Basil the Great

Basil the Great (ca. 330-379), was a bishop of Caesarea. Highly regarded in the Eastern Orthodox Church, he along with Gregory Nazianzus, and Basil's brother Gregory of Nyssa are called the Cappadocian Fathers.

Biographical sketch

Basil was born about 330 at Caesarea in Cappadocia into a wealthy and pious family. His younger brothers, also prominent in the early church, were Gregory of Nyssa and Peter, who became Bishop of Sebaste.

As a young man, he studied several years in Constantinople and at Athens. There he had Gregory Nazianzus for a fellow student and became friends with the future emperor Julian. Both men were deeply influenced by Origen.

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 enthusiastic piety and how to keep his body under submission by asceticism. After he is found at the head of a convent near Arnesi in Pontus. Eustathius of Sebaste had already labored in Pontus in behalf of the anchoretic life, and Basil revered him on that account, although they differed over dogmatic points, which gradually separated these two men.

He was ordained presbyter of the Church at Caesarea in 365, 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 favored 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 here that his talents were called into action. With great fervor, he resisted the emperor Valens, who strove to introduce Arianism into his diocese. Basil so impressed the emperor that, although inclined to banish the intractable bishop, he left him unmolested.

To save the Church from Arianism, Basil entered into connections with the West, and with the help of Athanasius, he tried to overcome its distrustful attitude toward the Homoiousians. On the other hand, Basil was grievously offended by the extreme adherents of Homoousianism, who seemed to him to be reviving the Sabellian heresy.

He did not live to see the end of the unhappy factional disturbances and the eventual success of his efforts in behalf of Rome and the East. He suffered from liver illness and his excessive asceticism seems to have hastened him to an early death.


The principal theological writings of Basil are his De Spiritu Sancto, appealing to Scripture and early Christian tradition to prove the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and his Refutation of the Apology of the Impious Eunomius, written in 363 or 364, three books against Eunomius of Cyzicus, the chief exponent of Anomoian Arianism. The first three books of the Refutation are his work; the fourth and fifth books that are usually included to do not belong to Basil, or to Apollinaris of Laodicea, but probably to Didymus of Alexandria.

He was a famous preacher, and many of his homilies 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. It is in the ethical manuals and moral sermons that the practical aspects of his theoretical theology are illustrated.

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.

All his works, and a few spuriously attributed to him, are available in the Patrologia Graeca, which includes Latin translations of varying quality. No critical edition is yet available.