All virtue is God’s virtue

posted in: classical | 1

Of course this title is a play on the saying (often applied in similar discussions) that all truth is God’s truth. Therefore, we say, as Christians we can study truth no matter where we find it.

In the same way, Basil the Great of Cappadocia (bishop, scholar, and teacher in the 4th century) says we can study and apply virtue wherever we find it. After all, he concurs with the ages before and after himself, the point of education is virtue.

This is the point Basil the Great makes in his own defense of Greek learning being adopted within early Christian education.

Now, virtuous living without faith is not salvific; in fact, it is worthless in eternally unless it was Jesus’ in the first place. However, for the faithful, we can co-opt any virtue we find, using it for God’s kingdom and to prepare our own minds and hearts for eternity with Him. We need not worry about the virtue of others and how effective it was for them, but worry about ourselves instead.

Are we seeking wisdom?

The introduction to the selections from Basil in The Great Tradition say this of him:

For Basil, Christianity was still engaged in a fruitful conversation with the ancients. In his defense, he cites the biblical precedents of Moses and Daniel, both of whom mastered the learning of pagan cultures as they prepared themselves for God’s work. […] Basil’s spirit is generous…His eye is on the permanent things.

Basil, in his writing on education, begins with the aim of life, makes applications about the aim of education based on the ultimate aim, and then demonstrates what is and is not valuable, based on the goals we seek.

See – we must know what we are seeking to know what we should do. Begin with the end in mind. This is a timeless principle, not one invented by Stephen Covey.

Deriving a profit on the Greeks’ gold

Everything we do is by way of preparation for the other life

Funny. I’ve heard other circles say basically that and then therefore conclude we don’t need anything but Scripture and piety. Basil draws the opposite conclusion:

Whatever, therefore, contributes to that life, we say must be loved and pursued with all our strength.

How does pagan learning contribute to our strength?

So we also must consider that a contest, the greatest of all contests, lies before us, for which we must do all things, and in preparation for it, must strive to the best of our power, and must associate with poets and writers of prose and orators and with all men from whom there is any prospect of benefit with reference to the care of our soul.

In this section Basil employs several metaphors to convey the relation of Greek philosophy to Christian doctrine.

First, he says it is like the practice drills before true war. They are exercises that prepare and strengthen for battle, though they are not battles themselves.

He also says Greek learnings gives us shadows and reflections that guide us toward the vision of the fullness in Scripture, through them our eyes grow accustomed gradually until we are strong enough to look upon the full glory.

Then he likens minds to wool and Greek philosophy to a treatment given it so it can receive the dye. Without preparation, the dye doesn’t stick. Greek learning is the treatment, Christian doctrine and wisdom is the dye.

Then Basil points out that even the differences between Greek philosophy and Christian are not problematic, but an opportunity. We learn by comparing, so being able to set the two side-by-side allows us to see both more clearly and understand truth more fully.

However, Basil is not advocating a full embracing of Greek thought – not at all:

You ought not give your attention to all they write without exception; but whenever they recount for you the deeds or words of good men, you ought to cherish and emulate these; but when they treat of wicked men, you ought to avoid such imitation, stopping your ears no less than Odysseus did.

Is this not why Charlotte Mason recommends the reading of Plutarch? We read accounts of ancient leaders, good and bad, to learn what good and bad leaders are like.

Students need guides and teachers, then, and cannot be left to fend for themselves:

On this account, then, the soul must be watched over with all vigilance.

Basil then gives a limited laundry list of the words of the Greek poets not to be praised or imitated: the many gods, the gods’ vicious behavior, happiness being plenty, reviling and mocking, and the wicked acts of men.

We are not to turn to them for our entertainment nor to the entertainments they encourage. We should use learning strategically for our sole true aim: preparing for service to God in His kingdom, here and in glory to come.


Get more great quotes & recommendations at ladydusk’s Wednesday with Words!

My Book Bag

Current stack
  • Thought-Provoking: Beauty in the Word by Stratford Caldecott - school planning time is nearly at hand! Time to make sure of my principles and approach.
  • Light Reading: The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker - this is a pre-David-Allen time management classic I've seen quoted for years and decided to read for myself. After all, what is a homeschool mom but an executive? She's more, but she's not less.
  • Kindle app: Habits of Grace by David Mathis - this qualifies as a light read, too, but I like to keep a theology or Christian living book in the mix
  • Audio: A History of the Medieval World by Susan Wise Bauer & City of God by Augustine
Reading slowly all year, including book club titles:
(Mostly) Daily devotional reading (and listening)

What are you reading? Share in the comments!

One Response

  1. Karen M
    |

    Hi Mystie,

    I have been wanting to read through this book, but have been hesitating because I would like to chat with a few people about it as I go. Are your blog posts the only active commentary that you know of for this book? I know that you mention The Great Tradiion on the Schole Sisters podcast, too.

    Thanks!
    Karen