The spiritual benefits of studying literature

Peter Schultz is completing his post degree B.Ed. program at Trinity Western University.  This contribution is his reflection on how early Christian thinkers understood the value of studying non-Christian literature. 

Since I plan to become an English teacher, I wanted to find out the view of non-Christian literature by the early Christians themselves.  I looked at one early saint, Basil the Great, who was trained in the Hellenistic classics.  What is particularly significant about St. Basil is that while in his doctrinal treatises he is adamantly set on his theological positions (see On the Holy Spirit), he sources the majority of “pagan” Greek writers for examples of virtue.  He does not create some sort of theological synthesis with Hellenistic philosophy that we see in the Thomistic tradition, but rather creates a clear and distinguished relationship between Christian writing and secular literature.

While there are numerous examples of quoting from pagan authors in St. Basil’s letters, I found his “Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature” to be most clear.

St. Basil argues that examples of virtue and wisdom can be derived from non-Christian literature.  Not only can this literature be useful, but it actually should be studied.  There is significant spiritual benefit in these studies: “We must be conversant with poets, with historians, with orators, indeed with all men who may further our soul’s salvation.”  The approach to truth and salvation here is far more holistic, in that studying non-Christian authors is not merely for becoming culturally or historically aware, but has actual benefits on the soul.  This also relates to the prescribed learning outcomes of the IRP’s, which emphasize reading texts from a multiplicity of viewpoints.  St. Basil is also advocating this by having students read a wide range of writers.

While examples of virtue are not as clear as in the Christian writings, they more easily relate to beginners on the path of virtue.  Examples like Moses and Daniel are given, who began with the wisdom of the Egyptians and Babylonians, and then moved to the deeper spiritual life.  So there is much to be gleaned from the wisdom traditions of the world.  St. Basil writes that “indeed must we also, if we would preserve indelible the idea of the true virtue, become first initiated in the pagan lore, then at length give special heed to the sacred and divine teachings, even as we first accustom ourselves to the sun’s reflection in the water, and then become able to turn our eyes upon the very sun itself.”   Since St. Basil recommends that pagan literature be studied for the preparation of divine studies, then the role of the Language Arts or English teacher is actually quite important, because we prepare the mind and heart to study higher truths later on.  Similarly, there need not be any pressure on Christian teachers to “evangelize” their students, but rather to teach students discernment of the wisdom in the texts that are studied.

St. Basil emphasizes training the mind to discern the true and the good, in that only good examples and wise sayings from pagan literature should be studied, while selections from writings that show or glorify evil should be avoided.  He is adamant that “familiarity with evil writings paves the way for evil deeds.”  Yet St. Basil does not at all advocate avoiding texts, but rather demands reading with discernment.  This could be challenging for teachers in a number of ways.  First of all, what is appropriate and not appropriate material?  Second of all, if texts have little virtue or wisdom in them, and they are prescribed by the school board or subject department, how does a teacher make the most of these texts?  The third issue is balance.  In much of modern, North American literature, we have many examples of what happens when lives are not living according to virtue, for instance chaos and immorality of the relationship between Daisy and Tom in The Great Gatsby, or the self-destructiveness of materialism in Death of a Salesman.  However, students probably need examples of virtue more than tragedy, which is sometimes lacking in the literary options that schools give.  Even the Shakespearian corpus typically lacks substantial examples of virtue.  But there are many options for teachers, if only these works could have wider distribution in the school system.  Books like Lord of the Rings, with its emphasis on determination and friendship, as well as George MacDonald’s Phantastes and Lilith, with their spiritual textures and otherworldly narratives, are ideal.  All of Wordsworth’s poetry, including his long work The Prelude, show a profound reverence for nature that is especially needed in today’s ecological reality.  Classics in translation should not be overlooked either.  There are innumerable works to choose from, two of the best literary forms being epics (for instance Aeneid and Beowulf) and philosophy (like Plato’s dialogues and the Tao Te Ching).

St. Basil’s essay can be found at: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/pearse/morefathers/files/basil_litterature01.htm

By Peter Schultz

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