Friday, December 3, 2010

Basil, Beasts, and the Contemplation of Nature

In the course of researching my final paper,1 I spent a big of time digging into Basil of Caesarea's exegetical homilies on the Hexameron. Eriugena specifically cites Basil's exegesis in his discussion of the fifth and sixth days of creation, particularly the possibly psuedographical2 tenth and eleventh homilies on the creation of humans on the sixth day. However, I would like to focus on Basil's eight and ninth homilies, which I think quite nicely illustrate some of the ideas about nature which underlie medieval thought, especially within the contemplative tradition and projects such as Albertus Magnus' works on animals that we encountered earlier in the quarter.3

Basil's homilies on the creation of animals feature many of the themes that we see in later medieval bestiaries. For instance, the reproduction of vultures prefigures the virgin birth of Christ:

It is said that the vultures hatched without coition a very great number of young, and this, although they are especially long-lived; in fact, their life generally continues for a hundred years. Consider this as my special observation from the history of birds, in order that, if ever you see any persons laughing at out mystery, as though it were impossible and contrary to nature for a virgin to give birth while her virginity itself was preserved immaculate, you may consider that God...first set forth innumerable reasons from nature for our beliefs in His wonders.4

Basil also gives us numerous examples of animals embodying some specific virtue or vice:

The ox is steadfast, the ass sluggish; the horse burns with desire for the mare; the wolf is untamable and the fox crafty; the deer is timid, the ant industrious; the dog is grateful and constant in friendship.5

Basil insists that these characteristics were specifically implanted at the time of creation by God, for a specific purpose. The vulture passage above is a perfect example of this understanding, through the fact of the vulture's virginal conception, belief in the virginity of Mary is made more tenable. With this understanding, Basil can definitively answer a question that we have touched on a number of times in class: “can animals act in a manner contrary to God's will?” in the negative. Basil seizes on this fact and, similarly to Francis' sermon to the birds, uses the contrast between irrational animals' comprehension and enactment of God's plan and the failure of rational animals, humans, to do the same in order to rebuke his audience:

No skill in gathering roots or acquaintance with herbs procured for the irrational animals the knowledge of what was useful, but each of the animals is able naturally provisions for its own safety and it posses a certain inexplainable attraction toward what which is according to its natures. We also possess natural virtues toward which there is an attraction of soul not from the teaching of men, but from nature itself...If the lioness loves her offspring and the wolf fights for her whelps, what can man say when he disregards the command6 and debases his nature, or when a son dishonors the old age of his father, or a father through a second marriage neglects the children of his first?7

This rebuke is, I think, rather illustrative of some of the deeper themes in Basil's understanding of nature.

I will begin with the somewhat tangential observation that Basil seems to understand nature as still inherently ordered by God's will, not disordered as a consequence of the Fall. This fits in nicely with his brother Gregory of Nyssa's contention, which is later taken up by Maximus and Eriugena8 that the cosmological consequences of the Fall9 are located in the severing of humanity's ability to act as a mediator between God and nature. Thus, while nature is certainly fallen alongside humanity, it still acts according to God's will and is, in fact, explicitly shaped by God to serve as a corrective for the catastrophic consequences of the Fall.10 Unfortunately, I am not familiar enough with Basil's writings to state whether he explicitly develops this theme in his works, but it seems, at least, to be implicitly running though his exegesis of creation, particularly when we look a bit closer at his rebuke.

In his challenge to the audience, Basil insists that humans should be able to discern proper action through nature itself:

The fact, then, that we were not taught by books what was useful is not a sufficient defense for us, who have understood how to choose what is advantageous by the untaught law of nature11

Specifically, I take Basil to be referring to the contemplation of created things such as animals, which, as Basil has demonstrated through his numerous examples, illustrate moral and Scriptural truths. In fact, Basil's homilies on creation can be taken as a form of exactly this sort of contemplation.12 This contemplation of exterior things, while it is considerably helpful for one's spiritual growth, is, for Basil, only a means to an end. He carefully stresses that knowledge gleaned from external things pales in comparison to knowledge of God derived from knowledge of self:

Yet, it is not possible for one, intelligently examining himself, to learn to know God better from the heavens and earth than from our own constitution, as the prophet says: 'Thy knowledge is become wonderful from myself'13

Thus, the contemplation of created things, of animals, enables us to better know ourselves. Basil's own examples make it clear that he has been driving toward this point throughout the homilies. The gratitude of a dog brings into relief our ingratitude towards God, the care of animals for their young calls into question how we treat our children, the preparedness of animals for winter indicate the care that we should take towards our own futures in the next life, and so on.

The examination of external things as a means in which to understand ourselves takes on a further, more metaphysical, dimension when we consider the idea of human nature containing all of creation within itself, which was a powerful element of Cappadocian thought.14 Since humans contain, in some sense, the universal ideas of all creation within themselves, the contemplation of nature grants us insight into these internal ideas, which are fundamentally grounded within the divine.15 This tradition in contemplative thought persists for centuries. Bonaventure clearly is drawing on this understanding in the Itinerarium, for instance. Furthermore, I think we can see this idea as underlying works like Albertus Magnus' writings as well. Albertus' work is an attempt to understand nature, in order that he might understand himself, in order that he might understand God. This ideal seems, to me at least, to be running through much of the medieval writing on animals we encountered this quarter, and, through Basil, we can see the Late Antique antecedents of this thought. 

1Which is on John Scottus Eriugena's understanding of animals and how that fits into his soteriological thought, particularly the contemplative aspects of this understanding.
2More precisely, possibly written by or finished by or heavily revised by his brother Gregory of Nyssa, or Basil actually wrote them. It's unclear.
3Of course, one of my purposes in this post is to suggest that distinguishing between what Alberus is doing and the contemplative tradition is a mistake.
4Basil. Exegetical Homilies. Trans. Sister Agnes Clare Way. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1963) 128. I think this nicely ties into the idea that I've broached a number of times in class that medieval authors don't take creatures as symbolizing divine truths, but actually participating in them.
5Basil 138
6Basil is speaking of Paul's imperative in Ephesians 6:4 “do not provoke your children to anger.”
7Basil 141-2
8Among others
9The cosmological implications of the Fall are a major issue in all three authors' works, particularly Eriugena's, largely because of all three's conception, to varying degrees, of an anthro-centric creation.
10Such as, for instance, containing vultures which give birth to young without coition, in order to prefigure the Virgin Birth.
11Basil 141
12Basil repeatedly refers to his project as contemplation. Cf. 143. I should probably add the disclaimer that I don't read Greek, so I have to assume that the translator has accurately rendered Basil's vocabulary.
13Basil 147. Basil almost certainly has a number of reasons for asserting this, prime among them the idea that humans are created as an image of God, which was central to much of the Cappadocians' thought.
14Gregory of Nyssa takes this idea and runs with it, and Eriugena takes it even further, making it the foundation of his entire understanding of reality.
15More specifically, within the Word of God, following the prologue to John's Gospel.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciated very much your efforts throughout the quarter to help us see how the authors in the medieval Christian tradition thought about nature not just as a sign, but as actually participating in divine truths (as you suggest in n. 4). Where do you see yourself in relationship to this tradition? I ask because one of the things that has come up in certain modern discussions of animals (as I've mentioned in class) is the insistence that the Western tradition does not give a place for thinking about nature spiritually, as it were. In part, as I am sure everyone in the class is now well aware, this insistence depends upon an active forgetting of the older, pre-modern tradition of seeing animals, but if we recover that tradition through our scholarship, what then do we do with it? Is it possible, if not to reenchant the world, then at the very least to reconnect it with a vision of the divine that allows animals a place in our self-conceptualization that is both sacred and scientific? If this is even the best way to phrase the question, which I am not entirely sure that it is.