gregory-and-basilI.Introduction: Classical and Christian Friendship

One thing we should expect to find unchanged when we look at the new world that emerges during the Christianization of the Greco-Roman Empire is the fact that people continue to form friendships and, as friendship often leads to, continue to consider and reflect on the nature of friendship as such. Nevertheless, there is some justification in expecting that Christianity’s rise might have effected some kind of change on the institution of friendship as indeed it did in many other institutions borrowed from the Classical world. One might indeed expect that such a change on having and thinking of friends might have taken two possible and, seemingly antithetical, directions: either toward a diminution of friendship’s importance, especially when compared to other evangelical virtues—most notably, of course, love—insofar as friendship establishes particular attachments, or rather attachments that are limited to particular, i.e., few individuals, whereas Christianity had proclaimed and demanded the universality of such affections—or, toward the intensification of friendship’s meaning as to become commensurate with that Christian universality. In other words, the benefits and duties of friendship are not any more limited only to my friends (as it might have been for antiquity) but are also extended to everyone, to every fellow Christian, insofar as every Christian is a member of the newly emerged community, and, to the extent that the Gospel is addressed to “all nations,” to every man and woman.

It is the balance between, or rather the mutual upholding of, these two antithetical ways that constitutes the paradox of Christian friendship. From the historiographical point of view Christian authors maintained both. Some saw in the bonds of friendship the danger of exclusion of and from the broader Christian community—in essence, nothing less than a camouflaged, yet amplified selfishness; while others exalted philia to all humanity, as philanthropia, a term that occurs in Christian literature with a frequency unparalleled to that of its classical employment.

Furthermore, one could introduce a (pseudo-, by all appearances) historical distinction between classical antiquity and Christianity—a distinction drawn on the basis of the assumption that the former was oriented towards philia and eros, while the latter placed itself under the constellation of agape of which the classical world knew little or nothing. 1 And yet, the Gospel seems to imply a different hierarchy, where friendship (philia) ranks even higher than agape.

In the famous exchange between Jesus and Peter in John 21:15-17, Jesus asks Peter whether he loves Him (agapan) to which Peter replies affirmatively by employing the, more emphatic we presume, verb philein. For it would make, indeed, little sense to imagine, with the view that wants philein to represent a declaration of love less strong than agapan, that Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him, to which Peter replies that he “likes” Him. Pavel Florensky reads this exchange and particularly the employment of the verb “agapan” as a way for indicating to Peter that He is prepared to be loved even as an enemy is loved (see Luke 6: 31-36). Peter’s reply with “philein” indicates, on the other hand, that he loves the Teacher in the way of philia, that is, the way that one can love only a friend and never an enemy. “By the twice-uttered question, the resurrected Christ indicates to Peter that he violated friendly love—philia—for the Lord and that henceforth once can demand of him only universal human love, only that love which every disciple of Christ necessarily offers to every person, even to his enemy.”2 We need to remind the reader that the command to love one’s enemy in the Gospel is always rendered with the verb agapan.

Taking our inspiration from this exchange between Jesus and Peter, we will attempt a presentation of the friendship between two of the most illustrious ecclesiastical authors who have had, without any doubt, a long and lasting influence on Christian letters: St Basil the Great, archbishop of Cappadocia’s Caesarea, and St Gregory the Theologian 3 . To tell of their friendship is to tell a story similar with that from the concluding chapter of St John’s Gospel—that is, a story structured around three betrayals and an equal number of reconciliations. We have arranged the remaining of our essay in three sections, each corresponding to a restoration of friendship from agapan to philein in their relationship. But first, some general remarks on the particularities of Christian friendship are in order.

In the friendship between Basil and Gregory we will find still something of the old world, namely, a friendship that at times takes the form of hetaireia or xenia, that is, as the societal institution that connects individuals of equal status for the purpose of their mutual advancement. 4

As such, friendship is “historically and logically”5 prior to politics (and the “politics of friendship” as Jacques Derrida would say6 ) and oftentimes acted as a force of subversion to the established political order. Its pre-political nature makes friendship more suitable for, or more understandable within a Christian context, since the Church, and the bonds of communion amongst its members, ought to stand in a similar odd position vis-à-vis the political—“for our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). At the same time, we see in their friendship something new emerging, something that is particularly Christian, or rather, some characteristics that belong particularly to their identity as Christians. Let us outline here the main features of such Christian friendship.

Firstly, in terms of ethics: Christian friendship appears to be a-causal, that is, free from an economy of ends as it is so often found in classical treatments of the topic 7 . To put it differently, it is not the “object” that defines the nature of the love, but rather the nature of the love itself that defines what or who the recipient of that love is. 8 Friendship, thus, does not serve any more the ends of personal eudemonism (such as it was), nor is it subordinated to rationality in accordance with which one had to select his or her friends, and for the sake of which friendship, especially what counts as its higher form in Aristotle’s treatment, was to be maintained—in the words of an expert, “friendship is the source of considerable cognitive benefits which could not otherwise be secured.”9 Selection as such, the possibility of selection, what was largely the defining characteristic of classical friendship, does not play that crucial role any more, insofar as a friend is not so much chosen, inscribed, as it were, within an economy of calculation, but rather given.

Secondly, and this a matter that cannot be put easily in a schematic way, in terms of ontology: the Trinitarian model which affirms the consubstantiality of the divine Persons while respecting and preserving at the same time their distinct personal characteristics, that is, the ability of Christian thought to uphold sameness and otherness, challenges most decisively the ontology on which classical friendship rests where the starting point of friendship in oikeiotes (as in Lysis) seeks its perfection in narcissistic homoiosis (the friend as another self, alter ego, mirror image, double). 10

Thirdly, in terms of epistemology: Christian friendship differentiates itself from classical friendship with respect to the question to which antiquity insists, the question of preference between loving or being loved—reminding the reader that the Greek for the verb “to befriend,” philein, can also mean “to love,” and friendship is a form of love. For classical treatments of friendship, such as Aristotle’s, the question “to love or to be loved” is decided in terms of Greek metaphysics, that is, in terms of act over potency, form over matter, knowledge over ignorance. 11

Friendship is based on knowledge, most fundamentally on knowing that one loves the beloved (which cannot be said about the recipient of love, who might be loved without his or her knowledge). Thus, to love is preferred over being loved, the lover over the beloved, for the lover knows. So, then, with Greek metaphysics and the priority of knowledge. Love in Christianity, however, is rather blind. Blind with respect to the beloved, whom she is commanded to love regardless of their qualities or their virtues (the sinner as much as the saint), and regardless of whether that love is reciprocated (the enemy as much as the friend), but also blind with respect to her own doing, not knowing what she is doing or whether she is doing anything at all (cf., Mt. 6:3). Even the possibility of loving rests upon the condition of having being loved before, before knowing it, even before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4)—who could have known it then?—and having being loved first, “for God loved us first” (1 John 4:19), before one could had known it or known how to love back. If we now know love—know how to love—this is because we were loved with a love prior to any knowledge or act: “in this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us” (1 John 4:10).

However, the difference between the two worlds that emerges most noticeably in the material presented here is the fact that neither Gregory, who dedicates a considerable part of his work to his relationship with his friends and in particular his best friend, namely Basil, nor Basil, who avoids writing about the subject, in line, we presume with his more reserved character, are interested in constructing a theory of friendship. Abstract discussion of friendship is thoroughly lacking from their work. What one finds instead is a preoccupation with the concrete and the specific cases of particular friends, of particular affections and of particular episodes that seemed to betray those friendly affections. In short, they are interested in their friends and not in friendship in general. Given, then, that their orientation is historical—for they presented us with the history of their friendship—we should not be surprised that they adopt their medium accordingly, that is, they employ narrative over analysis, and in particular autobiographical (we could say “confessional” with a nod to St Augustine) narratives. Indeed, the documents most pertinent to our discussion are precisely Gregory’s so-called autobiographical poems, his funeral oration to Basil, and their letters.

It is far from accidental then, that when St Augustine wished to speak about the same topic, even though he was much more systematic an author than both of the Cappadocians, he chose precisely the same method, that of narrative, as well as the same orientation, that of giving preference to particular friends—although in one famous case he prudently withholds the friend’s name—over some decarnalized notion of friendship. 12 On the other hand, it should be of interest, and some perplexity, to observe that, for all his detailed analysis of friendship, Aristotle never felt the need to enter the autobiographical mode, that is, he never felt the need to speak about his friends, or, as we would say, to speak from experience.

There is, we suspect, a good reason for this change of emphasis between, on the one hand, the philosopher’s approach and, on the other, that of the Christian thinker. The incarnation of the eternal Logos in Jesus of Nazareth had called unparalleled attention to the historical (see, for example, with what detail are the circumstances of Jesus’ birth specified in the Gospel of Luke) as well as to the particular. The result was a slow but irrevocable reversal of the old priority of theory’s universality over history’s particularity.13 Thus, when St Augustine wishes to speak in his Confessions of God’s dramatic intervention in human affairs, could do so only by recounting the “minute particulars”, to recall Blake’s phrase, of his personal life. The lesson of those Confessions, demonstrated in so many ways, is the newly felt conviction that for God the history of the one individual is as worthy and important as the History of the whole human race.

I could think of only one example from the pre-Christian philosophical literature where importance is placed with similar emphasis on the autobiographical and the confessional and that is Alcibiades’ speech from Plato’s Symposium. When asked to speak about love, Alcibiades did not provide an oration on eros or, even less, he didn’t turn his eye on the lofty yet fleshless concept of love or the beautiful, but rather he spoke of a particular and personal relationship for a particular person, Socrates, this Socrates; as his interruption of the philosophical discussion on the good, to agathon, was marked by his demand to see, not the form but the person, Agathon himself. 14

We will return at Plato’s Symposium at the very end of our essay, when the question of a literary parallel between Plato’s dialogue and Gregory’s last letter to Basil will give us the opportunity to draw some concluding remarks. For now, however, we would like to retain the Symposium’s tone, that is, we would like to speak of friendship not in a series of abstractions, speculatively as it were, but rather phronetically, by following the very narrative that brought Gregory and Basil together, by recounting the episodes, no matter how episodic might seem to us, of their friendship.

II. Friendship’s First Betrayal 

Away from home and free from the cares that would come to burden them later in life, two young men might rejoice in the paradisiac life that is a student’s. By studying together and, even more eagerly, by studying each other through their common endeavors, they come to learn about themselves. It is therefore precisely on these terms, namely as a return in such classical Paradise, a return to Arcadia, that we read about the relationship between Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. And it is the same Arcadian experience that Gregory would recall with a reasonable nostalgia in his late autobiographical poems 15 and on the funeral oration for his friend, Basil 16 . It was Athens that brought them together, and their years of study alongside each other forged a friendship that not only lasted for their lifetime, but also became one of the most celebrated examples of Christian friendship for generations to come. 17 We, thus, meet them as they meet each other: in Athens, the Oxford of their times.

The year is 348. Gregory is 19 years old. He arrives in Athens after a long, stormy journey by sea from Alexandria—an experience that, when he recalls it later in life, allows him to cast himself as both at once, Ulysses and St Paul. 18 Is, then, Athens his Ithaca? Not without Basil, who arrives shortly afterwards. Gregory in his Funeral Oration for Basil 19 indicates that

he knew him, or at least knew of him, before Athens. 20 It was in fact such knowledge that helped them become friends, for Gregory had arranged that the Cappadocian newcomer be exempted from paying his due as a freshman in Athens by being subjected to a raucous rite of initiation.

That was the “spark,” as Gregory puts it, of their friendship. But there was another event which set that first spark ablaze. 21 A group of Armenian 22 students had challenged Basil to a public debate. The challenge might have been provoked by the fact that he had escaped the initiation harassment on account of the rumors of his intelligence which, such was the presumption, would have been offended by an exhibition of sophomoric puerility (but wasn’t that the point?). So they wished to check for themselves whether Basil was worth the special treatment that he had received. Gregory recounts how at the beginning he took their side, blinded by their pretentions of friendship, and hoping, perhaps, to see Basil triumph over their arguments. Soon, however, he came to realize that this agon was nothing else but a set up that would have subjected Basil to a different form of harassment, possibly more humiliating than the former one. He, therefore, turned against them, exposed their plans, and, in doing so, he won the victory for Basil. 23

Here is then the story of a friendship initiated by a missed initiation; of a friend showing his fidelity by betraying his friends. Was Gregory a little overprotective of a friend whom had not friended him yet—albeit in anticipation—a friend who, by all accounts, did not need Gregory’s protection? He rescued him, he tells us, from the humiliation of the initiation. Why?

On account of the seriousness of Basil’s character (τοῦ ἤθους στάσιμον). But it is a man with precisely such character who has nothing to be afraid of and who can better endure the silliness of the ritual. He averted the Armenians’ plan to engage Basil in some debate. And where was the risk in that? If Basil was the prodigy that Gregory describes him to be (in Orat. 43, XXIII- XXIV), why wasn’t Gregory confident in his friend’s abilities?

The two episodes that Gregory chose several years later, anxious to remind his audience of his friendship with the late Archbishop of Caesarea, especially as the fidelity of this friendship had been brought under question in the last years, reveal a great deal more about that friendship and about Gregory himself than he might have been ready to admit. One suspects that they must have been stables in a stock of such stories idealizing their common life in Athens. He repeats then here as he must have done at several other occasions before. 24 It is the third episode, however, in these series of memories that sheds some light on the proceeding ones.

He moreover, according to that human feeling, which makes us, when we have all at once attained to the high hopes which we have cherished, look upon their results as inferior to our expectation, he, I say, was displeased and annoyed, and could take no delight in his arrival. He was seeking for what he had expected, and called Athens an empty happiness. I however tried to remove his annoyance, both by argumentative encounter, and by the enchantments of reasoning; alleging, as is true, that the disposition of a man cannot at once be detected, without a long time and more constant association, and that culture likewise is not made known to those who make trial of her, after a few efforts and in a short time. In this way I restored his cheerfulness, and by this mutual experience, he was the more closely united to me. 25

Basil’s disillusionment with Athens was a potentially threatening situation for Gregory’s dreams. It could have forced upon him the dilemma of choosing between either Basil or Athens. Yet, Gregory wanted Basil with Athens and Athens with Basil. Either alone wouldn’t do. Indeed, when Basil departed from Athens (and in the way he did), Athens meant nothing any more. As Gregory’s modern biographer aptly puts it “Gregory continued to live in Athens, but the lights had gone out in Arcadia.”26 Under this extinguished light, one could now read Gregory’s actions in the first two narrated episodes with greater clarity. It wasn’t that Basil needed Gregory’s protection during his first days of his student life in Athens. Rather Gregory’s motives seem to aim at securing for himself, through such a series of calculated moves, the possibility of this friendship, and for that he needed both the friend and the city for which he had professed his friendship (“φιλαθήναιος” in Orat. 43, XVII: 23). Had Basil found the initiation rite a little too distasteful or the Armenian challenge a little too disrespectful, he might have changed his plans and decided to leave Athens. Such an early departure, though, would have robbed Gregory of the bliss he describes in his oration, a bliss whose mere memory invokes some of the most daring language in his corpus. 27

Of course, his plan was inevitably doomed. His happiness could not have been anything else but short-lived. One cannot perpetuate the Arcadian sojourn indefinitely. So Basil left Athens and soon afterwards—since he could not bear to “be seen any more in that miserable state or being in the position to explain to everyone the reasons of their separation”28—Gregory followed. The separation was a painful one:

A thing incredible, before it happened. For it was like cutting one body into two, to the destruction of either part, or the severance of two bullocks who have shared the same manger and the same yoke, amid pitiable bellowings after one another in protest against the separation. 29

There are no pretentions here on Gregory’s part for hiding the real sting of his pain. Basil had led him to believe that he would not leave Athens without him. How could he? Were they not one soul living in two bodies? 30 Thus when he did leave, abandoning both friend and friendship, Gregory rightly felt betrayed. 31 It was only the first blow that his friendship with Basil would earn for him. Gregory’s pain in finding that Basil had betrayed him, apart from the betrayal itself, was caused by a degree of blindness by the mirage of himself reflected on the expectations of Basil’s actions. Under the wishful language of “one soul/two bodies,” Gregory had seen for too long too much of himself on his friend. Basil’s departure from Athens—a real possibility that indeed became a reality—seemed to have remained for him entirely imaginary, thanks to the trust placed on the image for an undivided self existing between them. That image had become apparently a regulatory concept for understanding their friendship, but it was, at the same time, a remnant of the classical homoiotes (likeness), for which a friend with a different opinion, following a different course of action, is hard to justify. It is very much the same condition that would cause a great deal of pain and would elicit some very similar reactions from St Augustine upon hearing about his friend’s death.32 One could say that by leaving Athens with such a bruised self, Gregory also left behind him an narcissistic conception of friendship, more Greek than Christian.

After their Athenian sojourn was over, they never managed to recapture the carefree happiness that was their experience during the time of their common studies. Gregory’s decision to join Basil in his monastic seclusion in Pontus (Annesoi, 359-360) must be read as a brief and unsuccessful attempt to return to their former Arcadia. Basil’s new life, however, was not fit for Gregory who had a rather different understanding of what it meant to live as a Christian the philosophic life.

III. Friendship and the Philosophic Life 

The first letters 33 exchanged between the two friends record for us the beginnings of a disagreement concerning the proper way of living that which usually goes by the name of philosophia. When Gregory says, in remembering those early days in Athens, that philosophy became their study, 34 he means only loosely and incidentally the discipline we call by that name today. As it becomes clear from the rest of the oration, philosophy for him meant something more. He goes on to explain how they embarked upon the study of philosophia more systematically when they both had left Athens and were students no more, 35 (suggesting, perhaps, the time when Basil was touring the monastic communities of Egypt and Palestine); and how Gregory’s care for his parents became a hindrance on his own way to philosophia. 36 With the same aim at pursuing the philosophic life, Basil had established his study 37 in Pontus, following Elijah (the prophet) and John (the Baptist), “the first among the philosophers.”38 In his first letter to Basil, Gregory admits to having betrayed his promise to follow him in what he calls συμφιλοσοφήσειν. The same terminology is used in De Vita Sua (270 and 321). Philosophia, therefore, is clearly not a branch of knowledge, but a way of life—a life lived in introspection, away from the clamor of worldly affairs. The change that Christianity had brought about to the goal and the purpose of the human life effected a similar change not only on the understanding of philia, in the ways we have already seen at length in the beginning of this essay, but also on that of philosophia, insofar as the latter is a form of philia as well. Even though we read that the model for such a philosophical life was already set by the example of Plotinus and the Neo- Platonist ascetics, 39 it was Christian monasticism, which was just at this time reaching its first blooming, that fully embodied all the nuances that the term philosophia conveyed at the Christian mind of that time.

Yet—and here lies the root of Gregory’s disagreement with Basil—monasticism, especially in the form which has been known ever since and for which Basil himself is considered its founder, 40 did not coincide exactly with what Gregory was envisioning as the proper philosophic life. 41 He clearly explains how he had felt toward the simple monasticism of his time when he writes:

But when I actually considered the divine ways

It was hard to decide which path was definitely the better.

Each thing seemed good or bad depending on the arguments,

As is often the case when action needs to be taken.


I admired Elijah the Tishbite

And the great Carmel or the strange food,

The property of the Precursor, the desert,

And the simple way of life of the sons of Jonadab.

Then again a desire for the Holy Scriptures got the upper hand

As did the light of the spirit in the contemplation of the word—

Practices not suited to the desert or a life of calm.

After swinging to and fro between these positions many times,

I at last reconciled my desires in the following way,

And giving each position its due, checked the vacillations of my mind:

I realized that those who enjoy a practical life

Are useful to others who are in the thick of things

But do not benefit themselves; they are distracted by the wicked, too,

Who disrupt their calm disposition. On the other hand,

Those who have withdrawn are in some way more stable

And with a tranquil mind can keep their gaze directed towards God,

But they only benefit themselves, for their love is a narrow one

And strange and harsh is the life they lead.

So I chose a middle path between solitude and involvement,

Adopting the meditative ways of the one, the usefulness of the other. 42

Basil’s ideas of the philosophic life were closer to the monasticism introduced by the heretical Eusthathios of Sebaste, with whom Basil was presently connected with friendship and admiration. Eusthathios’ monasticism was radically ascetical: in addition to other regulations one might expect to find prescribed to monks—such as regular prayer, fasting and continence—it also incorporated hard manual work, a demand that the noble Gregory found intolerable. “The tools of his ascesis were books, enquiring conversation, and reflection in simple solitude.”43 The middle path of the scholar-monk, paved by Gregory in the lines quoted above, became a royal way to be followed by other luminaries of that age, like, most notably, St Augustine, during his retirement at Cassiciacum, and St Paulinus of Nola, as it has been followed by many other sensible men ever since, and continues to be so at the present time. Eustathian monasticism, on the other hand, was condemned as radical by the Synod of Gangra (340), and Eustathian theology was condemned as both Homoiousian and Pneumatomachian at the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople (381), over which Gregory presided briefly.

Like Athens, however, philosophia, and the debate of how one should best live according to it, became an issue that brought the two friends together as much as it kept them apart. In Athens, the philosophical life was what had brought them together and kept them united “as two bodies are by one soul.” Although, the first ominous clouds had already begun to appear on the sky of their friendship, philosophia became in Pontus the promise of re-inventing their friendship on a higher level, by placing it in the service of the Church. In Caesarea, however, after Basil’s election to the see of that city which made him ecclesiastically superior to Gregory who had now to submit to his friend’s authority, philosophia takes on a different role: instead of providing the common ground for the friendship between the two men, it now protected friend from friend and offered a defense where their very friendship had left them unequal and vulnerable. Thus, when Basil complains, as friend and superior, that Gregory has left him alone by refusing to pay him a visit, Gregory is delighted to appeal to his engagement with the philosophic life (φιλοσοφοῦμεν, Ep. 46) as that which keeps him away from his friend and his newly assumed duties on the helm of the local Church. And when Basil writes alarmed by Gregory’s indifference in showing any care for his own episcopal see at Sasima, he boldly retorts that leisure (ἀπραξία)—in his eyes the chief characteristic of the philosophical life—has been the great work and accomplishment of his life (ἐμοὶ δὲ μεγίστη πρᾶξις, Ep. 49).

While Basil, as Archbishop of the Metropolitan See, had a wide range of means at his disposal by which he could bring Gregory to do what he thought was the right course of action (Gregory’s ordination as bishop of Sasima is case in point), Gregory, on the other hand, was left only with one tactic by which to protect himself from Basil’s advances: the epistolary deferral of his expected engagement to Church affairs, an engagement which, at times, took the more explicit form of joining in person the Archbishop of Caesarea, a promise that was never realized. 44 The first and the last of Gregory’s letters addressed to Basil (Ep. 1 and 60) are good examples of this tactic. And so is letter 45 (“I didn’t come immediately, nor will I come, don’t demand that even yourself…. You may ask me ‘when will I come and until when will I retreat?’ Until God commands me…”). To this end, Gregory used two major grounds for denying Basil his presence: his duty to his parents and his duty to his vocation of a life lived according to philosophy. That was a vocation, after all, that they had both chosen as their common goal in life. Thus, in Gregory’s eyes, Basil’s elevation to the Archbishopric was proven to be a double betrayal: a betrayal of his friendship for true wisdom (philo-sophia), since his active engagement with the affairs of the Church could not be reconciled with the quiet life of study, and a betrayal of his friend with whom the philosophical life would have been pursued and, hopefully, realized.

So much for Athens and our common efforts for education…

So much for our pledges to cast the world aside

And live a shared life dedicated to God,

Devoting our skill for words to the Word who alone is wise:

All this has been scattered, dashed to the ground,

And the winds carry off our former hopes.

Where was I to wonder? Wild beasts, will you not welcome me?

For there is more loyalty among you, it seems to me. 45

On the other hand, Gregory too, set one friendship against another by placing his friendship of wisdom over and above his friendship for Basil. So he concludes a letter to Basil (Ep. 46) with these words: “Are you, therefore, taking offense at my devotion to philosophy? Allow me, then, to say that it is this alone which ranks higher even than your words.”

IV. Friendship among the Theologians 

Inevitably, their friendship became entangled with the Church politics of the day. The see of Caesarea became vacant with the death of Eusebios 46 and Basil seemed to have immediately moved in positing himself as the successor. As a priest of Eusebios, Basil did not always enjoy the favor of his old bishop. As Gregory’s letters 16, 17 and 18 (to Eusebios) and 19 (to Basil) indicate, Basil withdrew to Pontus for a second time a little after his ordination to the priesthood as a result of the growing alienation with Eusebios, hoping thus that reinforcing his image as a monastic would check Eusebios’ episcopal authority—a similar strategy, as we have seen, as that which Gregory employed later against Basil himself. Gregory’s interventions on behalf of his friend succeeded in reconciling the two parties. Basil returned from his monastic retreat in time for the two friends to face the Emperor and his Arian theologians. This they did quite successfully during Valens’ first visit to Cappadocian Caesarea in 365. The feat was repeated once more during Valens’ second visit in 372, only that time Basil sat on the Caesarean Church’s throne. The funeral oration provides us with some unforgettable images of that second encounter between the two defenders of Nicean orthodoxy and their heretical Emperor. Much less is known about the Emperor’s first visit, except that it provided Eusebios with a good motive for leaving hostility toward Basil aside, and convinced Basil to act less stubbornly toward his bishop. When the faith of the local Church emerged victorious, Basil stayed at the side of his bishop, organizing every aspect of the diocese’s life. So when Eusebios died, in September 370, it was rather reasonable that Basil saw himself as his uncontested successor. However, he did not think that his friend Gregory might have shared the same aspirations.

Whether intentionally or not, Basil misled Gregory to believe that he was very ill and breathing his last. Basil’s letter is lost, but we know the reaction it caused thanks to Gregory’s response. Gregory’s vividness of language makes it worth to quote his description of the events:

You pretend to be very ill, indeed at your last breath, and to long to see me and to

bid me a last farewell…. I started in great grief at what had happened; for what

could be of higher value to me than your life, or more distressing than your

departure? And I shed a fountain of tears; and I wailed aloud; and I felt myself

now for the first time unphilosophically disposed. What did I leave unperformed

of all that befits a funeral? But as soon as I found that the Bishops were

assembling at the City, at once I stopped short in my course; and I wondered first

that you had not perceived what was proper, or guarded against people’s tongues,

which are so given to slander the guileless; and secondly, that you did not think

the same course to be fitting for both yourself and myself, even though our life

and our rule and everything is common to us both, who have been so closely

associated by God from the beginning. Thirdly, for I must say this also, I

wondered whether you thought that such nominations are worthy of the more

religious, and not, as it is the case, of the more powerful, and of those most in

favor with the multitude. For these reasons then I backed water, and held back.

Now, if you think as I do, determine to avoid these public turmoils and evil

suspicions. I shall see your Reverence when the matters are settled and time

allows, and I shall have more and graver reproaches to address to you. 47

Since Gregory was not yet a bishop—in which case he would have had a vote in the election of the primate of the local church—Basil’s motives for calling him so urgently, and therefore his motives in employing such a ruse—if indeed it was a ruse—remain unclear. Perhaps he was relying on his friend’s oratorical skill and diplomatic acumen in securing for himself the bishops’ support. If that was the case, Gregory’s earlier negotiations between Eusebios and Basil could provide the latter with a precedent for whose repetition he could reasonably hope.

Indeed, the next four letters in Gregory’s epistolary corpus are letters written by him on behalf of his father, Gregory the elder, bishop of Nazianzus, in support of Basil’s candidacy for the Metropolitan see of Caesarea. Whether Gregory might have desired the position for himself, (or whether his father might have thought that his son would make as good a candidate as Basil) is not clear. Yet these suspicions find some ground in certain expressions, left intentionally ambiguous it seems to me, at the documents before us. So, for example, in a letter after Basil’s enthronement, Gregory justifies his decision to stay away at that hour of his friend’s glory, so as to keep himself “in calmness and free from jealousy (ἀνεπίφθονον).”48 As McGuckin rightly observes, Gregory avoids specifying “whether it is the envy of outsiders…or the bad feelings he still nurtures inside himself. The master orator is never ambivalent in his meanings without reason.”49

Thanks to the support rallied by Nazianzus, Basil was elected the Archbishop of Caesarea. Gregory the elder and his son had done their duty as their association and friendship with Basil demanded. It was now time for Basil to do his. There is no doubt that both Gregories expected Basil to return the favor. So when he finally did, two years later in 372, Gregory felt betrayed by his friend for a second time. For it was nothing like Gregory had imagined. Yes, he was made a bishop, but of a town that would become for him his life-long embarrassment. He would describe the “glorious Sasima,”50 as he calls it with no reservation of irony, as:

A place without water, without vegetation, completely uncivilized,

An utterly dreadful and cramped little settlement.

It is all dust and noise and chariots,

Cries and groans, officials, instruments of torture and shackles,

A population consisting only of visitors and vagrants. 51

For Basil this was a political move. Valens had divided Cappadocia into two administrative districts, Cappadocia Prima with Caesarea, Basil’s see, as its capital, and Cappadocia Secunda, with Tyana, as a capital rivaling Caesarea. 52 In the East, ecclesiastical jurisdictions tend to conform to and reflect changes made in the civic structures of the empire. Basil naturally saw Cappadocia’s restructuring as a threat to his influence over the region and quickly moved to secure that influence by placing friends (like Gregory) and relatives (like his brother, also Gregory) to suffragan dioceses (Sasima and Nyssa respectively). Gregory resisted this ordination too as much as he could, and refused to assume pastoral responsibility over Sasima as its new bishop, causing Basil’s anger. The damage, however, was done. Years later a fraction of the bishops gathered in Constantinople for the Second Ecumenical Council would protest Gregory’s appointment as Archbishop of the empire’s capital on account of his previous appointment at Sasima, forcing him thus to resign. 53 Until then, though, his pain was over a broken friendship:

This was what he appointed me to, he who was surrounded

By fifty suffragan bishops—what magnanimity on his part! 54

Having been betrayed by his best friend, he now became disillusioned with friendship in general. He, therefore, concludes a letter to Basil, written in that same year, with these bitter words: “As for me, I have gained this from your friendship: learning not to trust friends.”55

V.Conclusion: Gregory’s Greatest Achievement

At some point Gregory must have realized that his celebrated oratorical skills put him in charge not only of crowds and congregations but also of something far more important, namely, of history. His works—to which at the end of his life he devotes all his energies in polishing, editing, copying and publishing—are his real legacy which can shape and, if needs be reshape, the way history will be told. Basil is very much a part of that history, and although Gregory was unable to impact any change on what had become of their friendship, he was, nevertheless, successful in transforming his friend. The transformation was not only with regards to Basil’s image, though a great deal of Gregory’s work has to do with that as we will see, but with Basil himself and in particular with his opinions on, at the time, highly controversial issue that defined the theological agenda of the so-called Neo-Nicean party, that is, the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

Throughout most of his life, Basil had been unable to call the Holy Spirit clearly and explicitly “God,” stopping one step short from a fully Trinitarian confession, such as Gregory’s Five Theological Orations would achieve. 56 Yet, around the year 375 Basil would begin composing one of the first treatises on the subject, seeking to demonstrate precisely the equality of the Holy Spirit to God the Father and God the Son. One of the reasons that might have prompted him to embark upon this project was, I believe, Gregory’s cunning solicitation of such a work, evidence of which we can find in Gregory’s letter 58, addressed to Basil a few years earlier.

Letter 58 is an extraordinary document, unique among Gregory’s letters as it narrates and, for those instances when it breaks into direct dialogue, re-enacts a scene that allegedly took place shortly before the composition of the letter. The event was a symposium to which some “distinguished friends” were invited, among them a “philosopher.” There was no drink but rather talk, or talks, not of eros but about philia, in particular the friendship between Basil and Gregory.

I suspect that the letter is composed in a more or less conscious imitation of Plato’s Symposium. 57 If I am correct, then, it becomes exceedingly interesting to read with Gregory what he would have intended his reader to read between the lines of his letter. The “philosopher” mentioned above, who is a monk, assumes Alcibiades position by first interrupting the praise of friendship that was unfolding in the name of Basil and Gregory and, secondly, by turning praise into blame, accusing Basil of impiety and Gregory for tolerating Basil’s error by not speaking up.

“What is this, gentlemen?” he said, with a very mighty shout, “what liars and

flatterers you are. You may praise these men for other reasons if you like, and I

will not contradict you; but I cannot concede to you the most important point,

their orthodoxy. Basil and Gregory are falsely praised; the former, because his

words are a betrayal of the faith, the latter, because his toleration aids the


Gregory engages in an examination of the monk’s accusations—a mock Socratic elenchus—without refuting any of his charges. Instead, he closes the letter by referring the matter to his addressee: “but you, O divine and sacred head, do teach me up to which point one should advance concerning the divinity of the Spirit, and what words should one use, and how much of the economy should one apply…”—there is nothing in the tone of this apostrophe that would justify reading it in any other way than sarcastic: the appellation Homeric; the pretentions of ignorance, Socratic, but also incredulous, since they were coming from a man who was already acknowledged as an expert on the subject. Yet, Gregory delights in his mockery. He opened the letter by assuming for himself not the place of the friend but of the pupil: “I have taken you from the very beginning as my teacher and professor both in life and in faith…” A re-invention of roles that was necessary for the Platonic mise-en-scène to work. Like Plato, in writing his Symposium, manipulates and, one could even say, undermines his teacher, Socrates, so too Gregory forces with his letter his assumed teacher, Basil, into a position that he had very carefully and for very long avoided.

Basil dies in 379. The celebrated Funeral Oration gives Gregory, quite literally, the last word on their friendship. It is in this momentous document that he builds a splendid memorial capable of uniting the two friends forever and of overshadowing whatever residue of imperfection history had left on Basil’s image. Basil’s long association with the heretical Eustathios of Sebaste is banished; Basil’s own initial hesitations on matters of dogma are passed over in silence; and what is more, he is immortalized as the pioneer of the Holy Spirit’s consubstantial divinity. “If Basil had once violently pressed Gregory into his service, Gregory now presses Basil into his.”59 At long last Gregory has the friend he had always dreamt of, since their common days of study in Athens. He is the friend whom he re-discovers only now, over his grave, posthumously. The friend he bequests to eternity: Basil the Great.

If Aristotle, by his cryptic remark that the friend is another self (ὁ ἄλλος αὐτός), 60 meant to say not that in our friend we find another image of ourselves, but rather that we find our true self by means of and through the friendship with our friends, 61 then his remark holds true for the two Cappadocian friends. As a result of their friendship, each of them emerges at the end transformed. However, it is not so much that they have changed by becoming someone else,different from whom they were at the beginning of their friendship; rather, they have changed by staying the same, by becoming who they always were, only now that identity which lay latent in them, and even beneath their thoughts and actions, has become fully actualized and therefore recognizable as such, thanks to the confrontations that took place in the course of their friendship that tested their friendship as well as their character.

by Rev.Dr.Panteleimon Manousakis



Such is indeed the argument that Anders Nygren makes in Agape and Eros. That Christian authors made an unapologetic used of the terms and the concepts of philia and eros does not need to be demonstrated here. That they had no reservations in applying the term eros even to Godhead is attested by the works of Dionysius the Pseudo- Aeropagite and Augustine of Hippo. The latter thinks that even friendship (amicitia) can be used in describing the communion of the Holy Trinity’s Persons. He stops short from doing so in De Trinitate (“So the Holy Spirit is something common to Father and Son, whatever it is, or is their very commonness or communion, consubstantial and coeternal. Call this friendship, if it helps, but a better word for it is charity” VI.7 [translated by Edmund Hill, O.P., New York: New City Press, 1991, p. 209]), but the step is undertaken by Aelred of Rievaulx who writes, paraphrasing 1 John 4:16, “Deus amicitia est” (De Spiritali Amicitia 1. 69-70, as cited by Caroline White, Christian Friendship in the Fourth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 236, n. 21).


Pavel Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, translated by Boris Jakim, Princeton:Princeton University Press, 1997, p. 291.


St Gregory was elected bishop of a small town called Sasima, a see that, as he never fails to remind us, he never assumed. Instead he exercised his episcopal office as archbishop of Constantinople during his brief sojourn (379-381) in the Capital City. He is known, especially in the West, as “Nazianzen” because of Nazianzus, his hometown in Cappadocia, where his father, also a bishop, had his see.


It is this type of friendship that John McGuckin seems to prefer, perhaps not without reason, when attempting to

understand Gregory’s friendship for Basil in his biography of St Gregory (Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Crestwood:

St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001).


“Friendship, Greece,” Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1996.


Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship, translated by George Collins, (London and New York: Verso, 1997). The

first chapter of this work becomes quite relevant when compared to and take into account the details of the

friendship between the two Church Fathers.


See, for example, the “ἔνεκά του καὶ διά τι” of Lysis (218d7).


See, Soren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love (translated by Howard and Edna Hong, Princeton: Princeton University

Press, 1995), where his whole analysis of the command to “love one’s neighbor” is based upon this principle, thus it

is not the neighbor whom should we love as oneself but rather the kind of love that transforms everyone, even one’s

enemy, into the neighbor. Kierkegaard’s insight might have been proven helpful in solving Freud’s difficulties with

the command “thou shalt love thy neighbour”. For those difficulties, see his Civilization and Its Discontents,

translated by James Strachey, (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1961), pp. 65ff.


Suzanne Stern-Gillet, Aristotle’s Philosophy of Friendship (New York: SUNY Press, 1995), p. 50.


For examples of the friend as a mirror image of oneself, see Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, IX, 4, (1166a31), and

Cicero, Laelius de Amicitia, VII.23 (“[v]erum enim amicum qui intuetur, tamquam exemplar aliquod intuetur sui”).

For a more nuanced reading of these passages see Gary Gurtler’s essay “Aristotle on Friendship: Insight form the

Four Causes” in this volume as well as Arthur Madigan’s “EN IX 8: Beyond Egoism and Altruism?” in The Modern

Schoolman (November 1985), pp. 1-20. Even though by “the friend as another self” Aristotle seeks to underline the

intersubjective character of friendship, an element of homoiosis is inescapable even by the most sophisticated

readings: see, for example, Suzanne Stern-Gillet’s conclusion “we can now infer that those whom primary

friendship binds together, “become” each other’s self in the act of apprehending each other’s moral excellence” (in

Aristotle’s Philosophy of Friendship, pp. 53-4, my emphasis).


See, for example, Nicomachean Ethics, 1159a (VIII. 8) and 1168a (IX.7).


On Augustine and friendship, especially the friendship with the anonymous friend of the Confessions IV, 4, see

“Inimica Amicitia: Augustine’s Critique of Amicitia in Confessiones 1-4” in this volume. The same argument is

made in a more complete way by James Wetzel in “The Trappings of Woe and Confession of Grief” in A Reader’s

Companion to Augustine’s Confessions, edited by Kim Paffenroth and Robert P. Kennedy (Louisville and London:

Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), pp. 53-69.


An allusion to Aristotle’s hierarchy in Poetics, 1451b 5-7 (ἡ μὲν γὰρ ποίησις μᾶλλον τὰ καθόλου, ἡ δὲ ἱστορία τὰ

καθ᾿ ἕκαστον λέγει).


For a discussion on Alcibiades’ speech in the Symposium and its importance for the whole dialogue, see Martha

Nussbaum’s reading in chapter 6 of The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 165-199.


Most notably, De Vita Sua, in Gregory of Nazianzus: Autobiographical Poems, edited and translated by

Carolinne White, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. The numbers following the title of the work refer

to the lines of the poem in the Greek original.


Oration 43 in Grégoire de Nazianze: Discours funèbres, edited by F. Boulenger, (Paris, 1908, pp.58-230), as

reprinted in vol. 60 of the Bibliotheke Hellenon Pateron kai Ekklesiastikon Syggrapheon (Athens, 1980). Hereafter

abbreviated as Orat. 43, followed by chapter number in roman numerals and, when necessary, the line number.


If one were to believe Gregory, their friendship was known throughout Greece already during their lifetime so

much so as to eclipse the classical standard of Orestes and Pylades. See, Orat. 43, XXII: 4-5, and De Vita Sua, 228.


De Vita Sua, 101-210.


Orat. 43, XIV: 19-20 (delivered three years after Basil’s funeral, most probably on the memorial of his death in



Orat. 43, XIV: 19-20.


Orat. 43, XVII: 37-8. The term “spark” (σπινθῆρ) is of Stoic provenance (see Ysabel de Andia’s note 6 in her

“L’Amitié de Basile de Césarée et Grégoire de Nazianze”) and denoted the part of the divine that dwelled in humans

(therefore, the highest, in terms of dignity, part of the human mind). The fact that Gregory chooses precisely this

term to speak of the inception of his friendship with Basil suggests that he understands that friendship as

providential. The divine spark continued its travelling through the history of ideas: when we find it again it has been

transformed into the lumen naturale that gives its light to the Enlightenment.


What Gregory says at this point about Armenians in general (“I find the Armenians to be not a simple race, but

very crafty and cunning” Orat. 43, XVII: 14-5, translation by Charles Browne and James Swallow), might be his

way of reminding his audience, consisting mostly of Basil’s friends, of Basil’s devastating friendship with

Eustathios of Sebaste, whose hometown and episcopal see was the metropolis of Armenia. For Basil’s friendship

with Eustathios see below.


Orat. 43, XVII: 32.


See for example the evidence of Letter 58 (to Basil) where Gregory recounts how stories about their “friendship

and [their] Athens and the common agreement and unanimity in everything” were narrated in a “symposium,” as he

calls it, of monks gathered around him. We will return to this letter below. For bibliographical information on

Gregory’s and Basil’s letter see the notes below.


Orat. 43, XVIII: 1-11, translated by Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, in Nicene and Post-

Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 7; edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature

Publishing Co., 1894).


John McGuckin, op. cit., p. 80.


“And when, as time went on, we acknowledged our mutual affection, and that philosophy was our aim, we were

all in all to one another, housemates, messmates, intimates, with one object in life, or an affection for each other ever

growing warmer and stronger. Love for bodily attractions, since its objects are fleeting, is as fleeting as the flowers

of spring. For the flame cannot survive, when the fuel is exhausted, and departs along with that which kindles it, nor

does desire abide, when its incentive wastes away. But love which is godly and under restraint, since its object is

 stable, not only is more lasting, but, the fuller its vision of beauty grows, the more closely does it bind to itself and to

one another the hearts of those whose love has one and the same object. This is the law of our superhuman love.”

Orat. 43, XIX: 12-23, (translated by Charles Browne and James Swallow, op. cit.).


Orat. 43, XXIV: 30-1.


Orat. 43, XXIV: 26-29, (translated by Charles Browne and James Swallow, op. cit.).


“One soul living in two bodies”: Orat. 43, XX: 40; “one soul uniting two separate bodies”: De Vita Sua, 229-230.


Orat. 43, XXIV: 25.


Confessions, IV, 4-7.


For Gregory’s letters I use Paul Gallay’s edition Gregor von Nazianz, Briefe (Berlin, 1969) as reprinted in volume

60 of the Bibliotheke Hellenon Pateron kai Ekklesiastikon Syggrapheon (Athens, 1980). For Basil’s letters I used the

two volume bilingual edition of Les Belles Lettres, edited by Yves Courtonne (Saint Basile, Lettres, Paris, volume I:

1957; volume II: 1961). In both cases, the letter is denoted by the abbreviation “Ep,” followed by the number of the

letter cited.


“φιλοσοφίαν εἶναι τὸ σπουδαζόμενον” Orat. 43, XIX: 13.


“ἀνδρικώτερον τῇ φιλοσοφίᾳ προσβαίνοντες” Orat. 43, XV: 38-9.


“τὸ πρὸς τὴν φιλοσοφίαν οὐκ εὔοδον ” Orat. 43, XXV: 4.


This settlement must have been closer to what is known in the West as an oratory than a monastery proper.

Gregory likes to use the term φροντιστήριον (Orat. 43, XXIX: 40; Ep. 4), rather playfully, as this term was coined

by Aristophanes in order to describe Socrates’ “thinkery” (Clouds, 94).


“τῶν πάνυ φιλοσόφων” Orat. 43, XXIX:42.


Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, translated by Michael

Chase (Blackwell, 1995).


In the absence of monastic orders in the Eastern Church, the West has considered all Eastern monks and nuns

“Basilians.” This is on account of Basil’s two sets of Rules (regula fusius et brevius tractate, PG 31) which have

largely defined the monastic life in the East.


“…it is clear that the two men [i.e., Basil and Gregory] had different understandings of spirituality and

monasticism alike.” McGuckin, Saint Gregory, p. 97.


De Vita Sua, 284-6 and 292-311, (translation by Carolinne White, op. cit., pp. 32-33).


McGucking, Saint Gregory, p. 97.


Basil, naturally, notices that Gregory has been avoiding him and cites that distance as the cause of all

misunderstandings between them (Ep. 71: “τούτων δὲ αἴτιον ἐκεῖνο, ὃ πάλαι μὲν παρεκάλουν μὴ γίνεσθαι, νῦν δὲ

ἀπαγορεύσας σιωπῶ, τὸ μὴ συντυγχάνειν ἡμᾶς ἀλλήλοις”).


De Vita Sua, 476 and 480-5, (translated by Carolinne White, op. cit., pp. 45-7, translation modified).


Not to be confused with the renowned Church historian of the same name whose episcopal see, also Caesarea, was

located in Palestine (Caesarea Maritima).


Ep. 40, translated by Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,

Second Series, vol. 7; edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co.,

1894.) The translation has been modified.


Ep. 45.


Saint Gregory, p. 177, n. 26. McGuckin finds another such instance in the encyclical letter Gregory wrote on

behalf of his father to the synod of bishops (Ep. 41). He writes: “[t]he elder Gregory’s scribe, the ghostwriter son,

now touched ever so lightly on the fact that there were indeed others who were worthy of the post, though Basil was

their chosen candidate. With what exquisite acid he etched his testimonial for his friend, acknowledging that he was

the ‘best of those who were willing to stand’” (p. 175).


Ep. 48: 31.


De Vita Sua, 441-5, (translation by Carolinne White, op. cit., p. 43).


Orat. 43, LVIII: 29-38.


De Vita Sua, 1797-1918.


De Vita Sua, 447-8, (translation by Carolinne White, op. cit., p. 43).



Ep. 48.

“Unlike Basil, who did not in fact say the word, Gregory Nazianzen explicitly stated that the Spirit is God.” Yves

Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, translated by David Smith (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company,

2005), vol. III, p. 33. Italics in the original.


Such Christian appropriation by imitation of Plato’s work was not entirely new at this time: another Church

Father, Methodios of Olympus, had written a dialogue called Symposium after the Platonic one.


Ep. 58, translation by Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow.


McGuckin, Saint Gregory, p. 374.


Nichomachean Ethics, IX, 4 (1166a31).


See the discussion of this well-known and often misunderstood maxim by Suzanne Stern-Gillet, Aristotle’s

Philosophy of Friendship, p. 51 and ff., as well as Arthur Madigan’s “EN IX 8: Beyond Egoism and Altruism?” in

The Modern Schoolman (November 1985), pp. 1-20.

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