Fathers of the Church
Letter LXXIV: to Martinianus
by Basil the Great in 357-370 | translated by Blomfield Jackson, M.A
1. HOW high do you suppose one to prize the pleasure of our meeting one another once again? How delightful to spend longer time with you so as to enjoy all your good qualities! If powerful proof is given of culture in seeing many men's cities and knowing many men's ways, such I am sure is quickly given in your society. For what is the difference between seeing many men singly or one who has gained experience of all together? I should say that there is an immense superiority in that which gives us the knowledge of good and beautiful things without trouble, and puts within our reach instruction in virtue, pure from all admixture of evil, Is there question of noble deed; of words worth handing down; of institutions of men of superhuman excellence? All are treasured in the store house of your mind. Not then, would I pray, that I might listen to you, like Alcinous to Ulysses, only for a year, but throughout all my life; and to this end I would pray that my life might be long, even though my state were no easy one. Why, then, am I now writing when I ought to be coming to see you? Because my country in her troubles calls me irresistibly to her side. You know, my friend, how she suffers. She is torn in pieces like Pentheus by veritable Maenads, daemons. They are dividing her, and dividing her again, like bad surgeons who, in their ignorance, make wounds worse. Suffering as she is from this dissection, it remains for me to tend her like a sick patient. So the Caesareans have urgently appealed to me by letter, and I must go, not as though I could be of any help, but to avoid any blame of neglect. You know how ready men in difficulties are to hope; and ready too, I ween, to find fault, always charging their troubles on what has been left undone.
2. Yet for this very reason I ought to have come to see you, and to have told you my mind, or rather to implore you to bethink you of some strong measure worthy of your wisdom; not to turn aside from my country falling on her knees, but to betake yourself to the Court, and, with the boldness which is all your own, not to let them suppose that they own two provinces instead of one. They have not imported the second from some other part of the world, but have acted somewhat in the same way in which some owner of horse or ox might act, who should cut it in two, and then think that he had two instead of one, instead of failing to make two and destroying the one he had. Tell the Emperor and his ministers that they are not after this fashion increasing the empire, for power lies not in number but in condition. I am sure that now men are neglecting the course of events, some, possibly, from ignorance of the truth, some from their being unwilling to say anything offensive, some because it does not immediately concern them. The course likely to be most beneficial, and worthy of your high principles, would be for you, if possible, to approach the Emperor in person. If this is difficult both on account of the season of the year anti of your age, of which, as you say, inactivity is the foster brother, at all events you need have no difficulty in writing. If you thus give our country the aid of a letter, you will first of all have the satisfaction of knowing that you have left nothing undone that was in your power, and further, by showing sympathy, if only in appearance, you will give the patient much comfort. Would only that it were possible for you to come yourself among us and actually see our deplorable condition! Thus, perhaps, stirred by the plain evidence before you, you might have spoken in terms worthy alike of your own magnanimity and of the affliction of Caesarea. But do not withhold belief from what I am telling you. Verily we want some Simonides, or other like poet, to lament our troubles from actual experience. But why name Simonides? I should rather mention AEschylus, or any other who has set forth a great calamity in words like his, and uttered lamentation with a mighty voice.
3. Now we have no more meetings, no more debates, no more gatherings of wise men in the Forum, nothing more of all that made our city famous. In our Forum nowadays it would be stranger for a learned or eloquent man to put in an appearance, than it would for men, shewing a brand of iniquity or unclean hands, to have presented themselves in Athens of old. Instead of them we have the imported boorishness of Massagetae and Scythians. And only one noise is heard of drivers of bargains, and losers of bargains, and of fellows trader the lash. On either hand the porticoes resound with doleful echoes, as though they were uttering a natural and proper sound in groaning at what is going on. Our distress prevents our paying any attention to locked gymnasia and nights when no torch is lighted. There is no small danger lest, our magistrates being removed, everything crash down together as with fallen props. What words can adequately describe our calamities? Some have fled into exile, a considerable portion of our senate, and that not the least valuable, prefering perpetual banishment to Podandus. When I mention Podandus, suppose me to mean the Spartan Ceadas or any natural pit that you may have seen, spots breathing a noxious vapour, to which some have involuntarily given the name Charonian. Picture to yourself that the evils of Podandus are a match for such a place. So, of three parts, some have left their homes and are in exile, wives and hearth and all; some are being led away like captives, the majority of the best men in the city, a piteous spectacle to their friends, fulfilling their enemies' prayers; if, that is, any one has ever been found to call down so dire a curse upon our heads. A third division yet remains: these, unable to endure abandonment by their old companions, and at the same time unable to provide for themselves, have to hate their very lives.
This is what I implore you to make known everywhere with an eloquence all your own, and that righteous boldness of speech which your manner of life gives you. One thing distinctly state; that, unless the authorities soon change their counsels, they will find none left on whom to exercise their clemency. You will either prove some help to the state, or at least you will have done as Solon did, who, when he was unable to defend his abandoned fellow citizens on the capture of the Acropolis, put on his armour, and sat down before the gates, thus making it plain by this guise that he was no party to what was going on. Of one thing I am assured, even though at the present moment there may be some who do not approve of your advice, the day is not far distant when they will give you the greatest credit for benevolence and sagacity, because they see events corresponding with your prediction.
Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (PNPF II/VIII, Schaff and Wace). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.