Writings of Basil - The Letters h

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The Letters

Of Saint Basil the Great, Archbishop of Cæsaria,

Translated with Notes by

The Rev. Blomfield Jackson, M.A.
Vicar of Saint Bartholomew's, Moor Lane, and Fellow of King's College, London.

Under the editorial supervision of Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D., Professor of Church History in the Union Theological Semimary, New York, and Henry Wace, D.D., Principal of King's College, London

Published in 1895 by T&T Clark, Edinburgh

Letter CCCL.

Basil to Libanius.

Your annoyance is over. Let this be the beginning of my letter. Go on mocking and abusing me and mine, whether laughing or in earnest. Why say anything about frost [3286] or snow, when you might be luxuriating in mockery? For my part, Libanius, that I may rouse you to a hearty laugh, I have written my letter enveloped in a snow-white veil. When you take the letter in your hand, you will feel how cold it is, and how it symbolizes the condition of the sender--kept at home and not able to put head out of doors. For my house is a grave till spring comes and brings us back from death to life, and once more gives to us, as to plants, the boon of existence.


[3286] grite, an unknown word. Perhaps akin to kriote. cf. Duncange s.v.

Letter CCCLI.

Basil to Libanius.

Many, who have come to me from where you are, have admired your oratorical power. They were remarking that there has been a very brilliant specimen of this, and a very great contest, as they alleged, with the result that all crowded together, and no one appeared in the whole city but Libanius alone in the lists, and everybody, young and old, listening. For no one was willing to be absent--not a man of rank--not a distinguished soldier--not an artisan. Even women hurried to be present at the struggle. And what was it? What was the speech which brought together this vast assembly? I have been told that it contained a description of a man of peevish temper. Pray lose no time in sending me this much admired speech, in order that I too may join in praising your eloquence. If I am a praiser of Libanius without his works, what am I likely to become after receiving the grounds on which to praise him?

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Letter CCCLII.

Libanius to Basil.

Behold! I have sent you my speech, all streaming with sweat as I am! How should I be otherwise, when sending my speech to one who by his skill in oratory is able to shew that the wisdom of Plato and the ability of Demosthenes were belauded in vain? I feel like a gnat compared with an elephant. How I shiver and shake, as I reckon up the day when you will inspect my performance I am almost out of my wits!


Basil to Libanius. I have read your speech, and have immensely admired it. O muses; O learning; O Athens; what do you not give to those who love you! What fruits do not they gather who spend even a short time with you! Oh for your copiously flowing fountain! What men all who drink of it are shewn to be! I seemed to see the man himself in your speech, in the company of his chattering little woman. A living story has been written on the ground by Libanius, who alone has bestowed the gift of life upon his words.

Letter CCCLIV.

Libanius to Basil. Now I recognise men's description of me! Basil has praised me, and I am hailed victor over all! Now that I have received your vote, I am entitled to walk with the proud gait of a man who haughtily looks down on all the world. You have composed an oration against drunkenness. I should like to read it. But I am unwilling to try to say anything clever. When I have seen your speech it will teach me the art of expressing myself.

Letter CCCLV.

Libanius to Basil. Are you living at Athens, Basil? Have you forgotten yourself? The sons of the Cæsareans could not endure to hear these things. My tongue was not accustomed to them. Just as though I were treading some dangerous ground, and were struck at the novelty of the sounds, it said to me its father, "My father, you never taught this! This man is Homer, or Plato, or Aristotle, or Susarion. He knows everything." So far my tongue. I only wish, Basil, that you could praise me in the same manner!

Letter CCCLVI.

Basil to Libanius. I am delighted at receiving what you write, but when you ask me to reply, I am in a difficulty. What could I say in answer to so Attic a tongue, except that I confess, and confess with joy, that I am a pupil of fishermen?


Libanius to Basil. What has made Basil object to the letter, the proof of philosophy? I have learned to make fun from you, but nevertheless your fun is venerable and, so to say, hoary with age. But, by our very friendship, by our common pastimes, do away, I charge you, with the distress caused by your letter...in nothing differing. [3287]


[3287] Incomplete in original.


Libanius to Basil. Oh, for the old days in which we were all in all to one another! Now we are sadly separated! Ye have one another, I have no one like you to replace you. I hear that Alcimus in his old age is venturing on a young man's exploits, and is hurrying to Rome, after imposing on you the labour of remaining with the lads. You, who are always so kind, will not take this ill. You were not even angry with me for having to write first.

Letter CCCLIX.

Basil to Libanius. You, who have included all the art of the ancients in your own mind, are so silent, that you do not even let me get any gain in a letter. I, if the art of Dædalus had only been safe, would have made me Icarus' wings and come to you. But wax cannot be entrusted to the sun, and so, instead of Icarus' wings, I send you words to prove my affection. It is the nature of words to indicate the love of the heart. So far, words. [3288]You do with them what you will, and, possessing all the power you do, are silent. But pray transfer to me the fountains of words that spring from your mouth.


[3288] Corrupt in original.

Letter CCCLX. [3289]

Of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the invocation of Saints, and their Images. According to the blameless faith of the Christians which we have obtained from God, I confess and agree that I believe in one God the Father Almighty; God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost; I adore and worship one God, the Three. [3290]I confess to the oeconomy of the Son in the flesh, [3291] and that the holy Mary, who gave birth to Him according to the flesh, was Mother of God. [3292] I acknowledge also the holy apostles, prophets, and martyrs; and I invoke them to supplication to God, that through them, that is, through their mediation, the merciful God may be propitious to me, and that a ransom may be made and given me for my sins. Wherefore also I honour and kiss the features of their images, inasmuch as they have been handed down from the holy apostles, and are not forbidden, but are in all our churches.


[3289] This letter is almost undoubtedly spurious, but it has a certain interest, from the fact of its having been quoted at the so-called 7th Council (2d of Nicæa) in 787. Maran (Vit. Bas. xxxix.) is of opinion that it is proved by internal evidence to be the work of some Greek writer at the time of the Iconoclastic controversy. The vocabulary and style are unlike that of Basil. [3290] Neuter sc. prosopa, not hupostaseis, as we should expect in Basil. [3291] ensarkon oikonomian, an expression I do not recall in Basil's genuine writings. [3292] Theotokon, the watchword of the Nestorian controversy, which was after Basil's time. Letters CCCLXI. and CCCLXIII., to Apollinarius, and Letters CCCLXII. and CCCLXIV., from Apollinarius to Basil, are condemned as indubitably spurious, not only on internal evidence, but also on the ground of Basil's asseveration that he had never written but once to Apollinarius, and that "as layman to layman." [3293]Letter CCCLXV., "to the great emperor Theodosius," on an inundation in Cappadocia, is also condemned by the Ben. Ed. as spurious, and contains nothing of ecclesiastical or theological interest. Tillemont however (vol. v., p. 739) thought its style not unworthy of a young man and a rhetorician, and conjectures the Theodosius to whom it is addressed to be not the great emperor, but some magistrate of Cappadocia.


[3293] Ep. ccxxiv. 2.

Letter CCCLXVI. [3294]

Basil to Urbicius the monk, concerning continency. You do well in making exact definitions for us, so that we may recognise not only continency, but its fruit. Now its fruit is the companionship of God. For not to be corrupted, is to have part with God; just as to be corrupted is the companionship of the world. Continency is denial of the body, and confession to God. It withdraws from anything mortal, like a body which has the Spirit of God. It is without rivalry and envy, and causes us to be united to God. He who loves a body envies another. He who has not admitted the disease of corruption into his heart, is for the future strong enough to endure any labour, and though he have died in the body, he lives in incorruption. Verily, if I rightly apprehend the matter, God seems to me to be continency, because He desires nothing, but has all things in Himself. He reaches after nothing, nor has any sense in eyes or ears; wanting nothing, He is in all respects complete and full. Concupiscence is a disease of the soul; but continency is its health. And continency must not be regarded only in one species, as, for instance, in matters of sensual love. It must be regarded in everything which the soul lusts after in an evil manner, not being content with what is needful for it. Envy is caused for the sake of gold, and innumerable wrongs for the sake of other lusts. Not to be drunken is continency. Not to overeat one's self is continency. To subdue the body is continency, and to keep evil thoughts in subjection, whenever the soul is disturbed by any fancy false and bad, and the heart is distracted by vain cares. Continency makes men free, being at once a medicine and a power, for it does not teach temperance; it gives it. Continency is a grace of God. Jesus seemed to be continency, when He was made light to land and sea; for He was carried neither by earth nor ocean, and just as He walked on the sea, so He did not weigh down the earth. For if death comes of corruption, and not dying comes of not having corruption, then Jesus wrought not mortality but divinity. [3295]He ate and drank in a peculiar manner, without rendering his food. [3296]So mighty a power in Him was continency, that His food was not corrupted in Him, since He had no corruption. If only there be a little continency in us, we are higher than all. We have been told that angels were ejected from heaven because of concupiscence and became incontinent. They were vanquished; they did not come down. What could that plague have effected there, if an eye such as I am thinking of had been there? Wherefore I said, If we have a little patience, and do not love the world, but the life above, we shall be found there where we direct our mind. For it is the mind, apparently, which is the eye that seeth unseen things. For we say "the mind sees;" "the mind hears." I have written at length, though it may seem little to you. But there is meaning in all that I have said, and, when you have read it, you will see it.


[3294] Introduced by the Ben. with the following preface: "En magni Basilii epistolam, ex prisco codicelxi. f. 324, a me exscriptam quæ olim clarissimis quoque viris Marcianæ bibliothecæ descriptoribus Zannetro atque Morellio inedita visa est; atque utrum sit alicubi postremis his annis edita, mihi non constat, sed certe in plenissima Garnerii editione desideratur. Ea scribitur ad Urbicum monachum, ad quem aliæ duæ Basilii epistolæ exstant, nempe 123 and 262, in Garneriana editione. Argumentum titulusque est De Continentia, neque vero scriptum hoc Basilianum diutius ego celandum arbitror præsertim quia Suidas ac Photius nihil præstantius aut epistolari characteri accommodatius Basilii epistolis esse judicarunt. Mai, biblioth. nov. patr. iii. 450. [3295] theoteta ou thnetoteta. [3296] The Ben. note is: "Hac super re reverentissime theologiceque scribit Athanasius Corinthi episcopus in fragmento quod nos edidimus A.A. class l. x. p. 499-500, quod incipit: Zetoumen, ei he plerosis ton bromaton epi Christou ekekteto kai kenosin. Erat enim hæc quoque una ex objectionibus hæreticorum. Definit autem, corpus Christi hac in re fuisse cæteris superius, sicuti etiam in insolita nativitate. Utitur quoque Athanasius exemplo trinitatis illius apud Abrahamum convivantis, neque tamen naturali necessitati obtemperantis; quod item de Christo post resurrectionem edente intelligendum dicit.

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