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  • Manual Labor in the Life and Thought of St. Basil the Great
  • Andrew Dinan (bio)

In keeping with the initiative of the Second Vatican Council, the late Pope John Paul II often looked back to the patristic period in order to develop and to articulate the teachings of the magisterium. The new catechism, for example, is replete with citations from the Fathers, as are several of the late pontiff’s encyclicals and other communications.1 Yet his social encyclicals—Laborem exercens (1981), Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987), Centesimus annus (1991)—contain few patristic references.2 In these works, in addition to frequent citations of Gaudium et spes and Scripture, John Paul consistently draws from, commemorates, and develops the teachings of the social encyclicals of his predecessors, notably Rerum novarum (1891), Quadragesimo anno (1931), Mater et magistra (1961), Pacem in terris (1963), and Populorum progressio (1967). But the relative infrequency of patristic citations in the social encyclicals—whether those of John Paul or indeed those of his predecessors—should not lead one to conclude that such teaching is a recent phenomenon.3 Rather, as John Paul acknowledges in Laborem exercens, there is a long-standing tradition of vibrant social thought within the Church, one that stretches well beyond St. Thomas Aquinas—who is cited in all but [End Page 133] one of the encyclicals just mentioned—to the very first centuries of Christianity, a time of extraordinary theological fecundity when Christians distinguished themselves by fervent charity and the development of a robust approach to social issues.4

This article explores one aspect of this social teaching: the role of manual labor in the life and thought of St. Basil the Great (329–79), the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, a staunch defender of Nicene orthodoxy, and a central figure in the development of monasticism.5 Far from being an insignificant issue, work lies “at the very centre of the ‘social question’” according to John Paul, and while labor certainly implies much more than working with one’s hands, manual labor might justifiably be considered the primary form of work, and it has special significance in the growth of Christianity.6 Furthermore, during the pontificate of a pope whose name evokes the famous imperative ora et labora, it is especially appropriate to take up this subject. If Pope Benedict XVI’s choice of a name reflects, at least in part, a desire to look to the approach of Benedictine monasticism in early sixth-century southern Italy as an inspiration for missionary activity and for the preservation and revitalization of Western culture, it is worthwhile pondering anew the role of manual labor in human life and society.

I have chosen to focus on Basil for several reasons. It is significant that he is one of the few patristic authors mentioned in the social encyclicals of John Paul.7 This is not surprising, for Basil’s writings reveal how deeply he had reflected on social questions in general and in particular on the role of labor within the life of committed Christians. His counsels to ascetic communities, which influenced St. Benedict, comprise one of the most extended early discussions of the role of manual labor in Christian life, and they contain fundamental principles that are relevant to recent papal teaching.8 Moreover, Basil’s counsels regarding labor have proved useful not only to scholars who have sought to highlight the ways in which Christianity led to a revision of Greco-Roman social and ethical norms,9 but also to those who have probed the extent to which the economic [End Page 134] organization of early medieval monasteries was the impetus for the complex economies and technological innovations that marked the early modern period.10 But easily overlooked is the pivotal role of manual labor in Basil’s own conversion. In fact, if we are to believe the account of his brother Gregory, such labor was of fundamental importance for the life of asceticism adopted by Basil and several other members of his family. I suggest that Basil’s later teachings on labor should not be seen as the distant, patronizing approbation of an intellectual. The consistency between Basil’s personal life and his public proclamation...


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