probably strengthened his aspiration toward this goal. It must also have played a role in the development of his views on Christian leadership. The Homeric ideals of virtue (arete) and imitation of the hero, central elements of the earliest Greek education, were bequeathed to later epochs of antiquity. While we do not know the exact content of Basil's educational program, his study of philosophy would have presented an ideal of life comprising a strong moral element (17). Indeed the philosophy that had come to dominate the Greco-Roman intellectual world by the third century may well have reinforced a student's inclination toward asceticism (18). Paideia itself came to have religious as well as intellectual connotations, and to acquire paideia was in a sense to pursue the pagan vocation of holiness. Coupled with the philosopher's renunciation of worldly values and ambitions was the requirement of asceticism, for only by liberating the soul from its attachment to the body could one aspire to contemplation of spiritual realities. Purification of the soul was attained by such practices as celibacy, austere diet, and other forms of physical denial. The pagan philosopher Plotinus was known to be particularly severe in his pursuit of these methods of self-purification (19).

Nor was asceticism restricted to the realm of philosophers and monks. It was an ideal for the ruler as well, and the fifth-century church historians incorporated it into their portrayal of Christian emperors. Theodosius the Younger was perhaps the best exemplar of a new "soldier-monk" image of the emperor (20). But already in the fourth century we find that the ruler most antagonistic toward Christians, the pagan emperor Julian, had a significant ascetic bent. Among his marvellously detailed descriptions of the physiognomies and personal habits of late antique rulers, Ammianus Marcellinus provides glimpses into this aspect of Julian's life. The emperor had "no need of choice food, content with a scanty and simple diet"; his sleeping regimen included making his bed on the ground and at times denying himself of sleep altogether (21). He also maintained strict sexual continence. When beautiful Persian maidens were taken as prisoners, Julian is said to have refused to touch or even look at them. Ammianus remarked that he was "following the example of Alexander and Africanus, who avoided such conduct, lest those who showed themselves unwearied by hardships should be unnerved by passion." Such explanations show how personal asceticism was linked with an ideal of leadership for pagan and Christian alike (22).

Along with Basil's academic pursuit of philosophy, his study of rhetoric, continued from his earlier years in Constantinople, would also have had a moral aim. One of Basil's two notable teachers of rhetoric, Prohaeresius, was a Christian and an ascetic, though we know nothing concrete about his influence on the young student. The pagan Eunapius described Prohaeresius in praiseworthy terms and particularly lauded his asceticism (23). In general, educators from Isocrates through the Hellenistic period insisted that the primary purpose of education was to instil in students good principles of conduct, and they condemned any system that neglected this moral goal (24). Basil himself highly valued even pagan authors who wrote "in praise of virtue," for he would later encourage youths to emulate the words and deeds of good men that these pagans recounted (25). His own strong emphasis on the moral and ascetic virtue of the Christian leader would reflect the ideals of his profane education as well as the influence of his Christian upbringing.

In Athens Basil also gained his first real experience of leadership, and it was closely connected with the pursuit of disciplined religious life. Gregory Nazianzen describes how a small group of like-minded Christian students gathered around his companion. They were distinguished by their austere lifestyle and were proud to be known as Christians among their colleagues in this very pagan city. Basil's exposure to the "moral disease" that is said to have permeated the city and the inhabitants of Athens may have contributed to his decision to dedicate his life to pastoral care and monastic formation (26). In any case, Nazianzen implies that his friend left Athens with the intent to undertake a life of "philosophy," a goal that may well have expressed classical as much as Christian ambitions (27).

Upon the completion of his education Basil was profoundly influenced by Eustathius of Sebaste and the ascetic communities he had formed or inspired. Much has been written about the relation of the great Cappadocian to this ascetic pioneer in Asia Minor who eventually fell away from Nicene orthodoxy (28). Jean Gribomont has argued convincingly that Eustathius was the recipient of Letter 1, in which we learn of the young Basil's eager pursuit of the "philosopher" through Cappadocia, Palestine, Egypt, and Alexandria, missing him at every turn. The seriousness and radicalism of Eustathius's ascetic commitment attracted Basil. Reflecting on his initial encounter with ascetics organized by Eustathius, Basil later compared them with the monks of Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia, whose virtues and austerity they sought to imitate. He recalled with admiration the humble clothing, the subjugation of the flesh, the sobriety of their manner of life, which caused him to defend them and initially to deny the accusations brought against them. The example of these ascetics and their leader, which had so shaped the ascetic pursuits of his family during his absence, played a significant role in strengthening Basil's own resolve to pursue the philosophic life (29).

Toward this end, sometime around 357 he withdrew to his secluded family estate in Annesi on the Iris River in Pontus, just across the river from the settlement of his mother and sister. There Basil studied the Scriptures more intensively. The Moralia, which he began to compose during this Pontus period, represents the fruit of his studies and reflection. It is saturated with the Bible, particularly the New Testament (30). His friend Gregory Nazianzen soon joined him in his study of biblical and spiritual texts and his life of prayer and fasting. It seems that others also began to come under Basil's influence, though his initial ascetic contacts were with disciples of Eustathius. In fact Basil visited nearby communities of Eustathian inspiration, where he listened and responded to questions raised by the brothers. Eustathius himself, who had recently been elected bishop of Sebaste (c. 358), was a frequent visitor and companion during these years (31).

From the example of Eustathius and his followers Basil learned of an asceticism that flourished in the urban milieu. It was not by chance that Eustathian ascetics resided in cities. In his own Episcopal see, Eustathius established a monastic hospice designed to meet the practical needs of the poor, sick, and needy (32). Basil would later establish a similar institution on the outskirts of Caesarea. The presence of Eustathian ascetics in the heart of the cities of Anatolia may well have provoked the opposition that led to their leader's rebuff. However, this involvement in urban life appealed to Basil. It was different from what he had encountered in monastic centres of Egypt and Palestine, where isolation or removal from society was more the norm. While Basil emphasized the need for silence and solitude, he also saw the value for ascetics of residing near towns so that they could be of service to fellow
Christians (33).

Along with his concern for cities Eustathius demonstrated a commitment to the church that could not have failed to escape the notice of the future bishop of Caesarea. The ascetic leader whom Basil had come to know and respect during his early career was also a man of the church. The son of a bishop, Eustathius had been ordained a priest at a fairly young age (34). While the decrees of Gangra may have caused him to moderate more radical ascetic practices, Eustathius continued to recruit men and women for the ascetic life while serving as a priest. His rise to the Episcopal see of Sebaste in Armenia, notwithstanding suspicions about his ascetic and ecclesiastical ideals, attests to his popularity with both the people and the bishops of the province. In fact, Epiphanius of Salamis, usually so scathing in his attacks against heretics, was surprisingly indulgent in his treatment of Eustathius. Despite Eustathius's Arian leanings, Epiphanius acknowledged that "no few [people] admire his life and conduct"(35). Perhaps Epiphanius's own position as both a bishop and an ascetic made him more sympathetic to his colleague's plight, for as bishop of Sebaste Eustathius had to struggle with the more radical wing of his own ascetic movement. His disciple Aerius allegedly reproached him for his acceptance of ecclesiastical office, considering it incompatible with serious monastic renunciation (36). Though he had been given charge of Eustathius's hospice, Aerius eventually broke away from his bishop and mentor to form his own more extreme ascetic community, detached from the city and the church.

Eustathius himself continued both to advance the ascetic life in his region and to fulfil his Episcopal commission, a pattern that Basil of Caesarea would follow (37). Alongside Basil of Ancyra and Eleusius of Cyzicus, Eustathius led the homoiousian party in the struggle against Aetius and the Anomoeans at the Council of Ancyra (358). The following year he participated in the Council of Seleucia (359). This council delegated him to the court of Constantinople to present the homoiousian position to Emperor Constantius (337-361). Like the other delegates there, he was compelled to sign the fourth formula of Sirmium and was exiled to Dardania by the triumphant Arians. He was soon recalled, however, and restored to his see by Emperor Julian (361-363). During this period Basil accompanied Eustathius not only on visits to ascetic communities but also in ecclesiastical negotiations. He travelled with him to see Silvanus of Tarsus to make arrangements for the Council of Lampascus (autumn 364), where the bishop of Sebaste again played a prominent role. He was one of three delegates chosen to present the homoiousian view to Emperor Valentinian and Pope Liberius. On their return, the members of this delegation reported on their western journey to the Council of Tyana (367), which approved the work of the commission. Basil was probably present at this gathering. He was certainly on good terms with Eustathius at this time and laboured with him for the well-being of the church (38).

Eustathius eventually became a source of deep pain and great embarrassment for Basil. Both the intimacy of their friendship and the injury caused by their rupture are described in Letter 223. Elsewhere Basil decried Eustathius's defection from the orthodox faith, suggesting the pernicious influence of Arius himself as the underlying cause (39). Even in his bitterest reproaches, however, he recalled his earlier veneration for the great ascetic. He never directly opposed Eustathius's ascetic ideals. We find no mention of the decisions of Gangra in Basil's writings. Similarly the Synod of Melitene, where it seems that Eustathius was deposed by the Arians because of his ascetic stance, is mentioned only with uneasiness (40).

Basil did try to temper ascetic enthusiasm that might cause dissension or division in the church. For example, he forbade the celebration of the Eucharist in private homes (41), a practice explicitly condemned by the Council of Gangra. He encouraged temperance in eating and fasting and called for proper attention to physical needs. In general Basil's Rules aimed at moderation. They emphasized not extreme austerities or prodigious acts but positive deeds of love toward God and neighbour (42). Yet the practices of the Eustathians are nowhere explicitly condemned. Nothing could erase the impression Eustathius had made on the young Basil as both a model of the ascetic life and an active leader in the church. Overshadowed by the theological breach that so deeply divided the two erstwhile friends, the similarities in their ideals and certain aspects of their careers have often been overlooked or downplayed.

Other factors also played some role in the development of Basil's monastic thought and his eventual acceptance of an ecclesiastical career. Α number of older studies assumed that Basilian monasticism owed a great deal to the Pachomian cenobitic system. Actually, however, Basil had very little exposure to Pachomian patterns of monastic life. Though the young Cappadocian visited monastic centres in the east, it was much more likely that he set out on this journey in search of Eustathius than for the purpose of collecting data for his own monastic establishment (43). Basil says nothing about visits to Pachomian brotherhoods in Egypt. He may have gleaned more from his sojourn in Alexandria, where ascetic life and clerical vocation tended to coincide, but his letters reveal that he never met Athanasius. His admiration for the great bishop and monastic advocate radiates through his correspondence, but he knew him only by reputation (44). Significant firsthand experience of monastic models was more likely acquired from Syria, in closer proximity to Basil's native Cappadocia. It is in this direction that we might more profitably look for influences on his monastic thought, particularly with respect to his linkage of ascetic ideals and church leadership. In this region relations between premonastic asceticism and the church hierarchy were closely intertwined. Moreover, as we have seen, it was an area in which ascetic bishops were not an uncommon phenomenon.

Basil said very little about the direction his life took or the motives that drew him into the priesthood and eventually the episcopate. Yet the influence in his formative years of models such as Gregory Thaumaturgus and Eustathius of Sebaste must be sufficiently underscored. In the lives of these men he saw no opposition between asceticism and church office. Nor do Basil's pre-episcopal letters suggest the kind of reserve toward bishops that we observed in some texts of Egyptian monasticism. While many monks hesitated to accept ecclesiastical office, the Cappadocian demonstrated no such reluctance (45). In fact, given the turmoil of the church in his day, Basil saw all the more need to hold monastic life and ecclesiastical authority in tandem. His own career became purposefully directed toward this end. Following his ordination to the priesthood in 364, his active service to the church was interspersed with periods of retreat (46). While such respites necessarily became less frequent amid the pressing duties of his episcopate, on a personal level Basil yearned for those times of withdrawal. His official episcopal functions mirrored this dual focus. For Basil, leadership of the church as a whole encompassed oversight and care of monastic communities.


1. De judicio dei 1, PG 31, 653Α; Letters 204.6, 210.1, 223.3.

2. GNaz, Oration 43.5-8, in Grégoire de Nazianze, Discours 42-43, ed. and trans. Jean Bernardi, SC 384 (Paris: Éditions du cerf,1992). See also in this regard, Grégoire de Nysse: Vie de Sainte Macrine (hereinafter VSM), ed. and trans. Pierre Μaraval, SC 178 (Paris: Éditions du cerf, 1971), 2 and 20. Maximinus's persecution lasted from approximately 306, while he was still a caesar, until his death in 3

3. GNaz, Oration 43.9, 10, 12.

4. See D. Amand de Mendieta, "La virginité chez Eusèbe d'Emèse et l'ascétisme familial dans la première moitié du IVe siècle," RHE 50 (1955): 777-820, and Marcella Forlin Patrucco, "Aspetti di vita familiare nel IV secolo negli scritti dei padri cappaddoci," in Raniero Cantalamessa, ed., Etica sessuale e matrimonio nel cristianesimo delle origini (Μilan: Vita e pensiero, 1976), especially pp. 173-179. On Basil's family in particular see Maraval's introduction to VSM, pp. 47-49, and Susanna Elm, "Virgins of God": The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994), p. 78f.

5. On Eustathius's early influence in this area see Frazee, CHR (1980), especially pp. 17-20. Ρaul Jonathan Fedwick, The Church and the Charisma of Leadership in Basil of Caesarea (Toronto: ΡΙΜS, 1979), p. 160 n. 15, notes that Eustathians were running hospices and schools in the region. Basil's family owned estates in Cappadocia, Armenia Minor, and Pontus (VSM 20) increasing the likelihood of his exposure to various ascetic groups. In Letter 244.1 Basil refers to his early contact with Eustathius.

6. In both VSM 21 and GNaz, Oration 43.12, Basil the Elder is allegedly known throughout Pontus as a teacher of rhetoric. Regarding Musonius see Letters 28.1 and 210.3.1-5.

7. VSM 7 and 11. The initial decision of Emmelia and Macrina to retreat from the city to the family's country estate was not out of the ordinary for wealthy aristocrats of the day and did not signify a conscious adoption of an ascetic life. Elm, "Virgins of God," pp. 78-91, retraces the stages by which the family gradually became an ascetic household and ultimately an ascetic institution.

8. VSM 6. Though Gregory may have exaggerated Macrina's role, Basil, who never mentioned the existence of his sister, surely minimized it. According to VSM 12, Μacrina raised her brother Peter and gave him a monastic education. The reason for Basil's complete silence about Macrina is not entirely clear. Philip Rousseau, Basil of Caesarea (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 24-26, attributes his general reticence about family to his conviction that ecclesial pedigree counted far more than family associations. See also Rousseau, "Basil of Caesarea: Choosing a Past," in Graeme Clarke, ed., Reading the Past in Late Antiquity (Rushcutters Bay: Australian National University Press, 1990), pp. 37-58. Later, Macrina's close connections with Eustathius, whose doctrinal aberrations were to prove so embarrassing for Basil, likely reinforced his silence about her.

9. Naucratius retreated from the world in 352 and died in a hunting accident in 357, the year Basil arrived in Annesi. See VSM, chaps. 8-10. Naucratius has frequently been overlooked in treatments of Basil's ascetic formation. Elm's discussion of both Naucratius and Macrina, "Virgins of God," pp. 78-105, provides a helpful corrective to the tendency to minimize their roles.

10. On Macrina the Elder see Letter 204.6. For references to the tradition of Gregory see Letters 204.6, 207.4, 210.3; De spiritu sancto 74. On oral traditions about Gregory Thaumaturgus and their transmission see Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (New York: Alfred Α. Knopf, 1987), pp. 528-539, and Raymond Van Dam, "Hagiography and History: The Life of Gregory Thaumaturgus," Classical Antiquity 1 (1982): 272-308. Jean Gribomont, "L'origénisme de Saint Basile," in l'homme devant Dieu: Mélanges Η.de Lubac (Paris: Aubier, 1963), p. 281, points to Gregory Thaumaturgus's influence in mediating a form of Origenism to Basil.

11. Letters 204.6, 207.4, 210.1 and 5, 223.3; De spiritu sancto 72 and 74. Rousseau, Basil of Caesarea, pp. 11-14, emphasizes Basil's increasing identification of his family with the tradition of Gregory Thaumaturgus.Gregory's life is known to us through four main sources: Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica 6.30; Jerome, De viris illustribus 65; Gregory's "Canonical Letter" (PG 10, 1020-1048); and a letter to Origen, allegedly written by Gregory himself on the completion of his studies (c.238). For a summary of his life and the text of this letter see Henri Crouzel, ed., Grégoire le Thaumaturge, Remerciement a Origène suivi de la lettre d'Origène a Grégoire, SC 148 (Paris: Editions du cerf, 1969). Crouzel, pp. 22-23, notes that the five extant Lives of Gregory Thaumaturgus are mostly legendary, recounting his famous miracles for the purpose of edification. Only the biography of Gregory of Nyssa, De vita Gregorii Thaumaturgi, GNO Χ.1.3-57 (= PG 46, 893-958), has some historical value. See also Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, pp. 517-545, and Van Dam, "Hagiography and History."

12. De vita Gregorii Thaumaturgi, GNO Χ.14 (= PG 46, 908C).

13. An edition and translation of Origen's "Letter to Gregory" appear in the same volume as Gregory's Remerciement. P Nautin, Origène, sa vie et son oeuvre (Paris: Beauchesne, 1977), pp. 183-197, argues that Origen's reply was actually sent to another Gregory Crouzel, Remerciement, pp. 79-87, followed by Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, pp. 516-517, maintains that Gregory Thaumaturgus was in fact the recipient. The letter is also in J. Armitage Robinson, ed., The Philocalia of Origen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1893), pp. 1-4; George Lewis, trans., The Philocalia of Origen (Edinburgh: Clark, 1911). Nazianzen alludes to his collaboration with Basil on the Philocalia in Letter 115.3: Gallay 2, 10.

14. Letters 28.1-2, 204.2; De spiritu sancto 72 and 74.

15. De spiritu sancto 29.74, in Basile de Césarée, Sur le Saint-Esprit, ed. Benoit Pruche, SC 17 bis, 2nd ed. (Paris: Éditions du cerf, 1968), pp. 510-512.

Main page of text | Previous Page