Philip Rousseau, Basil of Caesarea (Transformation of the Classical Heritage) (Berkley: University of California Press, 1998).

Philip Rousseau defines the task of this work to be not a definitive biography but an examination of Basil of Caesarea as a bishop and an expoundant of what that position means. To understand this one must consider carefully the events of Basil’s own life which caused him to make various decisions concerning himself and others. Therefore, this study is a biography of sorts, a biography of the development of the life, psyche, and spirituality of a person who found himself constantly having to define himself, both to himself and to others, and discern what that meant for his role in the world.

Basil, living as he did between the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, found himself in the middle of the debates of what it meant to be a Christian. Was it necessary to come to full theological agreement in the form of a formula of specific words? What did a proper Christian life look like for the everyday person? In a society which was mostly Christian what consequence was there for the relationship between the rich and the poor? What were the tasks of a bishop? Teacher? Administrator? Spiritual guide? Defender of orthodoxy on a wide scale? Advocate of social justice? There was little precedent for Basil in these matters, and Rousseau shows how Basil struggled to come to terms with each of these aspects, sometimes with outstanding success and other times with great disappointment and personal grief. In doing so, Rousseau shows that Basil was far from perfect, often running aground in his own philosophic ideals, his tendency to micromanage his own friends, his aristocratic background, and his reluctance to speak out against his mentors. Nonetheless, Rousseau points out that Basil was also incredibly sincere in his desires to protect and lead the church, staying true to Scripture in order to lead the people in a proper Christian life of correct theology, correct sacraments, and good morals.

Rousseau’s method of inquiry is based largely around working through the major texts of each period of Basil’s life, with texts by those surrounding Basil as supporting sources. Done correctly, this is perhaps the best way to study an ancient figure such as Basil. Rousseau is very careful to take into consideration the fact that the later reflective works of Basil and his friends were also posturing works, casting themselves into the light which they hoped to have and not necessarily a true account of things.

In chapter one Rousseau discusses the family background and early life of Basil. The relationship between Basil and his family is murky, especially if one takes the position, like Rousseau does, that the Life of Macrina is mostly pious fiction than historical recounting. The long-standing Christian family tradition that Basil was born into no doubt had an influence upon him. Such a family, Rousseau points out, existed precisely because it dealt with previous persecution not by running into the arena but by becoming reclusive, and this form of “heroism” came to be lauded by Basil and Gregory Nazianzus. Such a family would have emerged into the time of toleration not only well-connected and financially secure, but also established within an unbroken line of Christian piety. The relationship between this piety and later theological articulation seems to be weak. Basil himself seems to put more emphasis on the theological training he learned by studying philosophy and Rousseau points out that Basil likely also considered himself to be student of Origen of Alexandria, even if we have no record of him publicly admitting it. The influence of Basil’s philosophical training in Athens is clear in his early works, though Rousseau points out that Basil apparently tried to rewrite his own past, saying that he had learned to reject the “wisdom of the world” and instead held close to the correct beliefs taught to him as a child by his mother and grandmother. This rewriting took place long after these family members were dead and while Basil was trying to both defend his orthodoxy and distance himself from the heresy of his former mentor, Eustathius. However, Rousseau qualifies this by showing that even as Basil was doing this rewriting he was still careful to teach that following in the piety and virtue of one’s family is still an individual decision. This family upbringing, and Basil’s later appropriation of it, had an influence on how Basil viewed the concept of “tradition” and orthodox interpretation as opposed to the innovation and novelty of his opponents.

In chapter two Rousseau presents Basil’s time in Athens as being a time unmarked by controversy concerning the relationship between Christianity and pagan philosophy. Rousseau makes it clear that the idea of a “Christian education” was not yet formulated and delves into how Basil, along with his friend Gregory, reacted to pagan philosophy and sought to integrate it into their Christian faith. Gregory, Rousseau shows, was more than happy with this predicament. However, Basil showed signs of discontentment, which Rousseau suggests was because Athens itself showed none of the virtue and purity that was supposed to accompany the pursuit of a well-ordered mind. This would account for Basil’s long retreat into solitude as well as his continuing personal emphasis on finding, and acquiring, the virtues which made one a proper Christian. Rousseau here discusses the work Ad adulescentes and Basil’s consideration of whether virtue could be found apart from Scripture. Basil’s conclusion, that the moral teachings of the pagan classics form a basis on which to understand the moral teachings of Scripture, seems to point to Basil’s developing resolution of the tension between the two. This question, the relationship between Christianity and paganism, is recurrent in Basil’s life.

In chapter three Basil’s philosophic retreat is covered, via the letters written between Basil and Gregory Nazianzen and those written by Basil to some other figures. Here we begin to see Basil’s struggles with the relationship between his family asceticism, his educated philosophic life, and how both of these are to relate to the ecclesiastical matters of the church. Rousseau points out that the relationship between aristocracy and philosophy and asceticism was not diametrically opposed in classical Hellenism. Indeed, it was expected that the aristocracy should be well educated in philosophy and then use their wealth to retreat from common life, travel to find teachers of good morals, and set up centers of contemplation. While Rousseau points out that the female members of Basil’s family added equality between the aristocrats and the servants to this framework, Basil was not so apt to follow in this. Basil’s travels then are cast by Rousseau not simply as an ascetic discovery but a philosophical journey. The fact that Basil’s model for this was Eustathius, who had already begun to recast asceticism into an ecclesiastical model, was no doubt appealing to Basil, much more so than Eustathius’ previous ascetic model of a retreat of poverty which seems to be what Basil’s family was trying to emulate.

This interplay of philosophical striving with ascetic contemplation and acquiring moral virtue continued to be refined by Basil as he wrote the Philocalia. Rousseau sees this time as a time of transition for Basil, a time when he began to use his Athenian education to a particularly Christian end. By compiling works of Origen dealing with Scripture, apologetics, and morals Rousseau sees Basil as preparing for a public and ecclesiastical life, and it is in this context that Rousseau seeks to understand Basil’s ordinations. Basil, Rousseau believes, having experimented with asceticism and settled on a very public monastic form as defined by Eustathius, sought to turn himself into pastor, an expoundant of right teaching and right morals.

This leads Rousseau into chapter four and Basil’s debates with Eunomius. Rousseau points out that Basil at this time lived close to Eustathius and was probably introduced to the key points of this controversy by him. Basil’s Contra Eunomium then likely owed much to Eustathius’ influence. Rousseau believes that at this time Basil was a supporter of Eustathius and his exile at the council in Constantinople in 360 caused Basil some consternation. Rousseau rejects Basil’s telling of these events in the late 370’s as being a later revision, having more to do with shifts in Basil’s own thinking over the years than what Basil at the time actually thought. At the time Basil still seems to be struggling to come to terms with the Nicene language and understanding what it meant. His experience at Constantinople seems to have forced Basil into understanding how a shared language should lead to a shared understanding. Basil’s affirmation that “like in substance without variation” was the same as “of the same substance” seems to have brought Basil to the understanding that words and what is meant by them are very important in this debate. Rousseau sees in the Contra Eunomian a clear theology of not only who God is, but how we come to know God and speak about God. In order to do this Basil presents the “tradition” as being in his favor, but this is not necessarily a tradition of words but of deeds and right worship.

The proper deeds and worship of a Christian is the subject of the next chapter, chapter five. Here Rousseau examines Basil as first a priest and then the bishop of Caesarea. Basil himself leaves little textual witness for his early years as a priest, Rousseau is forced to rely of Gregory Nazianzan’s recollections to reconstruct this period. A famine presented Basil with an opportunity to practice large scale charity and social work. Such a program, Rousseau points out, would not be in opposition to Basil’s system of philosophy and asceticism. This, along with his struggle against heresy, was perhaps the highlights of Basil’s perspective. In other ways though, Rousseau sees Basil’s philosophical, educational, and family background as being also the source of many of Basil’s problems, both in his ordination as bishop as well as his later relationship with his friends. Simply put, Rousseau sees Basil as much too inept at the social diplomacy expected of a bishop at his time. Rousseau considers Basil’s letters to his priests to be signs of Basil’s understanding that church affairs carried with it certain rules and expectations. Basil also began to understand the role of the bishop as the soul of a city, which was likely one of the main contributors to Basil’s increasingly ill health. As the health of the church went, so did Basil’s health. Such a viewpoint undoubtedly caused Basil to take the rise and falls of his theology and his personal friendships very personally, which is perhaps why Basil felt so lonely even as he was petitioning for favors from more and more people.

This concern for the social and spiritual health of the church influenced Basil’s perspective on the bishop role in social justice. The formation of a “Christian polity” is something Rousseau sees being increasingly advocated in Basil’s homilies. The relationship between the church and politics was intertwined for Basil. Basil took it for granted the philosophical teaching that people are, by nature, political. Therefore, a gathering of people in the church would also be political. Because of the moral teachings of Christianity the relationship of the group of people in the church would be one of social justice.

The question of the proper relationship between Christians is the subject of chapter six. Here Rousseau leaves behind the homilies and concentrates on the so called “ascetical writings” which Rousseau points out are far less ascetical than most of Basil’s homilies. Whether or not these writings were intended by Basil to be specifically for institutionalized monasticism is something Rousseau questions, pointing out that there is little evidence that such a thing existed in the texts. What there is instead is the sense that Basil was instructing those who had decided to live their current vocation in way which was intentionally lived according to Christian principles of continence, poverty, and social justice. That this fit naturally into Basil’s idea that Christians should support each other economically and care for each other makes it clear that this was a part of Basil’s overall scheme for the church. This concern for the inner relationship between Christians continues to be Basil’s main focus, even in works such as the Asceticon which Rousseau believes to be written for a much more intentional monastic institution. In this relationship the confession of sins and correction of the sinner was to take place, with mutual forgiveness and repentance forming a spiritual development of the whole community.

The relationship between Christians is the subject of chapter seven and its analysis of Basil’s friendships. The relationship between Basil and Gregory Nazianzan is treated first, with Rousseau attributing the main source of the problems between them following Gregory’s ordination to Basil’s “insensitive ineptitude”. When Gregory complained of Basil’s tyranny it is entirely possible that Basil did, in fact, see himself as the tyrant, the authoritarian figure, in the relationship. Rousseau then treats Basil’s friendship with Eustathius, though here it was clear from the outset that Eustathius, not Basil, was master in the relationship. Here, however, the change in friendship was due to Basil’s shifting theology, which came to fall out of odds with Eustathius’. Basil’s “rewriting” of his own theology and friendship with Eustathius was done, Rousseau believes, for purely political reasons. Basil felt an increasing sense of presenting himself blameless in ecclesiastical politics. However, in so doing he gave up his own personal happiness, causing the growing isolation and failure that Basil felt in his later life. Basil’s suspected friendship with Apollinarius likely only served to confirm Basil in his isolation. Basil’s later friendships with Eusebius and Amphilochius became places where Basil could speculate on theology freely and safely. Rousseau characterizes Basil’s relationship with Amphilochius as one of “fatherly affection” and indeed most of Basil’s letters to Amphilochius seem to be more as teacher and guide than equal friend. Rousseau attributes to Amphilochius, however, Basil’s renewed confidence in himself and his abilities.

In chapter eight Rousseau discusses how this renewed confidence led to Basil’s final understanding of himself and his bishopric. Rousseau here examines Basil’s correspondence with the wider world, stretching his circle of influence and using his position of leadership to call for theological and ecclesiastical changes. Basil’s relationship with the West shows both that authoritarian aid from Rome was highly sought after but difficult to achieve. The conflict in Antioch of competing bishops and the continuation of heresy there continued to be a source of grief and frustration for Basil, who did not live to see their eventual resolution.

In the ninth and final chapter Rousseau examines the Hexameron, a text which Rousseau believes shows clearly Basil’s mature thought. In it the life of the dedicated Christian along the path of salvation is studied. In order to do this Basil presents a whole cosmology, both of the world and the life of the Christian in it. “Worldly wisdom” and “human perception” were inadequate. Even secular education, being used merely as a tool for pride, provoking and winning arguments, and attacking others, needed to be qualified. The antidote for these things was faith and Scripture rightly understood. When one starts with these things the other knowledge can be used to gain a fuller understanding. Rousseau points out the parallels between this work and Contra Eunomium and indeed Basil seems to have come full circle. Basil does not contradict any of his many points in the earlier work, but builds upon it using what Basil has learned about the proper relationship between Christians. Basil also explicates more fully the theme of God’s sovereignty in the world, that everything that happens is under God’s control. Basil here rejects the idea that humans are bound to Fate and calls all to the freedom of a moral and spiritual progress towards God. In contrast to the pessimism Basil displays when it comes to theology and politics in his wider world, Rousseau sees Basil here as strikingly optimistic. Basil, Rousseau believes, envisioned a future of a corporate Christian society and placed a lot of hope in the trajectory towards that goal that he was leaving behind. That perhaps, for Basil, made up for many of the disappointments and inadequacies which Basil felt marred his own life.

Rousseau’s treatment of Basil is definitely even handed and objective. Rousseau clearly shows the highs and lows of Basil without resorting to extravagant praise or lengthy defense. This work sheds a lot of light on why Basil did the things he did, whether right or wrong. However, Rousseau is more apt to take a traditional line of approach than he is to question it, especially when it comes to figures such as Gregory Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa. While it may be outside the scope of the book to delve deeply into the exact reasons for their responses to Basil’s actions, understanding these would further elucidate the position of Basil.

While Rousseau is careful to show the complexities and subtleties of Basil’s life, there are few generalizations upon which to pin these complexities to understand Basil as a whole. Certainly, Basil clearly changed over the years so understanding him in a wider sense may be anachronistic. However, besides knowing that Basil was an aristocrat and a philosopher, his underlying driving force is left unexplored. We know a lot about what Basil did and sometimes even his specific reasons for doing those things, but Rousseau seems to deliberately stay away from speculating upon Basil’s motivations on the whole. Here it may have been helpful to spend more time on Gregory Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa, their very different ways of understanding the Christian life while being an aristocrat and a philosopher would serve to cast into relief Basil’s own take on this subject, and that would likely further elucidate the trajectory of his life.