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51Introduction to the Hexæmeron.
The Hexæmeron is the title of nine homilies delivered by St. Basil on the cosmogony of the opening chapters of Genesis. When and where they were delivered is quite uncertain. They are Lenten sermons, delivered at both the morning and evening services, and appear to have been listened to by working men. (Hom. iii. 1.) Some words in Hom. viii. have confirmed the opinion that they were preached extempore, in accordance with what is believed to have been Basil’s ordinary practice.13611361 cf. Rufinus ii. 9. Internal evidence points in the same direction, for though a marked contrast might be expected between the style of a work intended to be read, like the De Spiritu Sancto, and that of the orations to be spoken in public, the Hexæmeron shews signs of being an unwritten composition.
In earlier ages, it was the most celebrated and admired of Basil’s works. Photius (Migne, Pat. Gr. cxli) puts it first of all, and speaks warmly of its eloquence and force. As an example of oratory he would rank it with the works of Plato and Demosthenes.
Suidas singles it out for special praise. Jerome (De Viris Illust.) among Basil’s works names only the Hexæmeron, the De Sp. Scto, and the treatise Contra Eunomium.
That Basil’s friends should think highly of it is only what might be expected. “Whenever I take his Hexæmeron in hand,” says Gregory of Nazianzus, (Orat. xliii. 67) “and quote its words, I am brought face to face with my Creator: I begin to understand the method of creation: I feel more awe than ever I did before, when I only looked at God’s work with my eyes.”
Basil’s brother Gregory, in the Proœmium to his own Hexæmeron, speaks in exaggerated terms of Basil’s work as inspired, and as being, in his opinion, as admirable as that of Moses.
The Hexæmeron of Ambrose is rather an imitation than a translation or adaptation of that of Basil. Basil’s Hexæmeron was translated into Latin by Eustathius Afer (c. A.D. 440) and is said to have been also translated by Dionysius Exiguus, the Scythian monk of the 6th C. to whom is due our custom of dating from the Saviour’s birth.
More immediately interesting to English readers is the Anglo-Saxon abbreviation attributed to Ælfric, Abbot of St. Albans in 969, and by some identified with the Ælfric who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 996 to 1006. This is extant in a MS. numbered Junius 23 in the Bodleian Library, and was collated with the MS. Jun. 47 in the same, a transcript of a MS. in the Hatton Collection, by the Rev. Henry W. Norman for his edition and translation published in 1848. It is nowhere a literal translation, but combines with the thoughts of St. Basil extracts from the Commentary upon Genesis of the Venerable Bede, as well as original matter. It is entitled
STI Basilii Exameron, ?eet Is Be Godes Six Daga Weorcvm.
“L’Hexaméron,” writes Fialon, “est l’explication de l’œuvre des six jours, explication souvent tentée avant et après Saint Basile. ‘Il n’est personne parmi les hommes, disait Théophile d’Antioche au deuxième siècle, qui puisse dignement faire le récit et exposer toute l’ecomomie de l’œuvre des six jours; eût il mille bouches et mille langues….Beaucoup d’ecrivains ont tente ce récit; ils ont pris pour sujet, les uns la création du monde, les autres l’origine de l’homme, et peut-être n’ont ils pas fait jaillir une étincelle qui fût digne de la vérité.’13621362 Theophilus of Antioch, ii. Ad Autolycum. Nous ne pouvons savoir ce que fut l’Hexaméron de Saint Hippolyte et nous ne savons guère qu’une chose de celui d’Origène: c’est qu’il dénaturait completement le récit mosaïque et n’y voyait que des allégories. L’Hexaméron de Saint Basile, par la pureté de la doctrine et la beauté du style, fit disparaitre tous ceux qui l’avaient précéde.”13631363 Étude sur St. Basile, 296. So, too, bishop Fessler. “Sapienter, pie, et admodum eloquenter 52istæ homilæ confectæ sunt; quædam explicationes physicæ profecto juxta placita scientiæ illius ætatis dijudicandæ sunt.”13641364 Inst. Pat., Ed. B. Jungmann 1890. On the other hand the prominence of the “scientiæ illius ætatis” is probably the reason why the Hexæmeron has received from adverse critics less favour than it deserves. “Diese letztern,” i.e. the Homilies in question, says Böhringer, “erlangten im Alterthum eine ganz unverdiente Berühmtheit….Die Art, wie Basil seine Aufgabe löste, ist diese; er nimmt die mosaische Erzählung von der Schöpfung Vers für Vers vor, erklärt sie von dem naturhistorischen Standpunkt seiner Zeit aus, wobei er Gelegenheit nimmt, die Ansichten der griechischen Philosophen von der Weltschöpfung u. s. w. zu widerlegen, und schliesst dann mit moralischer und religiöser Nutzandwendung, um den Stoff auch für Geist und Herz seiner Zuhörer fruchtbar zu machen. Es braucht indess kaum bemerkt zu werden, dass vom naturwissenschaftlichen wie exegetischen Standpunkt unserer Zeit diese Arbeit wenig Werth mehr hat.” The Three Cappadocians, p. 61. But in truth the fact that Basil is not ahead of the science of his time is not to his discredit. It is to his credit that he is abreast with it; and this, with the exception of his geography, he appears to be. Of him we may say, as Bp. Lightfoot writes of St. Clement, in connexion with the crucial instance of the Phœnix, “it appears that he is not more credulous than the most learned and intelligent heathen writers of the preceding and following generations.” He reads the Book of Genesis in the light of the scientific knowledge of his age, and in the amplification and illustration of Holy Scripture by the supposed aid of this supposed knowledge, neither he nor his age stands alone. Later centuries may possibly not accept all the science of the XIXth.
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