St Basil and the Hoi Poloi: Side Note on the Hart–Pakaluk Quarrel

‪Did St Basil actually suggest that the majority of fourth century Christians in Cappadocia were universalists? Contra Michael Pakaluk, David Hart believes that the Greek text of the disputed passage from the Short Rules for Monks can be reasonably interpreted in the positive‬ (full citation). Here’s the sentence in question:

But, for a deception of the devil, many people [hoi polloi tōn anthrōpōn], as though they forgot these and similar statements of the Lord, adhere to the conception of the end of punishment, out of an audacity that is even superior to their sin. (trans. Ramelli)

The key phrase: hoi polloi tōn anthrōpōn. Ramelli translates it as “many people,” as does William Jurgens, but it can also be plausibly rendered as “most people.” Hart gives this explanation:

The idiom hoi polloi anthropon—literally “the many” (arthrous) “of human beings”—means the “broad majority of human beings” or “most people.” “Many persons” would be “polloi (anarthrous) anthropoi.” Idiomatically, the arthrous form of polloi is opposed to the few, the minority, or the one.

Is Hart engaging in wishful-thinking-exegesis? Once again I checked with Fr John Behr, and he confirms Hart’s translation. That should be good enough to refute Michael Pakaluk’s claim that Hart has sloppily distorted Basil. If Hart and Behr are wrong, then it’s an error made in scholarly good faith.

Nor has Hart proposed a novel reading of St Basil. In his classic work Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church (1899), J. W. Hanson translates the Greek almost identically:

Basil says in one place, in a work attributed to him, “The mass of men (Christians) say that there is to be an end of punishment to those who are punished.” If the work is not Basil’s, the testimony as to the state of opinion at that time is no less valuable: “The mass of men say that there is to be an end of punishment.”

Both Hart and Hanson understand the author as talking about Christians and both understand him as numbering the universalists as many or even a majority. Also note that even back in the late 19th century, questions were being raised about Basil’s authorship of the passage.

Hopefully Dr Pakaluk will quickly retract his accusations and offer Dr Hart an apology.

(Return to “Theological Fraud”)

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40 Responses to St Basil and the Hoi Poloi: Side Note on the Hart–Pakaluk Quarrel

  1. This doesn’t really do justice to Pakaluk’s charge, as he doesn’t just examine the Greek text in isolation, but examines other uses by Basil of the same term elsewhere in his works, never finding it to refer to “most Christians”.

    To which he concludes that reading it that way here, and then drawing from it the conclusion that the vast majority of Christians in St Basil’s day Universalists is “highly misleading.”

    I happen to agree with Pakaluk that is a stilted reading of the passage, and an unwarranted leap off the stilts, as it were. But it also only the second point of a tightly argued six-point critique of Hart’s use of St Basil.

    I think taken as a whole, it is a forceful critique.

    A shorter, but I think no less important critique, is that while Hart cites this passage for evidentiary purposes only (ie, Basil as a witness to the times), it fails to do justice, I think, to the sheer horror Basil is expressing at what he obviously considers an damnable heresy.

    It would be like like citing St Athanasius on how popular Arianism was, and leaving the unsuspecting reader with a generally positive impression of the thing. But that would actually be more defensible, since undeniably there were a ton of Arians, which is much more disputed about Universalism.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:
    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      While I suppose it’s “possible” that hoi polloi tōn anthrōpōn refers to pagans, the context clearly favors Christians, and therefore universalist Christians, as its referent, as demonstrated (1) by the accusation that they have forgotten the Lord’s teaching and (2) by the parallelism argument, which is irrelevant if the author is not responding to the universalist interpretation of aionios. But let’s assume that Pakaluk turns out to be right. He still owes Hart an apology for his slander.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      One more point. To make his case, Palaluk needs to provide a cultural-religious context in which Basil’s statement makes sense: that is to say, he needs to tell us about these universalist religions to which the unwashed masses ostensibly belonged. What are these religions? What did they believe? Were they prevalent in Cappadocia and Asia Minor? We know a bit about the Christian universalists, whom St Augustine referred to as the misericordes, but who are these pagan universalists? Without such a context, his interpretation of the hoi poloi is worthless.

      Palaluk has written a hit piece on Hart. The only reason so many have found it initially convincing is because they have not read the book carefully, if at all. If they had, they would have immediately recognized Pakaluk’s irresponsible misreading of the book.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Tom says:

      SH: …the sheer horror Basil is expressing at what he obviously considers a damnable heresy…

      Tom: One has to extend what one supposes to have been Basil’s opinion of universalism to his brother Gregory and his sister Macrina for that matter. And it will not do to suppose (as was suggested, ridiculously, in the comments section over at FT, that there’s no reason to suppose Basil even knew of Gregory’s eschatology since ‘they lived in different cities and didn’t have email’. This will not do. And in any case, Basil certainly knows Origen’s universalism, and while he has his disagreements with Origen, he holds him in high esteem and honors his faith.

      It’s impossible to maintain that Basil held universalism as such to be a damnable heresy.


    • Ben says:


      So you haven’t read the book. Absolutely no accusation Pakaluk makes against Hart is true. The piece is dishonest or incompetent or both. Stop defending a lying twerp because you can’t risk actually reading the book.


  2. Let me try to bundle a few of these together:


    “I suppose it’s “possible” that hoi polloi tōn anthrōpōn refers to pagans,”

    That’s not necessary , because that is not what I claimed, nor Pakaluk. What I said is that it is “stilted” to read it as the “the vast majority of Christians”, and an unwarranted leap to move from Basil’s use of the expression to the conclusion that “the vast majority of Christians” in Basil’s day were in fact universalists.

    The post you linked is not far shy of this, stating, “I think that David may have tried to get a bit more mileage from the passage than the words allow.”

    Pakaluk goes further, by drawing in other cases where St Basil uses the same term, and arguing his point is never quantitative, but is always qualitative, like a faithful/unfaithful.

    A modern example might be something like Kirkegaard’s use of the word “crowd”. Now, if you were translating SK, you could try to translate “crowd” as “vast majority”, the only problem being that SK was not really talking about numbers but mindset.

    His conclusion is that Hart’s usage of this expression to establish this point, without necessary qualifications, is “highly misleading.” I agree. To use yet another analogy, I think it would be something like emphatically making a definite and startling scientific claim and not reporting the confidence interval.


    When he attributes this belief to the “Devil’s artifice” and argues at length its wrongness and relationship to sin, what do think he is doing? You seem to be suggesting that because Gregory may have held universalist beliefs Basil must either:

    1. Be saying, “This is my personal opinion, but the opposite opinion is perfectly valid and orthodox too.”
    2. Intend his criticism, but also thinks this whole thing is no big deal, and certainly not heresy.
    3. ???

    Can you fill in (3), or explain how (1) or (2) would be supported by what Basil is condemning here (and elsewhere)?

    I suggest leaving Origen out entirely, since respect for Origen cannot be taken as toleration or endorsement of Universalism. He is well respected for his scriptural commentaries by a flock of Doctors and Fathers that simultaneously have no hesitation in condemning “Origenism”.

    Speaking personally, I highly respect his commentary on Genesis, but I’m going to condemn the pre-existence of souls to anyone that tries to put it forward.


    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      Sorry, but this is nonsense. Even if (which may be true) St Basil (or whoever wrote the passage) is using “the masses” or “the crowd” in a derogatory sense, the term still requires that the persons being so denigrated are, in fact, great in number. You can’t refer to a small minority of people who everyone else disagrees with as “the ignorant masses” or anything similar. It would just be gibberish and noone would know what you were talking about. Your argument supposes St Basil had abandoned Greek and was writing in an invented language of his own.
      Even Palakuk thought this somehow true, how can it be somehow dishonest for DBH to assume with every other Greek scholar that St Basil was writing in ordinary Greek and intended to be understood that way?


      • No, but you aren’t really that far off.

        I am going to take a strict example, referencing Catholics only (no pagans in the mix). Imagine it is 1950, and there is ~85% Mass attendance in the US, and I say:

        A) “The people are not taking their Sunday obligation seriously!”

        Now fast forward to today, where depending on which survey you trust, it is at best 50% Mass attendance, and at worse, much, much lower. For that sake of argument, let’s say ~35%, and I say:

        B) “The people are not taking their Sunday obligation seriously!”

        In both cases “the people” is really referring to the “many” that are not showing up, not to the faithful, and referring in a kind of pejorative way (as you mention).

        But could I really conclude anything about the numbers or the ratio? It would be erroneous to conclude that the “vast majority” were skipping Sundays in the 50’s, and it would be erroneous to conclude that the “vast majority” were attending every Sunday now. The statement just doesn’t give you that kind of precision.

        The objection is that Hart is reading more from the words than they are able to supply, and then overstating the confidence in the inferences he has made.


        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          Nope. Still nonsense. You are referring to a quite different situation where the problem is the Catholic faithful in general skipping Sundays on a whim, or only occasionally turning up, and you know it (which makes me wonder whether you are arguing in good faith at all). If the majority of Catholics were all strictly attending mass every single Sunday without fail and a small distinct self-identified minority of Catholics were openly and persistently refusing to turn up at all, saying “the people” weren’t turning up would be arrant nonsense – it would be specifically the identifiable group of mass-deniers.
          Your problem is that “hoi polloi ton anthropon” *means* in Greek “the mass / bulk of the people” and no amount of clouding the issue or wishful thinking will make it otherwise.


          • Well, Ignatius of Antioch does warn people against such a group of “mass deniers” so I guess it is not too far-fetched, but DBH’s point is that the Christians he speaks of were in fact *not* distinct in anyway except their belief on this single point, saying they, “cherished the same scriptures as other Christians, worshipped in the same basilicas, lived the same sacramental lives.”

            I might similarly refer to a host of modern issues where you could walk into a parish and find divided views among the parishioners on clerical marriage, abortion, birth control, women’s ordination, same-sex marriage, even Universalism itself, and refer to the “people” or “many people” or even “mass of people” who hold this or that without it constituting a “vast majority” of Catholics holding it. And if, in some of those instances (birth control, for example) it did turn out to be “vast majority” it would not be safe to conclude that all the others are also a “vast majority”.

            In Basil’s day, you have the Origenist position being simultaneously fashionable and controversial somewhat like in the Catholic-sphere now you have the von Balthasar position being both fashionable and controversial. By numbers, my guess–and it is just a guess–would be that the “Dare we Hope” position is more popular than DBH’s more emphatic line. I could easily say that “the people”, or the “crowd”, or “many”, or even a “mass” of Catholics believe it. But you still could not safely conclude that the “vast majority” of Catholics are card-carrying Balthasarians.

            Maybe they are, I have never seen a survey, but I do know it is a popular view these days with prominent, well-respected advocates (eg, Bishop Barron), which is all it would take, were I a bishop like St Basil, to preach something like, “The crowd is being led astray…”


  3. TJF says:

    Has the whole world gone insane/stupid? Maybe I’m missing something here, but this seems to have spiraled way way way out of control. It seems so mind numbingly obvious to me that even a kindergartner could understand it, that Hart was making the inoffensive and blatantly obvious claim that a lot of people held universalism to be true. What is the problem? Is Peter Kreeft right, people with PhDs think themselves stupid sometimes? Much ado about nothing. Pakaluk and the infernalists win by creating a massive distraction from the real issues. Sometimes to win, the best bet is not to play.


    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      I suspect the real problem is with the very
      idea that infernalism was once itself a minority Christian viewpoint; this must be denied and resisted at all costs, and any kind of tactic, however dishonest, is justified to do so. It must be resisted because the chiefest objection raised to universalism is not on Biblical, logical or ethical grounds but that it is contrary to what the Church has always believed: if this is not so, if infernalism was once the innovation and universalism the tradition, then the infernalists are, and know they are, on very shaky ground indeed.


  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Asia Minor, including Cappadocia, were strongly influenced by the writings of Origen, who had set up shop in Caesarea. One of his disciples, St Gregory Thaumaturgus, exercised a powerful ministry there. St Macrina the Elder, Basil’s Mom, studied under Gregory in Neocaesarea and passed on his teachings to her children. Basil honored Origen and is believed to have edited, along with St Gregory of Nazianzu, the Philokalia of Origen.

    It is by no means implausible that a large portion of Christians in this part of the world believed in temporary eschatological punishment. Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia were both prominent proponents of the greater hope. If this so, then this would explain why St Gregory of Nyssa felt free to express his universalist convictions in his Catechism and why no one ever censured him for them.

    Question for Pakaluk: To what extent is his interpretation of the phrase “hoi polloi tōn anthrōpōn” influenced by his belief that universalism was not prominent among Christians?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr,

      That is is “by no means implausible that a large portion” is not the same as the sweeping, declarative, and repeated statement that the “vast majority of his fellow Christians” / “great majority of his fellow Eastern Christians” definitely believed/assumed it.

      If he had only claimed that it was “by no means implausible that a large portion…” I seriously doubt that anyone would be having this particular part of the discussion.

      The whole crux of this particular charge is not the accuracy of DBH ‘s headcount; it is that he has stretched what St Basil said and from that drawn an unwarranted conclusion which he presents as an incontestable fact.


      • Ben Oinophiliakos says:

        Where did DBH say that a “great majority of his fellow Eastern Christians definitely believed/assumed it”? That’s Pakaluk, not Hart. Where did he speak of an “incontestable fact?” He said just the opposite. Why is it that all these Pakaluk and Farrow defenders and the rest keep pitching in when they obviously haven’t read the book?

        Liked by 1 person

      • TJF says:

        “The whole crux” is that none of this crap matters anyways, in the slightest. CHALLENGE THE ACTUAL ARGUMENTS! Focusing on distracting, unimportant nonissues is a waste of time (even more so when they are blatant lies and making mountains out of molehills). If this is the best the infernalist side has to offer, then defeat has already been conceded.

        If you didn’t read the book here are a couple of the arguments in brief:

        1. Creatio ex nihilo logically entails universalism, or else God is a god and not God.
        2. Biblical evidence
        3. Persons can only be saved as persons in and with all other persons.
        4. Eternal punishment for finite creatures is not justice.
        5. While we can reject God, we can never do so with perfect freedom. I.e. Orthodox Chalcedonian christology entails universalism.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Stephen Dublanica says:

    Pakaluk’s allegations of fraud are reminiscent of courtroom stunts employed by lawyers who, when they don’t have an evidentiary leg to stand on, try and slip shakily constructed suppositions past the judge in the hope it’ll implant a niggle of doubt regarding the defendant’s veracity in the minds of the jury. They “can’t unhear it” as it were. I have no issue with people disagreeing with Dr. Hart’s conclusions but Pakaluk is just employing rhetorical tricks to cast doubt on the author’s integrity. Just because he’s “confident” that he would prevail in a “class action lawsuit” against Dr. Hart by no means assures that he would. Braggadocio doesn’t make it so. And how many times have we heard lawyers (Like those defending big pharma’s role in the opioid crisis– or mafioso for that matter) express confidence in their case and still lose?

    I look forward to Dr. Hart’s response to this obvious hit piece.


  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Given David’s announcement that he will be formally responding to Pakaluk’s article, I will be closing the comments thread both here and there. I’m sure folks can figure out where the there is. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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