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Calvin, Basil, and Heathen Learning

One of our ongoing goals here at TCI is to rebut the notion that “Calvinism” or “Reformed Theology” has maintained an antagonistic attitude towards natural revelation, natural philosophy, natural law, and wisdom gleaned from pagan sources. This is certainly true of more recent forms of it, what is sometimes termed “neo-Calvinism,” but it is not at all true of the older magisterial Calvinism. Indeed, quite the opposite is the case. As Richard Tuck puts it, “At some very deep level, the attitude with which both Catholic and Calvinist faced the world at this period was the same, and at a much more superficial level, some of their explicit arguments were almost identical. The Calvinist was generally, however, a much better humanist.”1 Along these lines, we have criticized the old “Hellenization Thesis” on many different occasions, and our “Reformed Irenicism” and “Natural Law” archives are dedicated to counter-evidence that shows the historical record of Christian Humanism among Western, Protestant, and Reformed thinkers.

In this same spirit, we now turn to John Calvin’s comments on heathen learning, and in doing so, we find a surprising source of inspiration. In explaining his own view of the value of pagan wisdom, he defers to the opinion of St. Basil the Great. This need not mean that he endorses every position of Basil’s, of course, and it is important to grant that Calvin often cited early church writers in only a general way. Yet, when we consult with the work of Basil’s which Calvin cites, we find another surprise. When it comes to appropriating pagan Greek literature, Basil appears to actually be more Calvinistic– even Puritanical– than John Calvin himself.

Calvin’s Commentary on Titus 1:12

We begin this interaction with Calvin’s Commentary on Titus 1:12. Paul has, in that passage, cited Epimenides of Crete, stating that “Cretans are always liars.” In answering the question of how it is appropriate for Christians to rely on pagan literature in this fashion, Calvin has this to say:

From this passage we may infer that those persons are superstitious, who do not venture to borrow anything from heathen authors. All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God. Besides, all things are of God; and, therefore, why should it not be lawful to dedicate to his glory everything that can properly be employed for such a purpose? But on this subject the reader may consult Basil’s discourse πρὸς τοὺς νέους, ὅπως ἂν ἐξ ἑλλ κ.τ.λ

Calvin briefly gives his own view that “heathen authors” and “wicked men” are capable of saying some things that are “true and just.” According to him, it is mere superstition that prevents Christians from recognizing this and borrowing such wisdom for their own ends. Interestingly, however, he then goes on to defer to Basil the Great.

For many casual readers, the source will be unfamiliar. The editor of Calvin’s Commentary has given a translation note, but it is still only partially helpful:

Qu’il lise l’oraison que Basile en a faite, remonstrant aux jeunes gens comment ils se doyvent aider des livres des autheurs profanes.” — “Let him read Basil’s discourse on this subject, instructing young persons how they ought to avail themselves of the assistance to be derived from heathen authors.”

The final clause is actually the title of Basil’s discourse, or at least a close English equivalent. It is titled, Address to Young Men On the Right Use of Greek Literature and is now available online and in English. That Calvin would point to Basil on this point is telling, as it contradicts many of the more-popular generalizations regarding “Calvinistic” and “Cappadocian” theology or even “worldview.” Rather than representing opposite perspectives on the antithesis between regenerate and unregenerate knowledge, we actually see something of a “Cappadocian” John Calvin. When questioned about how to use the literature of classical Greece, Calvin appears to defer to the earlier opinion of Basil of Caesarea. And yet as one looks more closely at Basil’s writing on this topic, they find another surprise. In his Address to Young Men On the Right Use of Greek Literature, St. Basil gives a sort of  “Calvinistic” outlook (in the older pejorative sense of the term) on the value of heathen learning.

Basil and the Greeks

The translator of Basil’s Address to Young Men, Frederick Morgan Padelford, has also provided a helpful biographical and contextual introduction to Basil and the circumstances of his writing the treatise. Basil had himself studied in Athens with the most learned men of the day in AD 350. There he befriended Gregory Nazianzen, as well as the future emperor, Julian the Apostate. For of all his cosmopolitan giftings, however, Basil came to believe that the culture of Athens was superficial and worldly and so set out on a career in law which eventually gave way to an ascetic pursuit that took him into the ministry. All of this is immediately relevant for his attitude towards Greek learning. Basil exhibits a mixed perspective, appreciating the elements of truth, goodness, and beauty found within it, but rejecting their worldly aspects, especially those sinful and passionate elements. Basil worried about luxury and the temptation towards worldly fame, but he, nevertheless, believed that the truths contained within non-Christian literature testified to the truths of the Christian religion and the true God.

Dr. Padelford summarizes Basil’s attitude in this way:

If we condense the thought of the essay into the fewest words, the result is something as follows: While classical philosophy, oratory, and poetry even at their best do not reveal the truth with absolute accuracy, they yet reflect it as in a mirror; the truth may be seen face to face only in the Scriptures, yet it is possible in the pagan writings to trace, as it were, its silhouette. Accordingly, for those who are not yet prepared for the strong meat of the Scriptures, the study of Greek literature is a valuable preparatory course.

This is virtually the attitude taken toward classical learning by several of the early Church writers, and, therefore a survey of so much of the ecclesiastical philosophy as concerns Greek poetry and philosophy will help to establish the antecedents of Basil’s essay.

…One who has read Basil’s essay will readily appreciate the similarity between the views of Basil and those of Justin, Athenagoras, Clement, and Origen. The chapters in the essay might almost be arranged as expositions of the various elements in the above digest from Clement’s writings. There is the same belief in the partial inspiration of the Greek poets and philosophers, the same advocacy of the study of Hellenic literature as an introduction to the study of Christianity, the common credence in the indebtedness of Plato and other philosophers to Moses and the Prophets, and the like insistence upon life as a growth, and upon knowledge as the complement of faith.

To summarize this brief review: For at least two centuries before Basil wrote his Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature efforts had been made to determine the true relation between Greek learning and Christianity. Some writers bitterly opposed Hellenic philosophy and poetry, others recognized that it contained a partial revelation of the truth. To the latter view Justin and his followers inclined, and among these followers one of the most pronounced is Basil.

On the Right Use of Greek Literature

Basil’s address is, as its title indicates, directed towards young men who are about to begin advanced formal studies in Greek literature and philosophy. As one might expect, Basil does permit this sort of schooling, and he does praise all that is virtuous in the Greek writers. He even believes that this is preparatory to true spiritual enlightenment:

But so long as our immaturity forbids our understanding their deep thought [The Holy Scriptures’ deep thought– SW], we exercise our spiritual perceptions upon profane writings, which are not altogether different, and in which we perceive the truth as it were in shadows and in mirrors. Thus we imitate those who perform the exercises of military practice, for they acquire skill in gymnastics and in dancing, and then in battle reap the reward of their training. We must needs believe that the greatest of all battles lies before us, in preparation for which we must do and suffer all things to gain power. Consequently we must be conversant with poets, with historians, with orators, indeed with all men who may further our soul’s salvation. Just as dyers prepare the cloth before they apply the dye, be it purple or any other color, so indeed must we also, if we would preserve indelible the idea of the true virtue, become first initiated in the pagan lore, then at length give special heed to the sacred and divine teachings, even as we first accustom ourselves to the sun’s reflection in the water, and then become able to turn our eyes upon the very sun itself.

This does remind us of Justin, as Dr. Padelford has mentioned. Basil continues explaining how the works of the pagan Greeks assist the formation of the soul:

Since we must needs attain to the life to come through virtue, our attention is to be chiefly fastened upon those many passages from the poets, from the historians, and especially from the philosophers, in which virtue itself is praised. For it is of no small advantage that virtue become a habit with a youth, for the lessons of youth make a deep impression, because the soul is then plastic, and therefore they are likely to be indelible.

He praises Herodotus, Solon, Theognis, and Prodicus. The greatest of all is Homer, of whom Basil states, “all the poetry of Homer is a praise of virtue, and with him all that is not merely accessory tends to this end.” Clearly, then, Basil believes that Christians should study the virtuous pagans. As he puts it again, “since also the renowned deeds of the men of old either are preserved for us by tradition, or are cherished in the pages of poet or historian, we must not fail to profit by them.”

However, if this were all we said about Basil’s opinion of pagan literature, we would leave the reader with a quite false impression. The truth of the matter is that this “positive” appraisal is actually not his primary concern. Indeed, Basil begins his address with a warning about not prizing worldly learning too much, and he continues to warn against the various examples of injustice and falsehood which can be found among even the greatest of the Greek writers. His main point is actually this, “that we should not accept everything without discrimination, but only what is useful.”

The Puritanical Basil?

It is only due to the many layers of confusion that 20th century historical theology brought upon us that one will find this surprising, but Basil actually exhibits a rather skeptical view towards, not only pagan learning, but learning about arts and letters in general. Some of his expressions are no-doubt rhetorical in nature, and not meant to be taken overly strictly, but it is still the case that Basil begins his address by warning the young men not to prize worldly learning over spiritual learning. Reflecting perhaps his own experience, Basil believes that the great danger is not in the young students superstitiously rejecting pagan literature (as Calvin had warned against) but rather in being too impressed by it and giving it a place of priority in their hearts.

Basil writes:

Do not be surprised if to you, who go to school every day, and who, through their writings, associate with the learned men of old, I say that out of my own experience I have evolved something more useful. Now this is my counsel, that you should not unqualifiedly give over your minds to these men, as a ship is surrendered to the rudder, to follow whither they list, but that, while receiving whatever of value they have to offer, you yet recognize what it is wise to ignore. Accordingly, from this point on I shall take up and discuss the pagan writings, and how we are to discriminate among them.

Basil is not only worried about falsehoods or cases of immorality in Greek literature. He is also worried about the danger of setting earthly things above spiritual ones or loving the body better than the soul:

II. We Christians, young men, hold that this human life is not a supremely precious thing, nor do we recognize anything as unconditionally a blessing which benefits us in this life only. Neither pride of ancestry, nor bodily strength, nor beauty, nor greatness, nor the esteem of all men, nor kingly authority, nor, indeed, whatever of human affairs may be called great, do we consider worthy of desire, or the possessors of them as objects of envy; but we place our hopes upon the things which are beyond, and in preparation for the life eternal do all things that we do. Accordingly, whatever helps us towards this we say that we must love and follow after with all our might, but those things which have no bearing upon it should be held as naught. But to explain what this life is, and in what way and manner we shall live it, requires more time than is at our command, and more mature hearers than you.

And yet, in saying thus much, perhaps I have made it sufficiently clear to you that if one should estimate and gather together all earthly weal from the creation of the world, he would not find it comparable to the smallest part of the possessions of heaven; rather, that all the precious things in this life fall further short of the least good in the other than the shadow or the dream fails of the reality. Or rather, to avail myself of a still more natural comparison, by as much as the soul is superior to the body in all things, by so much is one of these lives superior to the other.

Why study worldly writers at all then? The answer to that question is what occasions Basil’s more “positive” appraisal, and it is at that point when he says that they are a good preparation for spiritual training. Young men can learn virtue from the pagans which will then enable them to more easily receive spiritual enlightenment from the Holy Scriptures:

With what now may we compare these two kinds of education to obtain a simile? Just as it is the chief mission of the tree to bear its fruit in its season, though at the same time it puts forth for ornament the leaves which quiver on its boughs, even so the real fruit of the soul is truth, yet it is not without advantage for it to embrace the pagan wisdom, as also leaves offer shelter to the fruit, and an appearance not untimely. That Moses, whose name is a synonym for wisdom, severely trained his mind in the learning of the Egyptians, and thus became able to appreciate their deity. Similarly, in later days, the wise Daniel is said to have studied the lore of the Chaldaeans while in Babylon, and after that to have taken up the sacred teachings.

Basil is also clear that we must be discriminating readers of literature. It is not all equally profitable, and we should not ascribe praise and honor to its baser aspects. We may decide that some of it is unfit to read entirely. He states:

Perhaps it is sufficiently demonstrated that such heathen learning is not unprofitable for the soul; I shall then discuss next the extent to which one may pursue it. To begin with the poets, since their writings are of all degrees of excellence, you should not study all of their poems without omitting a single word. When they recount the words and deeds of good men, you should both love and imitate them, earnestly emulating such conduct. But when they portray base conduct, you must flee from them and stop up your ears, as Odysseus is said to have fled past the song of the sirens, for familiarity with evil writings paves the way for evil deeds. Therefore the soul must be guarded with great care, lest through our love for letters it receive some contamination unawares, as men drink in poison with honey.

From here, Basil lists several common complaints about the poets. He condemns their presentation of fornication and drunkenness as something worthy of praise. He also criticizes “when they define blissfulness by groaning tables and wanton songs.” The worst of all, however, is their portrayal of the gods, especially the depiction that there are many gods rather than One, as well as the moral character they ascribe to the divine. Whenever the heathen praise falsehood, Basil would have us condemn it and perhaps even avoid it altogether, omitting it from our studies:

So we, if wise, shall take from heathen books whatever befits us and is allied to the truth, and shall pass over the rest. And just as in culling roses we avoid the thorns, from such writings as these we will gather everything useful, and guard against the noxious. So, from the very beginning, we must examine each of their teachings, to harmonize it with our ultimate purpose, according to the Doric proverb, ‘testing each stone by the measuring-line.’

In order to do this, we must be able to discern the difference and to avoid the evil aspects of heathen learning. We must avoid that literature which would prove to be “injurious food” for our soul:

But let us return to the same thought with which we started, namely, that we should not accept everything without discrimination, but only what is useful. For it would be shameful should we reject injurious foods, yet should take no thought about the studies which nourish our souls, but as a torrent should sweep along all that came near our path and appropriate it. If the helmsman does not blindly abandon his ship to the winds, but guides it toward the anchorage; if the archer shoots at his mark; if also the metal-worker or the carpenter seeks to produce the objects for which his craft exists, would there be rime or reason in our being outclassed by these men, mere artisans as they are, in quick appreciation of our interests? For is there not some end in the artisan’s work, is there not a goal in human life, which the one who would not wholly resemble unreasoning animals must keep before him in all his words and deeds? If there were no intelligence sitting at the tiller of our souls, like boats without ballast we should be borne hither and thither through life, without plan or purpose.

Basil presents this as a great struggle, and he compares it to the athletic contests of wrestling and pankration. Since this is the case, Basil believes that an ascetic approach to learning is necessary. “Accordingly, we ought not to serve the body any more than is absolutely necessary, but we ought to do our best for the soul, releasing it from the bondage of fellowship with the bodily appetites; at the same time we ought to make the body superior to passion.” He invokes the image of those who live in luxury, using the goods of this world to merely adorn themselves and their homes. Basil sternly rejects those who would “be a fop or a pamperer of the body,” and he compares those who use learning without regard to spirituality as being victim to base passions.

Conclusion

Though it would take another essay entirely to investigate this point, it is entirely possible that Calvin and the broader Reformed tradition, particularly those later irenic divines, actually had something of a more sympathetic understanding of the use of pagan literature by Christians than St. Basil did. That’s certainly the initial impression one gets from Calvin’s brief comments on Titus 1:12. It’s more likely, however, that Calvin simply felt that there was a general consensus throughout the Christian Church and that his own position was within that consensus. Only superstitious persons would differ in any significant way.

We see from this study that there is always much more below the surface of these interactions. Therefore, we should be slow to accept dramatic oppositions between characters and schools of thought in church history, especially when they did not attempt to oppose themselves in such a way. While we can’t escape the use of adjectival labels, and while we also shouldn’t flatten out all distinctions in an effort to claim seamless continuity, we should nevertheless acknowledge the limitations of such labels, especially when they are used to advance ideological rather than historical goals. As we have learned, it might just be possible for a Calvinist to be a Cappadocian and for a Cappadocian to be a Puritan.

  1. Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development, (Cambridge University Press, 1979) 32

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

One reply on “Calvin, Basil, and Heathen Learning”

Nice post. Calvin is also signaling his participation in a broader humanist culture. Ad Adulescentes was rediscovered in Rome in the 15th century and translated into Latin by Leonardo Bruni. It quickly became a commonplace in the humanist appeal to study the Greek language and pagan literature, as well as a way to chide anti-humanist scholastics for their lack of training in these areas. And in a culture in which actual pagans were gone or rare, the positive parts of the work were emphasized more than the rest. Almost every educational treatise from the sixteenth century mentions or quotes Ad Adulescentes.

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