American Orthodox Catholic Christianity

Faith Of Our Fathers Series


Learning With Discernment The Education Theory of St. Basil the Great


Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.  (II Thess. 5:21)

    Born in a climate of unbelief, our modern culture with its multiform expressions of chaos, corruption and despair, has little--if anything--that recommends itself to an Orthodox curriculum. No arguments here. But what of the rich repository of arts and letters accumulated by Western civilization in years gone by, before it cut loose altogether from its Christian moorings? What of Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens, Hugo, Beethoven, Goethe, Cervantes, Melville, and a host of others who for so long provided the standard fare of an educated man? Can they assist the Orthodox parent and educator in the task of training up a child in the way in which he should go? (Prov. 22:6).

       In giving a positive (if qualified) answer to this question, we have tried to substantiate our position in our intermittent series, "Forming the Soul." The series has met with appreciation, although not always with agreement among our readers. Some would incline to steer clear of heterodox sources, fearing to throw a child off course and would argue for an education wholly absorbed--or as nearly as possible--- in the Holy Scripture, Lives of Saints, church music, and iconography.

       The debate is not new. Among the ancient Greeks and Romans literature--philosophy, poetry, drama---exerted substantial influence in guiding and even determining the national ideal. After Christianity was introduced, there was some question as to the relation between this new religion and pagan learning. In the West Tertullian condemned philosophy as the source of all heresy. A more positive attitude is found among the Church Fathers of the East. St. Justin Martyr ("the philosopher"), Athenagoras, St. Clement of Alexandria and his pupil Origen all esteemed Greek philosophy as having served the ancients as a guide to righteousness. The same view was held by St. Basil the Great, who provided a fair summation of this argument in his Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature. While Homer, Socrates, Plato, Hesiod and others referenced in this essay have virtually disappeared from the modern curriculum, its guidelines lend themselves to a broader application and may be studied with profit by those uncertain as to the proper place of secular learning in an Orthodox Christian education.

        Dr. F. M. Padelford, whose translation of the Address is excerpted below, describes the essay as "the educational theory of a cultured man, whose familiarity with classical learning and enthusiasm for it were second only to his knowledge of the Scriptures and zeal for righteousness." 

       St. Basil was born in Cappadocia in 329, into a wealthy family of culture and piety. Together with his six brothers and sisters he was trained in the Holy Scripture from childhood by his grandmother, St. Macrina (the elder) and his mother, St. Emmelia. (To the eternal credit of these women, three of the children became saints: Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Macrina; and three became bishops: Basil, Gregory and Peter.) Their father was a rhetorician and was undoubtedly pleased when Basil began to manifest a similar talent under the tutelage of the celebrated rhetorician and sophist, Libanius, who also inspired Basil with a love for Greek literature. Basil continued his studies in the refined intellectual atmosphere of Athens where he received a thorough training in the classics. There he made fast friends with another Cappadocian youth and future saint, Gregory Nazianzen. Of their student years, St. Gregory later wrote;; "We knew but two walks: the first and dearest, that which led to the Church and its teachers; the other, less exalter, which led to the school and its master. 

      There was never any question as to the superiority of the Christian way. Years later Basil lamented to a friend: "I have consumed almost all my youth in the vain attempt to acquire the teaching of a wisdom which is folly in God's eyes." Nevertheless, as Dr. Padelford notes, "the Church...found her hold upon classical learning the most effective weapon against the pagans," and Basil himself used it to advantage in defending the Church against various outbursts of Arianism and in converting many to the Faith. Pagans and Jews joined the crowds of Christians who mourned the Saint's repose on January 1, 379. 

      The Address makes clear, moreover, that Basil's appreciation of classical learning was not limited to its usefulness in the field of Christian apologetics. Recognizing that it contains a partial revelation of the truth, he recommended the study of Greek literature as a preparatory course for those not yet prepared for the "strong meat" of the Scriptures. Even more relevant for us today, St. Basil guides the reader in the use of discernment--without which the Christian should scarcely venture into the maze of secular learning.

      Space precludes printing the Address in its entirety. We have therefore prefaced a few excerpts with Dr. Padelford's convenient summation. 

I.                    Introduction: Out of the abundance of his experience the author will advise young men as to the pagan literature, showing them what to accept, and what to reject.

 II.                 To the Christian the life eternal is the supreme goal, and the guide to this life is the Holy Scriptures; but since young man cannot appreciate the deep thoughts contained therein, they are to study the profane writings, in which truth appears as in a mirror. 

III.               Profane learning should ornament the mind, as foliage graces the fruit-bearing tree. 

IV.              In studying pagan lore one must discriminate between the helpful and the injurious, accepting the one, but closing one's ears to the siren song of the other. 

V.                 Since the life to come is to be attained through virtue, chief attention must be paid to those passages in which' virtue is praised; such may be found, for example, in Hesiod, Homer, Solon, Theogenis, and Prodicus. 

VI.              Indeed, almost all eminent philosophers have extolled virtue. The words of such men should meet with more than mere theoretical acceptance, for one must try to realize them in his life, remembering that to seem to be good when one is not so is the height of injustice. 

VII.            But in the pagan literature virtue is lauded in deeds as well as in words, wherefore one should study those acts of noble men which coincide with the teachings of the Scriptures. 

VIII.         To return to the original thought, young men must distinguish between helpful and injurious knowledge, keeping clearly in mind the Christian's purpose in life. So, like the athlete or the musician, they must bend every energy to one task, the winning of the heavenly crown. 

IX.              This end is to be compassed by holding the body under, by scorning riches and fame, and by subordinating all else to virtue. 

X.                 While this ideal will be matured later by the study of the Scriptures, it is at present to be fostered by the study of the pagan writers; from them should be stored up knowledge for the future.

      Conclusion: The above are some of the more important precepts; others the writer will continue to explain from time to time, trusting that no young man will make the fatal error of disregarding them

      If there is any affinity between the two literatures [i.e., sacred and profane], a knowledge of them should be useful to us in our search for truth; if not, the comparison, by emphasizing the contrast, will be of no small service in strengthening our regard for the better. With what now may we compare these two kinds of education to obtain a simile? Just as it is the chief mission of the tree to hear its fruit in its season, though at the same time it puts forth for ornament the leaves which quiver on its boughs, even so the real fruit of the soul is truth, yet it is not without advantage for it to embrace the pagan wisdom, as also leaves offer shelter to the fruit, and an appearance not untimely. That Moses, whose name is a synonym for wisdom, severely trained his mind in the learning of the Egyptians, and thus became able to appreciate their deity. Similarly, in later days, the wise Daniel is said to have studied the lore of the Chaldeans while in Babylon, and after that to have taken up the sacred teachings. 

      Altogether after the manner of bees must we use these writings, for the bees do not visit all the flowers without discrimination, nor indeed do they seek to carry away entire those upon which they light, but rather, having taken so much as is adapted to their needs, they let the rest go. So we, if wise, shall take from heathen books whatever befits us and is allied to the truth, and shall pass over the rest. And just as in culling roses we avoid the thorns, from such writings as these we will gather everything useful, and guard against the noxious. So, from the very beginning, we must examine each of their teachings, to harmonize it with our ultimate purpose, according to the Doric proverb, 'testing each stone by the measuring-line'. 

      To be sure, we shall become more intimately acquainted with these precepts in the sacred writings, but it is incumbent upon us, for the present, to trace, as it were, the silhouette of virtue in the pagan authors. For those who carefully gather the useful from each book are wont, like mighty rivers, to gain accessions on every hand.....For the journey of this life eternal I would advise you to husband resources, leaving no stone unturned, as the proverb has it, whence you might derive any aid.

Quotations from Essays on the Study and Use of Poetry by Plutarch and Basil the Great, F. M. Padelford, trans.,Yale Studies in English, Vol. XV; New York, Holt and Co. 1902.


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