Bernard Silvester

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BERNARD SILVESTER

Lat. Bernardus Silvestris (Bernard of Tours), poet, philosopher, and teacher; born c. 1100; died c. 1160. The earliest in a long series of medieval and Renaissance mythic poets who sought to use the language of metaphor and symbol to express theological and philosophical truths. Bernard simultaneously promoted the dignity of humanity, the dignity of nature and science, and the power of divine grace.

Life. Little is known of Bernard's life, even the dates of his birth and death are based only on the approximate dates of works attributed to him. Bernard seems to have spent most of his life teaching at the Cathedral school of Tours. He dedicated his most famous work, the Cosmographia, to Thierry of Chartres, who was still alive at the time, and it is possible that he studied under Thierry at Paris or at Chartres. He also shows profound knowledge of William of Conches, with whom he either studied or whom he read extensively. Because of this he has long been associated with the Chartrian tradition. The only sure date we have for Bernard is 1147, when he read his Cosmographia before Pope Eugene III. Bernard, we are told, won the pope's favor.

Thought. Bernard Silvester wrote commentaries and imaginative poetry in the great tradition of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy and Plato's Timaeus. He sought to demonstrate the compatibility of pagan and Arabic thought with Christian teaching, and he saw classical literature as the outside wrapping (integumentum ) of the inner kernel of divine truth. The task of the philosopher was to unlock the interpretative key and to reveal the truth that lay within, but Bernard moved from philosophical commentator to creator of mythic poetry. He saw himself as the poet inspired by God to reveal God's marvelous plan through the creative use of language. The legacy of his groundbreaking work can be found in Matthew of Vendome, Alan of Lille, and Dante. Fate played a large role in his writings, as did the power of God revealed in the created world and life of humanity. He is a poet who demonstrates a deep knowledge of the Aristotelian corpus as it was understood through mid-twelfth century Latin translations, as well as through Islamic philosophical and scientific works.

Works. Bernard's most celebrated work is the Cosmographia (1147). It is divided into two parts, the "Megacosmos," which deals with the creation of the universe, and the "Microcosmos," which discusses the creation of humanity. Natura, a goddess who personifies the spirit of nature, calls on Noys, another allegorical figure who represents the Platonic equivalent of the divine mind and wisdom, to grant form to Silva, the undifferentiated and unformed chaos. Noys, who also represents the Second Person of the Trinity, obliges by creating the universe, which Natura can then shape. Noys sends Natura to consult with Urania and Physis, the personifications of reason and the physical cosmos, on the creation of a human body and soul, which Natura then binds together. The three goddesses traverse the cosmos, momentarily passing outside the bounds of the celestial spheres to glimpse the abode of the Trinity. Not only does Bernard affirm the value and power of the creativity of the natural world, but humanity is also shown to be a co-creator along with Natura and the Divine Noys. The sciences and philosophy are the tools that humanity uses to participate fully in the sacred created and creating cosmos. However, human frailty is also stressed to the point of pessimism, since in Bernard's view the human condition is rife with instability, temptation, and sin. Fate looms large, and life is desperate when it is devoid of grace. This recognition of human frailty is responsible for the sad tone of the ending passage.

Fate is also one of the central themes of the Mathematicus (c. 1150), a long poem based on one of the Declamations of pseudo-Quintilian. In the Mathematicus an astrologer reveals to a mother that her son, Patricida, will grow up and kill his righteous father. Distraught, she has him raised elsewhere. After both father and son learn of fate's plan, they each offer their own lives so that the other may live. While his father appears to be following the guidance of fate, the Christ-like Patricida, who is now the king of his land, refuses to accept fate and offers himself. His suicide is a solution that prevents an almost inevitable act of violence against his father and a reaction against a blind adherence to the power of fate. Bernard again creatively reworks the poetic tradition and offers his own Christian theological vision hidden within the rhetoric of the metaphor. The poem cuts off before its ending, perhaps inviting the reader into the moral dilemma.

Bernard also appears to be the author of an introduction to the Experimentarius, (date uncertain) a book of divination. Once again the dominant theme is that of fate. The author writes in an apologetic that hehe uses the third person pluraldoes not worship the planets or the stars or see them as having inert power over the affairs of humanity. However, in the Christian Platonic tradition, he does insist that God, who alone is worshiped, has created the cosmos in such a way that God's power is filtered through the planets and the stars. This divine power is the power of fate, or perhaps better phrased as the power of divine providence.

Commentaries on Virgil's Aeneid (c. 112530) and Martianus Capella's De nuptiis (c. 113035) have long been thought to be by Bernard, but a scholarly consensus has not been achieved. His commentary on Plato's Timaeus has of yet not been identified.

Bibliography: Cosmographiai ed. p. dronke (Leiden 1978); English trans. w. wetherbee (New York 1973). Mathematicus, ed. b. haureau, Le Mathematicus de Bernard Sylvestris (Paris 1895). The Commentary on the First Six Books of Virgil's Aeneid, eds. j.w. jones and e. f. jones (Lincoln 1977). The Commentary on Martianus Capella's De nupiis Philologiae et mercurii, ed. h. h. westra (Toronto 1986). Experimentarius, ed. m. brini savorelli, "Un manuale di geomanzia presentato da Bernardo Silvestre da Tours, XII secolo: l'Experimentarius," Rivista Cristica di Storia della Filosofia XIV (1959) 283342. Literature. w. wetherbee, Platonism and Poetry in the Twelfth Century. The Literary Influence of the School of Chartres (Princeton 1972). c. s. f. burnett, "What is the Experimentarius of Bernardus Silvestris? A Preliminary Survey of the Material" AHDLMA xliv:79125. t. silverstein, "Elementatum: Its Appearance among the Twelfth-Century Cosmogonists" Mediaeval Studies 16 (1954): 15662; "The Fabulous Cosmogony of Bernardus Silvestris: Cornifician Attack on the Liberal Arts" Viator 3 (1972): 21973. b. stock, Myth and Science in the Twelfth Century: A Study of Bernard Silvester (Princeton 1972). e. gilson, "La Cosmogonie de Bernardus Silvestris," AHDLMA 3 (1928) 524. r. b.woolsey, "Bernard Silvester and the Hermetic Asclepius" Traditio 6 (1948): 34044.

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Bernard Silvester

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