Basil did not compose the Asceticon in a vacuum. He was not the founder of monasticism in Cappadocia and Pontus but rather inserted himself into a tradition of Christian asceticism. It was his reform of that tradition and his subsequent fame as a champion of orthodoxy that elevated him into the most prominent place in Anatolian monasticism, pushing those who had preceded him into the shade. …

When the spotlight is taken off him [Basil] and a softer lamp illuminates the ascetic landscape of Asia Minor, one can begin to understand the background to the Asceticon. Although this may seem to diminish Basil, a new appreciation of his greatness emerges when we see what he does with the tradition he inherited. There is a unity in Basil’s espousal of both the theological and ascetic views of Eustathius. Basil’s favoured word ‘eusebeia’ – piety – which we will find used again and again in his writings to describe the ascetic life, also means ‘orthodoxy, right belief’ in patristic usage. The knowledge that he was originally a Eustathian enables one to have a better understanding of Basil’s Asceticon.

Augustine Holmes OSB. A Life Pleasing to God. The Spirituality of the Rules of St Basil. London, DLT, 2000. 25, 31. 

To ask who founded Cappadocian monasticism is of course the wrong question, for it presupposes a view of monastic origins – centred around well-known “founders” – that sees it as a radical departure from earlier forms of Christian asceticism that can be traced to the very beginnings of the Church. Nevertheless, the question points to a fascinating kaleidoscope of figures behind the tradition that would eventually become associated with Saint Basil.

When I first read Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Saint Macrina, it did not require a particularly well-formed feminist hermeneutic of suspicion to make me wonder at the later identification of Cappadocian monasticism with Saint Basil, given that Gregory portrays Macrina as both a monastic founder and as a crucial influence on Basil. This interpretation is echoed by Verna Harrison when she says: “Basil became a leading organiser of this new society in Cappadocia, but he was introduced  into it by his sister Macrina, who thus appears to be the true founder of what is sometimes called ‘Basilian’ monasticism.” (“Male and Female in Cappadocian Theology” in Journal of Theological Studies, 41.2, October 1990, 444-445)

However, behind both Basil and Macrina there is the figure of Eustathius. Father Holmes suggests that Saint Gregory’s silence on Eustathius’ influence on Basil – and his emphasis therefore on Macrina’s influence – was due to the later attempts to edit out accounts of Basil’s association with someone whom history remembers as a heretic. What remains puzzling, however, is the absence of any reference to Macrina in Basil’s works.

From his own writings, it would appear that Basil was originally a disciple of Eustathius, the radical ascetical leader who became bishop of Sebaste in 356. His group, which was condemned by the Council of Gangra, was associated with a social radicalism that condemned slavery and insisted on the equality of men and women, had mixed communities, appeared to condemn marriage and insist on vegetarianism for all Christians, and were involved in caring for the poor and the sick. It would appear that Macrina was also influenced by Eustathius, an influence congruent with the social radicalism in her own ascetical programme in which noblewomen and slaves shared the same lifestyle.

The Eustathian ascetics were generally part of the homoiousian circles with whom Basil tried to find common ground and with whom he was united in their opposition to the Arian teaching of Eunomius. However, they increasingly moved apart over the divinity of the Holy Spirit and Basil’s publication of On the Holy Spirit in 373 marked the definitive break with his former teacher. He remained in many respects indebted to Eustathius whose influence continues in the Asceticon, but as Holmes comments,

At the same time, while preserving the radical nature of their commitment, he aimed to bring this way of living the Gospel firmly within the Church. Thus he does follow in the footsteps of his old master, but the definite and lasting achievement is Basil’s. (43)