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  • Sympatheia in Basil of Caesarea's Hexameron:A Plotinian Hypothesis
  • N. Joseph Torchia (bio)
Abstract

By the fourth century, Christian thinkers had developed a number of detailed commentaries on the account of creation found in the opening chapters of Genesis. A notable example of this work is found in Basil of Caesarea's Hexameron, a series of nine homilies. While Basil claimed to provide a strictly literal interpretation of Genesis, his exposition reveals a reliance upon insights derived from a range of sources that include Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. But investigations of its possible Neoplatonic heritage (and more specifically, its Plotinian background) are relatively sparse. Apparently, portions of only two homilies (that is, hex. 2.7 and 6.9) have been isolated as indicators of a Plotinian influence. Accordingly, Basil's Hexameron offers a potentially fertile source for further assessments of the scope of his intellectual dependence upon Plotinus. This paper undertakes such an assessment within the context of Basil's discussion of the act of creation, with a special focus upon his use of the term sympatheia. While Basil's interpretation of sympatheia reflects the influence of the Stoic philosopher Posidonius, it strongly suggests that a Plotinian influence was operative in the Hexameron (as well as in a number of other works in the Basilian corpus). In this connection, the paper contends that Basil gained access to the notion of sympatheia and some closely related insights through the mediation of Plotinus' Enneads IV.3.–IV.4.

By the fourth century, Christian thinkers had developed a number of detailed commentaries upon Genesis. A notable example of this work is found in Basil of Caesarea's Hexameron, a detailed exposition of the six days of creation. Basil's Hexameron comprises nine homilies which were supposedly delivered during a single Lenten week in C.E. 378, the year of his death.1 Prominent Church Fathers such as Gregory Nazianzus, Gregory [End Page 359] of Nyssa, Ambrose, and Jerome shed great praise upon these writings for their penetrating insights.2 When Ambrose acknowledged those "more expert authors who have precedence over us" in his own rich Hexameron (IV.3.11), he clearly had Basil in mind.

Basil set out to interpret Scripture in its most literal sense.3 As he affirms, "when I hear 'grass,' I think of grass, and in the same manner I understand everything as it is said. . . ."4 In contrast to those who apply the allegorical method of interpretation, Basil seeks to understand the text before him precisely "as it has been written."5 For him, the authoritative character of Genesis is traceable directly to Moses, an author whose words of truth are expressed in "the teachings of the Spirit," and not in the "persuasive language of human wisdom."6 Despite this avowed commitment to literal exegesis, however, Basil's commentary on Genesis reveals a reliance upon insights derived from a range of sources that include Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. But investigations focusing upon its possible Neoplatonic heritage (and more specifically, its Plotinian back-ground) are relatively sparse.7

The paucity of research in this area is evident when we consider that only small portions of two homilies in Basil's Hexameron (that is, 2.7 and 6.9) have been isolated as possible indicators of a Plotinian influence.8 Accordingly, the Hexameron homilies offer a potentially fertile field for further assessments of the scope and extent of Basil's intellectual dependence [End Page 360] upon the Enneads. This paper will undertake such an assessment within the context of Basil's discussion of the act of creation. In this way, I hope to expand the rather short list of Plotinus' writings which have been suggested as Basil's sources. I begin with a brief consideration of his treatment of the opening lines of Genesis, as found in the first and second homilies of Basil's Hexameron.

Basil on the Act of Creation

Basil's point of departure is the teaching that "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen l.l). In a manner consistent with Divine omnipotence, God brought the world into being by the mere inclination of His will, like potters who...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3184
Print ISSN
1067-6341
Pages
pp. 359-378
Launched on MUSE
1996-09-01
Open Access
No
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