St. Gregory Palamas’ Vision of the World (Efthymios Nicolaidis, 2011)

NOTE: The following article is taken from Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: from the Greek fathers to the age of globalization, pp 98-105

Science & Eastern Orthodoxy

Gregory Palamas, originally trained in the spirit of Byzantine humanism, including Hellenic logic and science, later combated this same humanism with his own tools. He did not object to the deductive syllogism known as the apodictic—on the contrary, he applied it to theology. But whereas with respect to nature he observed that the generalization of our knowledge through experience could lead us to erroneous results, he thought that the apodictic syllogism was infallible with respect to dogma. Dogma cannot admit dialectical thought; it must be clear and stable. How can we reach this certitude? By applying logic and deduction based on the sacred texts that embrace Holy Scriptures and the writings of the church fathers. God presented himself to the world and was materialized, and therefore man can indeed approach God, simultaneously by the mystery employed for spiritual things and by logic employed for material things. It goes without saying that a person who does not have the grace of God (i.e., a humanist) cannot apply apodictic syllogism successfully.1 Palamas was aware that his use of reason and deductive logic required a defense. “Are learning and the science of discourse bad things?” he wondered. “Of course not, since God has given us science and methodology. Therefore it is not they that are wrong, but their wrongful usage by sinners.”’2

Similarly, the created world can be understood and explained only by those who have grace—the Hesychasts. Aristotle, and the other Greek savants, though realizing that nothing is created from nothingness and that nothing will disappear completely, came to the erroneous conclusion that the world was not born and will never die. Therefore, they deduced something incorrect though starting from a correct realization. To arrive at a true image of the world, experience is not sufficient; one needs the illumination that is granted only to those who believe in the mystery of the church and, through it, enter into communion with God.’“3

According to Palamas (and contrary to the letter of scripture). Father, Son, and Holy Spirit created the world together. This world was actually created in six days, and the seventh that followed was longer than the others because it comprised the whole era that began with the last day of Creation and terminated in the crucifixion and death of Christ. The Resurrection marks the start of the eighth day, which we are traversing now and which will endure until the Last Judgment. This judgment will take place on a Sunday, which is the privileged day because the first day of the week is comparable with the first day of Creation. Palamas contributed also to the discussion by Philo, Basil, and others of why Moses should have called the beginning of Creation “day one” and not “first day”—quite simply in order to make a distinction between them.”4

Rejection of Aristotle

An admirer of Basil, Palamas followed the cosmology of the school of Alexandria. Regarding the angels, his ideas were close to those of Philoponus, despite the fact that their conceptions of science were diametrically opposed. Philoponus, as I have already mentioned, was followed enthusiastically by the Byzantine humanists; he considered that the learning of the Hellenic philosophers was valid because they were illuminated by knowledge of the Bible—although similar ideas were truly sacrilegious in the eyes of the Hesychasts. According to Palamas, angels were created before the world, and so they are incorporeal and do not take part in the functioning of nature (as followers of the school of Antioch maintained) but serve for the salvation of humans.”5 Palamas cited Saint Basil’s comment that angels are found amid uncreated light; they can traverse the firmament as light does.

The revelation of uncreated light to the Hesychasts was an opportunity to debate the nature of starlight and especially Saint Basil’s ideas on this subject. We recall that Basil considered that the light that would illuminate the world existed before Creation, and therefore it is uncreated light. The world was isolated from the light by the firmament, and at the command fiat lux it traversed the firmament and lit up the world. This explanation, which was completely revised by Gregory of Nyssa, who gave corporeal characteristics to the light of the world, is truly problematic, because it introduces into nature an uncreated element, and also because it posits that a created element, the firmament, can arrest uncreated light. This is how the leader of the anti-Hesychasts, Akindynos, posed the question: How is it possible that uncreated light is prevented from traversing the firmament, while the angels do traverse it?”6 Although Akindynos was an adversary, Palamas could only concede to the argument that uncreated light is everywhere and no material wall can stop it. However, it cannot be perceived by the senses, except by a few of the happy elect who have made the superhuman effort of prayer and devotion.7 It follows that the light that shines on us is not the uncreated light but rather the light discussed by Gregory of Nyssa.

Theodoros Metochites
Theodoros Metochites

It would be a mistake to see the Hesychast movement (especially its leader Palamas) as hostile to secular learning as such. Palamas was interested in secular knowledge, notably that which described and explained Creation; he proceeded by deductive reasoning based on sense perception. But we have seen that this method was not sufficient for him because it was likely to lead to erroneous conclusions. In order for knowledge based on experience to be valid, it must follow the interpretation of Creation given by the church fathers, especially Basil. But—and this is particular to the Hesychast movement—the world in which we are living is not composed of physical reality alone. According to Palamas, to limit man to perceiving merely the created world would be to condemn him to spiritual misery. A Christian is open to another world that was not created by the imagination of Hellenic philosophers—namely, the uncreated world of spiritual powers. Man may take part in both worlds, created and uncreated, for he is composed of both corporeal matter and an incorporeal soul. God, creator of corporeal and incorporeal worlds, is inaccessible to man in essence but accessible through his actions. This participation in two worlds is the very essence of the Hesychast movement and explains the fact that, despite its followers finding themselves at loggerheads with the humanists, they tolerated secular learning and sometimes even considered someone who possessed it as privileged. The fervent Hesychast Philotheos Kokkinos cited the great humanist scholar Metochites, who was supposed to have said of his pupil Palamas on the occasion of a discussion of Aristotle’s logic in the presence of the emperor: “And I believe that if Aristotle were present, he would have made an elegy as good as mine. I maintain that this is how the nature and soul of those who avoid chatter should be, just as Aristotle thought and wrote at length.”8

What matters most to Palamas is precisely to show that the ancient philosophers, despite the fact that they described the physical reality of the world, were not able to do so completely and exactly, for they could not accede to the true wisdom that is offered only through the methods of Hesychasm. More than being simply ignorant compared to Christians, Plato, Socrates, Plotinus, Proclus, and Porphyrus were under the influence of the devil. Socrates, although judged to excel in wisdom, was possessed his whole life by a demon who had convinced him. For this reason, he taught things contrary to true wisdom, as with his cosmology or, still worse, his ideas on the soul of the world, at least as presented by his pupil Plato in Timaeus.9 As for Plotinus, according to legend a dragon appeared from under his body at the moment of his death, and so Palamas concluded that hidden behind Plotinus’s wise teaching was the Father of Falsehood, the devil.10 The myth that Proclus had a vision of Light gives Palamas the opportunity to argue that it was the work of the demon—the same one that left his head after his death.11 It is notable that nowhere does Palamas imply that Aristotle was possessed by the demon.

The Wise Plato painted in 1858 by Nikephoros in Vatopaidi Monastery


This false wisdom of the ancients is overcome by the spiritual wisdom of Orthodox believers. It is by no means necessary for someone to rise to saintliness for him to be compared to the Hellenic sages: “Not only is the fact of truly knowing God (to the extent permitted us) incomparably superior to the wisdom of the Hellenes, but also knowledge of the place occupied by mankind near to God surpasses all their wisdom.”12 According to Palamas, God has shown us that profane learning is false. But how can any learning conceived by the human mind, a creature of God, be a sin? Ah well, quite simply because this mind is moving away from its real purpose, which is knowledge of God.13

As a result of his education by Metochites, Palamas was adept at Greek cosmology, thanks to which he adopted arguments from Basil’s Hexaemeron. But in certain cases he departed from Basil, developing his own (often contradictory) ideas. Coming to the question (that had been debated since antiquity) of the place of the world and its possible movement, he explained that there is no reason to believe that a space outside heaven cannot exist. On this point, he came into contradiction with Basil, who thought that space was created simultaneously with time and matter, and therefore it involves Creation alone, outside of which nothing exists. Palamas explained that God fills everything and extends to infinity, and within this infinity the world was created. Because nothing prevented the creation of space within the created world, then nothing prevents the creation of space outside of it. So then, why could this world not move, why is it constrained to turn in place around itself? There, Palamas gave two contradictory explanations in the same paragraph. He explained first that “the body of heaven does not extend higher because this higher [the breadth of heaven] is lighter than it; this is why it [heaven’s breadth] is above the sphere of ether, by its nature,” and then just afterward he asserted that “heaven does not advance upward, not because there is no space above it, but because nobody is lighter than it.” Finally, he ended by asserting that there is nothing above heaven, not because no space exists there, but because heaven includes all bodies and there can be no body outside it.14

But since there is no obstacle, why does heaven not ascend but instead moves cyclically? Well, this heavenly body is much lighter than all the others, hence it is located at the surface of other bodies. At the same time, it is more mobile than the other bodies, and since it has a tendency to move but cannot by its nature separate itself from the bodies above which it is located, it moves constantly around them; and this is not because it has a soul, but because of its material nature. Palamas gives the example of winds that move without rising upward, not because there is no space above them but because what is above is lighter. In all these explanations, we perceive the vague influence of Hellenic culture that incorporates Aristotelian ideas of the natural place of heavy and light bodies but, at the same time, cannot conceive of any notion of symmetry and insists on seeing infinite space as having an “above” and a “below.”

If Palamas had been forced to choose among the Hellenic philosophers the one who was closest to the truth, he would no doubt have chosen Aristotle. Our opponent of Greek philosophers cited his ideas countless times as reflecting the reality of Creation. Against the Platonic idea of the soul of the universe, he cited Aristotle in arguing that the soul is the vital force of an organic body that has power in living. For a body to include organs, it has to be composite, and heaven is a simple element.15 The world according to Palamas (explicitly citing Aristotle) is made up of five elements in equal quantities. But the space occupied by these elements is in inverse proportion to their density. This is why water is more extensive than the earth, the air is more extensive than water, and so on for fire and ether. He asserted that the Hellenes neglected this fact, and consequently they overlooked that nine-tenths of the earth is covered by water. But if the spheres of the elements were concentric, then the whole earth would be covered by water. Therefore, the aqueous sphere is excentric, and Palamas proposed to find its center: manifestly it is not above out heads, for we see that the surface of the water is below us. Consequently, it is below the center of the earth. So it is a matter of determining the size of the spheres of the earth and of water (referring to the element earth, which here is confused with the planet Earth). Knowing that the surface of the sphere of the earth is one-tenth the size of water s, Palamas calculated the size of the radius of each sphere. By these geometric demonstrations, he said, a sphere that has double the diameter of the other has a surface eight times greater, which is valid, in effect, since the surface is proportional to the cube of the radius. From this, Palamas deduced that the sphere of water has a diameter double that of the earth. As in all his demonstrations, the scholar-theologian remained approximate; he was content with this solution—although he had previously asserted that the surface of the earth is more or less a tenth that of water.

Gregory Palamas

By developing this theory of earth-water proportionality, Palamas constructed a very interesting world system, which he even illustrated with a drawing.16 Since the sphere of water is almost adjacent to the earths, the latter is inscribed in the aqueous sphere whose center corresponds to the point opposite the adjacent point. As in his argument for the worlds movement of translation, here, too, there is an above and a below, with the lower point of the earthly sphere corresponding to the center of the world, while, on the upper part, the sphere of water is conjoined to a tenth of the sphere of earth, because the inhabitable part of the earth corresponds to a tenth of its circumference. Moreover, because the great part of the earth is included in the sphere of water, it becomes evident why there are so many subterranean waters. Because only the upper part of the earthly sphere is free of water, it follows that the antipodes cannot be inhabited. According to Palamas, on this point the Hellenes were also mistaken: there is only one oikoumene, and it is ours; consequently, there is only a single race of humankind.

Although Palamas firmly condemned Plato, he oscillated between this philosopher and Aristotle, and he was even on occasion labeled by Barlaam as Platoniz- ing. In general, we may detect the influence of Plato on his theory of knowledge and that of Aristotle on his physics. Approaching Plato, Palamas explained that man perceives the world though the senses. But he said that what is perceived is not the objects themselves but their copies, which exist independently of reality, for we can represent these imaginary objects at any moment.17 Approaching Aristotle, he posited a world of five elements, of which the fundamental bodies (heaven, fire, air, earth, and water) are pure.

Palamas came back several times to the power of observation and logic to understand the world: “It is by the intellect that we collect with our senses and our imagination not only what relates to the Moon, but also to the Sun and its eclipses, and the parallaxes of other planets in heaven and their measurements, as well as the constellations, and in general everything that we know of heaven and all the causes of nature, all the methods and the arts.”18 But where does our knowledge of God come from? And of the world itself? It is by the teaching of the Spirit, from which we have learned things about Creation that are inaccessible to the intellect via experience. By the teaching of Moses, hence by the Spirit, we have learned that in the beginning there were heaven and earth. This earth was mixed with water, and these two elements produced air. Heaven was filled with lights and with fires. Contrary to those who claim that matter preexisted Creation, God created the receptacle that carried the potential for all the beings of this Creation.

This insistence on a point that had been resolved long before, the non-pre- existence of matter, shows how the Hesychasts were manifestly worried that the humanists might (out of their love for the Hellenes) defend materialist positions.

This was not in fact the intention of humanists, for in the history of Byzantine science such a position had never been held. The leitmotif of true knowledge recurs: what matters is not secular learning—which is useful, by the way— but instead union with God. The learned theologian wondered “What Euclid, what Marinus, what Ptolemy could have conceived of that? What Empedocles, Socrates, Aristotle, or Plato could have conceived of that with their logical methods and mathematical demonstrations?”19

According to Palamas, Plato’s motto, “Let no-one ignorant of Geometry enter,” ignored the fact that the true mathematician cannot separate the limit from what is limited and hence cannot gain knowledge of Creation. “The [anti-Hesychasts] cannot understand that God is simultaneously uncomprehended and comprehensible: uncomprehended in essence, but comprehensible by his creatures through His divine actions.”20

The Orthodox Church officially awarded the victory to Palamas and supported the Hesychast movement against Barlaam and the humanists by a decision of the synod in 1341. Barlaam saw his anti-Hesychast ideas condemned by the synod, and he returned to Italy. Nikephoros Gregoras (see chapter 6) succeeded him as head of the anti-Hesychast party and found himself in opposition to the head of the Hesychasts, Gregory Palamas; he would even be imprisoned after the ultimate victory of Palamas. At Gregoras’s death in 1360, his body was exposed to public view as if he were a criminal.

The church also succeeded in getting the emperors to choose the patriarch of Constantinople from among the followers of the Hesychast party. But more significant than official recognition was this movement’s success in strongly marking not only Byzantine society but also Orthodoxy as a whole. It lay at the spiritual origin of the complicated relations between science and Russian society and also constituted the ideological basis of Slavic mysticism. Its consequences, right down to our day, are far from fully studied, but they have been well signaled by Russian intellectuals since the nineteenth century.21

This powerful movement that traversed the whole society did not, however, put a brake on the development of Byzantine humanism. This humanism embraced all the knowledge of the antiquity, especially philosophy, which notably included the philosophy of nature. Byzantium would increasingly discuss science in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Nevertheless, it did curtail the eventual impulses toward subversive developments in the sciences; the Pletho phenomenon, named after a Byzantine scholar who returned to Hellenic religion, would remain an isolated exception (see chapter 9). It would make null and void any attempt at the union of churches, despite the keen efforts of several emperors. Byzantium would thus be condemned to Ottoman occupation, but the Orthodox Church would keep control over the Christian population of this region—right up until today.


  1. Nicolaos Katsiavrias, “Η κοσμοαντίληψη του Αγίου Γρηγορίου του Παλαμά (1296-1359)” [The perception of the world of Saint Gregory Palamas, 1296-1359] (PhD diss.. University of Athens, 2001), p. 42.
  2. Gregory Palamas, Letter to Philosophers John and Theodore, in Complete Works of Gregory Palamas, 8, ed. P. K. Christou (Thessalonica: Patristic editions Gregory Palamas, 1994), par. 29. For Palamas’s views on science, see also Gregory Palamas, “Science Does Not Save,” in The Triads, ed. John Meyendorff, trans. Nicholas Gendle (New York: Paulist Press, 1983).
  3. Katsiavrias, “Η κοσμοαντίληψη του Αγίου Γρηγορίου του Παλαμά (1296-1359),” pp. 57-58.
  4. , p. 66. Robert E. Sinkewicz (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1988), par. 43.
  5. Gregory Palamas, Αντιρρητικός προς Ακίνδυνον [Contra Akindynos], in Complete Works of Gregory Palamas, 6, ed. P. K. Christou, critical text by Leonidas C. Contos (Thessalonica: Patristic editions Gregory Palamas, 1987), theses ΣΤ, 11.
  6. , ΣΤ, 27.
  7. Philotheos Kokkinos, Λόγος, 560.
  8. Gregory Palamas, Αντιρρητικός προς Ακίνδυνον, Z’ 24 (see Katsiavrias, “H KoopoavTiXqu/q,” p. 216).
  9. , Z , 9, 25.
  10. , Z , 26.
  11. Gregory Palamas, One Hundred and Fifty Chapters, 26.
  12. Katsiavrias, “Η κοσμοαντίληψη,” pp. 221-22.
  13. Gregory Palamas, One Hundred and Fifty Chapters, 5 and 6.
  14. , ch. 3.
  15. , 13.
  16. , 16.
  17. , 20.
  18. , 25.
  19. , 81.
  20. See, for example, John Meyendorff, Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality, trans. Adele Fiske (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), pp. 143ff.

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