January 1, 2014

Basil the Great and Common Sharing

By His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos
of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

Among the Holy Fathers who railed against those who are unjustly rich, who are grounded in their material assets, and who were indifferent towards injustice and the hunger prevailing in society, was Basil the Great. It should be noted that Basil the Great spoke about the hot social issues of his day, since previously he himself had given an example. He had distributed to the poor his large fortune and then became a Priest and then the Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. So he did not voice his concerns in his writings merely theoretically. He first lived it and then taught it, which is why his words were like thunder, since previously his life was lightning.

Basil the Great worked pastorally. He did not try to switch the resentment of the poor against the rich to create hatred, but he tried to heal both the poor and the rich to see things differently. When issues are addressed at the surface they create bigger problems. So when talking about the uncertainty of riches and how easily it changes when certain societal changes take place, he then stresses that we should despise material goods. As I have written previously, he did this to do pastoral work for the people. The easiest thing is for one to deceive the people and throw out slogans that only touch the surface. It is most difficult to treat the passions of the people. By teaching contempt for material goods he wants to shift the thinking of both the rich and the poor away from material goods, so that they would cease thinking these are the only goods of the earth. His words of contempt for material goods are not Manichean, but he makes an effort to bring balance to society. Indeed there are two possible situations on how one can handle material goods: the first is Idolatry (to deify it) and the other is Manichean (to reject it). The Fathers of the Church accepted neither the one nor the other, but they accepted that material possessions are gifts from God, which must be offered back as gifts to God and our fellow man.

When he needed to be fiery he was. When he saw the rich boast about the power of their wealth, then he was not silent. In one of his works he says that he considers the perfect society to be that which banishes the acquisition of property and the opposition of opinion (quarrels). However, when one studies the entire teaching of Basil the Great, we see that he did not criticize property ownership as much as he did the ownership of material goods. He wanted to make the rich have a love for honor and give freely to those who had need, and thus allow sharing to prevail upon the earth. He tries to illustrate such sharing with many examples.

He uses the case of animals. The sheep graze upon the mountains and the numerous horses enjoy the grass of the earth from the same plain without quarrels between them. But we grab onto what is to be common and appropriate that which belongs to many.

He also uses physical arguments. He says that the one who appropriates material goods is like a spectator who is first to enter a theater and occupies the entire space without allowing others to enter, because he considers it entirely his own. Also, since a person is born naked and returns to the earth naked, it is absurd to appropriate material goods because one rushed to acquire it.

He even uses the argument of the societal destination of material goods and wealth. Bread, he says, belongs to the hungry, a robe to the naked, shoes to the barefoot, silver to the poor. He who hides his goods and avoids clothing the naked or feeding the hungry is no better than the thief who strips the hungry of food and clothing. The Saint said these things in his day because it was a time of hunger and the rich had full warehouses.

He also uses the example of the early Church, in which everything was commonly shared: life, soul, harmony, a table, a brotherhood and love that changed many people and harmonized various souls to be in concord. This joint ownership should be interpreted as sharing.

Beyond these things in the works of Basil the Great, he also very much stressed the value of true wealth, which is the Grace of Christ. A rich person without Christ is destitute and a poor person with Christ is fabulously rich. Material pleasures, he said, have more pain than physical pleasure. Riches have their threats, sweets, satisfactions, and unremitting delights have various illnesses and other passions. The Apostles had Christ and so they had everything. The same happens with the Saints.

The Fathers of the Church tried to solve the problems of their times based on God and the salvation of man, and continuously sought to elevate people's minds to the true good, which is God.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Ο ΜΕΓΑΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΙΟΣ ΚΑΙ Η ΚΟΙΝΟΧΡΗΣΙΑ", December 2007. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.