On occasion, the Angelicum Academy is asked about whether it is appropriate to study the Classics (primarily Greek literature but also conventionally viewed to include Roman and other generally recognized Great Books of Western Civilization). Many Catholics are surprised to learn that this question was answered by the Fathers of the Church in the Fourth Century, and that most of the Latin and Greek Fathers, Doctors of the Church and many Saints were not only educated with the Classics but encouraged the study of the Classics as part of Christian Education.  The following commentary on the view of St. Basil the Great on this issue as well as several other Fathers of the Church is offered to those parents interested in the proper role of the study of the classics in Christian Education. The work referred to in the commentary is Saint Basil’s Address to Young Men on the Study of the Greeks is also posted below in its entirety.

— Thomas R. Orr, J.D., Director of Angelicum Academy

In 1933, two authoritative commentators addressed the issue of the importance of St. Basil’s Address to Young Men on the Study of the Greeks and its influence on education to this day.  In the context of discussing St. Basil’s work and influence, the commentators also addressed the position of other Latin and Greek Fathers of the Church (St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and others) on the proper role of the study of the classics in Christian education, thereby debunking any notion that the Church or the Fathers were opposed to the inclusion of classical literature in education–rather, that such was indispensable:

“St. Basil’s Address to Young Men on the Study of the Greeks

is a short work, but one that has attracted great interest at all times. . . . Basil wrote the essay when he was advanced in years, for he himself speaks of “my advanced age” as one of the reasons which urged him to accomplish the task.  Some time had thus elapsed since he had resigned his chair of rhetoric . . . The work sums up Basil’s ideas, towards the end of a life of wide experience, on a question much-mooted in his day:–Should the study of pagan classics of Greek literature form an important part of a system of Christian education? And since the work was published, Basil undoubtedly intended that it should perform as widespread a service as possible and not be limited to his own seminary or surroundings.
That St. Basil knew classical Greek literature as a whole very well we might conjecture from what we know of his education. A careful reading of his works, however, brings this out very clearly and shows that he was well conversant with certain types of Greek literature.

Although Basil comparatively rarely cites authors, he mentions among the poets Aeschylus, Euripides, Archilochus, Simonides, Solon, Theognis, Hesiod and Homer (citations omitted). There are other references that can be traced to Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and perhaps Aristophanes. . . . He quotes or alludes to Hesiod at least four times and to Homer twenty-three times. The bulk of Homeric references or quotations have to do with the Odyssey, about one-third as many with the Iliad; and the Homeric Hymns and the Margites, long attributed to Homer, are referred to once each. All the instances from Hesiod are from the Works and Days.


 

Basil seems well acquainted with the legends and history of Greece.  There are eighteen references that are easily traceable to Herodotus, two to Thucydides, two to Xenophon, and twenty-four to Plutarch. Throughout his works Basil’s use of history and legend is literary or rhetorical and never scientific. He mingles the history and legend indiscriminately.
In the use of the philosophers, or such authors as are usually classed among the philosophers, Basil borrowed most from Plato. In this he was like most of the other Fathers, both Latin and Greek, who found much in Plato’s writings which so approached the Christian ideals and was so beautifully expressed that they were inclined to draw upon Plato’s phraseology freely.  Aristotle’s influence on Basil was far less direct than that of Plato, but that Basil knew Aristotle thoroughly is evident from Letter CXXXV. In this letter, after expressing a very sound opinion of the rhetoric of his day, Basil very discerningly characterizes at some length the literary styles of Plato, Aristotle, and Theophrastus. The influence of the other philosophers is rather difficult to find, although some remarks may be referred to Diogenes Laertius.  He also cites Anaximander, Anaximenes, Democritus, Leucippus, Empedocles, and Xenophanes of Colophon.

In Attic literature the only men whom Basil seems to have left off his ready references are the Attic orators. A single mention (Letter III) is made of Demosthenes, but Antiphon, Andocides, Lysias, and others, who were widely known and admired do not appear. An orator’s works do not lend themselves to a moralist for quotation so readily as the verses of poets or the apophthegms of the philosophers. 

Basil’s education was obtained at the pagan university of Athens, and the pagan Greek classics formed the main part of the curriculum .  For four or five years he read and studied these works with a zeal and intelligence that drew attention and compliments from all his teachers. His ready reference to the productions of the old masters, and his insight into their spirit, are evident.  In view of these facts alone, his attitude towards pagan classics would seem to need no explanation. But in his Address to Young Men, Basil confirms his almost obvious stand by direct statement, saying specifically that when the pagan writers teach what is good, and noble, and true, they are to be read, while if they teach vice they must be shunned. There exists no more explicit declaration of the right position of the classics in education than this.  Every educator from Plato down has maintained similar views. “If anyone,” says Basil, “praises the good thus, we shall listen to his words with satisfaction, for our objects are in common.”  And again, “Thus, then, we shall be influenced by those writings of pagan authors which contain an exposition of virtue.” His position is definite enough. The pagan classics have a place in Christian education, and, when properly selected and intelligently taught and received, their influence in education is beneficial and necessary.
As a matter of fact, no one of the Fathers has expressed himself as opposed without compromise to pagan literature in its entirety. Traditionally, St. John Chrysostom has had the worst reputation in this respect.  Without making any serious investigation of the vast bulk of Chrysostom’s sermons, historians and literary critics from E. Gibbon down to E. Norden have repeated the charge that Chrysostom was either profoundly indifferent or irreconcilably hostile to pagan culture and literature.  The former attributes to him “the judgment to conceal the advantages which he derived from the knowledge of rhetoric and philosophy.” A. Naegele was the first to evaluate properly Chrysostom’s real attitude and to show conclusively from Chrysostom’s own statements that he deserves a place beside Origen, Basil, Augustine, and others who advocated a compromise between Hellenism and Christianity.

 

Icon written by Angelicum 8th Grade Student

Icon written by Angelicum 8th Grade Student

For all practical purposes such a compromise was established in fact by the middle of the fourth century. The Christian Fathers of this period were all thoroughly imbued with classical culture and gave evidence of it in their writings.  Theoretically, however, opinions were divided as to whether or not Christian thought should be set forth in the polished language of the pagan classics. Some of the Fathers, like Augustine and Gregory Nazianzen, wavered in their attitude.  Some of Gregory’s bitter invectives against pagan writers and rhetors give the impression that he is altogether hostile to profane literature, while other of his statements show him in favour of enlisting its formal beauty in the exposition of Christian doctrine.

Chrysostom’s attitude is similar.  He sometimes allows his zeal to carry him too far, to censure not only the errors and vices of paganism, but profane writers and literature in general, and this has led critics like Norden to pronounce him “the most bitter foe of paganism in the fourth century.” But although as applied to pagan error and immorality this statement is true, yet a sympathetic study of his sermons will show that at heart Chrysostom is not hostile to the refining and cultural influences of antiquity.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

St. Basil stands out alone among the Fathers in the quiet restraint, the Atticism, as it were, of his style. While being just as intensively opposed to the error and immorality of paganism, he does not indulge in extravagant tirades that include blindly the good with the bad of paganism. His statements present exactly what he means and rarely permit misinterpretation. Accordingly, Basil’s attitude towards the pagan classics appears as the most enlightened and well-balanced of his time. This attitude which he expresses throughout his works may be summed up as follows:

Basil’s acquaintance with pagan literature is that of an understanding friend, not blind to its worst qualities, but by no means condemning the whole on that account. However, it is clear that Basil recommends the study of pagan Greek literature on ethical and not aesthetic or scientific grounds. The chief value of this study in his mind is to stimulate the practice of virtue and to prepare the reader to understand Holy Scripture.  But this emphasis on the ethical side does not exclude a genuine appreciation of the best in pagan Greek literature on Basil’s part, and the range and familiarity of his knowledge of the latter revealed in all his works show that he had drunk deeply from its fountains. 

Icon written by Angelicum 8th Grade Student

Icon written by Angelicum 8th Grade Student

The essay [Address to Young Men] . . . has exercised a unique influence in the history of education, whether through being employed as a guide and defense for the study of pagan literature or through being read for its own worth as a Christian classic, and it is without question the best known and most widely disseminated of Basil’s works

.  Before passing to a consideration of the more important separate editions, in themselves excellent evidence of influence, a few concrete instances of this influence will be of interest. A detailed account of the treatise’s Fortleben does not exist as yet, although it could well be the subject of a valuable monograph.
 .  It was the first Greek work translated by Leonardo Bruni in the Renaissances, his translation being gratefully dedicated to Coluccio Salutato, to whom with Chrysoloras he owed his knowledge of Greek. Bruni employed the treatise as a defence of humanism against men like Dominici and Dati, who, in fact, were closer to the mind of Basil in their attitude than he himself. Aeneas Sylvius quotes from the treatise in his work on education and interprets it wholly in the spirit of Basil. The work in Latin translation was being regularly expounded at the University of Paris in the early sixteenth century, as we learn from a letter by Josse Bade to Nicholaus Chappusotus in 1508Basil was recommended for Reading in the Ratio Studiorum of the Jesuits, and the present treatise was undoubtedly among the selections chosen, for an edition of the work by Hieronymus Brunello, S.J.was published in Rome in 1594. In the Schulordnung of Herzog August of Braunschweig for 1651 Basil’s treatise is commended to the masters for study as praeclara illa Basilii, magni de utilitate ex Graecis auctoribus capeinda ad adolescentes Christianos oratio. Johann Friedrich Reinard, in a memorial on the education of Saxon Kurprinz, written in 1709-1712, recommends reading of Basil’s treatise in the following terms:

St. John Damascene

St. John Damascene

The work was evidently esteemed by the later Greeks, for St. John Damascene quotes it in several places in his Sacra Parallela and it is quoted more than twenty-five times in the collections of maxims from St. Basil ascribed to Symeon Metaphrastes

Austatt eines Probirsteins, wornach der Poeten carmina zu examiniren, diene des Plutarchi Buch, quomodo juventuti audienda sint poemata, und des Basilii M. oratio ad juvenes, quo ratione cum fructu legere possint Graecorum libros, welche beyde scriptores H. Grotius in dien lateinische Sprache ubersetzet, unde die, cum ejudem varientibus lectionibus et notis, Johann.  Potter in Oxfurt e Theatro Scheldoniano anno 1694 ediret.

And to come closer to our own times, in the last century St. Basil’s little treatise played a prominent role in the Gaume controversy, and again made its appearance in school curricula. These few notices taken at random are enough to show the significance of the treatise (Greek phrase omitted) in the history of education.”
This treatise [Address to Young Men on the Study of the Greeks] was the first of Basil’s works to be printed, making its appearance, however, not in Greek, but in the Latin translation of Leonardo Bruni. The editio princeps of this translation was printed by Christopher Valdarfer at Venice c. 1470-1471. Before 1500 at least nineteen editions of Bruni’s translation came from the presses in the following cities: Venice, Parma, Buda, Milan, Nurnburg (two editions), Ulm, Mainz, Leipzig (five editions), Burgos (three editions), Zamora, Salamanca, and Pamplona. The Greek text seems to have been printed first in Venice by Z. Calliergus c. 1500 in an edition containing also the Pinax of Cebes, the (greek omitted) of the Pseudo-Plutarch, and the Hiero of Xenophon.

The text which we have used is that of Garnier and Maran, compared with that of Fremion . . .

  — Roy J. Deferrari and Martin R.P. McGuire, Prefatory Note to Basil the Great’s: To Young Men, On How They Might Derive Profit From Pagan Literature, pp.365-76, Vol IV St. Basil Letters, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 4th Ed., 1970 (prefatory note written in 1933)

 

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

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