Icon of the Holy Wisdom (16th c., Sophia cathedral, Novgorod)

On the Nature of Byzantine Philosophy

by Cyprian R. Fennema

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 Divine 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 Ἅγιον, 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.

The Damascene on Philosophy

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.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.”2 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”3

What was the living breath of the body of Christ became the necrotic speculation of the foreigner.

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”4. To put it straight: Dam­a­scene is refer­ring to 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 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.5

To phi­los­o­phize, to receive illu­mi­na­tion of the soul, requires the tute­lage of Christ, for Christ is the true knowl­edge of all things that are.

Icon of the Holy Wisdom (16th c., Sophia cathedral, Novgorod)
Icon of the Holy Wis­dom (16th c., Sophia cathe­dral, Novgorod)

Christ the Logos — Key to True Philosophy

A cen­tu­ry before Dam­a­scene, Max­imus the Con­fes­sor, who 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?”6 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 the iden­ti­ty of the cos­mos, which itself is pred­i­cat­ed upon know­ing the iden­ti­ty of Christ, 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 the archi­tect to explain to them 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 hyposta­sis (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”, since 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.”7

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 that Faith and rea­son are cer­tain­ly sep­a­rat­ed and most def­i­nite­ly opposed. To those in the Church, famil­iar apho­risms from Paul the Apos­tle8 and Ter­tul­lian9 are often cit­ed as irre­proach­able witness.

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.

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 — “pos­i­tive use” being the oper­a­tive phrase — 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 lights10 … I will do away with any­thing, which is worth­less and wrong­ly spo­ken of as knowledge.”

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Assum­ing this to be the con­sen­sus patrum, then what should we make of the proof texts cit­ed above? Let’s start with Ter­tul­lian. He is writ­ing against him 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 wis­dom11 and Because in him the entire­ty of divin­i­ty dwells bod­i­ly.12 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. 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.

False Division in the West

If the Church has a place for phi­los­o­phy in its hal­lowed walls, then why are we West­ern­ers so mis­led 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 key to under­stand­ing why Pla­to describes phi­los­o­phy as the means by which one becomes like the gods, 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 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 lay­men who taught the peo­ple about such mat­ters with­in hal­lowed 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 Church’s Cat­e­chet­i­cal School 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 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”[footnotePC, §3[/footnote].

An Exhortation Towards Learning

The Church there­fore accepts phi­los­o­phy, which, when viewed through a Chris­to­cen­tric lens, is under­stood to be noth­ing else than the­ol­o­gy; 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 that 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 the seem­ing, but not ulti­mate­ly real, conun­drums (both those encoun­tered above and many oth­er relat­ed questions):

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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
  • Lis­ten to the pod­cast series: “His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy with­out Any Gaps” by Peter Adam­son <https://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!

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About the Author

Scott (Cypri­an) R. Fen­nema is a doc­tor­al can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ken­tucky. He holds an M.A.R. in Phi­los­o­phy of Reli­gion and pre­vi­ous­ly taught Phi­los­o­phy at Holy Trin­i­ty Ortho­dox Seminary.