St. Basil was quite realistic about our current and very human condition, regardless of our original creation from the hands of God. We outlined his teaching in a previous meditation from earlier this week. If we do not carefully and vigilantly cultivate our relationship with God, and thus struggle to place the rational/spiritual aspect of our soul above our instinctive and emotional impulses and drives, we will find ourselves subject to the passions, described by St. Basil with a vivid and almost merciless realism in his discourse on the origin of humanity.
In other words, as human beings we have the capacity to "ascend" toward God (as we grow in the likeness of God); but we also have the capacity to "descend" to an animal level (to become utterly unlike God) due to a sin-inclined misuse of our free will/self determination. St. Basil will employ animal imagery to drive this point home, because a good part of his discourse was directed toward demonstrating how we are superior to animals - "and let them rule wild beasts" - based upon our use of reason:
"And let them rule the wild beasts." You rule every wild beast. So, you say, what beasts do I have in myself? Indeed you have thousands, and a great crowd of beasts in yourself. And do not consider this statement to be an outrage. Anger is a little beast when it barks in the heart. Is it not wilder than every dog? Is not the deceit lurking in a deceitful soul harder to tame than every lurking bear? Is not hypocrisy a beast? Is not one sharp in insults a scorpion? Is not one who in hiding strikes out in revenge more dangerous than a viper? Is the greedy person not a rapacious wolf?
What kind of beast is not in us? Is not the one mad for women a raging horse? For Scripture says, "They have become horses mad for women, each neighing toward his neighbor's wife" (Jer. 5:8). It does not say he spoke to the woman, but he neighed. It transferred him to the nature of those without reason, because of the passion with which he associated himself. Therefore there are many beasts in us.
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 hear 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.
—On the Origin of Humanity, Discourse I, p. 47-48
Things can get out-of-control very quickly when the passions rule us instead of being ruled! Yet St. Basil, as well as the majority of the Eastern Fathers, was an "optimist" in that he believed that we can train ourselves in virtue through the reading of the Holy Scriptures, remaining heedful to the commandments of Christ, and living as a genuine Christian the life offered to us from within the Church. Thus, he could end his first discourse "On the Origin of Humanity: On that which is according to the Image" with a positive exhortation that reveals his "anthropological optimism:"
May the Lord who has provided what is written, who has also enabled our small and weak tongue to converse thus with you, who through our weak reason has intimated a great treasure for you in the few outlines of truth, give to you through small things great things, through a few seeds the perfection of knowledge, may he grant to us complete reward of our free choice and that you be fulfilled in the fruit of your enjoyment of divine words, and thereby to him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.
—Discourse I, p. 48
When we discuss the creation of the human person and what it means to be truly human, we are discussing Orthodox Christian anthropology. The Greek word for human being is, of course, anthropos, and that yields our English anthropology. It is of the greatest importance that we understand and grasp the anthropology of the Church as we make our way in a secularized and even godless world today. In addition to the "anthropological optimism" that I mentioned above, St. Basil also taught what we could call an "anthropological maximalism." This stresses the ultimate dignity of each and every human person, "created according to the image and likeness of God." The human person is seen to have "maximal meaning" as a potential child of God with an eternal destiny prepared for us by God. This is because we are not simply a physical/biological being destined for oblivion.
Since we exist because God created us, and since "In him [God] we live and move and have our being" (ACTS 17:28), we can further call St. Basil's teaching a "theocentric anthropology." We are "God-centered" because we come from God; our lives are centered in God. This is the anthropology of the Church. All of this is inherent in that incomparable scriptural verse: "Let us make the human being according to our image and likeness." (GEN. 1:26)
This teaching contrasts dramatically with the "anthropological minimalism" presented in today's post-modern world. It is indeed "minimalist" to claim that we are solely the result of evolutionary processes that restrict human nature to the mere physical/biological level. There is no real "destiny" implied in this minimalist view, except our inevitable "date with death" which will return us to the nothingness from which we accidentally emerged. Such a minimalist understanding of the human person leads to a moral and ethical relativism, in which we are defined by our desires and our "rights." That is when "anything goes."
St. Basil was perfectly aware that "nature alone ... is nothing and worthy of nothing." Now that is realistic. It is only the presence of God as Creator that lifts us above such nothingness, His creative presence implied in the remainder of St. Basil's exegesis of GEN. 1:26: "but if you look toward the honor with which he is honored, the human is great." ("On the Origin of Humanity, Discourse 2: On the human being", p. 49)
Our task as Orthodox Christians is to be worthy of the "greatness" that has been bestowed on us as a gift "from on high" when we were created "according to the image and likeness" of God. Christ restored that gift to us and for us through His Incarnation, Death, Resurrection and Ascension. St. Irenaeus declared that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. The saint meant "alive" by the Spirit of God. That kind of life may just be our most powerful witness to the Gospel.