Basil of Caesarea (c. 329 – 379), or Basil the Great, was one of the greatest writers on spirituality from the fourth century. He was at least a third generation Christian, since his grandmother had been executed for her faith during one of the last great persecutions, and his family produced a number of Christian leaders who had a lasting influence on the Church. Having received a first-class education in Athens, he practiced law in his hometown of Caesarea before abandoning all worldly pursuits in favor of a life devoted completely to God in monastic endeavors. He went on to become one of the founders of communal monasticism in the Eastern Church and in his final role as bishop of Caesarea did much to strengthen the Church in the area, from organizing a hospital for the poor to preaching daily to a large congregation.
The excerpt below is taken from Basil’s sermon on Genesis 1:28 in which God commands the original human couple to exercise dominion over the entire created realm. Basil points out that in order for man to have dominion over creation he must first have dominion over his own sinful desires and passions. It is a far easier thing to tame a lion than it is to tame the beast within.
Have you truly become ruler of beasts if you rule those outside but leave those within ungoverned? Will you rule truly in ruling the lion by your reason and despising its roar, but gnashing your teeth and emitting inarticulate sounds as the anger within all at once strives to attack? What is more dangerous than this, when a human being is ruled by passion, when anger pushes reason aside, not consenting to remain within, and takes upon itself governance of the soul? . . .
Rule the thoughts in yourself, that you may become ruler of all beings. Thus the rule we have been given over the animals trains us to rule the things belonging to ourselves. For it is misplaced to be governed at home and govern nations, to be ruled within by a prostitute and be mayor of the city by public consent. It is necessary that household affairs be managed well and that good order within be arranged, and thus to receive authority over others. Since the word of Scripture will be turned back at you by those you rule if your household affairs are disorderly and disorganized, namely “Physician, heal yourself” [Lk 4.23][,] let us heal ourselves first.
Nobody is condemned for not catching a lion, but one who will not govern anger is ridiculous to everyone. So one who does not prevail over his own passion is led to condemnation, while one who cannot prevail over wild beasts does not appear to have done anything worthy of blame.1
1 St. Basil the Great, On the Human Condition, trans. Nonna Verna Harrison (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005), 47-48.