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Basil the Great: A Theology of Reading

July 21st, 2010 | 7 min read

By Christopher Benson

When I taught humanities at a Christian secondary school, I spent the first week or so of the fall semester exploring how Christians should read because I anticipated that the pagan literature of the Greeks and Romans would chafe against my students’ delicate sensibilities and trigger reflexive habits. Select passages were read and discussed from Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, C. S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism, and Alan Jacobs’ A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love––books that have forever changed the way I read.

The goal that I have set for myself, as a teacher and book reviewer, was also set for my students: to be known as a charitable, equitable, and just reader. Such a goal humbles me because I am aware of my shortcomings. Nevertheless, I pray––and I mean pray earnestly––that God will give me the grace to earn this reputation.

Alan Jacobs helped me to realize that Jesus’ command to love the neighbor applies to the author who is often treated like an abstraction rather than a human being: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The hermeneutics of suspicion––a peculiar development of late modernity––prevails just as much inside the church as outside it. Therefore, we desperately need Christians who read in a counter-cultural way, whose faithful presence will make its mark in the world by their charitable reading.

The first passage below is from Basil the Great’s sermon “To Young Men” and the second passage is from Jacobs’ book. I have repeatedly camped in the latter passage since I first encountered it, finding an equally liberating and challenging exhortation. Here’s the kicker: the loving reader––and, by implication, the loveless reader––is an “ecclesial, not a personal, achievement.”


It is, therefore, in accordance with the whole similitude of the bees, that we should participate in the pagan literature. For these neither approach all flowers equally, not in truth do they attempt to carry off entire those upon which they alight, but taking only so much of them as is suitable for their work, they suffer the rest to go untouched. We ourselves too, if we are wise, having appropriated from this literature what is suitable to us and akin to the truth, will pass over this remainder. And just in plucking the blooms from a rose-bed we avoid the thorns, so also is garnering from such writings whatever is useful, let us guard ourselves against what is harmful.


[Basil the Great’s] favored opposition between oikonomia (economy) and akribeia (scrupulosity) inherits and develops the older distinction between equity and the rigidity of the legal statutes. But as [Kathy] Eden explains, what really governs Basil’s continual employment of this distinction is its link with the Pauline contrast between the spirit and the letter. For Basil, the spirit (which gives life) is linked with “economical” and “equitable” reading: thus his argument that young Christians can benefit from the reading of pagan literature, but only if they do not read according to the killing letter of the law. By the strict terms of God’s law these works can but be condemned––not because they are thoroughly erroneous but because their command of the truth is limited, defective.

We need to pause over this for a moment. Werner Jaeger writes that in Basil’s oration on Greek literature “the moral and religious content of ancient poetry is rejected, [whereas] the form is praised,” but this is manifestly wrong. Basil says quite explicitly that not only the great Homer, but indeed almost every pagan author with a high reputation, pursues wisdom and virtue. He is glad to be able to say this, because the education available to Christians in his time and place was largely pagan. As Edward Maloney, who edited Basil’s oration, writes: Though the Roman Empire was officially Christian, pagans still controlled the “institutions of culture” and hence the texts in which young students were trained. Basil, therefore, advises Christian students to learn the skills of discernment that will enable them to recognize when the pagan writers are teaching wisdom and virtue, so that they may eat such good fruit as is available. In a pre-Mandevillian “fable of the bees,” Basil encourages Christian students to follow the example of those insects by taking away, not whole flowers, but only the nourishment the flowers offer. And, in an ironically deft touch, he tells them that when the pagan writers teach sin or falsehood, the students should follow the example of Odysseus in the presence of the Sirens and stop their ears. As Eden points out, Odysseus is for Basil a recurrent model of prudence and good judgment.

Basil readily acknowledges that everything one can learn from pagan literature one can learn better still form Scripture; but why not take every opportunity to grow in wisdom and virtue? The problem is to learn how to do so; and here we return to Eden’s description of Basil’s terminology. It is precisely a less “scrupulous” and more equitable reading of the pagan writers that releases them for our use. The pagan writers can, when read in this way, be used even if they cannot strictly speaking be enjoyed––their dependence on false gods and inadequate understandings of human beings must not be ignored or minimized, but rather overcome by the determination to love God and neighbor better through reading them. For a certain kind of politically minded critic,  the only proper response to a morally deficient text is to condemn its deficiencies: Basil’s model provides a liberating alternative, in which even seriously wrong-headed books can provide some nourishment, nourishment for which we can be grateful.

Perhaps the most important point of all is that to read in this way is an act of charity to the works one reads and to oneself––an act of charity that includes and supersedes justice. In the Confessions, it is precisely this model that undergirds Augustine’s reconfiguration, through memoria, of his literary education: The pagan scrupulosity that once had imprisoned him in Virgil’s inadequate moral world is, after his conversion, replaced by an equitable, “spiritual” re-interpretation that can make even the reading of Virgil and other pagans useful and beneficial. When Augustine talks as though the only valuable thing he learned from his literary education was how to read and write, he seems not to realize this point; only in the discussion of memoria in Book X does he approach the freedom and confidence of Basil.

So far, so good. But… these questions cannot be fully explored without reference to the social and ecclesial context of interpretation. It is practically impossible simply to decide to read for justice and the charity that surpasses justice––to read for shalom. Thus Basil, knowing that the schools are pagan, assumes that the students to whom he writes will be nurtured by the counter-institution of the Church; it is the sound teaching of the Church that provides the students with the resources necessary to reconfigure, properly and healthily, the ideological world of the pagan writers and teachers….

Comprehensive and just charity can be achieved only in the life of the Church. The Church is the school for virtue––for charity as the architectonic virtue––and it is within the communal practice of the Church that equitable, “economic” reading makes sense. Though rejecting scrupulosity in interpretation, Basil insists that the local congregation be scrupulous (he uses just that word) in its obedience to Scripture and to the dictates of the Catholic Church. As Eden points out, it is no accident that the argument for equitable interpretation flourished in the age of the great ecumenical councils, which had the function of prescribing the boundaries beyond which orthodox believers may not go. For Basil, it is this framework of faithful obedience to the Gospel witness that liberates the reader to read more generously, according to the spirit rather than the letter. Absent such faithful obedience, such reading would exemplify license rather than liberty, antinomianism rather than the freedom of Christian charity.

The lessons are, I believe, clear, though daunting; no justice without the precedence and governance of charity; no charity without the guidance of the faithful and obedient church; no church without the Gospel that constitutes and inspires it. Charitable readers, equitable and just readers, will always be found here and there––one hopes––but a potent and fully articulated hermeneutics of love will arise only from a healthy community of believers. “Our kindness to ten persons” can be made righteous only in that context; only that context can teach us how to make our “circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself.” In the life of the Church these become the common and quotidian elements of justice. Such fully charitable reading, in a just association of persons, will be an ecclesial, not a personal, achievement.

Works cited:

  • Kathy Eden, Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition
  • Werner Jaeger, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia
  • Edward R. Maloney, St. Basil the Great to Students on Greek Literature