The book is a collection of homilies St Basil wrote during the famine that hit Cappadocia. The book exhibits his sheer rhetorical power. One almost wept with pity in his homily on those who lend at interest. One problem, though: The book is titled “On Social Justice,” which connotes blue-haired Antifa warriors on Tumblr. And the editor never really defines justice except pointing to a term St Basil used a lot: epanison. Normally translated “distribution,” it actually means “restore the balance.” I suppose that’s as good a definition as any.
To the Rich
What is the use of wealth? “When wealth is scattered as the Lord intends, it naturally returns; but when it is gathered, it naturally dispurses” (Basil 44).
I will tear down my barns
Main idea: sow righteousness (63). “Do not make common need a means of private gain.” “If you want storehouses, you have them in the stomachs of the poor” (68). “You are guilty of injustice to as many as you could have aided but did not” (70).
In Time of Famine and Drought
Main idea: Our needs are not provided for (per the drought) because we do not share with others (76).
Lessons for today
One of the difficulties in applying this is the contrast between Basil’s time and ours. The editor glowingly says “These could have been written yesterday.” Well, only superficially. Here is why I think that. There was no middle class during Basil’s time. The agrarian world was the norm and if there were drought and famine, it was a crisis. Things have changed somewhat to mitigate those disasters.
Secondly, his powerful prose targets the rich–those who l live like the Kardashians. It doesn’t target the plumber today who is struggling to pay his bills. Yes, he is absolutely right that those who squander their wealth on crap deserve scorn and we shouldn’t live beyond what is necessary. Ah, but 1600 years later how does one determine what is necessary? I think there are answers, to be sure, but they are far more difficult.
But fear not: this is a process. This is where the hard questions of ethics begin, not end. For starters, just don’t spend money like a thot and you will be okay. Basil always gives brilliant psychological insights on the tentacles of wealth. Sanctification is a process.
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