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Stanley Samuel Harakas

The Word, the Book, the Library

From "Photian Studies", edited by George Papademetriou, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, Massachusetts, 1989.

IT IS NOT my purpose today to present a biography of the great ninth-century patriarch of Constantinople, Photios, in whose honor we gather today. Nor will I refer in any systematic way to his life and accomplishments. Rather, I would only point you to three foci which provide us with an example and embodiment of an approach to learning and truth which is also symbolized by this library, the Cotsidas-Tonna Library of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and of Hellenic College, as well as the educational ideal which inspires the whole existence of this institution.

I have chosen to title this brief presentation "The Word, the Book, the Library" to share with you a view of truth and learning which I believe characterized Saint Photios, but which also is the working educational philosophy of this school and its library, and which — in my judgment — ought to be communicated and realized in intent and practice by every person involved in its work: trustees, administrators, staff members, faculty members, students, and supporters of this institution. I take this opportunity to articulate a philosophy of education for our institution in the short span of a little more than a quarter of an hour which has been assigned to me today.

The Word: The primacy of the Truth of God

Even those who have only the slightest knowledge of the life of Saint Photios know that he was elevated and deposed as patriarch several times during his life. His rival, whom he replaced and who replaced him several times, was Patriarch Ignatios. In large part, these repeated elevations and deposings were the result of petty human ambitions, political power struggles, and the interplay of significant international currents. But, in part, this history of the interchanging of patriarchal reigns between Photios and Ignatios reflected as well their disparate views concerning truth and learning.

Anastasios the Librarian, the biographer of Ignatios, wrote a preface to the Acts of the so-called Eighth Ecumenical Council. There he acknowledges that "Ignatios treated profane learning with utmost contempt"(1). This was not so with Photios and his supporters. A man of great learning and a lover of knowledge, Photios was squarely located in the tradition of the ancient Greek searchers after knowledge, a student of truth, versed in the sciences of his day.

Yet, for Photios, it is critical to note that there was a hierarchy of truth and knowledge. It was a hierarchy which placed the truth and knowledge of God in a place of primacy. Despina Stratoudakis White thus writes of Photios as a teacher:

Before he became a patriarch, and after his return from exile, Photios was a professor of philosophy and dialectics at the university at the Magnaura Palace. He was a young man at the time of his first appointment. … Frequently a group of students awaited the teacher's return from his state duties, and Photios looked forward to that pleasant moment with anticipation. … He exerted great influence over his young disciples and his aim in educating them was always, as it had been for Origen, to guide their minds toward religious reverence (2).

You cannot read the Homilies of Photios without recognizing this primacy of concern. His world view is precisely the gospel message of redemption, of salvation, of the re-creation of the totality of human life by Christ the Savior. One of many examples from his writings comes from his "Homily on the Birth of the Virgin" where he expresses in the rhetorical fashion of his times the central themes of the Orthodox Christian faith concerning human purpose and life:

Let us send up songs of thanksgiving because Adam is recreated and Eve is renovated with him, because the curse is abolished, and our nature, putting off the dead leather mask of sin, is remoulded after the pristine dignity of the Lord's likeness. Let us send up songs of thanksgiving and organize public choirs, because, coming forth from a sterile womb, the Virgin sanctifies the sterile womb of nature and grafts into its fruitlessness the fruitfulness of virtue. For in lending to the Lord and Husbandman of the world the streams of her stainless blood to moisten the whole desiccated lump, she fittingly receives on that account the blessing of fruitfulness. The ladder leading up to heaven is being built, and earthly nature, leaping over her proper boundaries, comes to dwell in the heavenly tabernacles. The Lord's throne is being prepared on earth, earthly things are sanctified, the heavenly hosts are mingled with us, and the wicked one, who first deceived us and was the contriver of the plot against us, has his power crushed, as his wiles and devices rot away. Who will tell God's wonders? What words will express the might that is above words? Will not every mind be numbed in extending its comprehension to the magnitude of the facts (3)?

The premise of the philosophy of education in this school has historically affirmed that primacy of the Word of the truth of revelation. The library itself, in its physical structure and arrangement of its collection, gives a primacy of location to the works which embody and explicate the truth of God's word.

Yet, it would distort Photios, the Orthodox Christian faith, and the understanding of truth and knowledge in this school to leave the matter there — in a perspective which would seem to reflect the mind of Ignatios, rather than Photios. There is more to be seen.


1. Despina Stratoudakis White, Patriarch Photios of Constantinople: His Life, Scholarly Contributions, and Correspondence Together With a Translation of Fifty-two of His Letters (Brookline, 1981), pp. 20-23.

2. Ibid.

3. The Homilies of Photios, Patriarch of Constantinople, English translation, Introduction and Commentary by Cyril Mango (Cambridge, MA., 1958), p. 172.

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