Early Christian Sources of Platonic Geometry: Basil and Gregory

Basil (c.329-79) read philosophy and rhetoric in the young capital of the Eastern Empire, Constantinople, before continuing his studies in Athens with, among others, Julian, the apostate emperor of the Byzantines. It was only later in life, in 364, that he was ordained priest and only seven years before his premature demise that he was consecrated metropolitan of his native Caesarea, whereupon he made his younger brother Gregory (c.335-c.95) bishop of Nyssa. Before his ordination, Basil had spent some time as a hermit studying Origen and when Gregory stayed at his brother’s cell he too studied ‘his master Origen’ along with everything Basil had learned in Athens. On Basil’s death, Gregory came into his own as a churchman and teacher to the extent that he became known as the ‘Father of Fathers’. In 381 he was summoned by the Emperor Theodosius to the Second Oecumenical Council in Constantinople, as a result of which he was recognized as a principal interpreter of the emergent orthodoxy of the Eastern Church.

Of chief interest to this study is Basil’s Hexaemeron, a series of sermons on the 6 days of Creation delivered morning and evening during Lent to a congregation of workmen. As he acknowledges,

I know that many artisans, belonging to the mechanical trades, are crowding around me. A day’s labour hardly suffices to maintain them; therefore I am compelled to abridge my discourse, so as not to keep them too long from their work.

Hexaemeron III.1

Although the sermons are systematically arranged, the final homily which should have described the creation of man seems to end prematurely and was supplemented by Gregory’s treatise De hominis opificio. Such was the importance of Hexaemeron that its teaching quickly spread to the West.
Ambrose produced an adaptation of it which was soon translated into Latin by Eustathius in about 440 and, whether or not this was the work of Basil’s already noted on Alcuin’s shelves at York, a vernacular abbreviation of Hexaemeron was produced in Anglo-Saxon in 969 by Aelfric. As has been remarked elsewhere, the circulation of shortened versions of texts can usually be taken as evidence that such texts had become standard reading. In addition to manuscripts of several of Gregory’s writings surviving from the tenth century onwards, including no less than three of De hominis opificio from the tenth century itself, this same work had already been translated into Latin by John Scotus in the previous century.

At first sight Basil appears largely to repudiate classical philosophy as he recounts how one theory about the origin of the universe became supplanted by another.

Those who have written about the nature of the universe have discussed at length the shape of the earth … all these conjectures have been suggested by cosmographers, each one upsetting that of his predecessor. It will not lead me to give less importance to the creation of the universe, that the servant of God, Moses, is silent as to shapes … Shall I then prefer foolish wisdom to the oracles of the Holy Spirit? … It is this which those seem to me not to have understood, who, giving themselves up to the distorted meaning of allegory, have undertaken to give a majesty of their own invention to Scripture …

Some have said that heaven is composed of four elements … Others have rejected this system as improbable, and introduced into the world, to form the heavens, a fifth element after their own fashioning. There exists, they say, an aethereal body which is neither fire, air, earth, nor water, nor in one word any simple body … But yet another speaker arises and disperses and destroys this theory to give predominance to an idea of his own invention. Do not let us undertake to follow them for fear of falling into like frivolities; let them refute each other, and, without disquieting ourselves about essence, let us say with Moses ‘God created the heaven and the earth’. Let us glorify the supreme Artificer for all that was wisely and skillfully made … Because … the objects which on all sides attract our notice are so marvellous, that the most penetrating mind cannot attain to the knowledge of the least of the phenomenon of this world.

Hexaemeron IX.1, I.11

Basil seems intent here on keeping the minds of his workaday congregation upon simple devotion. He lived, after all, at the time of violent religious disputes such as those caused by Julian’s apostacy and Valens’s Arianism, and
both needed to be answered by an insistence on orthodoxy, particularly concerning the Holy Trinity, rather than by raking over old arguments about classical cosmogony. In fact, it was Basil himself who has been credited with precipitating the end of the Arian dispute, to be ratified soon after his death at the Council of 381 in the presence of his brother. Given the determination to hold the line on orthodoxy which this indicates, Basil is hardly likely to have encouraged cosmological speculation from his own pulpit, especially since he considered such matters to be above the heads of his artisan audience. Certainly the tradition of teaching he inherited from Clement and Origen of knowledge being reserved for the educated, leaving faith to the uneducated, would seem to support this. Indeed, it will be shown that the early Church actually developed its liturgy in a way that protected its innermost secrets from the uninitiated.

Ambiguity in this passage over the fifth essence being ether still seems unabated for, although Basil appears to dismiss it here, when dealing elsewhere with God’s command, ‘Let there be light’, he refers to it as a matter of course.

Up it sprang to the very aether and heaven. In an instant it lighted up the whole extent of the world … For the aether also is such a subtle substance and so transparent that it needs not the space of a moment for light to pass through it … With light the aether becomes more pleasing …

Hexaemeron III. 3

Here it is surely the fifth essence, being distinct from the elements and yet associated with heaven. Later in the same homily, the implication again must surely be that ether is the substance surrounding the 7 planets which therefore fills the universe.

These circles, they say, carried away in a direction contrary to that of the world, and striking the aether, make sweet and harmonious sounds, unequalled by the sweetest melody …

Hexaemeron III.3

That such matters may sometimes be implied is clear from his treatment of the elements:

… ‘In the beginning God made heaven and earth.’ … Thus, although there is no mention of the elements, fire, water and air, imagine that they were all compounds together, and you will find water, air and fire, in the earth … Do not ask, then, for an enumeration of all the elements; guess, from what Holy Scripture indicates, all that is passed over in silence.

Hexaemeron 1.7

The underlying view here seems clearly to be Platonic as well as Christian, as it is when Basil deals with the divine order and the sensible and intelligible worlds.

… ‘In the beginning God created.’ What a glorious order!

It appears, indeed, that even before this world an order of things existed of which our mind can form an idea, but of which we can say nothing, because it is too lofty a subject for men who are but beginners and are still babies in knowledge. . . . The Creator and the Demiurge of the universe perfected His works in it, spiritual light for the happiness of all who love the Lord, intellectual and invisible natures, all the orderly arrangement of pure intelligences who are beyond the reach of our mind and of whom we cannot even discover the names.

Hexaemeron I.2, 5

You will finally discover that the world … is really the school where reasonable souls exercise themselves, the training ground where they learn to know God; since by the sight of visible and sensible things the mind is led, as by a hand, to the contemplation of invisible things.

Hexaemeron I.6

This anagogical doctrine of the path that leads from the sensible to the intelligible, or from the material to the spiritual, was not only a logical corollary of Plato’s world of Forms but, of importance to this study, it also justified religious art and architecture, as Suger was to write in explaining the design of his abbey of St Denis in the twelfth century.

Gregory’s completion of his brother’s Hexaemeron seems similarly Platonic.

Now all is beautiful and good that is closely related to the First Good … If, then, … that which is truly good is one, and the mind itself also has its power of being beautiful and good, in so far as it is in the image of the good and beautiful, and the nature, which is sustained by the mind, has the like power, in so far as it is an image of the image, it is hereby shown that our material part holds together, and is upheld when it is controlled by nature; and on the other hand is dissolved and disorganized when it is separated from that which upholds and sustains it, and is dissevered from its conjunction with beauty and goodness.

De hominis opificio XII.11

Although, like his brother, Gregory sometimes appears to refute a conventional Platonic doctrine, it reappears later albeit in slightly altered
guise. For example, in referring to humans as a microcosm of the universe, he

… how unworthy of the majesty of man are the fancies of some heathen writers, who magnify humanity as they supposed, by their comparison of it with this world! for they say that man is a little world, composed of the same elements with the universe.

De hominis opificio XVI.1

Yet when he answers:

In what then does the greatness of man consist, according to the doctrine of the Church? Not in his likeness to the created world, but in his being in the image of the nature of the Creator.

De hominis opificio XVI.2

surely he is simply equating Creator and created with Origen’s own distinction between the intelligible and sensible worlds. His description of rational man certainly appears purely Platonic:

Now since man is a rational animal, the instrument of his body must be made suitable for the use of reason …

De hominis opificio VIII.8; cf. Plato, Timaeus 44D

Likewise, in another treatise, Plato’s world of Forms lies just beneath the surface as Gregory celebrates the liberal arts as the path to virtue. A virtuous man is one who,

… has been led to the apprehension of a Master of the creation; he has taken the true Wisdom for his teacher, that Wisdom which the spectacle of the Universe suggests; and when he observed the beauty of this material sunlight he had grasped by analogy the beauty of the real sunlight….

Has a man who looks at such spectacles procured for himself only a slight power for the enjoyment of those delights beyond? Not to speak of the studies which sharpen the mind towards moral excellence, geometry, I mean, and astronomy, and the knowledge of the truth that the science of numbers gives, and every method that furnishes a proof of the unknown and a conviction of the known, and, before all these, the philosophy contained in the inspired Writings, which affords a complete purification to those who educate themselves thereby in the mysteries of God.

De infantibus praemature abreptis 377-8

Once again it may be seen that the doctrines of Plato and Clement are conveyed in the importance given by Gregory to education and purification as preparations for the ‘apprehension of a Master of the creation’ and ‘the spectacle of the Universe’. Part of this apprehension is to be gained in the understanding of numbers:

… number is nothing else than a combination of units growing into a multitude in a complete way … accordingly, in order that we may be taught by Holy Scripture that nothing is unknown to God, it tells us that the multitude of the stars is numbered by Him, not that their numbering takes place as I have described, [for who is so simple as to think that God takes knowledge of things by odd and even, and that by putting units together He makes up the total of the collective quantity?] … For to measure quantity by number is the part of those who want information. But He who knew all things before they were created needs not number as His informant. But when David says that He ‘numbers the stars’, it is evident that the Scripture descends to such language in accordance with our understanding, to teach us emblematically that the things which we know not are accurately known to God.

Contra Eunomium librum II 293

Autore: Nigel Hiscock
The Wise Master Builder. Platonic Geometry in Plans of Medieval Abbeys and Cathedralsl
: Ashgate
Luogo: Aldershot
Anno: 2000
Pagine: 56-61