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  • Writer's pictureChris Vlahonasios

St. Basil the Great and 21st century media

At the recent Melbourne Youth Conference, I presented a paper on social media inspired by St. Basil the Great’s ‘Address to Youth’. It’s clear to see why he’s regarded as one of the most important saints of our Church and a patron for Christian education. Written over 1,600 years ago, this relatively short letter is nothing less than a comprehensive guide for everyone, not just youth, on how non-Christian creativity can assist a person’s salvation. Though volumes could be written, my goal is only to provide a concise summary of St. Basil’s teachings on obtaining spiritual and intellectual benefits from modern-day culture and art.

The official title, ‘Address to Youth: on how they might benefit from classical Greek literature’, is by no means limited to just ancient Greek culture or the written word. St. Basil wrote his letter mid-300 A.D, a time when ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights, such as Plato and Homer, were very much ‘mainstream culture’ for the known world, equivalent of Hollywood’s global prevalence in the first-half of the 20th-century. Communication technologies, such as film and internet, had not been invented and modern artistic expressions, such as Japanese Manga or Reggae music, were not part of the cultural landscape in 4th-century Mediterranean society. Today, St. Basil’s instructions extend to all forms of human expression, like photography and electronic music. This would even include social media given its focus is to communicate information and allow people to creatively express themselves. It’s important to note Greek civilisation viewed art and entertainment not just for enjoyment, but formed part of one’s education. Today, much of our entertainment is either for pleasure or social activism.

It’s well-known the early Church looked to ancient knowledge to help explain the complexity of Christ and salvation. The ancient Greeks were not, as popular culture would like us to think, indulgent hedonists, but were very interested about knowing truth and virtue, as evident in The Odysseus, The Republic and Heracles. St. Basil, like much of the early Church, saw no issue in looking to pre-Christian culture to derive benefit for spiritual and ethical matters. St. Basil wrote, “we must be familiar with poets, with writers, with orators indeed with all who may further our soul’s salvation”[1]. If it was right in the Ancient World according to the Christian worldview, then it would still be right today. However, this does not mean abandoning study of Scripture. St. Basil teaches “[receive] whatever of value… [but] you should also recognise what it is wise to ignore”[2]. In other words, use whatever beneficial lessons you can obtain to equip yourself when facing spiritual struggle, the same way a solider trains for battle or a dyer preps before dyeing cloth.[3] Looper (2012) is a movie about how the choices we make affect not just ourselves, but the well-being of others and how self-sacrifice is the most virtuous act anyone can do, but its use of violence and torture are not of any benefit. In short, non-Christian creativity and Scripture can work together, or, as St. Basil puts it, “any kindship between the two literatures, a knowledge of them should be useful to us in our search for truth.”[4]

As Christians we’re not called to reject this life or the gifts bestowed upon us, but to give weight to spiritual matters. Using the example of a fruit tree, St. Basil beautifully demonstrates how though it bears fruit (virtue and truth of spiritual knowledge) other aspects of the tree, like the leaves (knowledge & art), provide benefit and assistance to the fruit, such as providing shade from the sun and making the tree aesthetically pleasing.[5] In essence, non-Christian art can help our spiritual development. Ed Sheeran’s song, Thinking Out Loud, is a touching tribute to unconditional love, which is not short-lived like popularity or lust. The song’s lyrics, “kiss me under the light of a thousand stars” and “your soul can never grow old, it’s evergreen”, are imagery-rich and beautiful. In its entirety, this secular song reinforces the virtues Christianity values in committed relationships, including long-suffering and faithfulness.

The most memorable and practical advice given by St. Basil on deciding what’s beneficial is to imitate the humble honey bee. The same way we admire a song for its rhyme and lyrics, a bee admires flowers based on their fragrance and colour. But what bees and humans share in common is the ability to derive additional benefit from something beyond its surface value: bees, its nectar to make honey; for humans, spiritual knowledge. As St. Basil explains, a bee does not go to every flower in a field, it uses discernment to pick the right flowers which will benefit it the most. Even when it picks a flower it only takes as much as it needs then flies to another flower. We should do the same with art and entertainment: pick and choose what will be of greatest benefit to help us, both intellectually and spiritually, and just the right amount. Interestingly, St. Paisios later expanded St. Basil’s words to “be the Bee and not the Fly”. This doesn’t change the symbolism of the bee, but instead stresses the importance of not being attracted to the stench and filth of bad influences, like a fly to manure or death. The TV series The Young Pope and The New Pope have some tiny spicks of spiritual richness, along with addictive characters, but the overwhelming conclusion of these shows is anti-Church and anti-Christian. Such minuscule benefit in comparison to the negatives makes them unprofitable viewing.

Though broad learning is encouraged, we need to be careful how much is of actual benefit. St. Basil pointed out the importance of examining each branch of knowledge to see if it harmonises with our ultimate goal in life: salvation. Using one of the most famous ancient plays, he explained:

“…[t]he writings of the poets are all of varying degrees of excellence, you should not give your attention to all they write without exception. Whenever they recount the words and deeds of good men, you should both love and imitate them. Try to follow such conduct. But when they portray poor conduct, you must flee from them and block your ears, as Odysseus is said to have done when fleeing past the songs of the Sirens.”[6]

Using social media as an example, like Facebook and Instagram, we’re regularly called to question the content. In order to absorb and emulate the good qualities of social media, we need to habitually cull and unfollow unhelpful ‘friends’ and pages. Social feeds should be filled with content that encourages us to become better versions of ourselves. The more we expose ourselves to negativity, the more likely it will become part of our behaviour and personality. As St. Basil said, “familiarity with evil writings paves the way for evil deeds”.[7]

The type of content we consume can allow quite damaging qualities to leech into our souls. The use of blood-and-gore and torture in films and video games is, in my opinion, the most effective means of desensitising people of their core human values, like empathy and compassion. For fans, it’s enjoyable viewing, but, “…through the pleasure of the poet’s [or filmmaker’s] words, we might unwittingly accept something of the more evil sort, like those who take poisons along with honey”.[8] The creators of this content know how to ‘please’ the viewer, offering thrills (‘honey’) through use of graphic and perverse images (‘poison’), but this entertainment can lead to more evil actions or inactions.

All creative works should promote virtue. St. Basil favoured philosophers who praised the necessity of virtue. In Homer’s Odysseus, the wealthy Phaeacians admired the naked and shipwrecked Odysseus for he was stripped of everything except virtue.[9] But how can we determine what’s virtuous? It comes down to the very essence of the character and their actions. St. Basil used a scene from ancient literature, Heracles, to stress the point. When challenged to choose a path between Virtue and Vice, Heracles observed the demeanor and language of the two women, wisely following the way of Virtue. Frodo Baggins from the Lord of the Rings series is a kind-hearted and virtuous protagonist who encounters many trials. Throughout the books, we see how Frodo’s inherited goodness guides his behaviour and mindset.

Though much has been said about the quality of the content, equal value is also placed upon the quality of the creator’s life. St. Basil said there’s no value in a creative work if the artist does not practice what they preach.[10] Despite his success, Harvey Weinstein’s despicable behaviour annuls the respect his films have generated over the years, including The Artist (2011) and Lion (2016). St. Basil greatly admired ancient writers, such as Pericles, Euclid of Megara and Socrates, who all exercised Christian virtues despite being pagans. For example, Pericles tolerated being relentlessly assaulted by a stranger for a whole day, but at night he walked the man safely back home.[11] His actions were an embodiment of Christ’s commandment to ‘forgive our enemies’ and ‘turn the other cheek’. St. Basil pleads with us to “not fail to benefit” [12] from their expressions of virtue, because “these examples almost coincide with our teachings… [and] are worthy of emulation”.[13] Despite his fame and fortune, Keanu Reeves, Hollywood’s ‘Nicest Guy’, secretly funds many charities, uses public transport and helps strangers on the street.[14] While those who post videos of themselves doing acts of charity should make us consider their true motive: good Samaritan or ‘likes’? We must always question the artists’ intentions and integrity before imitating them.

As for creators of content, St. Basil instructs the importance of focusing one’s energies and abilities efficiently.[15] Doing so provides an artist purpose in life, the same way an athlete trains for the purpose of participating in contests, not by practicing the flute.[16] Specialising and perfecting one’s talents is what makes an artist great. St. Basil gives the example of Timotheos of Thebes who was so talented at playing the flute that he incited Alexander the Great to fight at a banquet, then cooled his temper by playing a more calming tone.[17] We’re all called not to be idle with our skills; they need to be perfected with constant learning and practice. Just like warriors and athletes, nothing is gained without hard work and sacrifice, the same as our spiritual journey towards the Heavenly Kingdom. Beauty and virtuousness is difficult to generate, but necessary for our souls.

St. Basil’s letter then slightly changes direction, though still relevant, exploring the relationship between the needs of the body and its effect, especially regarding things concerning fashion, food and our home environment. His advice is to take care of the body only as much as is needed; over-indulgence and decadence is harmful. How many people become obsessed with competing on Instagram to look the most beautiful, most athletic and most fashionably dressed? St. Basil explains vanity and fashion do no prove a person knows themselves, but requires a “higher wisdom” which only comes from purifying our minds with God.[18] In order to do this we also need to purify our souls through the following:

i) To scorn sensual pleasure,

ii) To refuse to feast the eyes on the senseless antics of buffoons, or on bodies which provoke one to passion, and

iii) In not permitting corrupt songs to enter through the ears and drench your souls.[19]

The first rule is rather self-explanatory, whilst his second rule is reminiscent of foolish Facebook dares, like the Tide Pod craze – some may argue Nigella Lawson’s shows breach these two rules! But, it’s his third rule with regards to music that’s very interesting. St. Basil promotes music which soothes and aids the soul, such as the Psalms by King David.[20] Music which is sexually suggestive fuels lustful thoughts, whilst music that incites feelings of aggression, like heavy-metal, was also observed by Pythagoras when he encountered some drunken revellers and commanded the flute-player to change tone.[21] Whatever we consume directly affects the body and soul.

St. Basil placed great emphasis on how we use our resources. He was greatly impressed by those who realised wealth was worthless if not used correctly. Referring to Phidias and Polycletos, whose artistic principles regarding statues was revolutionary, had they placed greater emphasis on their artworks’ precious materials rather than the talent and skill, it would have been of no benefit to them or the artwork itself.[22] St. Basil also warns against creating art for the praises of the crowd.[23] In my opinion, the most overrated artist of the 20th century would have to be Andy Warhol, an ‘artist’ who was famous mostly because he painted and partied with famous people. According to St. Basil, “[a] person shall not swerve at all from that which he or she consider right… chang[ing] their mind according to the opinions of those around them.”[24] Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, wrote her novel at the height of the American Civil Rights Movement. She chose to write her first book about racism, not because it was popular, but because it exposed injustice.

Finally, St. Basil established that learning and virtue are interlinked and necessary for everyone, young and old, to take with them on their life’s journey. St. Basil highlighted the words of Hesiod, “adding little by little”, the accumulation of knowledge from all branches of learning throughout one’s life would become like a “mighty river”.[25] St. Basil urges us to “store-up” the virtues which one gains from knowledge so at the end of their earthly life they may “sustain” them in the Eternal Kingdom.[26] He concludes his letter with reference to three types of illnesses, the last being the worst type: the spiritual ‘illness’ of melancholy. Incurable, except if one exercises discernment when gathering what’s good from the world and avoiding what’s harmful.[27]

It’s with much astonishment the words of St. Basil still resonate so strongly in our Digital Age. A wealth of beneficial knowledge can be acquired from non-Christian works as long as they contain truth as revealed by Christ. Discernment is the key to deciding what’s useful and beneficial to our physical and spiritual well-being, using the bee as our inspiration. A creative work that promotes the virtues is encouraged because it brings us closer to spiritual perfection and truth. St. Basil the Great’s words will continue to guide us now and well into the future.

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Published in TO VEMA newspaper, Feb 2020, Australia

[1] St. Basil the Great – Address to Youth: On how they might benefit from classical Greek literature, St Andrew’s Orthodox Press, Sydney, Australia, 2011, p.20 [2] Ibid, p.17 [3] Ibid, p.20 [4] Ibid, p.23 [5] Ibid, p.23 [6] Ibid, p.27 [7] Ibid, p.27 [8] Ibid, p.28 [9] Ibid, p.33 [10] Ibid, p.39 [11] Ibid, p.39 [12] Ibid, p.39 [13] Ibid, p.41 [14] [15] Above, n 1, p.43 [16] Ibid, p.44 [17] Ibid, p.45 [18] Ibid, p.52 [19] Ibid, p.52 [20] Ibid, p.52 [21] Ibid, p.53 [22] Ibid, p.57-8 [23] Ibid, p.58 [24] Ibid, p.58-9 [25] Ibid, p.60 [26] Ibid, p.60 [27] Ibid, p.61

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