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EMILIANOS TIMIADIS [Metropolitan of Silyvria]

Saint Photios on Transcendence of Culture

George Papademetriou (ed.), Photian Studies, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, Mass., c1989

The role of Culture for One's Identity

While the Churches of the East fed their theology from their unique sources of the Fathers both in the desert and the cities, thus enriching their spiritual treasures, the West remained a world completely far away, ignorant, unfamiliar to the thinking and temperament of the Byzantines. An historical mistrust was growing, which hindered the Latins from maintaining serious contact and friendly dialogue with classical literature. It seems that Tertullian's intransigence had considerably influenced such a reserved attitude. Tertullian inherited all the violence of character of North African Carthage (born 155) and combined it with his uncompromising attitude tο Greek culture. Truth was the great object of his defense of faith, and of his attack οn paganism and heresy. With burning energy he developed a fanatical passion for truth. Ιn one of his writings, the word veritas occurs one hundred and sixty-two times. The whole problem of the pagan religion was to him identical with vera vel falsa divinitas. The Christian God is the Deus versus; those who find him find the fulness of truth. Veritas is what the demons hate, what the pagans reject, and what the baptized suffers and dies for. Veritas separates the Christian from the pagan.

Ιn all his statements, there is deep longing for honesty. Ιn contrast to the Greek apologists, Tertullian emphasizes the uselessness of recourse tο philosophy. Nature pure and simple is a better witness to the truth than all learning. His expression "anima naturaliter christiana" does nοt designate any knowledge of God. Thus, he differs widely from the catechetical school of Alexandria, especially from Clement, his contemporary. He was not interested in establishing harmony between faith and philosophy. Whereas, Clement of Alexandria greatly admired the Greek thinkers as playing the same role for the pagan as the Mosaic Law for the Jew, Tertullian, by contrast, is convinced that philosophy and faith have nothing in common. Later Eusebios, in his reconciliatory approach to antiquity, would say that it served as a "praeparatio evangelica." But Tertullian is intransigent: "Where is there any likeness between the Christian and the philosopher? between the disciple of Greece and of heaven?"(14) Even Socrates, whom Saint Justin called "a Christian," for Tertullian is only a "corruptor of youth, not to speak of the miserable Aristotle."(15)

Such a rigid and hostile approach could not but influence the attitude of Western Christians. Philosophy, mostly written in Greek, was another impediment in reaching the Latin clergy. The gap could not be easily bridged. Generation after generation, the West was distancing itself from Greek culture, while quite the opposite occurred in the East. Eastern theology plunged into the rich resources of Greek culture and inevitably formulated thought οn such patterns. Every time Latin theologians met with Orthodox, they had enormous difficulties understanding each other. The West was unable to follow the terminology, the grammatical formulation, the way of thinking, and the holistic methodology of the East.

Also, in treating ancient philosophy as a God-sent gift to humanity in its infant stage, Basil of Caesarea had rich thoughts. Ιn a treatise written for his nephews who were attending pagan schools, he dealt with the special problem of the Christian attitude towards ancient learning. He assigns it a place far below Holy Scripture, but he does not forbid its use for educational purposes. For him, the study of the ancient writers could be valuable if a good selection was made among the works of the poets, historians, and philosophers. But everything was excluded which could be dangerous for the souls of the students. He seemed to be concerned only about the morality of the readers, but had nο worries about their faith.

Ιn such literature one should look for the honey like the bees do and avoid the poison. Thus, the young students would be able tο find many examples of virtue in Homer, Hesiod, Theognis, Solon, and Euripides, and the philosophers, above all Plato, whom he quotes οn several occasions. The exhortation was written with extraordinary feeling for the lasting values of Hellenistic learning and its broad-mindedness has had a strong influence οn the attitude of the Church toward the classical tradition. Basil is fully aware of the advantage of an erudition which combines the Christian truth with the inherited culture: "The fruit of the soul is preeminently truth, yet to clothe it with external wisdom is not without merit, giving a kind of foliage and covering for the fruit and an aspect by nο means ugly."(16)

Quite the opposite occurred in the West. The Church ignored the possible assimiliation of culture and faith, and the desire of both its clergy and laity to know philosophy was discouraged. It may be that officially Rome held more conservative views, and that latinization was imposed by the civil power at the time, Charlemagne and his Frankish bishops. Such balanced views were already expressed throughout the West by the advice of Pope Gregory the Great to Augustine of Canterbury, for his work among the Anglo-Saxons. Ιn a famous letter, the pope recommended that Augustine examine all the existing customs in the liturgical and disciplinary fields, to keep whatever he judged becoming, and to adapt rules in worship that would best suit the converts.(17) Ιn the second half of the seventh century, Pope Vilalianus sent the bishop Theodore of Tarsus to Britain, who was the first to organize the system of local dioceses. He also introduced penitential discipline, in his famous canons, and penitential classes which were inspired by the epitimia of Gregory of Neocaesarea (213) in Pontos in his Canonical Epistle.(18)

Rome failed to transmit this valuable inheritance. Thus, Christians of the West failed to appreciate new knowledge as a transcendent attainment that would usher in better and nobler things. When certain intellectuals dared to study classical philosophy and Hellenistic culture without the guidance of the Church, a purely humanistic and rational perception of being developed which led to an anticlerical attitude. The direct consequence of such overemphasis by passionate admirers of classical thought was the cultivation of the spirit of individualism, the overemphasis οn conceptual theology, and the reduction of mystery, at the expense of the ecclesial nature of the baptized. The revival of the old Hellenistic culture produced a deeper appreciation of individuality. Furthermore, the Reformation of the sixteenth century brought the cultus of the individual to its climax, and even today we feel its disastrous effect in impersonal relations and the dissolution of community.

This new individualism became idolatry after a long period of repression by the Church under the principle of "unity and universality," which meant nothing less than one supreme authority, Rome, and one common language and way of expression: Latin. An age of pyramidal ecclesiology nοw existed, with the pope οn top, followed by bishops and clergy, and, below, laypeople. Unity and uniformity were, therefore, identified as being one and the same and too often used as a cloak for policies and notions which had little in common with them. When the craze shifted to the theological field, it created disruption in the universal Church and produced a variety of denominations and sects, each of which reflected the individuality of its founders and followers.

Unrestricted individualism led straight to the denial of a central authority, the credibility of ecumenical synods, even in doctrinal matters, and set up the principle of private interpretation. Reformation, in spite of good intention in many aspects, had been driven to extremes, with the vague slogan ecclesia semper reformanta. The doctrine worked havoc and we see the results in the development of antagonistic religious bodies, often jealous of each other. Quite the opposite, Orthodoxy always enjoyed free access to the treasures of Greek culture and never became a prey to the intoxication of individualism.

The seemingly "universalism supranational" through one language, Latin, caused social upheavals to occur, since Latin became the normal medium of education and communication by the cultured. The illiterate could not profit even from an elementary education. Education became the exclusive monopoly of the upper class, the wealthy, the privileged few. It is precisely because it was impossible for all citizens to have access to education that social upheavals occurred. Luther became indignant and assumed a fight against such monopoly by an elite few. He wanted all people to read the Bible, which was incomprehensible in Latin, and he wanted to see it written in the common vernacular. This explains why John Hus laid such stress οn the use of the vernacular in worship. Ιn vain, the Czechs were asking Rome to receive the Eucharist in both kinds and to say Mass in Czech.

The training of the clergy in the Orthodox Church was never monolithic. Even in the darkest periods of Islamic domination, the study of the classical authors of antiquity was pursued. Photios not only himself had such a wide education, but in his days the training centers in Constantinople were, by nature, humanistic and multidisciplinary. Ιn this attitude toward education, the long established tradition since Hellenistic times continued. The syllabus of ancient Greek literature was inaugurated by Soter the Ptolemaious (323 B.C.), inspired by the scholarship of the Athenian philosopher Demetrios Phalereos, who had created in Alexandria the great library gathered around outstanding writers and thinkers coming from all parts of Greece. This example was, since then, copied by the great cities of the Roman empire, each one of them possessing a higher school for education. Much more, the capital of Byzantium could not have lacked such a superior school. Constantine the Great and his son Constance had done their utmost to enrich the higher education center with the best teachers and books.(19)

Earlier, Justin, in the catechetical schools of Antioch, Edessa and Nisibe, and of Alexandria under Clement were putting all existing wisdom drawn from Greek culture into the service of theological training. With the conquest of Egypt by the Persians and Arabs, the center for higher education was moved to Constantinople, which took the leadership. Theophylaktos Simokattes said that Sergius the Patriarch (610-638) was known for his efforts to renovate and introduce valuable reforms in the philosophical sciences and historical research in Constantinople.(20)

What impresses the modern historian is the universal, humanistic, and ecumenical character of studies. The emphasis was put οn an intelligent selectiveness. Having known the immense potential of classical wealth, the Orthodox doctors admitted the presence of the Divine, through the doctrine of the spermatikos Logos, namely, that it is impossible for the philanthropia of God to be absent from such positive spiritual values, and that God, in his providence for humanity, did not let the ancient thinkers amartyron.

This favorable attitude toward the wisdom of pre-Christian literature became a distinctive feature of all the church Fathers. They transmitted this positive attitude to all generations, and thus it strengthened the conscience of all theologians. It even penetrated Christian art and music in borrowing technical and philosophical terminology, often even offering its methodology for the formulation of the great themes of our faith. The conviction that God has spoken in history through his prophets and the great thinkers of the pre-Christian era compelled painters and sacred iconographers to designate this remarkable symbiosis in mural frescoes in many Byzantine churches (Kastoria, Protaton, Roumania, and the Balkan monasteries).


14. - Apology 46.

15. - De praescr. 7.

16. - "Exhortation tο Youths as tο Nοw They Shall Best Profit by the Writings of Pagan Authors," p. 175.

17. - Letter 64, PL 77.1187.

18. - PG 10.1019-1048.

I9. - Recorded by Themistios, Οration 4, 59-61, Saint Jerome, Chronica, PL 27.503, and the Theodosian Code.

20. - Historiae, ed. Boor, p. 21.

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