St. Basil the Economist
October 25, 2008
At this time of general economic anxiety, I thought it might contribute, in some small way, to the common good if I were to publish, here on this blog, a revision of a translation that I made many years ago when I was a graduate student in patristics at the Catholic University of America, and which, some years later, appeared in print in an obscure journal titled The First Hour (published by Bp. Seraphim of Sendai, who these days writes a blog). The translation is of St. Basil the Great’s Ὁμιλία πρὸς τοὺς πλουτούντας, his Sermon to the Rich; because of its length, I have given it a page by itself. It stands, along with the sermon On the saying from the Gospel of Luke, “I will pull down my barns, and build greater ones,” and the Sermon delivered at a time of famine and drought, as a major testament to St. Basil’s views on social justice and relations between rich and poor, his “economics.” My guess is that some readers might find these economic views fairly shocking, and his prescriptions incoherent. If St. Basil were to maintain, in a contemporary American context, that “however much you exceed in wealth, so much so do you fall short in love,” as he does in this sermon (§1), he would doubtless be accused of socialism. It is very possible that he would be charged with threatening economic prosperity, because he advocates wealth redistribution and gives insufficient scope to wealth creation. Indeed, the sermon naturally raises such questions; that is why I thought it would be worth reprinting it at this time.
Basil was an aristocrat, whose family occupied a very high position in Cappadocian society. Although he gave away his wealth upon becoming a monk, it appears that he retained some usufruct of the family inheritance; for instance, the monastery at Annesi in Pontus which he founded in the late 350s was apparently built on the family estate, or rather, took over some old buildings and put them to new use; St. Gregory the Theologian, who stayed with St. Basil at this monastery for some time, jokingly said that the two of them would have hardly survived there if they had not been providentially supplied with food packages from Basil’s mother, who lived across the river (Gregory, Letter 5). At the time Basil gave this sermon To the Rich, in the late 360s, he was a priest at Caesarea, in charge of an ambitious social welfare operation, a “hospital” or home for the indigent, popularly called the “New City.” He must, up to this point, have retained some property, because, during the economic crisis of that time, he gave away what was left of it to the poor. (Cf. W. K. Lowther Clarke, St Basil the Great: A Study in Monasticism [Cambridge 1913], p. 57: “The outstanding event during this period was the great famine of 368, of which Basil gives an account in his homily On the Famine and Drought. He did all in his power both by example and precept to relieve the distress; he sold his own possessions and bought provisions with the proceeds, and also made eloquent and successful appeals to the rich citizens to follow his lead.”)
A sign of St. Basil’s aristocratic temper might be seen, in this sermon, in his attitude towards the “nouveaux riches” (ὀψιπλούτοι, νεόπλουτοι, §§4-5), the yuppies of fourth-century Cappadocian society, to whom he refers on a number of occasions. To date, I have not done a study of late Roman economic history, to know more particularly who these ὀψιπλούτοι were, or what economic conditions might have led to their appearance. As opposed to the native aristocracy, they were obsessed with increasing their net worth, and their lives, at least in Basil’s description, centered upon a continuous vain round of conspicuous consumption. This consumption obviously produced a great deal of economic activity — St. Basil gives long enumerations of the various types of workers these self-made men employed, and of the various products they themselves and their wives consumed. Nevertheless, this economic activity did not, in Basil’s view, justify the poverty that existed for a considerable portion of the population. Rather than seeing this economic activity as a process of wealth creation, lifting up all boats in a rising tide, St. Basil tends to see it as symptomatic of sin, evidence of a morally sick society in which a few consolidate power over the many, thrusting all competitors into indigency, subservience and despair. “Nothing withstands the force of wealth: all things succumb to its tyranny, all things cringe before its dominion” (§5).
Perhaps St. Basil is wrong about this. He has not read Adam Smith or Milton Friedman; he knows, it may be, as little about monetary circulation as he knows about the circulation of the blood. Both are, arguably, modern discoveries. Yet he has, without doubt, read his Bible. His sermon is an exposition of the text of the Gospel of St. Matthew in which Jesus tells the rich young man to sell what he has, give to the poor, and come and follow him (Mt 19:21). It is pretty clear that St. Basil takes this word of Jesus, not as advice, but as a commandment, and not as directed exclusively to that one young man in his particular situation, but to everyone. Wealth creation, as such, has little meaning or importance to Basil, either as an individual or as a societal goal. The goal is salvation. If wealth is given to a man, its only proper use is as a means to salvation. For St. Basil, that means using wealth in obedience to the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
I very much doubt that St. Basil was a socialist, in the modern sense of the term. He was in no sense a dialectical materialist; he probably would have seen both Marxists and radical free marketeers as equally godless in their presuppositions. Whatever Basil’s indignation over the oppression of the poor, there is no evidence that he advocated that they should violently overthrow the rich, or take property not their own. That would have continued the cycle of sin; it would have served the devil’s purposes, not God’s. But there is certainly a question as to how St. Basil would have understood application of the commandment of love in a democratic society in which a people jointly make decisions about their common good.