A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Fourth century words about words

St. Basil, who lived from around 330-379 CE, is one of the “three hierarchs” of the Orthodox Church. I’ve just finished reading (in a translation by RJ Deferrai), an excellent essay On the distinction between ousia and hypostasis. In this letter, he writes very clearly about the Christian view of God as Triune, in particular explaining the meaning of the technical terms ousia (abstract being) and hypostasis (individual being).

It’s good as a piece of theology, but it’s also interesting as clear technical writing. It also has a fascinating illustration of the rainbow, which he makes clear is to be used as an illustration; it’s not reasoning by analogy. He also uses it to show that the ousia/hypostasis distinction is not just a piece of theology, but that similar phenomena occur “mong perceptible things.”

His description on how rainbows work is amazing, considering he’s writing in the fourth century:

Those who are skilled in these things claim that [this bow] is formed whenever a certain moisture is mixed with the air, the force of the winds compressing the moist and dense [portions] of the vapours, already having become cloudy, into rain. They say the process of formation is this. When the ray of the sun intercepts at a slant the compact and opaque [portion] of the cloud, then immediately it impresses its own circle upon the cloud such that there is a bending and return of the light to itself, for the sunlight returns in the opposite direction from what is moist and shiny. For since it is in the nature of flame-like | flashes of light, if they fall upon something smooth, to recoil back upon themselves, and since the shape of the sun which is formed in the damp and smooth part of the air is circular, necessarily also is the air adjacent to the cloud outlined in the shape of the sun’s disc by the reflecting brilliance.

Could you do a better job? And he makes a distinction between continuous and discrete properties that seems very modern:

Now this brilliancy is both continuous with itself and separated. For although it is many-coloured and multiform, imperceptibly it is intermingled in itself with the various colours of the dyer, so that the juncture between [the colours] steals unaware from our eyes. As such we cannot discern between the blue-green and the yellow an intervening space which both mingles them together and separates them from each other, or between the yellow and the purple, or between the purple and the amber. For when the rays of all the colours are seen [together], they are distinct yet also hide from us their points of continuity with each other, eluding our scrutiny, with the result that it is impossible to discover just how far the red or the green [portion] of the radiance extends, and from which point it begins no longer to be that which it is observed to be in its distinct segment.

Finally, and I think this is very interesting to find in a fourth century writing (you must understand that I really don’t know that much about fourth century writing), is that he allows a word to mean different things in different contexts, rather than have a fixed, platonic meaning. This he does to explain what St. Paul meant when he described Jesus as being the figure of God the Father’s hypostasis, which is odd if hypostasis means the essence of what it means to be a particular individual.

But we assert this, namely that the statement fulfils a different purpose for the apostle, … a purpose which, if a person perceives it properly, he will find does not contradict our statements; but [Paul’s] argument is carried out with a certain peculiar intention.


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