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December 11, 2006 (the date of publication in Russian)

Roman Bagdasarov, Alexander Rudakov

GREECE AS A CULTURAL SUPERPOWER

A Russian view from Corfu on Greece's civilizational mission. Part 2

Part 1: http://www.rpmonitor.ru/en/en/detail.php?ID=1523

A TURN TO THE NORTH-EAST

Until the early IX century, the Hellenistic mission was adopted exceptionally by nations with a cultural treasury of their own, which used the Greek influence just in order to complete the magnificent building of their civilization. Before acquaintance with the Hellenistic heritage, the peoples of Asia Minor, the Romans and the Arabs possessed original scripts and traditions of literature. Adoption of Greek humanitarian technologies accelerated the development philosophic thinking in these nations, sparking emergence of new schools in the spheres of science and arts.

A new wave of Hellenistic expansion was associated with the names of St. Cyrill and St. Methodius. That was the first experience of transfer of Greek culture to peoples which earlier lacked even an alphabet, thus seemingly residing on another planet. In the view of the refined Hellenes, absence of graphic language was regarded for centuries as a definite attribute of barbarism, an index of a civilizational border which savages are unable to surmount.

Cyrill and Methodius shared this view as Greeks; but as Christians, they believed that there is nothing impossible for the Divine. Their enlightened faith and religious endeavour performed a real intellectual miracle, a great breakthrough, crushing the cultural barrier between the civilized Greek south and "Barbarian" Slavonic north.

The foundation of the Slavonic alphabet by Cyrill and Methodius initiated a new stage of Hellenization. The transfer of Greek influence became an instrument of Christening, a powerful means for indoctrination of whole peoples. It is noteworthy that the travel of Greek missionaries to the North resulted not only in Christening of Bulgaria and later Rus, but indirectly also to Christening of Scandinavia, following the baptism of Prince Vladimir. The example of the Konung of Kiev, broadly popular among the Norman warriors, was sufficient for the doom of Paganism in Sweden and Norway, which had been expressing contemptuous indifference to Roman preachers for the earlier two centuries.

Only within one hundred years after the mission of St. Cyrill and St. Methodius, the territory, populated by Slavonic peoples, gave birth to a new civilization which, along with the empire of Constantinople, constituted a single entity, the Orthodox commonwealth. From inside, it was structurized with the Holy Testament, in its translation into Church Slavonic, the Greek liturgy, and the writings of the Fathers of the Church. One more century later, the Greek-Slavonic unity was expressed with another language, not needing translation, – the language of Orthodox iconography. The Greek influence can be found in all the crucial periods of fine arts of the Balkan nations and Rus when the style changed: the XIII-XIV centuries (Serbia and Novgorod), the XV century (the school of Theophanus the Greek, including such great Russian iconographs as Andrey Rublev and Dionisius), the XVII century (a broad inflow of iconic samples from the Athos, marking a transition to classical art).

The wave of Hellenistic expansion, due to the efforts of St. Cyrill and St. Methodius, exceeded the framework of culture, affecting the direct transmission of religious experience. By the verge of the first and second millennium of the Christian era, it found its center in the monasteries of Athos, from where the centuries-long experience of Greek monkhood irradiated to the whole of Eastern Europe. From here, the humble monk Anthony would borrow the seed giving birth to the first monastic institution Ц the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra (XI century). From here, Russia's black clergy permanently derived new strength. That was in the XV century, when the new monastery charter was introduced after St. Nil Sorsky's travel to Athos; that was two centuries later, when the monastic practice was revived due to a new transposition of the ascetic teaching by Rev.Paisius Velichkovsky.

 

THE ASYLUM IN THE "WEST"

By the XIV-XV centuries, sufficient conditions for a Hellenistic expansion beyond the borders of the Orthodox commonwealth were ripe. Earlier, there was no place for it to catch on. Antagonism of confessions, scarcity of the educated layer of the population, permanent political instability, and struggle for mere physical survival were the major obstacles for expansion of Hellenistic ideas. On the eve of the collapse of the Eastern Rome in the XIV century, Western Europe, where the Greeks found an asylum, actively intervened in the Hellenistic transmission.

On the contrary to a number of authors, we don't regard the domination of ecclesiastical world outlook as an unfavorable factor for Hellenism; similarly, we don't see any contradiction between the theological system of Christianity and the system of philosophic argumentation, accepted in Greek schools. The former Ц in a shape, characteristic for European thought Ц is not imaginable without the latter. Superstitions, ignorance, absolutization of ritual don't have any relation to Orthodoxy. In her description of a major heretic of that time, Anna Komnina (XI-XII centuries) writes: "At that time, the Church was overflown by Nilus, as with a dirty stream. He was quite ignorant in Hellenic science; having no preceptor who would indoctrinate him with the implicit meaning of the Holy Testament, he thoroughly studied the writings of the Holy Fathers, but being not educated in literary sciences, he distorted the essence of the Teaching".

In the West, the Renaissance was developing in the framework on the historical territory of the Roman Empire Ц from Monaco di Bavier (Munchen) to Albion, where the Cross was exposed to Constantine the Great Ц with the difference that the lack of interest in Hellenistic ideas (which were present in the Caliphate) extended the process for centuries.

In order to facilitate the analysis of the compound process of Hellenization, we propose to identify particular elements and view them as vectors, outlining the general circuit of Hellenism. The Hellenistic culture expresses itself through natural philosophy (science), statehood, social and financial institutions, pedagogy, arts, the system of health care, and sports. Though the phenomenon of Hellas was perceived by its West European admirers more or less comprehensively, the consolidation of Hellenistic trends in the New History was far from simultaneous. In every century, starting since the XV, the leading role was represented by a particular vector, which constituted the base for emergence of the next one. For the process to start, at least one of them was necessary.

Why was the olive branch of the everlasting Hellenism inoculated to the West precisely in Northern Italy? Though this relatively small territory did not have any political center at that time, the statehoods, sharing this land, possessed one characteristic feature Ц an advanced financial system, which made the economy of North Italian cities Ц Venice, Florence, Genova, Milan, Padova Ц similar to the ancient polises and the New Rome. Other favorable preconditions included: presence of the Greek diaspora; affinity to Athos; relics of ancient art and written culture; religious (Catholic) integrity; medieval Pythagoreanism, and centuries-long traditions of artistic skills and higher education.

The Hellenistic Renaissance was initiated not by the Pope and the Kings but by the Toscan banking family of Medici, along with the humanistic intellectual community. The ideology of Renaissance was legitimized in the process of the Ferraro-Florentine Council of 1438-1439. The ostensible purpose of the Council was to establish unity of the Western and Eastern churches. It is less known that the Council became a starting point for the transmission of the Hellenistic science Ц "the new teaching" Ц to Europe.

Johann VIII Paleologue, the Basileus of Byzanthium, was bestead by a whole cohort of scientists. At the symposiums organized by Cosimo Medici, Western humanists eventually acquired the possibility of a dialogue with such exceptional representatives of Greek education as natural philosopher Plethonus. The expected unification failed, as at that time, Constantinople was invaded by Osmanic Turks. However, due to mutual interest of Italian intellectuals and Greeks, the channel for a concentrated transition of humanitarian technologies to the West was opened, thus predeterming the ascent of the Renaissance.

The fact that the Council of 1438-1439 was perceived by its participants as an onset of a long-time cultural process, is confirmed with the content of the frescoes of Benozzo Gozzoli, painted two decades later in the capella of Florence's Palazzo Medici. These frescoes display the Byzantine Emperor (Baltasar), the Patriarch of Constantinople (Melchior), and Lorenzo Medici (Gaspar) disguised as the Magi, bringing various kinds of treasures to Christ. All the members of this procession probably had real protagonists: the Orthodox Greek clergy, Italian citizens, philosophers like Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, Gozzoli himself, and his teacher Fra Beato Angelico. The gifts of the Magi symbolize the values of Hellenistic culture, sanctified by Christianity: the science of statehood, natural philosophy, and free arts. The clothes of the procession's members were covered with cryptography imitating Greek characters. A Greecized script of this kind is typical not only for the proto-Renaissance and Renaissance art of the West but also for the Balkans and Russia up to the XVIII century.

The Medici family's civilizational effort was supported by the Gonzaga, the Dukes of Mantua; by the Popes, the Cardinals, the rulers of France, Northern Europe, and England. Since that time, the vectors of Hellenism had been gradually penetrating into the European life.

Classical education may be identified as the major direction of Hellenization in the XV century. For the purpose of a broader involvement of representatives of various social layers in the process of humanization of culture, Cosimo Medici opens the first public library (1440), thus prompting Pope Nicholas V to found the famous Library of Vatican ten years later. In the same period, Johann Guttenberg invents the typesetting machine and disseminates book printing. In the intellectual sphere of Europe, stagnant scholastics is replaced with a dynamic method of academic argumentation, Ц the dialectics. Anthropocentric ethics transforms the already existing high schools and fosters foundation of new universities, especially in the northern regions of Europe, such as Cambridge (1447), Freiburg (1457), Basel (1459), and Tuebingen (1477).

 

THE SECOND TRANSMISSION TO THE NORTH

While the European West was assimilating the achievements of the Greek genius in the spheres of art and education, Rus was exposed to the Hellenistic experience of state building. The marriage of Ivan the Great with Sophia Paleologue, as well as an inflow of Greek intellectuals to Moscow, fostered the comprehension of the phenomenon of the Moscow statehood. That was not reproduction of old Byzantine schemes but rather construction of new concepts, often emerging from a debate between Russian and Greek thinkers. In particular, the doctrine of Third Rome, created by Starets Philopheus from Pskov (or rather resting upon his ideas), was originally rejected by poet and theologian Michael Trivolis (Maxim the Greek). However, this doctrine would not emerge without the intellectual atmosphere, inspired in Moscow by the Greek influence. It is noteworthy that in the original text of the message of Philopheus to Vasily II's deacon Mikhail Misyura-Munekhin, Rus is identified as a new embodiment of exactly the Romean Kingdom, exactly corresponding with the prophecies of the Book of Daniel.

In the times of Boris Godunov, with the foundation of the Moscow Patriarchy, this theory becomes the official doctrine of the state. Already in the XVII century, the Greek clergy completely accepts this doctrine, and since now, it helps Russia to overcome the crisis of identity caused by the Time of Troubles. The Romanov dynasty, with its extremely pro-Western orientation, originally paid no interest to the concepts of Third Rome. Later, Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich still recognized the responsibility of Russia for the liberation of Europe's Orthodox peoples from Turkish oppression Ц thanks to Greek priests. A century later, when Russia's military advantage over the Ottoman Empire became obvious, what had once been a geopolitical Utopy acquired features of reality.

 

BACK TO THE "CENTER"

By the early XIX century, Europe Ц both Western and Eastern Ц had finally digested the Greek heritage. The golden age of architecture and arts in the XVI century was followed in Europe with emergence of a common system of law, expressed in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). In the XVIII century, the scientific world outlook acquires a meaning as great for the European thinking as natural philosophy for the ancient Hellas. Science emerges as a new, formally independent force, in an equal status with religion and ethnosocial tradition, moulding the outlook of humanity. The huge experiment, continuing for over two millenniums, is completed.

The meta-historical scale of Hellenization frequently created an impression of Greece as of something belonging exceptionally to the past; Greece was perceived as a great civilization, forever buried by the ruins of catastrophes. That was, in particular, the view of Lord Elgin, who evacuated (or actually stole) the masterpieces of Parthenon in 1802, the struggle for which is continued until today.

Still, the nation which gave birth to the Hellenistic civilization was not going to vanish in non-existence. The involuntary compromise which the Ottoman Empire had struck with the Patriarchate of Constantinople provided a possibility for the Greek world to preserve its national and religious identity. The offensive of the Russian Empire on the positions of the Ottomans became a signal for the start of the struggle for independence. Several failed insurrections demonstrated that for the triumph of the cause of liberation, the people need a leader, able not only to solve tactical problems but to clearly perceive the future as well.

Ioannis Capodistri, the great diplomat and political thinker of the epoch, incorrectly identified as the "Napoleonic period", was such a kind of a leader. Capodistri produced a significant impact on development of political systems of several European states in the range from Switzerland to Russia, as well as the structure of all-European political connections itself. At the Congress of Vienna, Capodistri, in the capacity of Senior Secretary of Russia's Foreign Ministry, was the major opponent of Prince Metternich; he contained the political appetites of Britain and France, represented by Lord Castlereagh and Talleyrand. The first president of the independent Greece personified the best qualities of the European West and European East.

Therefore, it was not an occasion that the war for liberation of Greece (1827-1828) became the first (and unfortunately the last) all-European endeavor, in which Russia and the major powers of Western Europe joined forces for a common goal. As soon as this war was over, what was predetermined to happen really happened. The "historical phantom", the country, familiar only from books, materialized in time and space and claimed its rights for the historical heritage of three millenniums. The lies of Hellenistic expansion have thus returned to their source, providing a most powerful impetus for today's Greek statehood, and indicating the way towards a supreme integration of Europe Ц its ultimate objective and central idea being unification around Christian values.

Today, this impetus is equally indispensable for the European West, feeling its way in the blind alleys of multiculturalism, and for the European East Ц for Russia, which is apprehending itself anew after almost a century of Marxist and neo-liberal experiments. In this context, the Russian-Greek cultural dialogue acquires a special meaning, which brings us back to the abandoned fulcrums in the religious and civilizational frame of reference, and opens a new potential for spiritual revival. The fact that the great Starets Paisius is esteemed in Russia, suggests that modern Greek Orthodoxy remains a source of spiritual experience of the same abundance as it was one thousand years ago. Facing a menacing historical ordeal, foreseen in the writings of great Rev. Paisius, Russia and Greece should more often address to their common spiritual and ecclesiastical roots.

The annual Russian Weeks on Corfu, the place where Ioannis Capodistri once laid the foundations of today's Greek statehood, serve as a perfect ground for such a discussion. But today, time has come for new initiatives, elevating the Greek-Russian dialogue to a qualitatively new level and re-establishing bilateral relations in their broadest entirety.

Are any political forces in Russia and Greece ready to fulfill this historical task? The answer to this question determines the capability of our countries, conjointly Ц not apart Ц to meet the challenges both are facing.

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