Linguistics of Fathers of the Church

BASIL THE GREAT: POLITICS, MIND, SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE

St. Basil the Great (whose own treatise on the creation spoke of the Trinity as ‘one ousía, three hypostáseis) was not enunciating four primary substances, but used ‘substance’ (ousía) in the secondary, abstract sense of essence or universal nature of three different manifestations, alive as persons. This explain unity of God: the essence is the same, – the persons are three.

The heart of Trinity is the same substance, a so strict love between the Father, the Son and the Spirit, that their persons own the same heart, the same love.

This rapid insight into the theory of Trinity of St. Basil, one of the Cappadocian Fathers (together with Gregory of Nazianzus), wants to show the relationship of such theory with his early education. St. Basil spent his youth in philosophical study in Athens in the 4th century, where he most certainly was exposed to Neoplatonism; the scent of the Neoplatonic theory of the One can be felt, and his ideas about Trinity could not even be followed without a thorough training in current Greek philosophical discourse. The idea of the One as the heart of all the dispersed reality of Cosmos, measure beyond any measure, is connected by Basil to the Christian idea of God as self-effusive Love. This way, that conception becomes the model, since those ancient times, for a new Philosophy of Politics, a new idea of Individual Mind, a new Philosophy of Language and of a Science of Society (I use, intentionally, herein terms which are of course unknown at that time).

 

THE TRINITY OF MIND, BODY AND HEART

The Trinitarian heart of God must be reflected by the creatures; as God owns unity and dignity, the individual heart and mind shall own dignity and self-mastery. It is easy to recall the point in Basil’s Long Rules, where, for instance, he wrote that “raucous laughter and uncontrollable shaking of the body are not indications of a well-regulated soul, or of personal dignity, or self-mastery”. Here the Individual Human Person is seen as unity of mind, body and heart.

 

AN ANCIENT PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE: BEYOND THE ANALYSIS

The same Philosophy of Language (again using for while a term unknown to that tradition of thought) was transformed when we take account of interpretation of the language of Bible. Although Genesis was not as attractive to Christian interpreters as Job or the Psalms, explicating the creation narrative of Gen. 1:1–26 had been a task of hermeneutics since the great hexameral commentaries of Basil of Caesarea and Ambrose. Here Basil, in analogy with his idea of Trinity and Neoplatonic concept of the One, conceives the creation story in the Bible as having three layers of meaning (three hypostáseis, three personifications of sense, three manifestations of the same Spirit of Love) beyond its literal or ‘historical’ sense:

  • allegorical,
  • tropological and
  • anagocical.

The standard view of Basil’s tradition was that history in the Bible talks about events, but the three layers are:

  • Allegory, about how one thing is understood from another (for example, it is only an example: this alludes to the Son, the “Word” and the metaphors of the Godspell),
  • Tropology, discussing morals (the Father and his laws), and
  • Anagogy, as conceiving the spiritual meaning (the Spirit … that leads to higher things).

 

SOCIAL SCIENCES AS NOESIS OF THE BETTER SENSE (SPIRITUAL VALUE)

This strong attention of Basil to the profound Spirit of the text leads him to a courageous and free use of the pagan elements of literature available at his times, of the science of that moment, of the entire society as the titanic book of the Cosmos. This becomes a model for a Science of laical Society (I use intentionally another term, which is of course unknown at that time). In his famous letter addressed to the young men in their attitude towards poetry, literature and every aspect of society, he recommend them to educate themselves to pick properly the good spirit of those things, the way bees select the best from flowers  (see the letter “To young men on the right use of literature”, 4.7–8). This is a reflex of his theory of interpretation of Bible (inquiring the Trinitarian sense: allegorical, tropological and anagogical).