Abstract:Basil of Caesarea (c. AD 330–379) presents humility as the essence of the good life in his Homily 20. Humility was the chief virtue based on Christ’s own humility. Thus, true happiness was only possible through a life of humility. In this essay, I first assess the biblical and theological rationale for humility according to Basil in contrast with prior Greek and Roman notions of humility. Next, I analyze how Basil depicts humility in terms of “glory” in his Homily 20. The bestowal of glory is a gift of God and can only be achieved through a life of humble imitation of Christ. This notion gives Basil’s hearers the proper perspective to understand how the good life is lived in Christian perspective. I conclude with some practical implications for understanding Basil’s conception of humility as the good life.
Basil of Caesarea (c. AD 330–379) was a significant theological force in the fourth century. On the heels of the Council of Nicaea (AD 325), Basil sought to steer the church through tumultuous theological waters amidst the ongoing Arian controversy and its numerous aberrant theological descendants. In particular, Basil was instrumental in defending the deity of the Holy Spirit and for promoting a robust trinitarianism in the spirit of Nicaea.1 Ordained bishop of Caesarea in 370, Basil remained in close relations with various political figures and helped to establish various church leaders throughout the region of Cappadocia sympathetic to the Nicene cause, including his close friend Gregory Nazianzus and his own brother Gregory of Nyssa. Though he was a significant theological voice, he was also a monastic reformer and pastor. It is in these latter roles that he was able to address various pastoral matters. One of Basil’s chief concerns was the promotion of humility as integral to a flourishing Christian life. Understanding humility as the chief Christian virtue can continue to bear fruit for Christians today.
Basil conceived of humility as the chief virtue, writing upon it variously throughout his career. Humility was especially important for church leaders according to Basil. Michael Haykin notes, “A key area in Basil’s thinking about monastic and episcopal leadership was the responsibility of the monastic leader and bishop to be a man marked by humility.”2 Only through the practice of humility may one truly apprehend both excellent character and happiness. More importantly for Basil, humility serves as the divine entrance by which man must enter in order to restore his glory that was lost through pride. To this end, humility leads to happiness because it allows one to comprehend and fully value the life of Christ. Humility produces excellence of character by allowing one to properly apply other virtues free from corrupt human pretension. This notion of humility in Basil is most clearly seen in his Homily 20. This sermon, posthumously titled On Humility, was likely preached around the year 375. In it, Basil advocated for humility as the chief virtue necessary for the restoration of man’s dignity from the fall, allowing him to achieve excellence in this life and attain true happiness into eternity through imitating the humility of Christ.
Understanding how Basil conceived of humility as the chief virtue of the Christian life raises some important questions. How was humility conceived within the writings of earlier Greek and Roman authors? How did Basil relate humility to Scripture? What are the moral implications and practical applications of humility? For Basil, the practice of humility is necessary because it brings one closer back to the original state of “divine glory.”3 By practicing humility, the course to true moral goodness is rightly established, enabling one to come as close as possible to the original state of “glory which he possessed with God.”4 Contrary to the wisdom of the world, only the practice of humility allows one to properly perform virtue and live an excellent life. The world strives for glory by means of power and personal exaltation. This delusive pathway to glory impairs even the performance of basic virtues. Understanding humility continues to bear fruit for modern day believers, especially in a post-Christian world. Indeed, there is little difference between how Greco-Roman philosophers understood humility from how it is understood in modern culture today. Contrary to the wisdom of the world, humility, according to Basil, is the only proper means for attaining glory based on the life of Christ. Basil presents humility as the chief virtue in three distinct ways: first, he frames humility in contrast to Greco-Roman notions; second, he constructs the biblical and theological framework for understanding the value of humility; last, Basil places humility in the greater moral perspective in order to better understand humility as the key to the good life founded in example of Jesus Christ and the present working of the Holy Spirit. In this, modern readers of Basil will gain fresh insight into virtue in Christian perspective, and specifically, how humility can be pursued in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ. There is no lived Christian life, properly understood, apart from humility.
2. Humility in Greco-Roman Perspective
In order to understand humility in Christian perspective, it is important to place it in context with other philosophical and moral renderings. Humility for Basil is to cleave to that which is ultimately good, which is God. It is not to glory in oneself. It is “to realize that [one] lacks true righteousness (δικαιοσύνης ἀληθοῦς).”5 This posture acknowledges that one has not “embraced Christ through [one’s] virtue,” but it is Christ who “apprehended you by his advent (παρουσίας).”6 Humility is to come down in the same way that Christ came down to us. One who seeks humility is a true lover of virtue.7 Humility places man on the path to glory, the place from which he fell, and enables that one to practice true virtue as directed by the life of Christ and focused towards God. The Greco-Roman perspective, on the other hand, portrays humility as weakness and unsuitable for excellence in character. Glory is the reward of virtue.8 Humility is unbecoming of man, let alone of God. Aristotle (384–322 BC), in his Nicomachean Ethics, provides a foundation for this perspective. The second-century philosopher, Celsus, represents a similar perspective. These two examples serve as evidence towards understand Greco-Roman thought regarding the notion of humility. Artistotle sets the overall tone, while Celsus confirms it in relation to his disdain for Christianity. As such, they provide a contrasting view to the happy life compared to the one secured through humility according to Basil. Though more could be said, these two examples will provide a foundation for a Greco-Roman perspective on humility. We will now turn our attention to these examples in order to frame our discussion of Basil’s conception of humility.
2.1. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
At the outset of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle posited the quest on which man is set upon: the search for happiness. He stated, “Now happiness (εὐδαιμονία) above all else appears to be absolutely final in this sense, since we always choose it for its own sake and never as a means to something else; whereas honour, pleasure, intelligence, and excellence in its various forms, we choose indeed for their own sakes … but we also choose them for the sake of happiness.”9 For what Aristotle calls “littleness of soul” is worth less than acts of conceitedness “for it both occurs more often and is worse.”10 The “little-souled” person is deficient and unworthy of great things. He asserted, “And inasmuch as the great-souled man deserves most, he must be the best of men; for the better a man is the more he deserves, and he that is best deserves most. Therefore, the truly great-souled man must be a good man. Indeed greatness in each of the virtues would seem to go with greatness of soul.”11
For Aristotle, wisdom (φρόνησις) was that which completed character-excellence. The disposition of wisdom for Aristotle contains both an intellectual quality as well as an aspect of technical expertise, though it is does not solely rest in either of those qualities. He stated, “Now it is held to be the mark of a prudent man (δὴ φρονίμου) to be able to deliberate well about what is good and advantageous for himself, not in some one department, for instance what is good for his health of strength, but what is advantageous as a means to the good life in general.”12 Sarah Broadie and C. J. Rowe state, “Wisdom, then, turns out to be impossible without excellence of character just as excellence of character is impossible without wisdom. When Aristotle puts them together in his exposition, what in fact he puts together is an unfinished infrastructure of character-excellence with an abstract or ethically footloose category called ‘cleverness.’”13
2.2. Celsus and True Doctrine
Celsus, writing in the mid-to late second century AD, was a philosopher who had familiarized himself with much of the New Testament and the writings of his Christian contemporaries. He wished to understand the claims of Christianity in order to discredit the faith. His retort against Christianity entitled True Doctrine sought to establish the absurdity of the Christian faith and invalidate the truth claims of Scripture. This challenge argued that Christianity was absurd based on its novelty and its conception of God descending to take on flesh for the salvation of man. Such notions were ludicrous to any serious thinker according to Celsus and contradicted established Greek thought on the subject. Celsus contended that God becoming man is a preposterous idea, unworthy of credence from anyone with intelligence. Celsus loathed the Christians because their concept of God is infantile. Christianity is suitable only for the “most stupid and uneducated yokels.”14 The intelligent ones view God as completely other and transcendent, wholly unapproachable and unable to intermix with flesh and blood. The idea of a god who would humble himself to the point of taking on flesh to become like man was utterly preposterous to the Greco-Roman concept of divinity. Humility and deity simply did not mingle.
Celsus repeatedly demonstrated his knowledge of Christian doctrine, yet he rejected it as nonsensical. As Robert Wilken notes, “In principle … Celsus had no objection to the elevation of a man, even Jesus, to divine status … [but] was Jesus really deserving of such honor? [According to Celsus] Jesus was a low-grade magician, not a great hero like the men of old.”15 Celsus’s conception of God aligned with a platonic metaphysical dualism, that is, a distinction between imperfect and temporal matter, and an unchanging and nonmaterial world of the Good, or the Forms. The later middle-platonic association of the Good with God, while maintaining the metaphysical dualistic assumptions, likely informed Celsus’s rejection of Christianity’s claim of Jesus as God.16
Origen of Alexandria, in his Contra Celsum, contended along with Scripture, that God has approached man as Christ in the flesh. Such a message has been preached and believed “in all the world because he is the only Son of God who has visited the human race.”17 Origen stated that the simple are made to understand the deep things of God more than the supposed wise and educated. The “intelligible interpretation” of Scripture comes through the Spirit alone.18 Origen’s main point in this work was to distinguish the Christian view of God as distinct—and ultimately superior—to that of Greek thought. Origen reverses traditional platonic thinking regarding a mind’s ascent to God and states that knowledge of God begins with God’s descent to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Origen argues, contra Celsus, that the gospel is proof in itself of God’s revelation apart from human wisdom therefore denying the need for external “Greek proof” for validation.19 Origen understood that the Christian faith supersedes categories of Greek verification. He affirms that the gospel is demonstrated in “Spirit and of power,” quoting 2 Corinthians 2:4.
Stephen Pardue notes the intersection of the canonical Scriptures and the patristic understanding of humility:
For unlike prudence, courage, fidelity, or any number of other Christian virtues, its status as a virtue was profoundly contentious in the pagan ancient world. While early Christians would eventually develop distinctive accounts of each of these virtues, they were pressed to rely especially on scriptural warrant and Jewish precedents to develop their own conception of humility.20
Basil’s conception of humility arose from the biblical account, ultimately with the life of Christ as the paradigm for this chief Christian virtue.
3. Humility in Biblical and Theological Perspective
Contemporary philosopher Peter Kreeft notes the “hinge” or cardinal virtues of justice, wisdom, courage and moderation. They are “hinges” (a translation from the Latin cardes) because they are the virtues “on which all other virtues turn.”21 As such they are the natural virtues, described by Plato, from which the theological virtues of faith, hope and love bloom.22 These virtues make up “the necessary foundation and precondition for all the others.”23 From here Kreeft affirms that while these virtues are more fully realized by the biblical witness, they are nonetheless part of natural revelation.24 These virtues, according to this conception, are naturally revealed and hence within everyone’s capacity for application.
While Basil recognizes the existence of natural virtues, his also affirms the human inability to naturally practice virtue. For Basil, man has “lost the good which it was in his power to possess.”25 This fall from glory came through pride, and humility is the necessary key to unlocking divine glory. He asserted, “The surest salvation for him, the remedy of his ills, and the means of restoration to his original state is in practicing humility and not pretending that he may lay claim to any glory through his own efforts but seeking it from God.”26 Human effort falls short of the glory of God. Striving for glory by means of self-righteousness, worldly wisdom, and attempts at courage and moderation all fall short of their full expression in a Christian life of virtue. To this notion, Basil provides numerous biblical examples.
In his Short Rules 198 (Regula brevius tractatae), Basil stated, “Humility is to consider all (human beings) better to oneself according to the definition of the Apostle.”27 In view here is the understanding that Paul provides in Philippians 2:3, but the larger scope includes the full apostolic testimony regarding Christ. The fundamental basis of humility for the believer is the life of Christ through the teachings of the apostles. Basil stated, “Indeed, we find that everything the Lord did is a lesson in humility.”28 The apostles and disciples of the early church provide believers with additional models of humility. Basil exhorted, “Come, let us imitate them, so that out of our humility there may arise for us everlasting glory, the perfect and true gift of Christ.”29 The Christian then grows in humility by modeling Christ and the apostles. Basil used a string of Scriptural quotations to exhort his readers towards humility, suggesting a necessary reliance upon the Bible for those who wish to grow in humility. Imitation of virtuous individuals is the means for growth in virtue. More will be said on this later but suffice it to say, for Basil, Scripture formed the moral matrix of the Christian life.30
Basil’s adherence to biblical language and ideas informed his perspective on humility. His adherence to the positive example of Christ, noting his incarnation, and the negative examples of the Israelites and the devil grounded his discussion in biblical motifs. At every turn, Basil draws his readers to Scripture. One aspect in which Basil’s language appears unsettling relates to his understanding of humility as the means of salvation. If humility is a work in which one must perform in order to be saved, then it is thoroughly unbiblical. If, however, one reads this as a way of life for one whom has already been saved then it becomes more palatable. In his Shorter Rules 198, Basil described how one attains humility. First, one calling to mind the words and example of Christ. Next by claiming the promise of Christ that he who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 14:11). Lastly, Basil urged a consistent and careful practice of humility while understanding the difficulty of the task. Practicing humility is akin to learning a craft, requiring practice fraught with difficulty, yet such is “accomplishing every virtue in accordance with the commandment of our Lord Jesus Christ.”31
3.1. Pride and Glory
Mark DelCogliano notes, “Though this homily is entitled On Humility, it is as much, if not more, about pride.”32 Man’s need for humility comes from his fault of pride. Hence Basil begins his homily by highlighting man’s current disposition. At one point, man enjoyed glory with God, what Basil called “genuine instead of fictitious dignity.”33 Such a position with God provided true nobility, wisdom, and happiness. Man forfeited his place with God because of pride, due to “looking for something better and striving for what he could not attain.”34 This striving was the temptation in the garden by Satan in Genesis 3, a temptation that promised equal status with God. Instead of enjoying the “good which it was in his power to possess,” man fell from glory—pride “blinds a man to no purpose” and “arouses vain conceit.”35 It is like an inflammation upon a tumor which grows and pervades the soul, becoming “a cause of death.”36 It is the proud which will be humbled, either by choice or by consequence.
Because of pride man exited the glory of God—and by humility God entered the sinful state of man to bring man back to glory. Virtue practiced apart from glory is not true virtue, it is a sham virtue marred by human selfishness and pride. We have the search for beauty backwards. Man does not ascend without God who descends. Thus, the road to ascension begins with a posture of condescension. This is the ironic nature of the distinctly Christian virtue of humility. Basil consistently affirms the reality that mankind spends so much time posturing and seeking success in the eyes of the world. This is the search for validation in the eyes of man. This search is the disguised desire to return to glory. Apart from humility, man’s search for glory is ultimately futile. This sham search disables mankind from the true practice of virtue.
3.2. Temptation towards Exaltation
When the temptation to exalt oneself arises, Basil exhorted his readers to “give thanks to God lest you exalt yourself above your neighbor.”37 Basil warned against self-exaltation, exhorting his readers to recall numerous negative biblical examples of pride. The giants of Genesis 6 exhibited arrogance of exaltation, as did Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. Basil cited both Absalom in 2 Samuel 14 and Adonijah in 1 Kings 1 as two examples of those who exalted themselves based on their supposed beauty. Basil also reminded his listeners that the allure of the devil remains, even for those who have made themselves humble. Basil proclaimed, “For the Devil, having caused man’s ruin by holding out to him the hope of false glory, ceases not to tempt him still by the same allurements and he devises innumerable schemes to this end.”38 Those who are humble may cease to be so by succumbing to the temptation to exalt themselves through wealth, power or fame. Yielding to temptation in this way, Basil noted, “bears no relation to excellence of character.”39
Reminding readers of our ever watchful God, Basil recommended that his readers “[s]trive for honor with God…. [H]e renders a splendid reward.”40 Basil reminded readers that lording fame and power over peoples is worldly behavior unfit for Christ’s followers. In a sermon on the act of renunciation, Basil warned his monastic audience of the “harlot” which is the world, the one who draws one away from “the life of virtue.”41 Even if one escapes the grasp of the harlot, “they return enervated” and “peevishly disinclined to all virtuous action.”42 This relates to Basil’s exhortation against the “invisible master of worldly wisdom,” that is, the Devil, who, thinking that he had trapped and truly eradicated the Lord, was the one who was ultimately trapped and defeated.
3.3. False Humility
Basil recognized the reality of pretentious humility. The temptation to self-exaltation can easily be disguised as false humility. To this point, Basil pointed to scriptural examples of those who appeared to be submitting to God, yet ultimately were subject to fear and arrogance. Peter, who had declared his dedication to Christ, eventually denied him based on fear. His avowal to stand by Christ was akin more to boastful pride arising from arrogance. Similarly, the Pharisee in Luke 18:11–14, though seemingly humble through total submission to God’s law, “lost the righteousness in which he could boast because of his sin of pride.”43 Basil remarked on the notion of false humility in his Longer Rules. The ever-present danger of pride exists in seeking to be humble. For example, one could display humility by offering his or her seat to another. In his Long Rules (Regulae fusius tractatae) Basil warned that attempts at humility could easily lead to contentious behavior and “make us as bad as those fighting over the first seats.”44 Basil suggested that allowing oneself to be served by another is just as much an act of humility as one performing the action.
Basil declared, “The subordinate therefore need have no fear of undermining his goal of humility if he ever is ministered to by a greater.”45 Thus Basil maintained that humility can only properly flourish within a mutual relationship. Roberta Bondi communicates well the idea of humility in the mind of Basil:
The basic attitude of humility recognizes that no person loves or does any good without the help of God, so that whatever acts of kindness or virtue a person performs, whatever strength or happiness one has, one’s ability to work well and to love well—all these are possible because God gives them to the creatures as God’s good gifts. No one is in a position to look down on another from a superior height because of her or his hard work or piety or mental superiority. We are all vulnerable, all limited and we each have a different struggle only God is in a position to judge.46
Basil affirmed that everyone was in need of practicing humility, and receiving acts wrought from a position of humility. Thus, humble submission to another person allows one to grow in his or her own pursuit of humility. Basil believed that mutual submission was practiced in view of aiding another’s growth in virtue, providing models for emulation and ongoing encouragement.
4. Humility in Moral Perspective
Basil’s moral perspective was based on modeling one’s behavior on the one who demonstrated the greatest act of humility—Jesus Christ. Basil declared, “For the soul grows like what it pursues, and is molded and shaped according to what it does.”47 Forming Christ-like habits leads to Christ-like virtue. Proper morality comes from proper reproduction. These are the habits, the practices and the daily manner of life that both exhibit and promote humility. He states, “Your appearance, and your garments, and your transportation … and the style of your meals … and your house … all of these should reflect thrift.”48 In his Shorter Rules, Basil urged a consistent and careful practice of humility while understanding that it will ultimately be “possible with difficulty to attain the condition of humility.”49
Basil went on to provide a list of basic moral axioms based on the life of Christ. These moral axioms are particularly characteristic of monastic communities. Those living in coenobitic groups grow and flourish through the practice of humility towards one another. Though this homily is often placed with Basil’s ascetic literature, this does not mean that it is meant only for a monastic audience. While Basil represented an ascetic life as the truest form of Christian discipleship, he does not intend to exclude those outside specifically coenobitic monastic community. Though his moral precepts carry a strong monastic flavor, for Basil, ascetic morality equated Christian discipleship. There are no two forms of discipleship, one for monastic communities and one for lay believers—the call to the Christian life is necessarily an ascetic one.50 Humility is not simply for monastic adherents, it is for all who wish to follow Christ and pursue Christian virtue. Basil did not assert the necessity of monasticism for practicing Christian virtue, but he did contend for the necessity of Christian community.51
It is important to note here the virtue of self-control. Anna Silvas observes in Basil the importance of self-control, calling it “an intrinsic element of all the virtues.”52 In Basil’s Longer Rules, he consistently cited the importance of self-control, noting “it is impossible to accomplish one [commandment] in isolation from one another” as is “especially the case with self-control.” The commandments are linked to self-control “as in a circular dance.”53 The importance of self-control is certainly evident in Basil’s rule, and the practice of such does seem to point to “an intrinsic element” of all the other virtues as Silvas describes. I want to suggest, however, that apart from humility, according to Basil, godly self-control would be impossible. The sort of self-control described by Basil is that which is related to a “weaning from passions” and “a mortifying of the body”; as such, it is the “beginning of a spiritual life.”54
Stephen Hildebrand notes, “Self-control frees the soul to rise to God be loosening its moorings in this world and its attachment to the goods of this world.”55 Certainly self-control is a guiding principle, especially in Basil’s ascetic theology, but based on a reading of Homily 20, such self-control is impossible without first recognizing one’s weaknesses and humbly submitting to the gentle yoke of Christ. If self-control is the “beginning of a spiritual life” then it is humility that transforms one’s priorities, helping them know where to begin. To this end, the importance of memory is crucial for the purpose of self-control. When pride begins to swell, one must “recall the past to mind, in order to “put an end to any stupid self-inflation.”56 In witnessing another’s sin, one should resist the urge to judge and rather must “[reflect] upon all the things he has done or continues to do rightly.”57 Memory for Basil was the necessary means of self-control. Though self-control plays a vital role in the Christian life, in the end, self-control cannot be properly practiced apart from humility. Self-control, divorced from the Christian virtue of humility, will become a source of pride like all human endeavors.
4.2. Imitation of Virtue
When it comes to performing virtue, humility is the door to the stage. Once inside, imitation of those who have come before becomes the way in which one properly practices virtue. The act of imitation relates to humility as it recognizes that practicing virtues requires submitting to virtuous examples. Basil implored imitation of superiors and biblical individuals. His main exhortation for imitation, however, is focused on the person and work of Jesus Christ. While never alluding to Paul’s Christological hymn in Philippians 2, Basil nevertheless promoted Christ as the supreme model of humility worthy of imitation. Basil asserted, “[We] find that everything the Lord did is a lesson in humility.”58 It is the Lord who “descended from heaven into extreme humility and in turn was raised up from humility to an appropriate exaltation.”59 Basil affirmed Christ as the prototype of humility, the supreme example to be imitated which would yield similar benefits. Imitating Christ’s humility informed all other actions. Particularly for Basil, Christian charity flowed from humility.60 Therefore, Christ shared his glory with those who glorified him through their actions of love. From here Basil mentioned the apostles and “divine lessons passed down by our fathers,” subsequently worthy of imitation as they imitated Christ.61 Basil exhorted his audience, “[Let] us imitate them, so that out of our humility there may arise for us everlasting glory, the perfect and true gift of Christ.”62
One can choose to imitate either virtuous examples and thus grow in virtue, or one can choose to imitate the immoral acts of the devil. Those who do are bound to experience the same results. Pharaoh sought to subdue Israel, but was defeated by an infant “raised in the royal household” who shattered his power and “led Israel out to safety.”63 Likewise, Abimelech sought to secure power through death and manipulation, yet was ultimately “was destroyed by the hand of a woman and the throwing of a millstone.”64 Similarly, the Jews “devised a deadly plot against the Lord” with the intention of securing control and authority, yet in the end were “cast out of their place … [and] made stranger to the laws and worship of God.”65 Through this string of Scriptural examples, Basil demonstrated how biblical redemptive history reveals a repeating pattern of impious imitation, with Satan as the prototype. Basil related this recapitulation of Satan’s impiety to the illusion of human wisdom, which “is a meagre and lowly thing and not a great and pre-eminent good.”66 Basil echoed what Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 3:19, that “the wisdom of this world if folly with God.” Only humble imitation of Christ and his saints leads to greatness.
4.3. Happiness and Excellence of Character
Basil’s understanding of happiness and excellence of character was rooted in his understanding of glory. Man’s glory, hence his true happiness and character excellence, was lost through his fall from God’s glory due to pride. Where man once was able to attain the “good which it was in his power to possess,” man now lives under a presumed and “fictitious dignity.”67 Restoration of this glory comes only by means of humility. Basil stated, “The surest salvation for him, the remedy of his ills, and the means of restoration to his original state is in practicing humility and not pretending that he may lay claim to any glory through his own efforts but seeking it from God.”68 Though man currently holds on to a spurious idea of glory, those who are sensible and have submitted to God through humility are able to obtain true glory and significance. Though worldly wisdom contends for self-made glory, only the humble who seek after God will receive glory. For Basil, it is glory from the Lord which leads to happiness and this pursuit of glory by means of humility “every exaltation of pride [is] laid low.”69
Happiness then comes through prostration, not exaltation. This is the model of Christ who “allowed the temporal authorities to exercise the power given them…. Thus he experienced every stage of human existence from birth to death. And after such great humility, only then did he manifest his glory, giving a share of his glory to those who had glorified him.”70 This share of glory is the glory lost in the fall of man. The glory of God is restored to those who follow Christ by means of humility. “Everlasting glory” arises from our humility. Only then will excellence of character follow. Rather than the exaltation of oneself due to false wisdom, self-righteousness, wealth and power, Basil maintained that excellence comes when one acknowledges the glory of God alone. Basil asserted, “This is what truly exalts a person; this is what truly confers glory and majesty: to know in truth what is great and to cling to it, and to seek the glory which comes from the Lord of Glory.”71 Arrogance does not equate excellence, rather, it is “mortifying yourself in all things and seeking the life to come in Christ.”72 In describing happiness and excellence of character—that is the traditional outcomes of a virtuous life—Basil took the conventional conception of virtue and subverted it by means of the life of Christ carried out through humility. His final exhortation provided a concluding imperative:
[Strive] after humility in such a way that you come to love it. Love it and it will glorify you. In this way you will travel the good road leading to glory—that true glory which is found among the angels and with God. Christ will acknowledge you as his own disciple in the presence of his angels, and he will glory you if you imitate his humility.73
5. Practical Implications from Basil on Humility
Basil continually asserted the centrality of humility in the Christian life. Contrary to philosophical notions of glory and pride, humility is the pathway to true glory as one beholds Christ’s work and seeks to imitate it in their own life. The implications of practicing humility are myriad for Christians, but based on this short study of Basil’s Homily 20 and the virtue of humility, I propose three practical implications for modern-day readers.
First, Basil can remind modern Christians about the value of virtue and holy living yet placed in proper perspective. Indeed, modern voices have recognized the loss of speaking of the Christian life in terms of virtue.74 Virtue is not a self-driven effort based on innate ability, as both ancient and modern philosophers would contend, rather it is the effect of one’s life subordinated the will of God in imitation of Christ. Pursuing holiness is a vital facet of the Christian life, and according to Basil, it leads to happiness in the light of Christ and his work on our behalf. Thus, pursuing virtue is not contrary to the Christian life, it is the essence of Christian living. Humility is the axis on which Christian virtue turns.
Second, humility is the proper response to receiving the gift of salvation. For Basil, as Haykin observes, “Foundational to humility … is the recognition by men and women that they are entirely destitute of all true righteousness and holiness.”75 Thus for Basil, converting to Christ leads to humility and informs one’s entire Christian life. The turn away from self to gazing upon God and his work of salvation on our behalf is what truly brings glory to one’s life. Our glory is only found in recognizing the glory of God, intimately displayed in the humility of Christ. Hence, Basil could not conceive of a Christian who understood their salvation and did not respond in humility. For the sake of preaching, teaching, and discipleship, humility should be commended as the proper reply to God’s grace in salvation.
Third, the practice of humility serves as an apologetic to the unbeliever. While humility for humility’s sake will likely never win converts, humility with a focus on Christ has the power to demonstrate another way of life that brings meaning to our life and speaks to the disparity present in our soul. Happiness is the goal of every human, yet only in Christ through humility is it achieved and properly understood. The idea of the good life, though plastered on billboards and extoled in the latest pop song, is only found in a life of humility pursued in light of Christ’s work and example. A humble life which has as its focus the humble life of Christ will be distinctive in a world lost in a culture of self-focused glory-seeking.
In his Homily 20, Basil contends for the centrality of humility in order to obtain the good life. This good life is a return to the glory that man once had with God at the beginning of creation. The sin of pride, man’s chief reason for his fall from glory, continues to impair his practice of virtue. Man’s wisdom is illusory and his ability to perform virtue is likewise illusory. Only humility can return man to the state of glory he once possessed. Christ has provided the entryway back to glory, and only by imitating his humility may one enter back into glory. As such, subsequent virtues can only rightly be practiced through confessing one’s weakness and practicing humility. Humility produces excellence of character and true happiness by allowing one to properly apply other virtues free from corrupt human pretension. This spoke to Basil’s audience in his day and continues to speak to us in the modern world. The uniquely Christian virtue of humility is necessary for the restoration of man’s dignity. Apart from this, any supposed virtuous striving remains deficient. This chief virtue is the only one capable of allowing man to properly strive for glory with God.