In between two celebrations of freedom – Hellas’ national liberation on March 25th and humanity’s eternal liberation from the bonds of Hades on Holy Pascha – General Ioannis Makriyannis’ writings seem particularly pertinent. A hero of the Greek Revolution, he subsequently played a key role in the then fledgling Kingdom of Greece’s democratization, spearheading the 1843 uprising calling for a constitution. Heroics aside, Makriyannis also played an arguably even greater role for his contribution to Greek letters, arts, and in defense of the Orthodox Christian faith.
His Memoirs – a truly authentic example of Romanity – earned widespread acclaim, leading Nobel Laureate George Seferis to call Makriyannis “the most seminal author in modern Greek literature”! What makes this even more amazing is that he learned to read and write in later adulthood, following the Revolution.
Along with his singular expressivity – in pure demotic Greek – he also makes an interesting contribution to the arts. Following the Revolution, Makryiannis commissions a foreign artist to depict key battles in the Revolution. However, the result was not to his liking, so he ended up hiring artist Panagiotis Zographos to make new renditions, which reflect a much more traditional Greek folk style, with clear Byzantine elements. In addition, he stressed the importance of classic Greek artifacts, noting the discovery of ancient statuettes during the war and his attempt to preserve them from destruction.
Makryiannis’ work is a true must read for Hellenes and Philhellenes alike. In many ways, it serves as a primer in the study of ‘areti’ (virtue) and acts as a continuation of the classical works that shaped the Hellenic world. Makriyannis’ mindset and outlook, from the battlefield, where he is undaunted by the superior numbers of the Turkish troops or their stronger positions (Battle of the Mills outside of Nafplion), to his criticism of the political establishment (civil strife among the Greeks, self-centered behavior on behalf of certain authority figures) to his faith and devotion (highlighting the role of the faith in maintaining Hellenic identity) is a true handbook of Hellenism.
It drew the attention of major literary figures like Seferis, Lorentzatos, Vlahogiannis, and has preoccupied academia, inspiring numerous doctoral dissertations. General Makriyannis manages to engage readers from all levels of education, social strata, and political ideologies. This alone is a testament to the greatness of his work.
For the purposes of this column, we highlight his collectivistic juxtaposition of the ‘I vs. we’ mentality. In one of the most frequently cited quotations from his Memoirs, he characteristically notes: “this country belongs to all of us – wise and foolish, rich and poor, politicians, soldiers and the most modest of men. All of us who fought, each according to his means, have a place here. Hence, we all worked together, so let us protect her all together, and let not the strong say ‘I’, nor the weak. You know when each of us should say ‘I’? When he fights alone to achieve something – then he can say ‘I’. But when it is the many who struggle to attain something, then they should say ‘we’. For us, it’s about the ‘we’, not the ‘I’.”
This faithfulness to the collective mindset has been a distinguishing quality of Hellenism since antiquity through the collective governance of the city-state and subsequently the local community, the synodical governance of the Orthodox Church, the significance of the extended family in Greek society, etc. It prevails, despite the ever-present temptation surrounding authority figures to espouse individualism. At their most successful, our leaders were able to see past self-serving motives and egocentrism, placing themselves at the service of the many, through an exemplary spirit of self-sacrifice.
Makriyannis’ dialogue with the French Admiral de Rigny at the Battle of Lerna Mills, which saved the city of Nafplion and granted the Greeks their first victory against Ibrahim Pasha, is representative of this. Following the admiral’s observation that the Greek soldiers occupied weak positions, he replies: “these positions are weak, as are we, but God, Who protects us, is strong, and we will face our fate from these weak positions. And if we are few in number compared to Ibrahim’s multitudes, we take solace in this – that fate would always have us Greeks few in number. That from start to finish, from olden times until today, all the monsters try to eat us and cannot. They take their bites, but there is always dough left over. And the few decide to die. And when they make this decision, they rarely lose and win quite often. This is our position today, and we shall see how we the weak shall fare against the strong,” to which the admiral replied “très bien.”
It’s worth noting that some of Makriyannis’ manuscripts were published decades later, in a subsequent edition to his Memoirs titled Visions and Miracles. This text is heavily rooted in mysticism, detailing Makriyannis’ interpretations of his dreams and visions. Devout since childhood, Makriyannis’ later years were lived in virtual asceticism.
Among his accounts, the General claims to have seen and conversed with the foreordained king who would free Constantinople, whose name he reveals to be Ioannis. This coincides with references to Emperor Ioannis Vatatzes, hailed in Greek legend as the ‘Marble Emperor’ who will one day return to free the Queen City.
Aside from the fascinating exchange between Makryiannis and the saintly king, it is interesting to note the title Makriyannis uses for him – “President of the Committee.”
The legendary Emperor is content to be called Chairman of a Committee, fully aware that he is accountable to God, Who ordained him, and responsible for the people he serves. Imagine how stronger Greece and our community institutions would be if all our leaders espoused this outlook!
Perhaps these final chapters in General Makriyannis’ memoirs have still more to contribute to Hellenism’s self-knowledge and the shaping of its institutions.
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