BOOK REVIEW: BYZANTINE PHILOSOPHY by Basil Tatakis
Reviewed by Thomas Riggins
This book is one of a kind. Tatakis published it in French in 1949 and it had to wait until 2003 before an English edition appeared. The wait was worth it. This is the only book in English that covers the development of the history of philosophy and its intersection with Christianity during the entire course of the history of the Eastern Roman Empire from the fall of Rome and the Western Empire to its own fall in 1453 A.D.
Americans and Western Europeans are familiar with our local history-- Rome falls, then the Middle Ages dominated by Latin Christianity (Catholicism), the Renaissance, Reformation, and modern times.
Our way of looking at politics and religion was born out of this sequence. Marxism, is in fact, the logical outgrowth of just this history. It is sometimes difficult to understand other types of Marxisms, i.e., I mean those that have developed in the non-Western European context. Think of “Marxism with Chinese characteristics” or “the Juche Principle.”
What we learn from Tatakis’ book is that a different Christianity (Eastern Orthodox) and a different philosophical development was taking place in the Greek speaking half of the Mediterranean world throughout the entire period we in the West associate with our Middle Ages. The eastern world, dominated by Constantinople (the second Rome), retained its high level of civilization to the end. Its culture forms the background of Russia and other East European cultures.
If we want to understand Soviet Marxism we may have to look at it through the lenses of Byzantine philosophy rather than just assimilating it to the Western tradition. Even if this turns out not to be the case, this book is still a good read and opens up a world most of us have missed out on with our parochial education.
Tatakis seems not to have a secular outlook, but this rarely intrudes in his history. Early in the book we can see the coming fight between philosophy and religion (Christianity) – that is, between reason and faith. Two great schools of early Christianity were duking it out in the first couple of centuries of the Christian era – one in the great city of Alexandria, the other in Antioch. Alexandria stood for mysticism and a dogma “inaccessible to human reasoning” while Antioch stood for a non-mystical analysis of religious texts just as one “would scrutinize any human text, thus,” Tatakis says, “the reader falls into the trap of scientific rationalism.” Well, we certainly wouldn’t want that to happen! Antioch lost this fight – the Byzantines remained mystical by and large. (Note: Byzantium was the name of the little town upon which Constantinople was built so the Eastern Romans are called, by us, “Byzantines” – they called themselves “Romans”).
In the chapter on the sixth and seventh centuries we come across a bad attitude developing in Christianity that we can see is still with us. This is that “revelation” is better than our human type of “observational knowledge” and therefore “every advance in human thought” is viewed “as promoted by the devil.” Technology was OK (needed for warfare) but science as a way of explaining the world was neglected.
Nevertheless, there were some philosophers who tried to carry on the classical tradition of rational thought while being Christian at the same time. John Philoponos is especially important as his works on Aristotle, along with Aristotle, were translated into Syrian (and later into Arabic) and he was “an important agent in the formation of Syrian-Arabian philosophy.” We all know that the Arabs had a great and flowering civilization while we in the West were flea ridden barbarians – but they got it from (and added to it) the Greeks of the eastern Empire.
The next chapter covers the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries. A new attitude to government developed – called “Caesaropapism” – that is, the emperor, not the pope (or in this case the Patriarch) runs the show. This reversed a 300 year tradition initiated by the thinker Themistios who taught that “virtue and piety cannot be coerced”. He convinced the emperor Valens of this and Valens allowed “everyone the freedom of choosing whatever religion he liked.” The good old days
Caesaropapism was eventually defeated by the Church. A work called “The Epanagogy” was adopted (ninth century) “which stated that the emperor, as the executor of the law, becomes the common bond for all the subjects and distributes rewards to all with perfect objectivity and according to their merits. In the Patriarch [of Constantinople], the image of the living Jesus [the Pope wouldn’t like this], being that he is committed in a profound sense to truth in acts and speech, resides the right of interpretation.”
In later times the Russians adopted this work and “it became the standard from which [they] regulated their political and ecclesiastical life.” Substitute “the party” for “the emperor” and “General Secretary” for “Patriarch” and “Marxism-Leninism” for “Jesus” and maybe we can see the cultural background upon which Soviet Marxism was built-- maybe.
Since the emperor and the Patriarch tell us all that we need to know and do (which self love should make us want to accept) this leads “to the responsibility of not allowing heretics to prevent one’s salvation.” The defenders of the faith are noted for “fanaticism and inflexibility.”
We should note that Byzantine philosophers in the eighth century, by concentrating on the study of the classical Greeks and their culture, laid the foundations for what would become the Renaissance in Italy. There was always contact between the Latin West and Greek East and westerners were always coming to study at the great schools and universities in Constantinople. The East was always ahead of the West, however.
In the chapter on the eleventh and twelfth centuries we meet Michael Psellos (1018-1096) who wrote about the philosophy of Plato and became “the promoter of philosophical movement in Byzantium, an initiative that continued from the 11th through the 15th century and was disseminated by Plethon and Bessarion to the Italy of the Renaissance and then to the rest of Western Europe.” Tatakis ends this chapter by saying, “it is not enough to say that in the 11th and 12th centuries speculative thought in the Latin West runs on the same track as it did in Byzantium. We must acknowledge that in all of the essential points of this intellectual movement, Byzantium led the way.”
We will end this review with the chapter on the last three centuries with some comments about George Gemistos Plethon (c.1360-1450) who came to live in Italy. Plethon was very advanced and definitely put philosophy in the first place ahead of religion. In “his most important work, The Laws,... [he says] philosophical thinking... reveals the naked truth to the spirit that has been liberated from dogmatism and compels the person, every person, to accept it ‘with one accord and with the same spirit.’ The position of the enlightenment philosophers would not be very different.”
We should feel some solidarity with Plethon even 550 years on as, Tatakis says, he believed “happiness emanates from the organization of the state” and in his memoirs, he “emerges... as the forerunner and anticipator of many socialist and other modern concepts.”
Does this sound like “From each according to his abilities to each according to his work”:
I mean his view that “the right to wealth is proportional to the services each person renders, a principle that secures social justice and elevates the value of labor.”
I certainly hope we won’t have to wait another 550 years to see this come about!
by Basil Tatakis
translated by Nicholas J. Moutafakis
Hackett Publishing Co., 2003. 424pp.