Basil the Great on Christians Reading Pagan Literature

Basil, one of the Cappadocian Fathers, did not believe that Christians should wholly give themselves over to all pagan teachings within literature. They should, however, use discernment in “accepting from them only that which is useful.” Furthermore, Christians were to discern what ought to have been overlooked, and in his sermon, “To Young Men, On How They Might Derive Profit From Pagan Literature,” Basil taught exactly how to distinguish between what was useful and what was worthy of being overlooked (1).

Central to one’s usage of what pagan literature contained was its ability to contribute to the preparation of the afterlife while, conversely, omitting anything that did not help in that preparation. This would include principles conducive to not only preparing for the afterlife but also for living one’s life in the flesh well enough in virtue. The Apostle Peter echoes this sentiment in his second epistle. God has granted humanity all things that pertained to life and godliness, so the believer was to supplement their faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge, and so on (2 Peter 1:3–7). Having these qualities, Peter wrote, would keep one from falling (2 Peter 1:10). Basil supports the apostle’s argument with his assertion: “Now to that other life, the Holy Scriptures lead the way, teaching us through mysteries” (loc. cit.).  

In preparation for eternal life, “poets and writers of prose and orators and with all men from whom there is any prospect of benefit concerning the care of our soul” (loc. cit.) were to be included in one’s formation. Basil argued what Thomas Aquinas would later echo—the secular prepares the mind for the sacred. Not only did Aquinas echo Basil, but Jerome appeared to have done so as well. Basil also cited Moses’ Egyptian education (cf. Acts 7:22) in addition to Daniel’s Chaldean education (cf. Daniel 1:4–5) as proof of preparation for their souls to handle divine matters. While Moses was a worthy example (2), Daniel, however, appeared to have already had some divine training by his refusal to defile himself by partaking in eating the king’s portion (Daniel 1:8). If Daniel’s training in Chaldean studies did not hinder his spiritually discerning mind, they might have added to his later success as a captive who later became a high-ranking official in Babylon.

Handling secular literature was to be done so only to the extent that it recorded the deeds or words of good men so that they might be cherished and emulated. The examples of men’s vices were to be avoided and not found to be entertaining (3). Basil echoes Socrates when the latter says that bad entertainment “waters [our actions] when they ought to be left to wither, and makes them control us when we ought, in the interests of our own greater welfare and happiness, to control them (4).” Socrates and Basil agreed, and wisdom was to be used by the Christian wherever it appeared. Moving from Socrates, Aristotle also spoke to certain genres of entertainment when he appeared to have more tolerance for tragedy than comedy. The former was “an imitation of an action of serious stature,” and “an imitation not of people but of actions and life (5).” The latter was “an imitation of people of a lower sort…what is ridiculous is part of what is ugly (6).” Perhaps in comedy, Aristotle would agree with Socrates in that comedy—according to the latter—permitted one to enjoy jokes that they would themselves be ashamed to make. However, what makes such jokes laughable and detestable at the same time? The laughableness results from one’s own perverse nature that is inclined to sin. Therefore, when the humor of what is vile surfaces, it only does so because one’s nature finds pleasure in that which God has not intended for man to find pleasure. What makes such jokes detestable is not necessarily the best nature of man, but an inherent moral code given to humanity by God that deems anything unworthy when violating another’s personhood or that which is sacred. Concerned not only with the perils of comedy, Basil included even depraved depictions of the pantheon with what was to be avoided (7). All of these depraved mockeries of humanity and divinity did not aid one in preparation for the next life.

Since all the churchmen esteemed the Bible, why would any of them have advocated the liberal arts when the Bible contains the best and worst of human nature and also prepares the believer for the next life? Is there any purpose the liberal arts can serve that the Bible does not already serve? Basil wrote, “For by those who make it their business to gather the benefit to be derived from each source many accretions from many sides are wont to be received, as happens to mighty rivers (8).” The liberal arts are not meant to replace the spiritual formation given by divine studies, but they are most assuredly a powerful supplement. Basil encouraged the arts because they made each individual more fully human and more fully humane.

  1. This article derives from Steven C. Hunter, “The Profit of Pagan Literature: Discernment as a Key to Liberal Thinking,” Journal of Faith and the Academy 7, no. 2 (Fall 2014): 6–18. All references to this particular sermon of Basil’s is found in Richard M. Gamble, ed., The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to be an Educated Human Being (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2007), 183.
  2. Cf. Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses 2.112–16.
  3. Gamble, ed., The Great Tradition, 184.
  4. “Poets Banned from the Ideal State,” from The Republic, by Plato, trans. Desmond Lee, rev. 2d. ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1974), 374–77.
  5. Aristotle Poetics, trans. Joe Sachs (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2006), 26–27.
  6. Ibid, 25.
  7. Gamble, ed., The Great Tradition, 184.
  8. Ibid., 188.

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.

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