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Bernardus Silvestris, the Cosmographia

Saturday, 8 Oct 2016

Cosmographia on Dr John Dunn. Aristotelianism was the convention transgressed by Dante. The sources of his cosmology and cosmography were neo-platonic and drawn from Cosmographia by Bernard Sylvester who, in turn, drew upon the only available extensive text of Plato then available in the Latin West, the Timaeus. (See XXX in Thought Pieces.)

Dante’s cosmos is recognisable in the Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris. Written in about 1147, the first part, Megacosmos,in particular, is typical of the standpoint of earlier Platonists known as the “school of Chartres”, because of their association with Thierry de Chartres. Thierry was notable for his embrace of Plato's Timaeus and his application of philosophy to theological issues. Bernardus dedicated the Cosmographia to Thierry, in repayment of an intellectual debt.

Cosmographia fuses Bernardus’ Biblical understanding of God’s creative work, with the more emanationist ideas that he gleaned from Eriugena, Plato and Hermes. The book begins with the realisation by the goddess Natura (nature) that Silva, who represents prime matter, yearns to be given forms that can start to make an ordered universe. Silva is the Latin word for the forest, or wilds, in recognition of her formless state. She is the pre-existent chaos of Genesis, the darkness “without form and void”

Natura goes to her mother, Noys, to ask for Silva to be given form (in other words, for the universe to be created). Noys is the mind of God, containing all the divine ideas, or patterns, of everything which could be created.

The mind of God is described by mixing terminology from Eriugena and the Asclepius. 'For the primary substance (usia), eternal permanence, simplicity fecund of plurality, one, unique, complete in and of itself, is the nature of God, whose infinitude of being and majesty no limit can circumscribe.'* (Cosmographia, Book 1, chap.4)

The creative Word of God is then described with the supporting metaphor of light. Drawn from Eriugena, light too was the highly prominent neo-Platonic trope of transcendence in Dante’s Paradise.

“From this inaccessible light a radiant splendour shone forth – the image, or perhaps I may call it a face inscribed with the image, of the Father. This is the wisdom of God, conceived and nourished by the living fountains of eternity. From this wisdom arises the deliberation, from deliberation the will, and from the divine will the shaping of cosmic life.” (Cosmographia, Book 1, chap.4. The last sentence echoes the Asclepius 26, according to W.Wetherbee.)

Having achieved the first and most fundamental objective, of putting the chaos of Silva into order, by separating all matter into its four basic elements, fire, air, water and earth, Noys needs to produce a cosmic soul, which will imprint divine commands upon all created being. From Noys emanates

“Thelife, illumination and soul of creation, Endelechia. […] Her shining substance appeared just like a steadily flowing fountain... and she is a 'vitalising spark'. (Cosmographia, Book 1, chap.2)

Following Chalcidius, the 4th-century philosopher who translated the first part of Plato's Timaeus from Greek into Latin around the year 321, Silvestris calls her Endelechia, because she is the perfection of all creatures in their own kind. She is present in everything as spirit.

The second part of the work, the Microcosmos,was left incomplete, with no final flourish about humanity’s place in the universe, as might have been expected. Nevertheless, Endelechia’s ‘vitalising spark’ allegorises the neo-Platonic principle of a participative divinity and man as capax Dei, that is, capable of participating in God. The discovery of this principle was the destiny of Dante’s pilgrim in Paradise.

*Usia comes from Periphyseon, book 1; “eternal permanence” from the Asclepius

© John Dunn

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