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Excerpts from "For the Young on How They Might Derive Profit from Hellenic Literature"

St. Basil the Great

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In 364, Basil wrote his little treatise, "For the Young on How They Might Derive Profit from Hellenic Literature" ... The Emperor Julian had forbidden Christians to study pagan authors, hoping thereby to limit their educational opportunities. Christians had responded in various ways. Some had thought to rewrite the Scriptures in a more classical language and style. Others tended to think that Julian had done them a favour, that there really could be nothing to gain from pagans, no commerce between Athens and Jerusalem. So when the schools were reopened after Julian's death there was a special need for some reflection on the approach that Christians should take toward pagan literature.

1. I am undertaking, my children, to give you some good advice. There are many reasons why I do so, and I am confident that you will find it profitable if you follow it. As you can see, I have reached a certain age. I have passed a good many tests. And especially I have had more than my share in that school where everything can be learned, the school of hard knocks. All of that has given me experience of human affairs and enables me to point out, if I may say so myself, the right road to those who are beginning their journey of life.

2. We will start, my children, by considering this human life as absolutely worthless. And anything that is useful to us only for this life we do not regard as good at all or worthy of the name. ...Our hope extends much further. We do everything we do with a view to preparing ourselves for another life. And anything that can be useful for that life must, we say, be loved and sought out with all our strength. ...

To that life we are led by the Holy Books through the mysteries they teach us. But only age can enable us to penetrate deeply into their meaning. And while waiting for that we take our exercise for the eye of our soul on shadows and mirrors, as it were, that is on other books that are not entirely different. In this we imitate those who train to be soldiers. They practise gesticulating and dancing, and then, when the day of fighting comes, gather the fruit of their games. ... And so we have to deal with poets, historians, orators, indeed all men with everyone in whom we can find something useful for the care of our soul.

3. When we compare the two kinds of learning, we see that there can be value for us in knowing both if they are like one another. And if they are not, then at least the comparison, by showing us the difference, will help considerably to strengthen us in our attachment to the better. ...Take a fruit tree; its particular quality is that in season it is covered with fruit, but it also draws a certain attractiveness from the leaves that shimmer on its branches. In the same way, the soul's essential fruit is the truth, but it finds a certain grace also when it wraps itself in secular wisdom, just as the leaves taken together provide a shelter for the fruit and a not unseasonable sight. ...

4. ...Take, first of all, the works of the poets. Their subjects vary a great deal and one should not open one's mind to them all without making some distinctions. Sometimes they recount the words and deeds of good men. Then one should love them, imitate them and do one's best to resemble them. But then sometimes their imagination turns to vicious persons, and one must avoid these examples....For growing accustomed to bad words is a sort of pathway to evil actions.

We should model ourselves on the bees when we participate in these works. They don't go to all the flowers indiscriminately. And when they do fly to certain ones, they don't try to carry them off whole. They take only what is useful for their work and leave the rest without a backward glance. In the same way, we, if we are wise, will gather what suits our needs and conforms to the truth, and pass over the rest. ...

5. It is by virtue that we lay up for ourselves a treasure for the other life. And often the poets, often, too, the prose authors, but most often of all the philosophers sing hymns to virtue. So it is especially to this sort of study that we should apply ourselves. The birth of a certain habitual familiarity with regard to virtue within the souls of young men is no small gain. For it is precisely the lessons one learns at that age that nature renders unchangeable. And it is on these impressionable souls that such lessons are most deeply imprinted.

I once heard a man skilled in the interpretation of the thought of the poets say that for Homer poetry is simply an exaltation of virtue. Everything in him, he said, except the merest incidentals, is aimed at that goal. ...

6. Indeed, this is true of practically all the authors with any reputation for wisdom. In little ways or great, each according to his powers, they set themselves in their works to sing the praises of virtue. ...

10. Now, we can learn all of that, no doubt, and in a much more perfect way, in our own Scriptures. But for the moment, at least, a sort of an outline of virtue can be drawn for us by secular teaching. Those who are careful to gather whatever is useful wherever they find it are like great rivers: they find increase after increase coming to them from all sides quite naturally. ...

Read the entire article on the Congregation of St. Basil website (new window will open).

Posted: 26-May-06

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