Home / Blog / “Imitate the Earth” – St. Basil the Great on the Principle of Detachment

“Imitate the Earth” – St. Basil the Great on the Principle of Detachment

“Imitate the earth… Bear fruit, as she does. She produces her fruits, not that she may enjoy them, but for the service of others”, so St. Basil opens his Homily VI on Luke 12:18 titled, “I Will Tear Down My Barns” on social justice. Basil as the Bishop of Caesarea was operating in the fourth century and, in some scholarly debates, he is used as a reference to argue that the early Church upheld ‘proto-communist’ views of property ownership. But, to make such a claim is, firstly, to ignore the history of the Church and her approach to property and poverty leading up to Basil, and secondly, to disregard the nuance of Church teaching. One way we can get at this on a deeper level, I would suggest, is to consider how Church Tradition developed its thought around the principle of detachment in contrast to the thought that had preceded it, and to see how that principle has been developed and deployed down to the present day.  

In an essay in Reading Patristic Texts on Social Ethics, Dr. Brian Matz writes of the fourth century BCE: “Private property was understood to be a social problem, but forcibly redistributing property had few, if any supporters” (Matz, 165). Plato championed the happiness of all, but equated happiness not with possessing many things, but rather: “everyone is to be happy with the goods appropriate to their position within the city” (ibid.). Building off of Plato, Xenophon and Aristotle argued for an approach of use rather than ownership. In his Education of Cyrus, for example, Xenophon writes “of a particular episode of Cyrus’ schooling in which Cyrus was asked to judge between two boys of different heights who each owned coats that were better suited to the height of the other boy… Cyrus ordered the boys to switch coats” (ibid., 166). Aristotle would make a distinction between the care of possessions and the use of them suggesting that care responsibilities ought to be private and use ought to be common. Matz writes, “This distinction between care and use preserves a sense of dignity for each property owner insofar as both pleasure is derived from calling something one’s own and greed is restrained” (ibid., 167). Matz continues, “… despite their misgivings, Xenophon and Aristotle accepted the status quo as that which would cause the least amount of injustice” (ibid.), which we might liken to a proto-utilitarian view although stated in negative terms.

         At this point the restraints of operating in a secular worldview come into focus as we see that which ought to be of primary import, viz., the inherent value of the human person, both the haves and have-nots in terms of worldly possessions, particularly in terms of salvation, is nowhere to be found. By way of contrast, in Mark 10:21 we hear Jesus instructing the rich young man to “sell all that you have and give the proceeds to the poor.” What we have here is the basis for the principle of detachment as the Tradition will develop it. As the Shepherd of Hermas identifies, Jesus points to the importance of identifying our home as otherworldly and detaching ourselves from this world: “Instead of lands, therefore, buy afflicted souls… visit widows and orphans… For to this end did the Master make you rich, that you might perform these services unto Him” (Book III, Similitude 1). In the second century, St. Irenaeus in Against Heresies would clarify the moral neutrality of property itself. Irenaeus leverages the example of the Jewish people that took from the Egyptians: “Which party shall seem to have received [their worly good] in the fairer manner? Will it be the [Jewish] people, [who took] from the Egyptians, who were at all points their debtors; or we, [who receive property] from the Romans and other nations, who are under no similar obligation to us?” (Book IV, 30.3). Irenaeus holds that we cannot flatly claim a right to private property for we cannot flatly claim to have produced the property in question. To be sure, human effort is expended, but both the effort and the results of that effort are intimately related to the care of Divine Providence not, finally, solely to our own doing. This position is reiterated in the third century by St. Clement of Alexandria. In Who is the Rich Man that Will be Saved, Clement clarifies that material possessions have no positive or negative moral value in themselves, rather it is their use that determines the moral quality of their owner. He writes, “For to him who exalts and magnifies himself, the change and downfall to a low condition succeeds in turn, as the divine word teaches. For it appears to me to be far kinder, than vasely to flatter the rich and praise them for what is bad, to aid them in working out their salvation in every possible way…” (1) His remedy is to give possessions to the needy: “See then, first, that He has not commanded you to be solicited or to wait to be importuned, but yourself to seek those who are to be benefited…For the Lord loves a cheerful giver; 2 Corinthians 9:8 who delights in giving, and spares not, sowing so that he may also thus reap, without murmuring, and disputing, and regret, and communicating, which is pure beneficence” (31).

         Shifting now to the fourth century and St. Basil’s homilies on social justice, we find the principle of detachment employed as an hermeneutical tool to evangelize Christians of Cappadocia following a devastating famine in 368. Basil’s primary audience was the wealthy. Homily VI focused on the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21 in which Jesus tells of the rich man building larger barns for his excess crops: “…[the rich man says], ‘and I will say to my soul, Soul you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with God those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” In Homily V, To the Rich, Basil challenges his audience: “But now your possessions are more a part of you than the members of your own body, and separation from them is as painful as the amputation of one of your limbs. Had you clothed the naked, had you given your bread to the hungry, had your door been open to every stranger, had you been a parent to the orphan, had you made the suffering of every helpless person your own, what money would you have left, that loss of which to grieve?” It is clear that Basil is a champion of the principle of detachment, particularly as expressed in the wealthy’s responsibility to the poor as demonstrated by the distribution of excess goods. Basil himself practiced this in his relief work of the poor and sick in Caesarea. In fact, Basil is renowned for founding the first hospitals known as Basileas, which cared for the poor and sick as well as providing hospitality to travelers. Basil, then, in this way literally “practiced what he preached” and expressed solidarity both with the members of his congregation, setting an example for them, and with the vulnerable for whom he cared. 

         To evaluate the early Church and teaching of Basil as “communist” is both anachronistic and misleading precisely because, in doing so, one imposes a secular ideology upon a wholly theologically rooted understanding of life. Rather, Church teaching calls us beyond political and economic categories to something much more. As the foregoing makes clear, ownership and private property “rights” are not an unfamiliar issue wrestled with by philosophers and theologians throughout the centuries. Integrating the theory of justice with private property, however, did not encompass a responsibility to the poor until the second and third centuries when St. Irenaeus, Shepherd of Hermas and St. Clement encouraged the necessity of detachment and distribution of wealth. Although the principle of detachment and sharing of wealth is, indeed, necessary, no less necessary is solidarity with the poor, as Basil brings to the fore. We may think of the two as very closely related virtues. We see this dynamic echoed down to the present day. For example, in Gaudium et spes, the Council Fathers challenge us, “Whatever the forms of property may be, as adapted to the legitimate institutions of peoples, according to diverse and changeable circumstances, attention must always be paid to this universal destination of earthly goods. In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others” (69). We recall this responsibility to the poor especially in light of the poverty Christ took upon Himself, “…taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness” (Phil 2:7) and “becoming poor, that [we] through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). God Himself sought solidarity with His people, divesting Himself to be one with us. Vatican II identifies the intimacy of this solidarity reaching its highest pitch in the Eucharist: “The Lord left behind a pledge of this hope and strength for life’s journey in that sacrament of faith where natural elements refined by man are gloriously changed into His Body and Blood, providing a meal of brotherly solidarity and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet” (GS, 38). The principle of detachment lived out in the virtue of the same name, together with the virtue of solidarity, then, is a dim reflection of intimacy with Christ, most especially as made present in the Eucharist, which summons us to solidarity with His poor in imitation of Him that His kingdom might become an ever more present reality here and now. In the end, this is what the principle of detachment is about, neither a flight from the world and certainly not an economic or social reduction of the Gospel, but rather allowing every facet of our lives to be transformed by our encounter with Christ. It is this encounter which nourishes the soil of the soul, yields the fruits of the virtues of detachment and solidarity, which, in turn, enable Christians to bear fruit in charity for the life of the world (Optatum Totius, 16).  

Your Sister in Christ,


0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago

However, the Russian Orthodox hieromonk Fr. Seraphim Rose has argued that leading Orthodox saints such as Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom and Ephraim the Syrian believed that Genesis should be treated as a historical account.