By Christopher Tripoulas
As part of its celebration honoring the Three Hierarchs and Greek Letters, the Prometheus Greek Teachers Association of New York recently organized a lecture on Greek author Alexandros Papadiamantis and Hellenic cultural “otherness.”
The undertaking marked a commendable attempt to study the traditional Hellenic mindset and the resources it provides the Greek-American Community as it struggles to define its identity in an ever-changing society.
One of the key points highlighted at the event was various cultures’ unique “hierarchy of needs,” which differ – oftentimes markedly –depending on their people’s needs and priorities. A key example, often cited by philosopher/theologian Christos Yannaras, is the sharp architectural contrast between the marvels of ancient Greek architecture – the pinnacle of which, of course, is the Parthenon – and the extremely modest dwellings of the everyday citizen, which are underwhelming in size, opulence, technical skill, and artistic beauty.
It’s worth exploring what led the average citizen of ancient Athens to forego the tempting pursuit to beautify their own homes (as is the Western practice, i.e. “a man’s home is his castle”) and devote all his collective efforts and resources into making masterpieces of public use, such as temples and theaters. Clearly, the answer to this question reflects a metaphysical view of the city as the venue where truth – the citizenry’s greatest and most noble pursuit– is manifested through their manner of existence and co-existence.
And this manner is rooted in sharing “the administration of justice and the holding of public office.” It is through these communal acts, that the citizens participate in life, community, and politics.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that these temples – whether in ancient Greece with the Parthenon or during the age of Romanity with the Hagia Sophia – were always inextricably linked with their city’s polity. The “ecclesia” of the “demos” (people) in the ancient Greek city-state seamlessly transitions into the ecclesiastical communities that survive up until the present day. The aim of participating in the revelation of the truth still remains, only that the ancient concept of the harmony or “logos” of the universe is now embodied by the Divine Logos, Jesus Christ.
And so, it wasn’t that the Hellenes in question were unable to build stately homes, but rather, evidently this prospect left them indifferent because there was no “need” for them to do so. The center of the ancient Athenian’s life revolved around the agora. It was where he spent most of his time and it was there that he could realize his “raison d’etre.” Therefore, why expend valuable resources and energy to build a home more sizable or lavish than necessary, when these could be better applied towards more rewarding pursuits?
On the other hand, in today’s society, a different set of values are promoted, fundamentally different that the ones mentioned above. Individual rights and freedoms – often at the cost of the collective good – are given precedence. Freedom is considered to be the seemingly unlimited amount of choices, regardless if they are all flawed. The concept of freedom from necessity, which represents the unrealized dream of every ancient Greek tragedy and the empirical reality of the Eucharistic gathering is no longer a self-actualizing pursuit in today’s globalized world.
In modern Western society, which remains deeply divided, tragically brutal, and hopelessly materialistic, the dead-ends and impasses that plague us cry out for existential counterproposals.
The international standing of Hellenes all across the world would rise astronomically if only we would once again begin to measure success not by per capita wealth or by how many “professionals” represent us in the job market, but by the impact of the unique cultural proposal Hellenism can generate to engage the citizens of the world; to provide a viable alternative to “living well” for our children and all the children of the world. Prometheus’ event on Papadiamantis highlighted a handful of aspects representative of this great author’s worldview, including the concept of philokalia (love of beauty) – an idea prevalent during both ancient times as well as during Papadiamantis’ era, governing both the aesthetic and the spiritual.
Also underscored was his largely holistic outlook to the world, as opposed to the dualistic perspective prevalent today, with an absolutist classification of things as good and bad. These characteristics have very tangible implications in the real world as well. For instance, Papadiamantis displayed excellent foresight in his criticism of pietism and paraecclesiastical organizations that threaten to transform the Body of Christ into mere associations or organizations, and thus divide the faithful. Equally, although his Orthodox faith is perhaps his most recognizable quality, his exercise of discretion and rejection of absolutism allowed him to conduct often scathing criticism (mostly through satire) of Church policies or figures, without shattering his faith in this theanthropic institution.
He wrote during a time not all that different from ours. His Greece, like today’s, was under economic occupation from its creditors after declaring bankruptcy, faced continual threats from Turkey, and had a Diaspora that needed to become more proactive in the fate of the nation. There was widespread dissatisfaction with the nation’s politicians and xenomania was running rampant.
In terms of the Diaspora, one can only wonder what he would write about today’s state of affairs. It’s safe to say that the Archdiocese’s suicidal lack of investment in its schools, and education in general, would be a primary theme in many of his articles and short stories, but also, the indifference of the organized Greek-American Community to the tragedy taking place.
The ever-dwindling number of Greek teachers working for peanuts and demonstrating genuine self-sacrifice would probably serve as the heroes of his stories, while at least a few six-figure salaried religious professionals with a penchant for shutting down schools, blinded by the misguided notion that they are CEOs, would very likely make for some great antagonists. Just as then, Chancellors would not be exempt from the criticism.
Papadiamantis’ sarcasm and irony – a weapon of social commentary from ancient times – paint the very realistic picture of a world that is indeed far from perfect, but which continues to receive God’s love and benefits, with “metanoia” (a change in one’s life and heart) always remaining an option for even the most wretched of his characters. In a world bereft of authenticity, the propagation of Hellenic cultural otherness to our children and fellow citizens represents a primary example of metanoia – a key to healing our wounds and completing (saving) ourselves.
Follow me on Twitter @CTripoulas