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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

St Basil the Great HEXAEMERON, Complete

Translated by Bl. Jackson.

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80 Pages (Homilies: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

Page 13

11. We might say the same thing of the heavens. With what a noise of words the sages of this world have discussed their nature! Some have said that heaven is composed of four elements as being tangible and visible, and is made up of earth on account of its power of resistance, with fire because it is striking to the eye, with air and water on account of the mixture. [1410] 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. These simple bodies have their own natural motion in a straight line, light bodies upwards and heavy bodies downwards; now this motion upwards and downwards is not the same as circular motion; there is the greatest possible difference between straight and circular motion. It therefore follows that bodies whose motion is so various must vary also in their essence. But, it is not even possible to suppose that the heavens should be formed of primitive bodies which we call elements, because the reunion of contrary forces could not produce an even and spontaneous motion, when each of the simple bodies is receiving a different impulse from nature. Thus it is a labour to maintain composite bodies in continual movement, because it is impossible to put even a single one of their movements in accord and harmony with all those that are in discord; since what is proper to the light particle, is in warfare with that of a heavier one. If we attempt to rise we are stopped by the weight of the terrestrial element; if we throw ourselves down we violate the igneous part of our being in dragging it down contrary to its nature. Now this struggle of the elements effects their dissolution. A body to which violence is done and which is placed in opposition to nature, after a short but energetic resistance, is soon dissolved into as many parts as it had elements, each of the constituent parts returning to its natural place. It is the force of these reasons, say the inventors of the fifth kind of body for the genesis of heaven and the stars, which constrained them to reject the system of their predecessors and to have recourse to their own hypothesis. [1411] But yet another fine 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 heavens and the earth." Let us glorify the supreme Artificer for all that was wisely and skillfully made; by the beauty of visible things let us raise ourselves to Him who is above all beauty; by the grandeur of bodies, sensible and limited in their nature, let us conceive of the infinite Being whose immensity and omnipotence surpass all the efforts of the imagination. Because, although we ignore the nature of created things, 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 phenomena of the world, either to give a suitable explanation of it or to render due praise to the Creator, to Whom belong all glory, all honour and all power world without end. Amen.

[1410] This is the doctrine of Plato vide Tim. The Combef. mss. reads not mixis, mixture, but methexis, participation.

[1411] Here appears to be a reference to Arist., De Gen. Ann. ii. 3, 11, pases men oun psuches dunamis heteron somatos e& 231;ike kekoinonekenai kai theioterou ton kaloumenon stoicheion; hos de diapherousi timioteti hai psuchai kai atimi& 139; allelon houto kai he toiaute diapherei phusis, and again, pneuma...analogon ousa to ton astron stoichei& 251;. On the fifth element of Aristotle cf. Cic., Tusc. Disp. i. 10. Aristoteles...cum quatuor illa genera principiorum erat complexus, equibus omnia orirentur, quintam quandam naturam censet esse, equa sit mens. Aug., De Civ. Dei xxii. 11. 2, and Cudworth's Int. Syst. (Harrison's Ed. 1845) iii. p. 465. Hence the word "quintessence," for which the Dictionaries quote Howard's Translation of Plutarch, "Aristoteles hath put...for elements foure; and for a fifth quintessence, the heavenly body which is immutable." Skeat s. v. points out that "the idea is older than Aristotle: cf. the five Skt. bhutas, or elements, which were earth, air, fire, and water, and aether. Thus the fifth essence is aether, the subtlest and highest." It is evident that Milton had these theories in mind when he wrote (Par. Lost, iii. 716): "Swift to their several quarters hasted then The cumbrous elements, earth, flood, air, fire; And this ethereal quintessence of heaven Flew upward, spirited with various forms, That rolled orbicular, and turned to stars Numberless."

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