De Sacramentis 1.1.6

1.1.6. “On the first unformed state of all things; of what nature it was; and how long the world remained in it.” In this chapter we get a deeper picture of Hugh of St. Victor’s cosmology and cosmogony. When the world was first created, the unmixed earthly element was placed “in the middle.” In the middle of what? Apparently of the created, spatial cosmos as a whole. Created with and surrounding this earthly center was a confused “cloud” comprised of the other three elements, air, fire, and water, in so mingled a state that none of these could “appear what it was” (cp. the unformed matter of the “Receptacle” in Plato’s Timaeus, in which barely a trace of the four elements is allowed to appear and endure prior to the intervention of the divine Demiurge). This confused “cloud and darkness” of the three elements, “suspended on all sides,” filled up the rest of the spatial cosmos “from the surface of the earth lying in a middle position to the extreme and highest limit of the circle of heaven.” In a word, it is heaven. Hugh doesn’t make the point, but this rudimentary division between heaven and earth, or between the element of earth on the one hand and the confused mixture of air, fire, and water on the other, might be said to comprise what Hugh distinguished before as the otherwise unformed matter’s original and “first form,” the “form of confusion.” And although the waters had not yet been separated at this point, already the beds and channels of water in the earth “had been prepared…. as future receptacles of waters.”

Notable among these was “that great abyss” from which all streams of waters would have their origin. It was this great abyss that “showed the sheer void, horrible with its mouth still open and empty” (cp. the Greek concept of Chaos or Chasm, especially in Hesiod’s Theogony). Hugh mentions again the confused mixture of elements surrounding and covering the earth in general, and of the abyss in particular, now referring to it as the “dark mist” and “darkness” that Scripture describes as having been “over the face of the abyss when heaven and earth were created.”

Hugh at this point returns to the earlier discussion of matter having been first created without form, claiming now that Scripture itself teaches this (something Hugh did not say in his earlier treatment) when it says that God created the earth “empty and void.” Hugh next defines “heaven and earth” as “that matter of all heavenly and earthly things from which afterwards the things which were first created simultaneously in this matter in essence were made successively in form,” and further specifying “earth” as “the element itself of earth” and “heaven” as “that light confusion of the remaining three elements.” In these two sources “was contained the matter for forming all the heavenly and earthly bodies.”

Hugh returns to the subjects of the darkness and the abyss, locating the latter in the earth and the former in heaven. He gives an intriguing argument for why the initial place of darkness was properly heaven and not the abyss, inasmuch as it is heaven and not the abyss to which “light was afterwards to come. For darkness could not have been save in the place of light.” Thus, although darkness may be said temporally or chronologically to precede light, darkness is nevertheless only able to inhabit that place where light is later to come, meaning that in an absolute, logical, or ontological sense it is light which precedes, defines, and so determines darkness. (Cp. Tolkien’s treatment of darkness’s dependence on light in The Silmarillion, particularly in the Ainulindalë and in “The Darkening of Valinor.”) Put differently, darkness is eschatological and teleological, in its very being already anticipating the light which it precedes and yet by which it will be negated or canceled, in whose presence it must flee. A few sentences later Hugh will explicitly refer to darkness as the “privation of light,” yet in the order of Genesis it is a very peculiar and provocative kind of privation: it is a privation that preexists the thing it is a privation of.

Hugh moves next to a discussion of the “waters,” the creation of which Hugh includes in that of the heavens. Hugh goes further, however, to actually equate the darkness, the heavens, and the waters as one and the same entity—“heaven itself is darkness itself, and this is also the waters”—and suggests only a semantic difference, at least initially, between the three. This reality is called heaven “on account of its lightness” or levity, darkness “on account of privation of light,” and water “on account of movement and fluctuation.”

The next paragraph finds Hugh occupied with a somewhat pedantic point, namely the question of heaven’s placement above the earth. Naturally, he observes that “the heavy should be arranged below and the light above.” What is perhaps of greatest interest in this section (at least to the present writer) is his explanation for why Scripture “has mentioned heaven before earth.” Hugh anticipates an objection that heaven was mentioned before earth inasmuch as “heaven was created below as a foundation,” and his reply gives us a brief insight the nature of medieval grammar and logic: “I think that it is so mentioned not for the sake of order [i.e., ascending physical or spatial order] but of dignity, and also because the word following must be considered as applying to the element of earth as the nearest term, as it were, and on this account last mentioned; therefore heaven had to be mentioned first and earth afterwards.” The reason earth is mentioned last, in other words, and therefore is the term made “nearest” to the speaker, as it were, is because earth is nearest to the speaker. Grammatical proximity, in short, reflects physical proximity.

“And where were the waters?” begins the following paragraph. These were neither under nor above heaven, but were in heaven and indeed the original waters were heaven. On the second day was made the firmament, which introduced a separation and hence distinction within the heavens and therefore also within the waters. The firmament “made a division” between waters and waters,” so that the “waters which first were waters were made waters,” that is to say, they were made “the waters which are under haven and the waters which are above heaven.” The firmament made a similar division between heaven and heaven, namely “heaven above heaven and heaven under heaven.”

So the firmament, one might say, gives form to the waters or the heavens, turning the waters into waters and the heavens into heavens. This perspective is confirmed in the next question Hugh raises, which is “how long a time the world existed in this confusion before its disposition was begun.” In 1.1.4, it may be recalled, Hugh had described the world’s original state or “form of confusion” as the “first form,” the world’s unformed form, as it were, and its later condition of disposition as its “second form” accomplished “through the intervals of the six days.” Thus, what we see in the second day is the firmament’s introduction of an element of disposition, the second form. Hugh goes on to say that the “first matter of all things began at the beginning of time, or rather with time itself.” This would seem to contradict Augustine’s argument, for example, in the Confessions that because of the heaven’s original perfection and plenitude of form (Augustine interprets “heavens” in Gen. 1:1 in Neoplatonic fashion to refer to the unchanging, sempiternal realm surrounding the divine presence) and because of the earth’s utter lack of form, there could have been no time when heaven and earth were first created, inasmuch as time involves the passage of one form to another. On the other hand, while Hugh suggests that time was created with the heavens and the earth, nevertheless between this initial creation and the later disposition “no delay was interposed; so that it may be truly said that this was done after that, but that between this which was made and that no delay at all intervened.” So the disposing of creation during the six days did literally or temporally take place after the initial act of creation, but this is not to say that there was a measurable, temporal period of duration between the act of creation and the first act of disposition.

Hugh returns to his earlier analogy from 1.1.3 comparing the way in which matter was first created without form with the way in which the angelic nature was similarly created initially “unformed” in comparison to the “wisdom and discretion” that would come later after the angelic nature had “fixed itself through the conversion of love upon that highest and true good in which it was to be made happy.” Hugh again affirms that both the corporeal and incorporeal natures were both created simultaneously in time and with time. One important difference between the corporeal nature created without form and the incorporeal, angelic nature created with form, however, is that only the latter was created in its own, subsistent and individuated being. With unformed matter was created that “from which” the corporeal nature was made, whereas with incorporeal nature was created “that which it is itself.”


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