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The Scientific Views of St. Basil the Great.


St. Basil the Great (330-379), who is commemorated by the Church on the 1st and 30th of January, is the fighter against the heresy of Arians, the bishop of Caesarea of Cappadocia, one of the fathers of Liturgy, the teacher of the Church and a great saint.

Surely, not only because of his education, and not only for his scientific knowledge he deserved such reverence. Through the mouth of St. Apostle Paul the Church teaches that "the foolishness of God is wiser than men"… "God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise." Basil the Great himself repeats the same thought, when he writes: "The wise men talked much about nature, and none of their teachings stayed firm and unshakable, for the forthcoming teaching overthrew the preceding one…We, though we do not know the nature of the created, admire the things that are accessible to our feelings, so that even the most active mind seems to be insufficient to explain even the least part of the world, and to worthily praise the Creator, to Whom it is Glory, Honor and Power."

Though, in order that these words can be convincing, it is necessary that the one, who pronounces them, could really possess the possible fullness of the known to mankind knowledge, so that no one could say that he (attacking the bible) blasphemes at the things, he does not know. As far as St. Basil the Great is concerned, his erudition was extremely high.

This is the most important fact, which we, Russians, have to distinguish, for the works of St. Basil the Great at the beginning of the 10th century were translated by the Bulgarian presbyter John the Exarches and from the ancient times were the favorite reading of our ancestors.

Here we shall not mention the theologian knowledge of St. Basil. They are wider than the knowledge in this sphere of the majority of his contemporaries and even much higher. Very wide is the knowledge of St. Basil in the field of the classical Greek literature. Here we should mention only the natural-historical knowledge of St. Basil the Great, for exactly in this field the holy fathers are often assigned the opinions, which do not coincide with their real statements.

What is the information, which possessed St. Basil? Which are the facts that learnt the educated part of the Orthodox world of those days?

Long before Newton, who established the law of gravitation, the Church testified to the Lord: "You fixed earth upon the void, O Lord, by Your own command, and You made it free floating, heavy though it be" (3-rd hirmos of Matins’ canon, 5th tome).

In accordance with that St. Basil writes: "If you suppose that the Earth stands on water, you will have to ask, why it, being so heavy, does not plunge into it? Moreover, it would be necessary for it to find the support in water itself. This way we can continue till infinity, finding new basis for the singled out foundations" (The Works of Basil the Great, Petersburg, 1911, vol.1, p. 10).

St. Basil teaches that the "days," about which the Bible says as about the period of the world creation, are not our usual days, moreover, there could be no usual days at the time, when the sun was not yet brought forth. "Moses called the unit of time a single day, in order that this day, according to its name, would be akin to a century, for it is said: "The day of the LORD is great and very terrible" (Joel, 2:11). According to our teaching, we know that, not having succession and end, day, which is called the eighths day by the Psalmist. Therefore, no matter if you call it a day or a century, you will express the same notion (vol.1, p. 23).

Let us remind that the Church considers the seventh day to be all the time, which passed since the time of the world’s creation, and the eighths day — the period, which will come with the end of the world.

St. Basil the Great says about the phases of the Moon: "The very body of the moon with its last phase is not destroyed, for in the clear and free from any mist air, the Moon looks like a finest crescent, and you can, if you look attentively, see the dark, unlighted part of it. The light of the Moon is borrowed-like. It gets waned, coming close to the sun, and increases, getting away from it" (vol.1, p. 55).

About the size of the sun: "Do not be deceived by the appearance and by that the sun for those, who look at it, seems to be of the size of an elbow, do not assume that it is its real size. For because of the great distances the size of the visible objects is normally diminished. Our sight, being short, makes us consider the visible objects to be small, transferring its own deficiency upon them. And the heavenly body, according to the testimony of the Scripture, is enormous and more great than it seems to be" (vol.1, p.63).

St. Basil says about the form of the Earth and about eclipses: "Those, who wrote about the shape of the Earth, thought it to be a globe, but I shall not agree to accept our narration about the world’s creation to be worth of less respect, for the servant of God Moses did not discuss shapes, did not say that the circle of the earth had 180.000 stages, did not measure for what distance the shade of the earth spread, and how that shade, covering the moon, causes an eclipse. If he hushed about all that, as of the unimportant for salvation, then would I suppose the words of the Holy Spirit less important than human wisdom?" (vol.1, p.85)

St. Basil describes the rises and falls of the tide: "The changes of the moon coincide with the reverse flows of euripi — a rise and a fall of the ocean, exactly following the time of the moon conversions" (vol.1, p. 64).

One and a half thousand years before Newton, Kirchghof and Bunsen, St. Basil sets forth the theory of a rainbow — the spectrum: "When a ray of light, piercing the haze of clouds, comes to one of the clouds, then there happens some distortion and the light returns to itself. Being multi-colored, the ray gets unnoticeably colored with different shades, in the unseen for us manner concealing the mutual influence of the unequal colored parts. The reflections of all the colored rays, seen together, are white" (vol.3, p. 55).

St. Basil points at the reasons of the seas being salty (vol.1, p.31), at the causes of rain (vol. 1, p.32), gives the description of the contemporary to him practice of transforming salty water into fresh: "The seamen boil the sea water, and wiping the steam with sponges, incase of necessity, satisfy their needs" (vol.1, p.41).

He classifies the sea animals: "To one type belong the so-called scull-skinned: shells, combs, sea snails and thousands of various oysters; another kind form the cranial: the crayfish, crabs and alike; to another kind belong slugs, which have soft and spongy flesh; polyps, cuttlefish and alike. Another kind form those spawning caviar and another – viviparous. The viviparous are whales, dolphins and seals. The fish has endless varieties, differed by kinds: they have own names and food, their appearance, size and type of flesh are different, have own typical features and belong to different classes" (vol.1, p.98).

From these lines of the works of St. Basil we see how the scientific terminology was singled out, at least, the Russian one, where from originated the notions "kind," "type," etc.

St. Basil explains the process of breathing of the insects: "When you see insects, for example, bees or wasps (they are called insects because they have visible incising), note that they do not breathe with lungs, but they accept air with all their body. That is why, if they get into the oil and get wet, they die because the pores of their body become closed, and if you wash them in time with vinegar, they become alive again, for the pores to breath in the air become open again" (vol.1, p.82). In the same place, long before Harvey, St. Basil the Great says about the blood circulation.

St. Basil precisely and in detail describes the territories, from India up to the Atlantic Ocean (vol.1, p.29), he knows where the Nile rises (vol.1, p.368). He knows that the Indian Ocean is connected with the Atlantics. He knows about the existence of the Chinese and that they rear silkworms.

Finally St. Basil says about the scientific questions, slightly known to our generation, about the time relativity: "The wise in everything man can do everything, even can define the nature of time, saying that time is the quality movement of the sun, the moon and the stars, which have power to move by themselves. But how will this wise call the time period from the beginning of the existence of the sky and the earth, up to the creation of the stars? How will he define the continuation of the day, when, on the word of Joshua the sun stood still and the moon was at its place? How will he call this moment? For, if the nature of time got impoverished, then evidently there started the eternity. But to call the eternity the minor part of the day does not it mean to become insane? Days, hours, months, years are measures, but not the parts of time. Time is space, which comes along with the state of the world. By it they measure any movement, be it either of stars, animals, anything that moves, for we say that one thing is quicker or slower than another: faster, when it in less time covers the greater distance; slower, when in more time it moves forward less. A fussy wise man calls the stars resting on time, for they are moving in time. Let us define the time likewise: it is the quality movement of the ground-beetles. It does not differ from the made fussily-wise accretions, except the identity of names" (vol.1, p.148).

These extracts from the works of St. Basil the Great show, what clear, steadfast scientific world-view he had. We do not see in his works even a trace of those fairy-tale concepts of the world, which slanderers try imposing upon the fathers of the church.

His scientific world-view St. Basil did not count as the highest stage of cognition. He gave his forces to the best: the Divine knowledge, contemplation of God and serving to God. Only in passing, but in the same wide and multi-sided way, he accepted the contemporary to him scientific world-view, knowing to choose the best and true from it. In reality: "Godliness is profitable unto all things" (1 Tim. 4:8) and "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Math. 6:33).

The wide knowledge of St. Basil was united into the entire fine and integrated world contemplation, for it was consecrated by his great faith in God and love for Him. Contemplating the purposefulness, considered character of the universe in its small and great details, he gladly saw in that the Divine hand, which created and is guiding the world.

The world has its beginning and was created, writes St. Basil. Let us ask ourselves: who started it and who is its creator? It is better to tell you at once, in order not to deviate from truth, looking for the answer through human contemplations: God created it. This Blessed Creature, this Blessedness, which cannot be depleted, this Kindness, loved and so much longed for by any reasonable creature, this Beginning of creatures, this Source of life, this Spiritual Light, this Unassailable Wisdom is the One, Who in the beginning created the heaven and earth" (vol.1, p.5)

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