23 March 2010

On Social Justice by St Basil the Great, Reviewed


Although I can’t remember for sure, when Bishop Savas offered to send out a number of free copies of Fr Paul Schroeder’s translation of St Basil’s homilies on wealth and poverty—On Social Justice—I believe His Grace made it a stipulation that one must agree to read the book. [1] Well, despite it being a slim volume (the Popular Patristics Series volumes are typically quite digestible) it’s taken me some four months now to finish it. But finish it I did. In the meantime, I know my good friend, the Orthodox blogger at The Ebb & Flow of Consciousness, had a couple of very insightful posts on the book (here and here).

There are four authentic homilies, and one believed to be ‘Pseudo-Basilian’. The first, entitled ‘To the Rich’ [2], is on Christ’s words to the rich young man in Matthew 19.16-22. It sets the tone for the book very nicely. St Basil teaches that if one cannot divest oneself of wealth, one has not fulfilled the law of love for one’s neighbour. He writes:

Thus, those who love their neighbor as themselves possess nothing more than their neighbour; yet surely, you seem to have great possessions! How else can this be, but that you have preferred your own enjoyment to the consolation of many? For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love. [3]

St Basil responds to those who ask how they will live and how it could be possible for everyone to sell all, ‘Do not ask me the rationale behind our Lord’s commands. The Lawgiver knows well how to bring what is possible into agreement with the Law.’ [4] To those who say they cannot give, St Basil says: ‘How many could you have delivered from want with but a single ring from your finger? How many households fallen into destitution might you have raised? In just one of your closets there are enough clothes to cover an entire town shivering with cold.’ [5] He concludes, ‘You showed no mercy; it will not be shown to you. You opened not your house; you will be expelled from the Kingdom. You gave not your bread; you will not receive eternal life.’ [6]

The second homily is on the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12.16-21, and is entitled ‘I Will Tear down My Barns’ [7]. St Basil addresses such people: ‘You have been made a minister of God’s goodness, a steward of your fellow servants. Do not suppose that all this was furnished for your own gullet! Resolve to treat the things in your possession as belonging to others.’ [8] To the notion of storing and guarding one’s wealth so that one might take one’s ease, he says, ‘Therefore, let the end of your harvesting be the beginning of a heavenly sowing.’ [9] St Basil elabourates:

[If you scatter your wealth,] God will receive you, angels extol you, all people from the creation of the world will bless you. Your glory will be eternal; you will inherit the crown of righteousness and the Kingdom of Heaven. All these things will be your reward for your stewardship of perishable things. [10]

This homily contains one of St Basil’s most moving attempts ‘to humanize and personalize the plight of the poor’, in Fr Schroeder’s words. [11] The great Hierarch paints a picture for his wealthy audience, to bring the suffering of poverty vividly into their imaginations:

How can I bring the sufferings of the poverty-stricken to your attention? When they look around inside their hovels, . . . [and] find only clothes and furnishings so miserable that, if all their belongings were reckoned together, they would be worth only a few cents. What then? They turn their gaze to their own children, thinking that perhaps by bringing them to the slave-market they might find some respite from death. Consider now the violent struggle that takes place between the desperation a rising from famine and a parent’s fundamental instincts. Starvation on the one side threatens a horrible death, while nature resists, convincing the parents rather to die with their children. Time and again they vacillate, but in the end they succumb, driven by want and cruel necessity. [12]

The third homily, ‘In Time of Famine & Drought’ [13], beginning with Amos 3.8, deals with exactly the situation it names. St Basil explains frankly the reason that God has allowed famine: ‘See, now, how the multitude of your sins has altered the course of the year and changed the character of the seasons, producing these unusual temperature.’ [14] He continues:

. . . [T]he reason why our needs are not provided for as usual is plain and obvious: we do not share what we receive with others. We praise beneficence, while we deprive the needy of it. . . . For this reason we are threatened with righteous judgment. This is why God does not open his hand: because we have closed up our hearts towards our brothers and sisters. This is why the fields are arid: because love has dried up. [15]

St Basil actually tells us that just business will cause our prayers to be heard: ‘Tear up the unjust contract, so that sin might also be loosed. Wipe away the debt that bears high rates of interest, so that the earth may bear its usual fruits.’ [16] He responds to the Ayn Rands of the world, ‘who account greed a virtue’, by demanding that they demonstrate what good their money and possessions are in the face of natural disaster. ‘Will your purse not be buried together with you? Is not gold earth? Will it not be interred like worthless clay together with the clay of the body?’ [17]

Interestingly, however, in this homily St Basil actually addresses the poor as well. He says: ‘Are you poor? Do not be discouraged. . . . Place your hope in God. Can it be that He does not understand your difficult position?’ [18] He also encourages the poor to give to those who are poorer: ‘Are you poor? You know someone who is even poorer. . . . Do not shrink from giving the little that you have; do not prefer your own benefit to remedying the common distress.’ [19]

But for the rich, St Basil again humanises the plight of the poor by describing the effects of starvation in vivid terms. It is interesting to note that he considers aiding such people a natural duty, and by no means a case of supernatural Christian love, for he writes: ‘Let not we who are reasonable show ourselves to be more savage than the unreasoning animals. For even the animals use in common the plants that grow naturally from the earth.’ And then, ‘We should be put to shame by what has been recorded concerning the pagan Greeks. For some of them, a law of philanthropy dictated a single table and common meals, so that many different people might almost be regarded as one household.’ [20] St Basil ends with a reminder of the threat of hell and the Judgement, which is ‘not myth, but reality foretold by the voice of truth’. [21]

The fourth homily is taken from St Basil’s homilies on the Psalms, and taking Ps 14.5 LXX as its text, is entitled, ‘Against Those Who Lend at Interest’ [22] St Basil begins by recounting a few other places in Scripture where the sin of usury is denounced, telling us, for example, that Ezekiel ‘accounts the taking of interest and receiving back more than one gave as being among the greatest of evils’. [23] Then St Basil explains:

For in truth it is the height of inhumanity that those who do not have enough even for basic necessities should be compelled to seek a loan in order to survive, while others, not being satisfied with the return of the principal, should turn the misfortune of the poor to their own advantage and reap a bountiful harvest. [24]

Of usurers, St Basil asks, ‘Do you not know that you are taking in an even greater yield of sins than the increase of wealth you hope to receive through interest?’ [25]

Again, there is the humanising of the poor in vivid descriptions of the wretchedness and anxiety of the debtor—

If he lies down, in his sleep he sees the lender as a nightmare floating over his head. If he wakes up, the interest consumes his thoughts and is a constant source of worry. [26]

If you knock at his door, the debtor is underneath the bed in a flash. His heart pounds if someone enters the room suddenly. If a dog barks, he breaks out in a sweat, seized with terror, and looks for someplace to hide. [27]

No boxer avoids the blows of an opponent as a borrower avoids chance encounters with the creditor, hiding his face among the shadows of buildings and alleyways. [28]

But in this case, St Basil means to warn the would-be debtor nearly as much as the would-be usurer. He quotes Prov 5.15, ‘Drink water at your own cistern.’ In other words, ‘It is better to take care of your needs little by little with your own devices, than to be raised up all at once by outside means, only to be completely stripped of everything you have.’ [29]

But St Basil does not suppose that all borrowers are truly desperate. He observes that usually, ‘it is not those who are truly deprived who come to procure a loan’, but ‘rather people who devote themselves to unconstrained expenditures and useless luxuries’. [30] Nevertheless, he still reminds the rich to listen ‘to the kind of counsel I am giving to the poor on account of your inhumanity: to remain in dreadful circumstances’. [31] For, St Basil says, ‘The one who weeps in despair at the rate of interest is plainly before us, but the future of the one who is about to enjoy the wealth received from them is uncertain. It is unclear whether you will not rather leave this joy behind for others, while storing up an evil treasure of injustice for yourself.’ [32]

Finally, the ‘Pseudo-Basilian’ homily, ‘On Mercy & Justice’, is placed in an appendix. Here, the emphasis is on the necessary connection of these two virtues, for, ‘Acts of charity made from unjust gains are not acceptable to God, nor are those who refrain from injustice praiseworthy if they do not share what they have.’ [33] The author introduces the teaching that while some are called to sell all of their property to follow Christ, to others He ‘ordained allotment and sharing of what they have, so that in this way they might be seen as imitators of the kindness of God, showing mercy and giving and sharing.’ [34]

Great things are promised from these homilies. In his ‘Foreword’, Gregory Yova tells us that for him personally, ‘reading the writings of St Basil the Great in the following chapters was one of those experiences: life-changing and indescribable.’ [35] Yova elabourates a bit:

There is no way to describe the power, simplicity, wisdom, and freedom of his words; . . . I wholeheartedly recommend this book to you.

When you read Basil’s words, you will think they were written yesterday—not 1,600 years ago! It’s unbelievable how precisely he describes our modern struggle with material wealth, our responsibility to our fellow man, and how to live life in balance. [36]

While I wouldn’t have described the experience for me personally as ‘life-changing’, I certainly believe the homilies live up to the promise. St Basil’s teachings on these matters will no doubt stay with me, providing guidance throughout my life. Fr Schroeder’s translation is quite readable, as well, and the Popular Patristics Series format is ideal for this little collection. Translator and publisher are to be applauded for making this teaching more accessible to the general reader.

I do find the title Fr Schroeder has given to the homilies somewhat questionable. While St Basil certainly deals with issues that are typically referred to nowadays as ‘social justice’, I believe such a title can create the misconception that St Basil is advocating some kind of social activism—marches, legislation, etc. I do not read him as telling Christians to go out expressly to ‘change the world’, but rather to treat others justly and help those in need. If we all did this, I’ve no doubt the world would be changed.

I would also like to have had a Scriptural index. There are footnotes with the citations of Scripture, which is good, but it is nice to be able to see all such citations laid out and to be able to track them down quickly.

But my main criticism is directed at Fr Schroeder’s introduction. While he is understandably enthusiastic about St Basil’s teaching on these matters, Fr Schroeder feels inexplicably that he must compare the teachings of other Fathers in other contexts with those of St Basil—castigating the former for ‘addressing the spiritual condition of the [rich] young man [of Matthew] in almost exclusively individual terms.’ [37]

Thus, Clement of Alexandria emphasises that the most important lesson of the parable is that one not be attached to one’s wealth, and that our Lord is prescribing ‘the stripping off of the passions from the soul itself and from the disposition, and the cutting up by the roots and casting out of what is alien to the mind.’ [38] Similarly, the early monastic approach of concentrating on the ridding of ‘oneself of the burden of worldly possessions’ rather than on ‘the aid that is rendered to the poor by giving one’s property to them’. Thus, St Anthony and the Desert Fathers are criticised for treating the poor as ‘nameless and faceless, little more than a cipher, a receptacle for discarded possessions.’ [39]

Furthermore, Fr Schroeder is not happy with the conclusion—anticipated by Clement and St Anthony and found explicitly in the Pseudo-Basilian homily—that those in the world ‘are enjoined not to become overly attached to their material possessions’, while it is the monks who ‘fulfill the commandment in its literal sense, which is regarded as the way to true perfection.’ [40] He calls this the ‘two-tiered approach’, and suggests that it somehow makes the commandment to the rich young man inapplicable to non-monastics. [41]

By contrast, Fr Schroeder claims that St Basil interprets the parable ‘in primarily social rather than individual terms’, [42] that he ‘explicitly rejects any attempt to formulate a two-tiered approach to the commandment’, [43] and that St Basil’s humanising descriptions of poverty are superior to the treatment of the poor ‘found throughout much of the monastic literature’. [44]

It is just this readiness to criticise the Fathers that troubles me so much in so many St Vladimir’s publications. It is not enough for Fr Schroeder to appreciate the particular emphases of St Basil’s homilies, apparently he must also proffer some impious argument that those writings which do not appeal to him to the same degree are somehow inferior or deficient. Never mind that St Basil is addressing a very different audience in a very different context to the other writings mentioned. Is it necessary that a poor monk, who is most likely well acquainted at first hand with poverty, be given a detailed description of it in a saying or homily addressed just to him? Can we not recognise social and individual dimensions in Christian ethics, and allow each their proper place? Is it not obvious that the monastic divesting of the ‘burden of worldly possessions’ is but a prerequisite for attaining a deeper, truer love for all? Is it not, furthermore, an imitation of the Apostles’ forsaking all to follow Christ—precisely what He was commanding the rich young man to do?

But Fr Schroeder also seems to miss those areas of convergence that appear in St Basil’s writings themselves. Thus, it is clear in the very first homily that St Basil too sees the inner passions as the fundamental problem. He describes the young man as ‘darkened by the passion of avarice’, [45] and addresses such people, ‘But now your possessions are more a part of you than the members of your own body, and separation from them is as painful as the amputation. of one of your limbs. . . . Had you determined long ago to give to those in need, how would it be unbearable now to distribute whatever was left?’ [46] So it seems that St Basil does not ignore, but rather presupposes the detachment and ‘stripping off of the passions’ that Clement and the Desert Fathers emphasise. Furthermore, when in the homily on famine, he addresses the wealthy audience, ‘If you do not want to give everything to the better cause, at least divide your possessions equally between [the poor and yourself]’, [47] then it seems to me that St Basil is coming very close to the so-called ‘two-tiered approach’. And what else are his threats of damnation and promises of heavenly reward but appeals to an individual ethics?

Fr Schroeder’s treatment of ‘Pseudo-Basil’ is even worse. He actually suggests that this author teaches that the ‘commandment to aid the involuntary poor is . . . superseded by the requirement to render assistance to the voluntary poor’, [48] which the author never actually says! The closest statement is, ‘Eagerness to serve holy people is accounted as reverence for Christ, and the one who eagerly ministers to the poor is shown to be a companion of Christ.’ [49] Although I think in context it is clear that he is encouraging people to give to poor monks, I see no claim whatsoever that this ‘supersedes’ the commandment to help the ‘involuntary poor’.

I complained in a previous post (here) about the obsession among so many ‘scholarly’ writers, even Orthodox ones, with looking, first, for ‘handy but oversimplified classification schemas that cater to modern intellectual fashions, and second, [for] the “originality” and “uniqueness” of the various patristic authors’, to the point that the consensus Patrum gets neglected or even denied altogether. The Church has passed down the Lives and writings of all of the Saints for our instruction. Rather than picking the ones that we like and criticising the others, why don’t we find a way to learn even—or perhaps especially—from those that seem odd or uncomfortable to us. As C.S. Lewis has said, in his incredible 1941 sermon at the 12th-c. Oxford University Church of St Mary the Virgin, ‘The Weight of Glory’, ‘If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which coneals what we do not yet know and need to know.’ [50]


[1] St Basil the Great, On Social Justice, tr. Fr C. Paul Schroeder (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2009).

[2] The standard designation is Homily 7.

[3] St Basil, p. 43.

[4] Ibid., p. 46.

[5] Ibid., p. 49. I was actually reminded here of the ending of Schindler’s List, when Schindler realises:

I could have got more out. I could have got more. . . . I threw away so much money. You have no idea! This car! O God, what about the car? Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. . . . This pen—two more people. This is gold—two more people. . . . I could have got one more person, and I didn’t. I didn’t!

[6] St Basil, p. 49.

[7] Homily 6.

[8] St Basil, p. 61.

[9] Ibid., pp. 62-3.

[10] Ibid., p. 63.

[11] Ibid., p. 25.

[12] Ibid., p. 64.

[13] Homily 8.

[14] St Basil, p. 75.

[15] Ibid., p. 76.

[16] Ibid., p. 78.

[17] Ibid., p. 79.

[18] Ibid., p. 81.

[19] Ibid., p. 83.

[20] Ibid., p. 86.

[21] Ibid., p. 88.

[22] Homily 2 on Ps 14.

[23] St Basil, p. 89.

[24] Ibid., p. 90.

[25] Ibid., p. 91.

[26] Ibid., p. 91.

[27] Ibid., p. 94.

[28] Ibid., pp. 95-6. These observations remind me of the figure of Raskolnikov, who, when he is introduced, ‘was over his head in debt to the landlady and was afraid of meeting her’ (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime & Punishment, tr. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky [NY: Knopf, 1993], p. 3).

[29] St Basil, p. 92.

[30] Ibid., 96.

[31] Ibid., 97.

[32] Ibid., 99.

[33] Ibid., p. 103.

[34] Ibid., p. 107.

[35] Ibid., p. 9.

[36] Ibid., pp. 9-10.

[37] Ibid., p. 23.

[38] Ibid., p. 22.

[39] Ibid., p. 23.

[40] Ibid., p. 23.

[41] Ibid., p. 25.

[42] Ibid., p. 24.

[43] Ibid., p. 25.

[44] Ibid., p. 25.

[45] Ibid., p. 42.

[46] Ibid., p. 43.

[47] Ibid., p. 87.

[48] Ibid., p. 102.

[49] Ibid., p. 107.

[50] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory & Other Addresses, ed. Walter Hooper (NY: Touchstone, 1996), p. 31.

13 comments:

Andreas said...

Can we not recognise social and individual dimensions in Christian ethics, and allow each their proper place?

Bingo. Why is this so hard?

Also,

‘Eagerness to serve holy people is accounted as reverence for Christ, and the one who eagerly ministers to the poor is shown to be a companion of Christ.’ [49] Although I think in context it is clear that he is encouraging people to give to poor monks, I see no claim whatsoever that this ‘supersedes’ the commandment to help the ‘voluntary poor’.

Though I can't refer to 'context', since I don't have the source, when I read 'Eagerness to serve holy people...', I'm seeing no superiority of the condition of those who have renounced. This giving is referred to as 'reverence for Christ', while the other makes one a 'companion of Christ'; the latter of these I find to be the superior state. Am I wrong here?

John Sanidopoulos said...

Thanks for the review. After reading the Introduction, I must say I began to question if there was an agenda behind the translation.

aaronandbrighid said...

Andreas> It was unclear to me whether 'holy people' & 'the poor' here were 2 distinct categories or were meant to be acquainted. Either way, I don't see how Fr Schroeder's assertion stands.

John> I know what you mean about the agenda. I don't know anything about Fr Schroeder beyond this introduction, so I hesitate to question his motives. But this into definitely left a bad taste in my mouth. I even had to confine myself to the most grievous problems. I didn't even comment on the extended ethical analysis, which seemed determined to appeal to liberal academics.

Matthew said...

Thank you for this review. I am very interested in reading this book, but when I do I'll be sure to skip the intro.

I hope someone sends you a copy of St. Mark the Monk's new Popular Patristics book so you can review that one too!

aaronandbrighid said...

Matthew> I hope so too!

Anyone? Anyone at all?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Very nice review, Aaron!

I have to admit that I almost didn't buy this volume, or was at least non-plussed by its appearance. My train of thought: On Social Justice will be merely a compilation of sermons of St Basil somehow related to the congeries of concerns now marching under the banner Social Justice, and the commentary will reflect the latter more than the former. All that from just the title! From your review, I see I am not far wrong.

But then I thought I was just being a cynical jerk at the time, too.

St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

I really think this line is wonderful:

‘Eagerness to serve holy people is accounted as reverence for Christ, and the one who eagerly ministers to the poor is shown to be a companion of Christ.’

Rather than reading it as a rather flat-footed "supersession," my first impression was that it follows the cadence of the Psalter. It's been more than a few years since I devoted any significant time to Hebrew verse, but I recall a certain classification of the varieties of parallelism described as "synthetic" - the second line restating and adding to the first, as in

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?

It's entirely appropriate to assume that St Basil's language would reflect the pattern of Scripture, thus employing some kind of parallelism. Why tar it with the pejorative accusation that a line about caring for holy people somehow "supersedes" call to care for the poor?

And can we agree never, ever to use "Pseudo-" when referring to saints of the church and/or their writings?

aaronandbrighid said...

Kevin> No, you weren't far wrong at all. But, I did think that putting such striking homilies on these topics together was a good idea per se.

Fr Mark> Oh yeah, that's totally what I thought too. It sounds just like a parallelism. I like your question, 'Why tar it with the pejorative accusation?'!

As for the 'Pseudo-', without knowing much at all about the arguments over authorship of this particular homily (beyond Fr Schroeder's claim that St Basil 'explicitly rejects the two-tiered approach' & this author doesn't), I wanted to allow for the possibility that the homily may have been wrongly attributed. That does not mean that I would follow a similar convention with regard to the authors of the Macarian Homilies or the Corpus Dionysiacum! Also, notice that I used 'Pseudo-Basil' in quotes!

St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

Please forgive my dyspepsia regarding "Pseudo-"

It's one of my pet peeves. There are so many other ways to convey the same reservation - "in the tradition of," or "frequently attributed to," or whatever. To my impassioned ears, "Pseudo-" just sounds like an assault on the Tradition, that somehow it shouldn't be trusted and that hip, wiser-than-thou academics know better.

aaronandbrighid said...

Oh, no, Father, no need to apologise. What I was trying to say was that I totally agree with you, and that I felt like I needed to apologise for this one use of the convention (which I normally eschew altogether).

Fr. Jonathan said...

Thank you, Aaron, for your fine review. I have benefited greatly from this translation of St. Basil's homilies on charity, but I, too, suspect Fr. Schroeder's reframing of the Cappadocian into modern, social justice terms. Let us remember, as you pointed out, that the reason why we detach ourselves from lesser things is to attach ourselves to the "greater things" of the Kingdom -- ultimately, the Holy Trinity.

You will undoubtedly hear more from Fr. Schroeder. He will have much to say about social justice soon.

But it will be in a rhetoric that diminishes dogma in favor of political action. And there will probably be nothing about "individual salvation," or avoiding perdition.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you for your kind words, Father. I'm glad to hear others have had the same reaction I did, and, though it's unfortunate, to have confirmed my impression of Fr Schroeder.

In retrospect, I should probably have added that I do find the reminder of patristic teaching on wealth, poverty, and 'social justice' to be helpful. I don't believe that those of us Orthodox who are of a conservative political bent can in good conscience fall in line with a lot of our fellow conservatives' rhetoric on such issues. I don't think we can be Orthodox and uncritically support big business and Ayn Rand-style free-market capitalism. But like you said, we must always value dogma over political action, and individual salvation is important. If we become too focused on trying to make this world into a utopia, we fall into chiliasm.

Isaac said...

Just re-read this inspiring review and the comments. I needed this spiritual and intellectual nourishment today. Thanks, Aaron!