Did Basil of Caesarea attack science

In my post yesterday I discussed an online quotation from Eusebius in an anti-Christian diatribe:

#Noted Catholic Bishops declare science to be of no interest to Christians
The attitude of most of the Church Fathers towards science, however, was one of indifference or hostility. Bishop Eusebius, the noted historian of the early Christian Church, says of scientists: “It is not through ignorance of the things admired by them, but through contempt of their useless labor, that we think little of these matters, turning our souls to better things“.  Basil of Caesarea declares it “a matter of no interest to us whether the earth is a sphere or a cylinder or a disk, or concave like a fan”. Lactantius calls the study of astronomy “bad and senseless”. Like many other churchmen, he combats the pagan Greek notion that the earth is round and argues on scriptual grounds that it must be flat.

The Eusebius I traced back to an article in Popular Science, Vol. 8, No. 25, Feb. 1876.  Pp.385-409, by Andrew D. White, and it turns out to be from the Praeparatio Evangelica book 15, chapter 1.  It has, of course, no relation to science at all, but rather to the endless noodlings on all sorts of subjects of the sophists.

This morning I decided to search for the Basil quotation.  And immediately I turned up another article in Popular Science!  It turns out to be a revised version of the earlier article, by the same Andrew D. White, now an “ex-president of Cornell university”.  On p.447-8 of the August 1892 issue, we find the following:

But as civilization was developed, there were evolved, especially among the Greeks, ideas of the earth’s sphericity. The Pythagoreans, Plato, and Aristotle especially cherished them. These ideas were vague, they were mixed with absurdities, but they were germ ideas, and even amid the luxuriant growth of theology in the early Christian Church these germs began struggling into life in the minds of a few thinking men, and these men renewed the suggestion that the earth is a globe.+

The footnote fails to note who these “few thinking men” of the first to fourth centuries might be, however.  The footnote is worth giving, as indicating the real sources that White had at his disposal:

+ The agency of the Pythagoreans in first spreading the doctrine of the earth’s sphericity is generally acknowledged, but the first clear and full utterance of it to the world was by Aristotle. Very fruitful, too, was the statement of the new theory given by Plato in the Timaeus; see Jowett’s translation, New York edition, 62, c. Also Phaedo, pp. 449 et seq. See also Grote on Plato’s doctrine of the sphericity of the earth; also Sir G. C. Lewis’s Astronomy of the Ancients, London, 1802, chap, iii, section i, and note. Cicero’s mention of the antipodes, and his reference to the passage in the Timaeus are even more remarkable than the original, in that they much more clearly foreshadow the modern doctrine. See his Academic Questions, ii; also Tusc. Quest., i and v, 24. For a very full summary of the views of the ancients on the sphericity of the earth, see Kretchmer, Die physische Erdkunde im christlichen Mittelalter, Wien, 1880, pp. 85 et seq.; also, Eicken, Geschichte der mittelalterlichen Weltanschauung, Stuttgart, 1887, Dritter Theil, chap. vi. For citations and summaries, see Whewell, Hist. Induct. Sciences, vol. i, p. 189, and St. Martin, Hist. de la Geog., Paris, 1873, p. 96; also, Leopardi, Saggio sopra gli errori popolari degli antichi, Firenze, 1851, chapter xii, pp. 184 et seq.

I think we may suppose that White did not consult much of this.  But on he goes:

A few of the larger-minded fathers of the Church, influenced possibly by Pythagorean traditions, but certainly by Aristotle and Plato, were willing to accept this view, but the majority of them took fright at once. To them it seemed fraught with dangers to Scripture, by which, of course, they meant their interpretation of Scripture. Among the first who took up arms against it was Eusebius. In view of the New Testament texts indicating the immediately approaching end of the world, he endeavored to turn off this idea by bringing scientific studies into contempt. Speaking of investigators, he said, “It is not through ignorance of the things admired by them, but through contempt of their useless labor, that we think little of these matters, turning our souls to better things.” Basil of Cassarea declared it “a matter of no interest to us whether the earth is a sphere or a cylinder or a disk, or concave in the middle like a fan.” Lactantius referred to the ideas of those studying astronomy as ” bad and senseless,” and opposed the doctrine of the earth’s sphericity both from Scripture and reason. St. John Chrysostom also exerted his influence against this scientific belief; and Ephrem Syrus, the greatest man of the old Syrian Church, widely known as the “lute of the Holy Ghost,” opposed it no less earnestly.

But the strictly Biblical men of science, such eminent fathers and bishops as Theophilus of Antioch in the second century, Clement of Alexandria in the third, and others in centuries following, were not content with, merely opposing what they stigmatized as an old heathen theory; they drew from their Bibles a new Christian theory…*

* For Eusebius, see the Praep. Ev., xv, 61. For Basil, see the Hexameron, Hom, ix, cited in Peschel, Erdkunde, p. 96, note. For Lactantius, see his Inst. Div., lib. iii, cap. 3; also, citations in Whewell, Hist. Induct. Sciences, London, 1867, vol. i, p. 194, and in St Martin, Histoire de la Geographie, pp. 216, 217. For the views of St John Chrysostom Eph. Syrus, and other great churchmen, see Kretschmer as above, chap. i.

It’s worth remembering that the Praeparatio Evangelica did not exist in English at this date, and I suspect that it is a safe bet that all the sources referenced are being quoted at second hand.  The error in the reference (xv, 61 instead of xv, 1) is preserved here, for instance.  Indeed White does not conceal that his knowledge of Basil is second hand.

We are not concerned with White’s foolish and slightly unpleasant attempt to demonise the better element among his contemporaries by proving that their coreligionists of 18 centuries earlier did not happen to have attended Cornell University, and — worse! — did not share the shibboleths of the late 19th century, views which White himself held only because he lived when he did. 

But it would be most interesting to see what Basil actually said.  Fortunately these homilies are online in the NPNF series 2.  Homily 9 begins as follows:

1. How did you like the fare of my morning’s discourse? It seemed to me that I had the good intentions of a poor giver of a feast, who, ambitious of having the credit of keeping a good table saddens his guests by the poor supply of the more expensive dishes. In vain he lavishly covers his table with his mean fare; his ambition only shows his folly. It is for you to judge if I have shared the same fate. Yet, whatever my discourse may have been, take care lest you disregard it. No one refused to sit at the table of Elisha; and yet he only gave his friends wild vegetables.

I know the laws of allegory, though less by myself than from the works of others. There are those truly, who do not admit the common sense of the Scriptures, for whom water is not water, but some other nature, who see in a plant, in a fish, what their fancy wishes, who change the nature of reptiles and of wild beasts to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to snake them serve their own ends. For me grass is grass; plant, fish, wild beast, domestic animal, I take all in the literal sense. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel.”

Those who have written about the nature of the universe have discussed at length the shape of the earth. If it be spherical or cylindrical, if it resemble a disc and is equally rounded in all parts, or if it has the forth of a winnowing basket and is hollow in the middle; 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; he has not said that the earth is a hundred and eighty thousand furlongs in circumference; he has not measured into what extent of air its shadow projects itself whilst the sun revolves around it, nor stated how this shadow, casting itself upon the moon, produces eclipses. He has passed over in silence, as useless, all that is unimportant for us.

Shall I then prefer foolish wisdom to the oracles of the Holy Spirit? Shall I not rather exalt Him who, not wishing to fill our minds with these vanities, has regulated all the economy of Scripture in view of the edification and the making perfect of our souls? 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. It is to believe themselves wiser than the Holy Spirit, and to bring forth their own ideas under a pretext of exegesis. Let us hear Scripture as it has been written.

Does Basil attack science?  It seems not: surely he is attacking the allegorical interpretation of scripture? 

Is he attacking scientists, having viewed and rejected the science of late 19th century America, or so White suggests, doubtless by time-machine?  Again, the answer is no: he writes against contemporary Christians who get tangled up in the speculations of the philosophers, rather than concentrating on what the bible has to say.

It is, in fact, the words of a preacher, declining to involve himself with issues other than the text before him.  And surely that is a praiseworthy habit, rather than the reverse?


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