Hellenic Paideia and Church Fathers - Educational Principles and Cultural Heritage
Lecture delivered by Fr. Dr. Demetrios J. Constantelos
To The Hellenic Society Prometheas in celebration of the Greek Letters Day
Although the tension between Greek thought and Christian faith has never been absent from the history and experience of Hellenism, a synthesis and a balance was achieved in the fourth century thanks to the intellect of persons like Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the theologian, Cynesios of Cyrene, Socrates Scholastikos and others who were trained in the Greek classics and the Holy Scriptures. A student of early Christianity soon discovers how often ideas from the wisdom of the ancient Greek compliment rationally some of those in the Gospels and the literature of the New Testament.
Thinking rightly, reasonable assumptions, a dialogic approach to issues and problems that divide nations and communities; a search for a balance in the conflict between belief and reason; a sense of what is right and wrong; the principle that it is more ethical to be treated unjustly than treat anyone unjustly, as Socrates advised; the belief that each deed leaves its imprint in one's deepest inner self; the conviction that there is a correlation between right thinking and correct action, patient suffering and ultimate victory, knowledge and the overcoming of evil - these are some of the fundamental educational ideals of the ancient Greeks.
But their emphasis on logic, democratic living, knowledge, cultivation of the inner person were not viewed as guarantees for the elimination of evil. The Greeks summed up all their educational ideas in two words: "know thyself"; do not commit the sin of "hubris", unforgivable arrogance which sees the mortal as immortal, the human being as equal to or above the divine. "Know thyself" meant that every human being must think rightly about the self, the divinity, the laws of life, and nature. Man must remember his limitations and his strengths; his weaknesses and shortcomings, but also his abilities. One must remember that one is mortal and live accordingly.
But the mortal was educated for
immortality. Man was not God but called to become "like god". The
human was not a divinity, but he possessed the potential of becoming divine.
Whether in ancient or Christian Hellenism, Greek thinkers emphasized that there
is an affinity between humanity and divinity. Both the Parthenon on the
Acropolis of Athens, and Hagia Sophia in
"By each of us there stands straightway from birth a kindly spirit-guide to lead us through the labyrinthine mysteries of life. And we must never think this spirit evil, nor filled with wickedness to harm our lives, but always hold God good in everything. Those who themselves turn base in character and complicate their lives exceedingly, wen they have ruined all through heedlessness, declare and hold as cause this spirit-guide, and make him evil, becoming themselves", in the words of Menander. (342-290 BC).
Humility was perceived by the Greeks not as weakness but as realistic knowledge of ourselves and our environment. Love for self and the cosmos were appreciated as the crown of all ethical virtues. The formation of character, the making of the "kalos kagathos anthropos" (the good and virtuous person), was the ultimate purpose of education. And character is the result of some cardinal virtues. Aeschylos speaks of the sophron, dikaios, agathos and eusebes aner, the man of self-control, justice, goodness and piety. It is character that differentiates the logical from the illogical animals. "Good breeding in cattle depends on physical health, but in human beings on a well-formed character," writes Demokritos. Man is "a miniature cosmos - a microcosm," in the words of the same philosopher, and he must live in conformity with the orders, beauty, harmony and laws of the cosmos.
It was in the light of these and
several moral precepts and ethical standards of the ancient Greeks that early
Christian Fathers saw in ancient Greek thought elements or germs of divine
revelation. The Cappadocian fathers in particular and
the Alexandrian and several Antiochian theologians
formulated the attitude of Orthodox Christianity toward the ancient Greek
heritage. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the theologian and John
Chrysostom were contemporaries who lived between 329 and 407 of our era. They
became successful men of letters, great theologians and church leaders. They
had studied in
The fourth century of our era was one of the most critical in the history of Western Civilization. It was an age of major social, economic, political, and religious upheavals and changes. Old institutions and religious beliefs were in decline and Christianity emerged as the dominant movement. The new faith engaged in a dialogue and conflict with Greco-Roman culture. Readjustments, reformations, compromises, departures from the past as well as new beginnings became characteristics of the fourth century. Christian Hellenism received its final form in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Education and educational values became the concern of the new era. The Three Hierarchs played such a great role in the events and developments of the fourth century that the faithful for several centuries contended as to which one of the three was the most important. It was in the eleventh century, however, that the Church proclaimed their equality and set aside a special day of the year to commemorate all three. Ever since, the Three Hierarchs have been the patron saints of learning and educational values. But what was their educational ideal? And what were the sources from which they derived their ideal?
No one of the Three Fathers composed a philosophy of education or an educational manual. Only Basil wrote a brief essay for young people. Chrysostom delivered several sermons on various issues peripheral to education. Nevertheless, all three have been proclaimed "Ecumenical teachers". Why? They deserve this appellation because even though they wrote no manuals, they wrote a great deal of educational value. Their educational ideas are dispersed in their doctrinal, apologetic, hermeneutical, and other writings. Indeed we could reconstruct some of their educational ideals. Here we can provide only a brief summary of their thought.
The educational ideal of the Three Hierarchs was the training of the human being into a cultivated person, whose ultimate goal is the formation of a god-like ikon. The fathers addressed themselves to the question: when is a person educated? To be sure, a high school or college degree, technical knowledge, accumulation of data and facts, certificates of graduation, wealth, social status do not necessarily make the educated person.
For all times, an educated person is one who has developed a character, a person who possesses a core of tried values. An educated person is one who is thoughtful, kind and considerate; one who has a proper regard for the rights, the liberties and the privileges of his fellow men. An educated person is modest and unassuming, searching and inquisitive. He does not think of himself as the center around which mankind or his neighborhood revolves. He practices the ancient Greek wisdom "know thyself" (gnothi s'auton).
Furthermore an educated person is one who had made himself familiar with the thought currents of history, imbedded not only in the great books of the past but in current literature as well. He has learned to appreciate the heritage of the past in order to confront the present and contribute to a better future. The educated man has learned to appreciate the good, the true, and the beautiful; he strives to imitate the prototype - God himself. The educated person is one of independent judgment, a judgment based on the facts. He takes no action, pronounces no condemnation, reaches no decisions until he has the facts. Neither pride, nor passion, prejudice or partisanship should determine the educated person's actions and behavior. The educated person looks at both sides of the issue before he arrives at any decision.
The Three Hierarchs emphasized the need for the acquisition of values, especially by young people. Their views are very timely. All of us are witnesses to a growing harvest of crime, irresponsibility, confusion. And young people, consciously or unconsciously, have been asking for spiritual, moral, and intellectual values. Thus honesty, trustworthiness, kindness and compassion, respect for law, and a search for God, a quest for metaphysical values, for inner spiritual fulfillment, are not old-fashioned. The great Church fathers, along with history as a whole, tell us that a nation becomes civilized when its people are cultivated to the degree that they subordinate selfish gratifications and desires, passions, irrationality and savage impulses to the common good, to a finer future, to things beyond the present; that is, an educated person sees his won activities in proper perspective.
The Three Hierarchs asked young people to probe and search for higher principles, because an educated person knows that there are values in human life which go beyond the physical and the temporary. They reminded their flock of what the Holy Scriptures write: that it is belief which determines conduct. As a man thinks in his mind, so is he. They taught the young that the supreme lesson of human life is that "man is more than what he eats and drinks" and that "one's life does not consist of the things that one owns."
The teachings of the Three Hierarchs derived from the Bible and the Greek classics, because the object of both is the formation of the perfect human person, indeed the salvation, the theosis, of the human being. The Greek philosophers emphasized virtue, spiritual freedom, character. The practice of philosophical training and ascesis was the elevation of the human to the godly, (philosophia esti omoiosis theo kata to dynaton anthropos). People like the Three Church Fathers brought together the best of antiquity with the best of the new faith. They brought about the synthesis of Hellenic-Christian civilization. Greek philosophy emphasized that an educated man does not hesitate to ask, to search, to probe. But in his quest he must possess the necessary humility and the inquisitive spirit of the historian, the compassion of the humanist, the zeal of the religious believer, and the discrimination and exactitude of the scientist. Many of our forefathers, whether of pagan or Christian Hellenism, taught that "nothing makes man more like God than philanthropia," love that derives from God and is directed toward fellow human beings. They searched to gratify their inner yearning, to perceive the authentic standard of behavior, to formulate a life-style which was based on man's innate reason and conscience, man's natural quest for spiritual values, for truth, wisdom, beauty and goodness.
By emphasizing the value of the Greek Classics, the Fathers acknowledged that there are many steps by which man ascends to the abode of truth, even though it is not an easy process to reach the climax. There are values in many schools of thought, and wisdom is not the monopoly of any one system. But in Greek thought and in Christianity there are two very rich inheritances which include values of tried worth they are not conservative or static but galvanized values which have endured the trials of time and proven worthy of retention. The Three Hierarchs were not afraid to test everything which claimed even seeds of truth, for they believed that "Wherever good is to be found is a property of the truth" as Socrates Scholastikos, the Church historian writes.
The question is, why was it necessary for the Three Hierarchs to reconcile the old heritage with the new faith? Why was it so necessary for the Church to place so much emphasis on the importance of Greek thought and learning in the Christian tradition? In simple terms, the Christian community considered the achievements of the ancient Greek mind as propaedeutic for the Christian faith, as providential and as a divine gift.
In order to understand the
importance of the Greek heritage for Christianity one needs to understand first
the impact of Hellenism on post-exilic Judaism. Long before the conquests of
Alexander the Great in
The question concerning the relations between the Christian faith and Greek thought preoccupied the Christian community for nearly three and a half centuries but it was resolved as a result of the intellectual efforts of people like the Three Hierarchs.
What do Basil, Gregory, and John Chrysostom have to teach us today? First that our struggles and frustrations, our defeats and disappointments are not unique; that as we carry humanity's perpetual quest for truth, for wisdom, for inner freedom, for happiness, we must think historically and let our forefathers, either of the very distant antiquity or of later ages, provide us with their experience and their wisdom. Of course, we must build our research on their discoveries and add upon the structure of human experience our own experience. The primary requirement which many of the best thinkers of the Hellenic-Christian heritage advocated - from Solon, Sophocles, Euripides, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch to Basil, Gregory, Chrysostom, Photios, Palamas - was a realization of man's limitations, the need for self-knowledge and humility, for a sincere search beyond the limited views of the natural senses, and an invitation to an endless intellectual adventure. In brief, the educational ideal of the Greek and Christian heritage is the development of the human being into a cultivated person possessing faith in a core of values and a persistent effort to apply them in every day life until the ikon of the god-man Christ, the theanthropos, is formed in him.
The attitude of the Three Hierarchs toward faith and reason, Christianity and Hellenic ideals, became a standard for later fathers and ecclesiastical personalities. Throughout the Byzantine millennium, paideia- education rested on two legs: Christian and Hellenic, the Bible, and Patristic writings and the Greek classics from the Homeric epics down to the philosophers, poets, and historians of late antiquity.
The relationship between Greek
learning and Christianity after the great Cappodocians
and other Church fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries was strengthened
even more through the work and influence of great theologians who lived either
within or outside the boundaries of the
Whether within the Byzantine Empire or in other Christian centers under Arab rule, Church fathers who upheld the close relationship between Christian faith and Greek learnings rested their case on the attitude of the early Church fathers and ecclesiastical writer who saw no antithesis between the best in Hellenism and Christianity.
In the seventh-century tract known as the "Trophies of Damascus", written between AD 661 and 681, a Christian responding to comments of a Jew defended the ancient pagan Greeks as follows: "Some of the Hellenes, especially philosophers, both recognized God and said a great deal about him; if you like, I put it to you that despite being Hellenes [pagans] they knew more about God and spoke better than you, the doctor of law [Mosaic law], even though they did not reach full knowledge [of God]." This was a standard answer of Church fathers to those who ignored the religious value of ancient Greek thought and religious quests.
The same attitude toward both "sacred" and "profane" learning, the study of the Bible an dearly Christian writers and of the pagan classics, continued to enrich and guide the mind of Church fathers of later centuries, such as the Ecumenical Patriarchs Tarasios, of the eighth century; and Photios of the ninth; the Metropolitan of Euchaita Ioannis of the eleventh century; and Eustathios, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, of the twelfth.
Saint Tarasios, who convoked the seventh Ecumenical Council (787), had mastered "abundantly the Divine Scriptures and collected the best of secular [Greek] learning." His liberal education helped him to achieve a balanced attitude toward the issues of his days. He handled the conflicts between extremes, with moderation, achieving a harmony between the radical positions of iconoclasts and iconophiles. Under the leadership of Tarasios, the fathers succeeded in restoring the use of icons in Christian worship, while at the same time they condemned an idolatrous attachment to icons.
Saint Photios was a beacon of learning and a unique personality of the Middle Ages, East and West. He was highly educated in both Christian (biblical and patristic) and Greek classics. He admired Plato, Aristotle and other thinkers of antiquity whom he studied along with his students. He harmonized Christian learning and Greek classical thought, but he did not go to extremes. The learning and the wisdom of the ancients (the "secular") was used in order to defend and clarify Christian doctrine and belief. On the basis of classical learning, Photios emphasized the importance of natural law, which was taught by the ancient Greeks. In a beautiful homily on Good Friday, Photios appealed to his audience in Hagia Sophia as follows: "Let us bring forth fruit unto God, Use the same standard for yourself as for your neighbor. Whatever grieves you, harms you, and distresses you, consider that same thing grievous, distressing and damaging to your neighbor. Whatever grieves you, harms you, and distresses you, consider that same thing grievous, distressing and damaging to your neighbor. Many pagan nations live by this inborn law," a teaching common among Stoic philosophers. In another speech "On the Inauguration of a church," St. Photios speaks of the famous Pheidias, Parrhasios, Praxiteles, Zeuxis, and of Demokritos, the father of atomic theory.
Students of the ninth century know that St. Photios, along with many other Church fathers and theologians of the later Byzantine era, were deeply versed in both biblical learning and Greek classical literature. They admired but also studied the ancient Greeks whom they considered pagans but nevertheless ancestors. They profited from their style, wisdom, and educational values, but also castigated them for their religious views and mythological stories.
illustrations on the subject. Ioannis Mavropous, Metropolitan
of Euchaita in
of the twelfth century, was Archbishop of Thessaloniki, the second most
important city of the Empire after
The question concerning the relationship between Orthodox Christianity and Greek classical learning engaged many scholars, both clergymen and laymen, for several centuries after the twelfth, including the period after the fall of Constantinople and the engulfment of the Greek nation by the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Two trends, a conservative, which viewed Orthodox Christian theology and learning all sufficient, and a progressive or enlightened, which advocated a tradition that had been established by Church Fathers of previous centuries.
The progressive church Fathers,
including Patriarchs, believed in education, a broad paideia
which would not only enlighten but also help the Greeks to maintain their
identity and perpetuate their heritage. The last quarter of the seventeenth,
and the eighteenth century were especially significant for the revival of Greek
learning. Frequently the impetus for a renaissance of the Greek classics came
from churchmen and laymen who lived in cities outside the boundaries of the
It was in the eighteenth century in
particular that the Church, whether through the initiative of the Ecumenical
Patriarchate, eparchial ecclesiastical authorities, or individuals, encouraged
the founding of schools and academies. Several such academies were established
Some of the leading progressive churchmen of the period were Eugenios Voulgaris (1716-1806), Nikephoros Theotokes (1736-1800), Chrysaanthos Notaras (ca. 1663-1731), Anthimos Gazes (1758-1828) and Neophytos Doukas (1760-1845).
What is important to stress is that mainstream Church fathers were students of both the Bible and Greek Literature, people who understood the Semitic and also the Greek thought-world. From as early as the Apostolic age, Christian Apologists, theologians, ecclesiastical writers and leading Church fathers realized that Christianity is only in part a Semitic religion. As students of the Scriptures, they discerned that from its very beginning Christianity's teachings were fertilized with Greek ideas, terminology, and concepts that were more cosmopolitan than their Semitic counterparts.
For example the Semitic mind, the Old Testament's teaching that God is morally perfect and that God is what he is with no specific name, was not wholly strange to Greek thought.
From the sixth century before Christ arose among the Greeks views which freed the gods of objectionable features attributed to them either by myths or by writers. Some philosophers questioned the very existence of gods or God. Others emphasized the limits of human knowledge and human intelligence to penetrate the mystery of Divinity. Here are a few illustrations.
Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 570-c. 460 BC) attacked anthropomorphic conceptions of the deity and accused Homer and Hesiod because they "attributed to the gods all things that are shameful and a reproach among mankind." For Xenophanes "there is one god among gods and men, the greatest not at all like mortals in body or in mind." For Herakletos of Ephesos, a contemporary of Xenophanes, god in the universal Logos, the mind and law of the Cosmos. "All things came into being in accordance with the Logos." One must live according to this Logos, a common possession of all.
In the fifth century the great poet and tragedians raised the question whether "God" has a name. in his Agamemnon, Aeschylos speaks of Zeus or "whatever his name may be" or "whatever he [Zeus] may like to be called." He implies that the name Zeus was given to an unknown god. And in his Trojan Women, Euripides has Hecuba addressing Zeus saying "we do not know your essence - a most difficult thing to know whether it is by nature of by human invention that we address you with a name." Again, the implication here is that the deity has no name.
In the fourth century, Plato (d. 347 BC) in his dialogue Kratylos has Ermogenes questioning Socrates whether it is logical to give names to the divinities, or divinity. The view that God has no name and that there is "an unknown" God gained ground to the extent that several Greek city-states had erected statues to the "unknown God." The "unknown" God came to be perceived as absolute goodness and beauty, universal and common to all mankinds. The "unknown god" is the Being that brought everything into being, the Being in whom all human beings have their being.
The ethical teachings of Socrates,
Sophocles, Aristotle and Zeno were more cosmopolitan and humane than those of
Semitic origin. Many stories of the "Wars of the Lord" in the Old
Testament contradict the claims that ancient Israelites were only of a peaceful
disposition. The command of the Old Testament to love one's neighbors applies
only to people of one's nation. Cosmopolitan ideas are not absent from some of
the Old Testament prophets, but here, too, it is Israel that remains exalted
above all people. Their view is always
It was for this well established attitude of the Church toward the intellectual inheritance from ancient Hellenism that made Byzantine writers (clergymen and lay people alike) to embellish their writings not only with references to Holy Scripture but also with passages from ancient Greek poets, philosophers, historians and religious thinkers. By doing this, Church fathers on the one hand asserted their Christian faith and commitment, but on the other hand they maintained their Greek cultural identity. Long before modern anthropologists, philosophers, and theologians, Church fathers confirmed that culture is the outer garment of religion and religion is the heart of culture, that is the two are inseparable.
 Menander, Fragments 549k.
 Democritus of Abrera, Fragments, no. 57, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman (Cambridge, Mass. 1978), p. 100.
 ibid., no. 34.
 Plato, Theaetetus, 1766.
 See my book Byzantine
Philanthropy and Social Welfare, 2nd ed.
 Socrates Scholastikos, Ecclesiastical History, Bk. 3, ch. 16.
 Abba Eban, Heritage: Civilization and the Jews (
 T. R. Glover, The Conflict of Religious in the Early
 G. Bardy, Editor, "Tropaia kata loudaion en Damasko" Patrologia
orientalis, vol. 15.
The Life of the Patriarch Tarasios by Ignatios the Deacon, ed. by Stephanos Efthymiades (Ashgate, Variorum 1998), p. 75 (tr. 173).
 Photios, Homilies, no. 4, ed. B. Laourdas,
Thessaloniki 1959, pp. 17-19. English tr. by Cyril Mango, The
Homilies of Photius Patriarch of
 Apostolos Karpozilos, Symbole ste melete tou biou kai tou ergou tou Ioanne Mauropodos. Ioannina 1982, pp. 103-106.
 See Agios Eustathios Praktika Theologikou Synedriou, ed. Christoforos Kontakis. Thessalonike 1989, especially the papers by Christos Theodorides, pp. 117-129 and Ioannis Nikolaides, pp. 209-221.
G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, edd. The Presocratic
 ibid., p. 187.
 Aeschylos, Agamemnon, 160.
 Euripides, Trojan Women, 884.
 Plato, Kratylos (Cratylus), 400d-e.
 cf. Theodore N.ldeke, Sketches from Eastern History, tr. by John
Sutherland Black (