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On the Nature of Byzantine Philosophy : Musings and an Exhortation

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"The mystery of the embodiment of the Logos holds the power of both all enigmas and all types in the scriptures. Furthermore this mystery holds the foundational knowledge of all things imminently known in sensibles and transcendentally known in intelligibles. The one who knows the mystery of the cross and burial of the Logos has known the logoi of these things just spoken of above. The one who is initiated into the unspeakable power of the resurrection has known the aim towards which the God has established all these things before they were."

Saint Maximus the Confessor - Theologica Capita, 1.66

In the Nicene Creed recited at each Liturgy, we find ourselves proclaiming the words,

I believe...in the one lord Jesus Christ…begotten not made, of the same essence with the Father…and incarnated by the Holy Spirit and out of virgin Mary and he himself made himself to be man.”

Πιστεύομεν...καὶ εἰς ἕν ακύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν...γεννηθέντα οὐ ποιηθέντα, ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί...καὶ σαρκωθέντα ἐκ Πνεύματος Ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου, καὶ ἐνανθρωπήσαντα.

Curiously, within several lines of each other, we find what seem to be opposite assertions: Christ is both made and not made. What a conundrum! No wonder sharp divisions emerged and caustic debates occurred over how to properly interpret the who and what of Christ’s identity in the era of the Oecumenical Councils! How could it have been otherwise, until some profession of faith was universally adopted as rightly espousing the way and life of the Church?

Yet, this is not the only curious detail in the declaration of the Creed, for if we look closely, another is found nestled away within the proclaimed words:

I believe in the one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, maker of all things visible and invisible and in the one lord Jesus Christ…through whom all things came to have being…and in the Holy Spirit, the lord and the giver of life.”

Πιστεύομεν εἰς ἕνα Θεὸν Πατέρα παντοκράτορα ποιητὴν οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς ὁρατῶν τε πάντων καὶ ἀοράτων καὶ εἰς ἕνα κύριον Ἰσοῦν Χριστὸν...δι ΄οὗ τὰ πάντα ἐγένετο·...καὶ εἰς τὸ Πνεῦμα τὸ γιον, τὸ κύριον καὶ ζωοποιόν.

On the one hand the God, the Father is said to make all things, while on the other the Son of the God, Christ is said to, and ultimately even the Spirit of the God has the same title asserted of him by the epithet “giver of life”. Again, can we really marvel at our forebears, who labored greatly to make sense of such difficult matters? Whereas qualms arose before from a dispute over the identity of Christ, now they are engendered by a question concerning the who and the what of the identity of the cosmos, for how can there be multiple first principles – the God, the Son of the God and Spirit of the God – if there can only really be one first? After all, there is only one first in line to be seated at the restaurant and only one first in line to the checkout line at the grocery store. Once more, some appeal must be made to a statement that is universally acknowledged as accurately presenting the teachings and doings of the Church.

Yet, what are we to depend on as summarizing the sacred truths and precepts of the Church? It certainly does seem as if neither the tension of the identity of Christ nor the identity of the cosmos is resolved within the Creed. Like any question about the Church, especially those of a labyrinthine character, it is best that we turn our attention to the fathers to receive satisfactory answers. I suggest for our particular dilemma we petition John Damascene to be our interlocutor, as he was both alive during the end of the Oecumenical era and his reflections upon the Church are woven into the very tapestry of the proceedings of the Seventh Oecumenical Council at Nicaea.

Besides being popularized through his defense of icons, Damascene is frequently spoken of in relation to his writing On the Orthodox Faith. What is, however, often left unstated is that On the Orthodox Faith is actually the final part of a larger three part work called The Fount of Knowledge. What precedes On the Orthodox Faith are The Philosophical Chapters and On Heresies in that respective order. Moreover, The Fount of Knowledge was composed by a monk through his own prayerful contemplation (νόησις) and for his fellow monks for their own prayerful contemplation. While acknowledging the importance of the material found within On Heresies for avoiding wrong prayerful contemplation, I wish to direct our attention to the first part of The Fount of Knowledge, since the beginning is half the whole.

At the beginning of The Philosophical Chapters, Damascene writes the following as his first words, “Nothing is more estimable than knowledge, for if knowledge is the light of the rational soul, then conversely ignorance is its darkness… I delineate ‘knowledge’ as the true knowledge of things that are. If objects of knowledge concern things that are, then false knowledge, because it is a knowledge of things that are not, is more properly designated ignorance, than knowledge.” (PC, §1). This is a rather interesting thing to say, when comparing it to another statement he has two chapters later, “Philosophy is the knowledge of things that are, insofar as they are” (PC, §3). Apparently philosophy is the light of the soul, since it concerns itself with the knowledge of things that are. To state it otherwise: Things that are are simply things that have Being, or things that exist, or things that are real. To not philosophize evokes quite a strong censure from Damascene, with him saying, “To the one being endowed by nature with the ability to know, this man, although being rational according to nature, out of his negligence and lazy soul is more inferior than irrational creatures” (PC, §1).

Nevertheless, despite the exhortation to pursue philosophy, what precisely are the things that are? If all we have is an opaque phrase with a vague description, then perhaps brutishness is our inevitable lot. Damascene continues by informing us, “And again, philosophy is the knowledge of both divine and human things, that is to say, of things visible and invisible” (PC, §3). To put it straight: Damascene is talking anything and everything in the cosmos. From the meanest and dirtiest speck of dust to the holy Trinity and everything in between including plants, animals, humans, and the many tiers of angels. What are the things that are? Nothing more and nothing less than the very members of our quite large and shared community, of our cosmos.

Though Damascene begins his Philosophical Chapters with the above words, there are two somewhat surprising “plot twists” to his thesis. The first and most important is the following elaboration he gives us, “The soul has not acquired actual knowledge by the immediacy of its own nature, but is in need of a teacher to teach it at some point. So let us move towards to the truth, to that teacher free of lies – Christ is that truth, the tangible embodiment of wisdom (σοφία), in whom all the profound treasures of knowledge are stored away” (PC, §1). To philosophize, to receive illumination of the soul, requires the tutelage of Christ, for Christ is the true knowledge of all things that are.

A century before Damascene, Maximus the Confessor, whom influenced both the Sixth Oecumenical Council at Constantinople and Damascene himself, would eloquently and epigrammatically express this first “plot twist” by saying, “Who will not know the many logoi (λόγοι) to be the one Logos (Λόγος)…and also the one Logos to be the many logoi?” (Amb. 7.15). Christ, as the Logos (i.e. “the Word”) spoken of in the first chapter of John the Theologian’s Gospel, is the door by which one must enter, in order to be illumined about the cosmos around, within, below, and above us. Thus, to know the who and the what of ourselves both as distinct individuals and as sharing a common humanity with others, we must grasp the who and the what of this cosmos we are thrust into. Yet, such grasping can only occur, when we know the who and the what of the Logos himself. To know our human identity is predicated upon knowing identity of the cosmos, which itself is predicated upon knowing the identity of Christ, of the Logos.

Paul the Apostle, Irenaeus of Lyons and Maximus the Confessor spoke of this requirement of knowing the identity of Christ in terms of recapitulation (ἀνακεφαλαίωσις). To make heads or tails of this recapitulation, let us avail ourselves of an analogy: An architect has blueprints by which he constructs a house. When the residents of the house move in, the architect explains the ins and outs of the house to them based upon his schematics. Thus, to live an enjoyable domestic life, the residents must use the house properly, but to use it properly they must understand how it was designed, but to understand how it was designed requires speaking with the architect to explain the all the paradigms contained within his blueprints. Likewise, to live a human life to the fullest and become as happy as possible, the individual must understand the cosmos he dwells in, but to understand the cosmos requires him to speak with its constructor, with the Logos. Just as an architect realizes the fullness of the building he builds through his blueprints, so too does Christ realizes the fullness of all things that are, the cosmos as a whole, in its fullness.

Returning to Damascene, we see this emphasis on ascertaining the identity of the Logos throughout his Fount of Knowledge. For example, terms first and foremost associated with Christological (and Trinitarian) import, such as individual (ὑπόστασις) and essence (οὐσία), are quite freely applied to other members of the cosmos including an individual tree (e.g. Grandma’s Apple Tree), horse (e.g. Sea Biscuit), human (e.g. Peter the Apostle), or angel (e.g. Gabriel the Archangel). Moreover, just as the Nicene Creed is structured so as to initially inform us about Christ and subsequently about the cosmos, so too does Damascene’s On the Orthodox Faith, as it is structured like and is a commentary upon the Nicene Creed.

To summarize the first “plot twist”: To philosophize is to illumine the soul with the Logos as our pedagogue. In the eyes of Damascene, this is quite appropriate, for, “Philosophy, again, is the love of wisdom, but the God is true wisdom. Therefore, the love had towards the God, this itself is true philosophy” (PC, §3).

If grasping the identity of the Logos is the first “plot twist” of philosophy, then what is our second? In the preface to The Fount of Knowledge, Damascene writes, “To begin, I will review the noblest of the wise teachings amongst the Greeks.” This should be a rather startling confession to any child of the West, for us Westerners are often told something to the effect of, “Faith and reason are certainly separated and most definitely opposed.” To those in the Church, familiar aphorisms from Paul the Apostle (“Did the God not make foolish the wisdom of the cosmos? Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ, the crucified one” 1 Cor. 1:20, 22-3 and “Pay attention, so that no man will ensnare you through philosophy” Col. 2:8) and Tertullian (“What concord, therefore, is there between Athens and Jerusalem?”) are often cited as irreproachable witness.

What authority, therefore, does Damascene operate upon, if faith and reason are quite distinct and usually in conflict? Casting a brief glimpse at the early history of the Church, we find Damascene to be in good company. For starters, Basil the Great in his Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature assures us that much good can come from pagan literature in general including philosophy. Speaking of Basil, if we read about the lives of those celebrated at the feast the Three Hierarchs, we learn that Basil and Gregory the Theologian both spent many years studying philosophy in Athens, while John Chrysostom was also educated in a classical Greek manner, through which he developed his famous oratory skills.

Indeed, one need only look either backward from Nicaea to the Apologists, like Justin Martyr and Athenagoras of Athens or forward to others, such as Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus to the Confessor, to see innumerable fathers endorsing a positive use of Greek philosophy – and this is the key phrase “positive use”, for Damascene elaborates, “While knowing that, if there is any good, then it has been given to men from above by God… ‘Comes down from the Father of lights.’…I will do away with anything, which is worthless and wrongly spoken of as knowledge.”

Assuming this to be the consensus of the fathers, then what should we make of the proof texts cited above? Starting with Tertullian, he is writing against those, who having found the Logos and his logoi, yet despises the wisdom imparted thereby. Therefore, quite aptly does he write, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” for if one has received wisdom, but seeks after something else, then it is not wisdom but folly that is subsequently sought after. This too is Paul’s point, as he says in the same areas, “But to those called, both to Jews and Greeks, Christ is the divine power and divine wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:24) and “Because in him the entirety of divinity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). Paul is more than content with maintaining the pagan Greek status quo of the pursuit of wisdom as an edifying and noble endeavor; what he challenges is that this pursuit can be successfully attempted outside of being instructed by the incarnated, crucified, and resurrected Logos. This argument makes sense: if Christ is the very embodiment, expression, and realization of wisdom, then how could anyone become wise without him? In both proof texts, it is not philosophy per se, but philosophy absent Christ, which is condemned; such a conclusion is the same Damascene taught us above, namely, that we need to grasp the identity of Christ to ascertain the identity of the cosmos and ourselves.

If the Church has a place for philosophy in its hallowed walls, then why are we Westerners so mislead on this point? Historically the answer is found in the Medieval West. Starting with Anselm of Canterbury, faith and reason are separated from each other, although it is arguable such separation is incipiently found in Augustine of Hippo, for Anselm sees himself as faithfully carrying out Augustine’s legacy. Nevertheless, prior to Anselm faith and reason were not opposed, for they were not even separated. This is helps us to understand why Plato describes philosophy as the means by which one becomes like the god(s), while Aristotle esteems theology to be the highest philosophy. To the Ancients, faith and reason were seen as unified, identical, and one and the same. Yet, this tradition of separation continues through Thomas Aquinas and others. By the time of the Enlightenment David Hume and others not only retained the separation, but opposed them to each other. Ultimately, what we have inherited is a negative disposition to philosophy imposed upon the Church by those outside the Church, who never saw the identity of Christ as woven into the fabric of the cosmos and humanity – and vice versa.

To try and make sense of the separation and later antagonism between philosophy and theology in the West, it is best to draw attention to at least one cardinal historical factor: The removal of teaching theology from sacred institutions. After the death of Anselm – and hence why this is only one of many important reasons – the Medieval West developed the Scholastic system, where a group of trained persons came together to instruct students for a fee. If you are envisioning something analogous to our contemporary university system, then you are on the correct path, because we inherited this system from the Scholastics. Prior to the Scholastic university, all teaching of sacred dogma was conducted in monasteries, cathedrals, or by individual itinerant teachers often associated with a family of means, who would have been at least nominally affiliated with the local parish. As a result of the Scholastic system, the identity of humanity and the cosmos was separated from the identity of Christ – no longer was it the clergy, the monks (and nuns), or appointed lay person, who learned the people about such matters within hallowed walls, but rather of a group of individuals outside these walls. What was the living breath of the body of Christ became the necrotic speculation of the foreigner.

Over and against this model is the model of the Ancients. Whether we are speaking of Plato’s Academy, the Stoics’ Porch, or the Catechetical School (of the Church) in Alexandria, all learning, including philosophy, was directed towards achieving happiness (εὐδαιμονία), blessedness, or a fully flourished life within the boundaries of a committed community. To state it otherwise: Philosophy was a way of living divinely.

Let us take for an example the Stoics’ philosophical curriculum. It was built upon three pillars: How can I think correctly (logic)? What is the world around me (physics)? How do I live best (ethics)? Unless I know how to think correctly, I might mislead myself or be misled by others and unless I understand this world I depend upon, I might unintentionally harm myself or others by misusing it. Once I know what is what and I can be confident I see things straight, then I can adjudicate which course of action is the best for my life and then pursue it.

Perhaps a succinct way or two to illicit the starkness of the approach between these two groups is thus: The Ancients had practitioners, while the Scholastics and their posterity have had theoreticians. The Ancients engaged in reflection in order to live better for themselves and with others, while the Scholastics and their posterity thought about thinking in order to think some more in isolation.

To summarize our second “plot twist”: To philosophize is to illumine the soul assisted by drawing upon the virtuous ways of life seen in the Ancients. In the eyes of Damascene, this is quite appropriate, for, “Philosophy, again, is an exercise in the study of death” and “Philosophy is the art of arts and science of sciences” (PC, §3) – a death Plato taught us Socrates mastered and a knowledge of things that are Aristotle taught us through his own mastery.

So philosophy is accepted by the Church, for it, when understood through a Christocentric lens, is understood to be nothing else than theology as both are meant as ways to live a fully flourished life. So far so good; now what? The obvious answer is to take the study of philosophy seriously. What is less obvious is how we go about that without falling into the errors, which resulted, when the Medieval West and its posterity eviscerated the Logos from this sacred discipline. Let me attempt to recite a brief litany of helpful suggestions towards resolving both the seeming, but not ultimately real, conundrums encountered above and many more (related) questions (to the Nicene Creed):

  1. Read the fathers themselves, who were steeped in Ancient philosophy. This includes: Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, Athanasius the Great, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Theologian, Nemesius of Emesa, Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, Photius the Great, Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory Palamas, etc.
  2. Read contemporary Orthodox philosophers. This includes: Andrew Louth, Basil Tatakis, Christophe Erismann, Constantine Cavarnos, David Bradshaw, John D. Jones, Nathan A. Jacobs, Torstein T. Tollefsen, etc.
  3. Read the ancient pagan Greeks and Romans themselves. This includes: The pre-Socratics (esp. Parmenides and Heraclitus), Plato, Aristotle, the middle Platonists (esp. Philo of Alexandria and Plutarch), the Skeptics (esp. Cicero and Sextus Empiricus), the Stoics (esp. Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca), the Neoplatonists (esp. Plotinus and Proclus), etc.
  4. Read the secondary literature (i.e. commentaries) about pagan Greek and Roman philosophy from trained scholars. This includes: A History of Philosophy series by Frederic C. Copleston; The Blackwell Philosophy Guide series;The Cambridge Companion series; The Oxford Handbook series; The Routledge Philosophy Guidebook series; The Very Short Introduction series by Oxford University Press
  5. Listen to the podcast series: “History of Philosophy without Any Gaps” by Peter Adamson <http://historyofphilosophy.net/>

In approaching any of these possible outlets, one will encounter much that is difficult to comprehend at first. The best advice: Follow the example of the widow and the judge – be persistent in asking, seeking, and knocking until it is given. Remember one does not become a medical practitioner in a day, nor a week, nor even a year; nor does one become an engineer in a day, nor a week, nor a year. To become proficient in something requires time, diligence, and a helpful hand from those who already know how.

Therefore, be of good cheer in this philosophical pursuit!

Here is some suggested reading to get you started:

Saint Justin the Philosopher - Writings

Saint John of Damascus - Writings

Saint Maximus the Confessor - Ambigua (Vol. I)

Saint Maximus the Confessor - Ambigua (Vol. II)

Introduction to Byzantine and Orthodox Christian Philosophy

Basil Tatakis - Byzantine Philosophy

Basil Tatakis - Christian Philosophy in the Patristic and Byzantine Tradition

Constantine Cavarnos - Orthodoxy and Philosophy

Constantine Cavarnos - The Hellenic-Christian Philosophical Tradition

Ways of Byzantine Philosophy



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