Guest Viewpoints

Medieval Hellenism

April 28, 2021
By Argyris Nicolaidis

A short while ago we celebrated the 200-year anniversary of the Greek Revolution, which led to the creation of the Hellenic State. A plethora of messages from all over the world paid tribute to this event. It is significant that in all these messages there is a constant reference to ancient Greece, suggesting a connection between modern Greece and the ancient Greek tradition and way of thinking. The emerging picture is that Greek history starts with the Homeric epics, culminates in the 2nd century BC and reemerges in the 19th century AD. For a western person, this is a reasonable assessment. Modern western societies consider ancient Greek culture as their foundation. There seems to be no interest for medieval Hellenism.

Ironically, modern Greeks are also not inspired by medieval Hellenism, namely Byzantium. Yet it is without a doubt impossible to have a precise understanding of Greek history and, I might add, of Christian Europe by ignoring the Christian tradition. Saint Paul underlined that the new religion, Christianity, transcends the two great traditions: the ancient Greek tradition and the biblical tradition. He mentions in his epistle to the Corinthians, “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom” and he continues adding that “we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness.”

The autonomy of the new religion from the dominant Greek philosophical tradition was secured by the ecumenical synods. The Church Fathers had a deep knowledge of Greek philosophy. They offered though a critical assessment transcending both Greek philosophy and Jewish thought. It must be noted that the Eastern Orthodox Tradition advances another conception of time, a linear time within which our acts and the historical events presuppose a foundation in a transcendent reality. There is an ostensible antinomy in the Orthodox Tradition: the trust both in the human person and in the freedom of choice, and the emergence of the community as a collective presence. These strong Christian communities, with the intense solidarity, prompted Constantine the Great, 300 years after Christ’s teaching to adopt Christianity as the official religion of the Roman-Byzantine Empire. In doing so, the empire became solidly cohesive: one state, one religion, one legislation. For eleven centuries Byzantium confronted and fended off numerous enemies. The Visigoths, the Arabs, the Persians, the Lombards, the Bulgars. It is difficult to discuss Europe without taking seriously into account the fact that for centuries the safety of European people was ensured by Byzantium. And after Constantinople fell, distinguished Byzantines took refuge in Italy, contributing to the birth of the Italian Renaissance.

The Byzantine cultural radiation is unsurpassed. In the 9th century AD, Cyril and Methodius, the two Thessalonian brothers and monks, Christianized the Danubian Slavs. Later, Vladimir A ́, Grand Prince of Kiev, was baptized Christian at Dnieper’s riverbank. We may claim with certainty that the introduction of Christianity amounts to the birth certificate of Russian civilization. And integrating Slavs and Russians into the European universe, helps us envisage a cultural or political unification of Europe. It is a historical irony that Ukrainians and Russians confront each other in a place where they have received the Christian message. 

Recently, within the framework of a Greek-Italian collaboration, we focused our attention on the theology of Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki. Beyond its indisputable theological value, we highlighted the fact that Palamas’ thought offers a perspective that enables us to reach the human person and reality. Gregory Palamas, very knowledgeable of Aristotle, reversed the Aristotelian hierarchy. In Aristotle, essence (ousia) comes first and energy (energeia) follows as a predicate. For Palamas energy is epistemologically the first principle and determines essence. In our joint work we suggested that the 14th-century Palamas’ thought converses with the most modern views of the 20th and 21st centuries: the relational logic of Peirce, the study of language by Wittgenstein, Levinas’ otherness, Gödel’s mathematics, and finally Quantum Mechanics. In the proceedings “Saint Gregory Palamas and the Search of a New Epistemology” there is a warm letter with the paternal love and the blessings of His All-Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, which encourages us to constantly draw from the richness of the patristic tradition, in order to face the challenges of our modern era.

Argyris Nicolaidis is professor of Theoretical Physics at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He obtained his PhD from McGill University, Montreal. He worked many years at Collège de France, Paris. Nicolaidis is also a Fulbright scholar, actively participating in the interdisciplinary dialogue, coordinator of the project Traditions and Modernity: http://tr-modern.physics.auth.gr/, and advisor to the John Templeton Foundation.


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