Inquiries into Byzantine Philosophy

by Jan Zozulak (Author)
Monographs 244 Pages


This book analyses the process of development of Byzantine thought, which carries original solutions to fundamental philosophical questions and an original understanding of the world and humanity. The author defines the contents and characteristics of Byzantine philosophy, discusses the most important factors of its development as well as the role of Greco-Roman world and the place of Christian thinkers in this process. He also takes into consideration the Alexandrian school and the School of Antioch, the relationship between Byzantine philosophy and Greek Patristics and the attempts to restore the Byzantine neptic thought after the fall of Constantinople. The study is based on Byzantine sources, written in Greek.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Preface
  • Contents
  • Series Information
  • List of abbreviations
  • 1 From Byzantine studies to Byzantine philosophy
  • 1.1 Development of Byzantine philosophy
  • 1.2 Basil Tatakis and his scientific achievements
  • 1.3 A groundbreaking monograph in the Byzantine philosophy
  • 1.4 Byzantine philosophy in Slovakia and Slavic context
  • 2 Content and character of Byzantine philosophy
  • 2.1 The term “Byzantine philosophy”
  • 2.2 Contents of Byzantine philosophy
  • 2.3 Basic principles of Byzantine philosophy
  • 2.3.1 Cosmology
  • 2.3.2 Difference between created and uncreated reality
  • 2.3.3 Participation of creation in Divine energies
  • 2.3.4 God and human freedom
  • 2.3.5 Being and nonbeing
  • 3 Historical background of the origin of the Byzantine philosophy
  • 3.1 The beginning of the Byzantine period
  • 3.2 The term “Byzantine Empire”
  • 3.3 The Byzantine Empire as a successor of the Roman Empire
  • 3.4 Cultural contributions of the Byzantine Empire
  • 4 Historical milestones of Byzantine philosophy
  • 4.1 The birth of Byzantine philosophy
  • 4.2 Byzantine philosophy after the Byzantine Empire
  • 4.3 Periodization of Byzantine philosophy
  • 5 The contact of ancient philosophy and Christian thought
  • 5.1 Hellenism and Christianity
  • 5.2 The attitude of Christian thinkers toward ancient philosophy
  • 5.3 Gnosticism
  • 5.4 Alexandrian school
  • 5.4.1 Clement of Alexandria
  • 5.4.2 Origen
  • Origenism and anti-Origenism
  • 5.5 School of Antioch
  • 5.6 Synthesis of two methods of interpretation
  • 6 Byzantine philosophy and Greek patristics
  • 6.1 Dialectics of ancient philosophy and Christian thought
  • 6.2 Periodization of Greek patristics and forming of Byzantine philosophy
  • 6.3 Period from 90 to 313
  • 6.4 Period from 313 to 451
  • 6.5 Period from 451 to 680
  • 6.6 Period from 681 to 843
  • 6.7 Period from 843 to 1054
  • 6.8 Period from 1054 to 1204
  • 6.9 Period from 1204 to 1453
  • 7 Restoration of Byzantine neptic thought tradition
  • 7.1 Philokalic movement
  • 7.2 Macarius Notaras – founder of Philokalism
  • 7.3 Paisius Velichkovsky and Slavic Philokalic renewal
  • 8 Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Indexes


Edited by/herausgegeben von

Seweryn Blandzi

Advisory Board/Wissenschaftlicher Beirat

Manfred Frank (University of Tübingen)

Kamila Najdek (University of Warsaw)

Marek Otisk (University of Ostrava, Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague)

Wojciech Starzyński (Polish Academy of Sciences)

VOL. 3

1From Byzantine studies to Byzantine philosophy

Over the last two centuries, interest of researchers in the era of the Byzantine Empire has gradually increased, especially in the fields of history of politics, art, architecture and literature. Byzantine studies, which originated at the end of the nineteenth century as an independent historical discipline, aimed at the study of Byzantine history, language and art, significantly contributed to this development. Byzantine studies were founded by Karl Krumbacher (1856–1909), who was a professor of Greek language at the University of Munich. He had vast knowledge of Byzantine culture and was an expert on Byzantine Greek language, literature and history. He was one of the main promoters of Byzantine studies as an independent academic discipline at modern universities. Step by step, Byzantine studies formed into a field of philological and historical sciences, with the research in this field starting to take place at departments of history and classical philology and closely tied especially to the research of ancient influences on later periods and to classical philology.

In 1891, Krumbacher published his masterpiece History of Byzantine Literature from Justinian to the Fall of the East Roman Empire, in which he expressed incorrect belief that the Byzantine Empire was philosophically unproductive,1 despite admitting that Byzantine theologians preserved the manuscript tradition of ancient Greek philosophical texts. This shows that he likely knew and used only a small number of Latin translations of Byzantine philosophical texts, which were published in dozens of editions in the Western Europe from the Renaissance to the end of the nineteenth century.

After publishing of Krumbacher’s book, certain Europeans started to discover that despite all the “medieval darkness”, Greek Empire of the Christian East, as it was sarcastically called by Western authors, concealed certain texts interesting for philosophy. From this point of view, the end of the nineteenth century might be considered an important milestone for a more objective research of the Byzantine thought, as until then, “for entire centuries, Western European historiography considered as the end of ancient Greek philosophy the year 529 AD, that is, ←15 | 16→the year in which the last Neoplatonic Academy in Athens was formally closed by the decree of Emperor Justinian. Centuries that followed this act – the entire period of Greek cultural life within the context of Eastern Roman Empire – was considered philosophically dead by Western historiography, which found continuation of philosophical development in scholasticism, to which it attributed the sole historical continuation of ancient Greek philosophy”.2

Krumbacher established the journal Byzantinische Zeitschrift in 1892 and journal Byzantinisches Archiv in 1898. In 1895, Ludwig Stein published an article Die Kontinuität der griechischen Philosophie in der Gedankenwelt der Byzantiner,3 main idea of which was the author’s belief that continuation of ancient Greek philosophy, even though realized via Renaissance in Europe, nonetheless owes the Byzantines for saving and preserving the Greek philosophical heritage, mainly through commentaries and notes to classical works. This idea was dominant during the heyday of Byzantine studies in the following decades and led to the discovery and examination of less productive Byzantine authors: Michael Psellos, John Italus, Michael of Ephesus, Theodore Metochites and others who commented on ancient Greek texts.4

At the same time, researchers’ interest was aimed at seeking of Platonic, Aristotelian and Neoplatonic influences on the ideas of Byzantine authors. Amid this research, in 1949, a monograph titled Byzantine Philosophy5 by Basil Tatakis was issued. It is considered a significant “milestone in research of Byzantine philosophy and the first systematic work in this field”.6 It is a notable work for studying Byzantine philosophy, as it provided Western authors with an opportunity to realize the extent of contribution of Byzantium to philosophy. In it, Tatakis synthetically introduced Byzantine philosophy and systematically analyzed the uninterrupted continuation of Greek philosophy during the existence of the Byzantine Empire. For the first time, he proposed a possibility that “Byzantine philosophy constitutes one form – the Christian form – of the thought, reason and ←16 | 17→spirit of Greece”.7 The names of Byzantine philosophers Leontius of Byzantium, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus and Hesychasts of the fourteenth century were included in the history of philosophy for the first time. This still unsurpassed, complex monograph provides not only a correct understanding of the different character of Byzantine philosophy, but introduces it as a standalone scientific discipline.8

Several monographs and papers complementing and developing Tatakis’ systematic interpretation were published in the following years. Klaus Oehler’s Antike Philosophie und Byzantinisches Mittelalter9 was issued in 1969 and became another important milestone for research of Byzantine philosophy. In the first study included in the publication, titled Die Kontinuität in der Philosophie der Griechen bis zum Untergang des Byzantinischen Reiches,10 Oehler speaks of organic, uninterrupted continuation and of the second phase (after Classic and Hellenistic periods) of the ancient Greek philosophy lasting until the fifteenth century. Contribution of this book dwells primarily in the fact that the interest of researchers was transferred from the search for Platonic, Aristotelian and Neoplatonic influences on Byzantine authors’ thinking to new, constructive syntheses and answers to the ontological questions provided by the Byzantine thinkers.

1.1Development of Byzantine philosophy

In addition to Tatakis and Oehler, the development of Byzantine philosophy is closely associated with the names of remarkable scholars of the end of the twentieth century, who actively dealt with this scientific discipline: Paul Lemerle,11 Gerhard Podskalsky,12 Nigel Guy Wilson,13 Herbert ←17 | 18→Hunger,14 Nikos Matsoukas15 and others, who have made great progress in research in the field over the past decades by publishing their studies and critical publications of Byzantine philosophical texts. Of these, Greek scholar Linos Benakis, who systematically researched and published a variety of philosophical texts and contributed to the introduction of the term “Byzantine philosophy”, deserves greater attention. He collected his scientific studies, published in multiple languages, in the collections Texts and Studies on Byzantine Philosophy16 in 2002 and Byzantine Philosophy B. in 2013.17

A place among the most significant titles is undoubtedly reserved for the book Person and Eros18 by Christos Yannaras, which might be considered the first attempt at a systematic explanation of ontology of Byzantine thinkers and its comparison with the later ontological issues. Yannaras considers the three studies by John Zizioulas: Hellenism and Christianity: The Meeting of Two Worlds19, From Mask to Person: The Contribution of Patristic Theology to the Concept of the Person20 and Truth and Communion in the Perspective of the Greek Patristic Thought to be “the most mature and as of now the most systematic explanation of the importance of the syntheses of Greek Fathers, especially of the fourth and fifth centuries, to the history of philosophy”.21

The book Η φιλοσοφία στο Βυζάντιο (Philosophy in Byzantium)22 by Nikos Politis also deals with Byzantine philosophy; however, Benakis suggests “Greek ←18 | 19→philosophy in the first Christian centuries” as a more suitable name for it. In his book Philosophical Anthropology in Byzantium,23 Christos Terezis analyzes the issues pertaining to human being, which were considered highly relevant in the Byzantine thought. The book Byzantine Philosophy of Image: A Reading of John of Damascus24 by George Zografidis is an attempt to reconstruct the philosophy of icons on the basis of research of the texts by John of Damascus. In his book Byzantine Philosophy and Iconology, George Arabatzis deals with aesthetic-ethical category in relation to Byzantine philosophy, with emphasis on philosophical iconology and philosophical anthropology.25 The work The Political Philosophy of Education During the Last Byzantine Regeneration and Thomas Magistros (XV Century) by Konstantinos Lolitsas analyzes the Byzantine political philosophy.26 The book The Sources of Byzantine Philosophy: The Meaning of Philosophy for the Greek Apologists27 by Dimitris Angelis is focused on the philosophical analysis of the thinking of the apologists of the second century AD. Konstantinos Niarchos deals with the issue of continuity or discontinuity of ancient Greek philosophy in the Byzantine Empire and describes the scientific debate regarding this issue in his Η ελληνική φιλοσοφία κατά την βυζαντινήν περίοδον (Greek Philosophy in the Byzantine period).28 The work Early Byzantine Philosophy by Katerina Ierodiakonou and George Zografidis is among the newer studies on Byzantine philosophy.29

A complete bibliography, from the publication of Tatakis’ monograph to 1971, was drawn up by Benakis in his methodologically exceptional Study of Byzantine ←19 | 20→Philosophy: Critical Survey 1949–1971.30 In 1977, Greek translation of Tatakis’ monograph Byzantine Philosophy31 was published, supplemented by Benakis’ bibliography32 with more than 500 books and articles from the field of Byzantine philosophy, including the Fathers of the Church, published in 1949–1976. This bibliography is structured chronologically and systematically, not alphabetically. Benakis later treated the list of books and articles published in the fields of Byzantine history, art, archeology, law and philosophy in the years 1949–1990.33 He also added more than 400 philosophical titles, published in 1977–1990 to the previous bibliography.

Critical evaluation, discussion and information regarding the research of Byzantine philosophy with an overview of more recent studies and with emphasis on the most relevant topics are provided in Benakis’ Current Research in Byzantine Philosophy.34 He presents a more concise overview in English language in a collective work dedicated to the research of Byzantine philosophy.35 Recently, several articles on similar note have been published, including Antonio Bravo Garcia’s From Psellos to Pletho: Byzantine Philosophy between Tradition and Originality,36 Michele Trizio’s Byzantine Philosophy as a Contemporary Historiographical Project,37 Katelis Viglas’ A Historical Outline of Byzantine Philosophy and Its Basic ←20 | 21→Subjects,38 and Ivanovič’s Byzantine Philosophy and Its Historiography.39 A systematic treatment of Greek philosophy in the Byzantine Empire with a summary of the most relevant historiography is also provided by Marian Andrzej Wesoły.40

Entry “Byzantine philosophy” started to appear in specialized dictionaries and encyclopedias, e.g., by Gerhard Podskalsky (Historische Wörterbuch der Philosophie, Vol. 7, Basel, 1989, pp. 624–6), Dominic O’ Meara (The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Vol. 3, New York and Oxford, 1991, pp. 1658–61), Herbert Hunger (Lexikon des Mittelalters, Vol. 6, München-Zürich, 1993, pp. 2092–100), Michel Cacouros (Encyclopédie philosophique universelle, Vol. 4, Paris 1998, pp. 1362–84), Linos Benakis (Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 2, 1998, pp. 160–5) and Katerina Ierodiakonou and Börje Bydén (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). In 2011, the Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy. Philosophy between 500 and 1500 was published under the editorship of Henrik Lagerlund. In addition to biographies and summaries of opinions of the most significant Byzantine philosophers, it contains entries pertaining to various fields, including aesthetics, ethics, logic, metaphysics, philosophy of nature, etc. The entries were produced by influential contemporary European researchers, including George Arabatzis, Börje Bydén, John A. Demetracopoulos, Pantelis Golitsis, Katerina Ierodiakonou, Georgi Kapriev, George Karamanolis, Jozef Matula and George Zografidis.

In the first half of the twentieth century, two important printings of Byzantine philosophical texts were published in Europe.41 By the end of the century, texts of select Byzantine philosophers were being published – since 1984, twelve volumes have been issued, containing texts by Nicholas of Methone, Nikephoros Blemmydes, Georgius Gemistus Pletho, George Pachymeres, Boethius, Anonymus, Barlaam of Calabria, Theophanes of Nicaea, Demetrios Kydones and Theodore of Smyrna.42 Byzantine commentaries on Aristotle also saw ←21 | 22→print – since 1994, seven volumes have been issued, containing commentaries by Arethas of Caesarea, George Pachymeres and Michael Psellos.43 Both series are ←22 | 23→a part of a major project Corpus Philosophorum Medii Aevi, under the patronage of L’Union Académique Internationale (UAI).

In addition to critical editions of Byzantine philosophical texts, departments focusing on the research of Byzantine philosophy are being formed. The state of research is continually reevaluated on an international scale, with new information being presented on global congresses and international scientific conferences. An important scientific conference, focusing on Byzantine philosophy, took place in 1997 in Thessaloniki, contributions were published in the anthology Byzantine Philosophy and Its Ancient Sources.44 The International Congress of Byzantine Studies took place in 2001 in Paris, resulting in conference proceedings edited by Cacouros and Congourdeau.45 Despite the amount of published texts, Benakis asked a question at the conference in Athens: “Are we now ready to write a new History of Byzantine philosophy, a new Tatakis?” His reply was “No. We are not ready yet”.46 These words do not hide pessimism, however, but a call to scientific community for a more systematic work in the research of Byzantine philosophy.

This brief summary indicates that the amount of published scientific monographs and articles is a testament to the growing interest in Byzantine philosophy in the past decades. A more complex research has been supported by critical editions of texts from the Byzantine period. In the past, predominantly historical and philological texts were being issued, dealing only marginally with Byzantine philosophy, but there still are many as of yet unpublished philosophical texts from the Byzantine era waiting for critical editions, necessary for these texts to be studied and included in the corpus of Byzantine philosophy. Experts will have to tackle a great deal of work in collecting, publishing and analyzing these texts. A similar situation can be observed in case of texts from other fields from the Byzantine period, notably medicine, mathematics, astronomy, theory of music and others.←23 | 24→

1.2Basil Tatakis and his scientific achievements

Basil Tatakis (1896–1986) was the first to systematically analyze Byzantine philosophy, and he significantly enriched the history of philosophy by his scientific work. He is considered one of the four great Greek philosophers47 of the twentieth century. His original work not only greatly influenced the times in which he lived, but also became an inspiration for later thinkers in France, Spain, Germany, Austria, Greece and other countries. He is rightfully perceived as representing an important milestone in research of Byzantine philosophy.

Basil N. Tatakis (Greek: Βασίλειος Ν. Τατάκης) was born in 1896 in Sineti on the Greek island Andros. He studied literature at the University of Athens (1919–22) and philosophy at Sorbonne (1928–30). In 1939, he acquired a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Thessaloniki, preceded by a spectacular monograph on stoic philosopher Panaetius written in French,48 as well as the philosophical studies The Problem of Truth,49 The Tragedy of Knowledge,50 In the Land of Thought. A Philosophical Dialogue51 and translations of Plato’s dialogues Crito (1931) and Euthyphro (1933). Later, in years 1954–7, he translated more of Plato’s dialogues Laches, Meno, Theaetetus, Euthydemus, Protagoras, and Aristotle’s On the Soul. In the years 1947–56, he lectured ancient, Byzantine, and newer English philosophy and logic at the educational institution Athenaion, established by educator and philosopher Evangelos Papanoutsos.

Tatakis’ monograph Byzantine Philosophy52 was published in French language in 1949 in Paris, as an attachment to History of Philosophy by Émile Bréhier and later reprinted in 1959. This monograph incited a serious interest in research of previously underestimated period of medieval Greek philosophy and became an impulse for constructive inquiry into Byzantine philosophy on an international level. Paradoxically, previously to Tatakis’ monograph, existence of philosophical thought in Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire was not recognized in either ←24 | 25→Western or Greek historiography, despite its eleven centuries of existence and development. “Generally, a contradictory differentiation of philosophy and theology was accepted, serving to liberate philosophical pursuits from dogmatism of institutionalinfallibilityin the West; everybody embraced the opinion that the Byzantine Empire simply theologized”.53

Tatakis’ book elicited response in the academic community, especially among theologians. Reaction of the professor of National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, D. Balanos, is typical – during a presentation of Tatakis’ text in Academy of Athens, he asked: “Is there, in a literal sense of the word, a philosophy in Byzantium, when philosophy is, with a few exceptions, labeled as a handmaiden of theology?54 In this question, a long-held contempt for Byzantine philosophy is expressed, influenced by Western authors, according to whom “the history of ancient Greek philosophy ended with Stoics and Neoplatonists, followed by twelve centuries of emptiness, absence of Greek philosophy, with a claim to its continuation made only by the West at the time of Renaissance”.55 It must not escape our attention that, in opposition to Western understanding of philosophy as ancilla theologiae,56 in Byzantium, philosophy was never seen as a handmaiden of theology.

At that time, Tatakis published translations of Henri-Louis Bergson’s The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (Les Deux Sources de la Morale et de la Religion),57 Richard Winn Livingstone’s The Greek Genius and Its Meaning to Us58 and Tadeusz Zieliński’s Sibyl (Sibylla).59 In 1952, he collected a series of ←25 | 26→studies in one volume, titled Topics in Christian and Byzantine Philosophy,60 which specifies the general character and individual parts of philosophical topics on the basis of works of Greek ecumenical authors. In 1960, he published The Contribution of Cappadocia to Christian Thought,61 a book in which he showed a profound knowledge not only of three great Cappadocian thinkers, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus (the Theologian) and Gregory of Nyssa, but also of a number of different figures of this geographical region of today’s Turkey.62 This publication surprised many researchers, as it was for the first time a philosopher appeared in Greece that would focus on the analysis of theological personalities from philosophical standpoint in research, succeeding in elucidating their thoughts. Tatakis meticulously presented the results of his research, comparable with works of his contemporaries, leading university patrologists of the University of Athens, Demetrios Balanos and Konstantinos Bonis.

In the year 1958, Tatakis became a professor of philosophy at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, where he read philosophy and logic until 1967. In addition to education and research, he was also active in other areas of social life. In years 1964–7, he was the chairman of the administrative board of the National Theatre of Northern Greece and in 1967 became a member of the administrative board of Royal Research Foundation. In 1974, he became a member of Greek Philosophical Association.←26 | 27→

At this time, he enhanced his educational and research activities by publishing other significant works, aimed at scientific audience, but also at a wider professional public. The most important are Philosophy and Science,63 Logic,64 Socrates. His Life and Teachings,65 Philosophical Essays66 and The Human Path.67 Tatakis spent some time on reconstruction of life and work of an important seventeenth-century Greek philosopher Gerasimos Vlachos at the Greek Institute in Venice. The Institute subsequently published the results of his research in a standalone book on this figure.68 He later published further texts: Thought and Freedom,69 Pedagogy70 and collected five works on Byzantine philosophy in a book titled Studies on History of Philosophy. Ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire.71

In the work Studies on Christian Philosophy,72 Tatakis synthesized the knowledge on Byzantine authors’ conclusions regarding humanity, dialogue of Christian and Greek spirit etc. Concurrently, he clarified and specified the methodological principles, indicators of the contemporary philosophical climate in Byzantine philosophy of Gregory Palamas and depicted Plotinus as a predecessor of the Christian mysticism. The fact that he was given an opportunity to write the chapter Greek patristic and Byzantine philosophy73 for the first volume of The History of Philosophy for the French Encyclopedia,74 published in Paris in 1969, is a testament to international recognition of Tatakis’ work. A Greek translation of this study was published in the journal Deukalion75 and later as a standalone ←27 | 28→book titled Greek Patristic and Byzantine Philosophy.76 Nikos Matsoukas wrote an appendix to this version of the text, titled Content of Byzantine philosophy.77

Many of Tatakis’ lectures from Athenaion and his Methodology were left unpublished. Following his death in 1993, the National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation published his Memories.78 From it, the readers can learn about the multitude of facets of his lifelong scientific work, in which he focused primarily on philosophy and history of philosophy. His literary activities are not limited to monographs and philosophical studies and translations but are complemented by many articles in prestigious journals, in which he dealt with other areas of philosophical research (logic, epistemology, Socratic teaching) and by various topical philosophical questions. Throughout his work, a rigorous scientific approach to sources and presenting of information on philosophical thought of Byzantine authors in a captivating manner is evident – something which was exceedingly rare in the times when university professors wrote their books in a dead academic language, Katharevousa.79 In 1982, Greek Academy of Sciences honored him with Award for Excellence in Historical and Social Sciences (Αριστείο Ιστορικών και Κοινωνικών Επιστημών).←28 | 29→

1.3A groundbreaking monograph in the Byzantine philosophy

Biographical notes

Jan Zozulak (Author)

Ján Zozuľak is a professor at the Faculty of Arts at Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra (Slovakia). His research interests are Byzantine philosophy, Byzantine anthropology, Greek Patristics and the Greek language. He works with original Greek philosophical and theological texts.


Title: Inquiries into Byzantine Philosophy