Topics of Natural & Theological Science (St. Gregory Palamas, 14thc)

NOTE: Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), based his ideas on the science of Aristotle and the geometry of Euclid in order to cogitate on locating the centers of the spheres of two elements, earth and water.

The relation of the Orthodox Church to secular science (called Hellenic in this era) is more complicated than a division between a caste of monks, which rejected it, and a humanist higher clergy, which accepted it.

Philokalia Vol. 4

The Hesychasts, at least the most eminent among them, did not actually reject secular learning, for they continued to consider it useful for understanding and interpreting Creation. They simply believed that this wisdom was not important, because true wisdom (that which brings humans close to God) is found in Hesychastic practice. Palamas himself was a follower of Saint Basil when it came to Creation; consequently, his conception of the world was based on this oft-denigrated Greek philosopher. Philotheos Kokkinos, although attacking the “sages of the Greeks,” displayed in other texts an admiration for Aristotle as a scholar. Profane learning was completely rejected only by the humblest monks, who had no contact with higher education, as Palamas or Philotheos did. In fact, the absolute rejection of science was determined by social class. The Byzantine dominant class accepted it, either with fervor (in the case of the humanists) or under certain conditions (in the case of the Hesychasts), whereas the poorer social strata rejected it as useless, never having had much contact with it.

Also see: Theology and Natural Sciences in St Gregory Palamas

1 That the world has an origin nature teaches and history confirms, while the discoveries of the arts, the institution of laws and the constitution of states also clearly affirm it. We know who are the founders of nearly all the arts, the lawgivers and those who established states, and indeed we know what has been written about the origin of everything. Yet we see that none of this surpasses the account of the genesis of the world and of time as narrated by Moses. And Moses, who wrote about the genesis of the world, has so irrefutably substantiated the truth of what he writes through such extraordinary actions and words that he has convinced virtually the whole human race and has persuaded them to deride those who sophistically teach the contrary. Since the nature of this world is such that everything in it requires a specific cause in each instance, and since without such a cause nothing can exist at all, the very nature of things demonstrates that there must be a first principle which is self-existent and does not derive from any other principle.

2 That the world not only has an origin but also will have a consummation is affirmed by the fact that all things in it are contingent, and indeed it is partially coming to an end all the time. Moreover, sure and irrefutable assurance of this is furnished by the prophecy both of those inspired by God and of Christ Himself, the God of all; and not only the pious but also the impious must believe that what they say is true, since everyone can see that what they predicted about other things has proved correct. From them we learn that the world will not lapse entirely into nonbeing but, like our bodies and in a manner analogous to what will happen to us, it will be changed by the power of the Holy Spirit, being dissolved and transformed into something more divine.

Romanian Orthodox Fresco Depicting Philosophers

3 The ancient Greek sages say that the heavens revolve in accordance with the nature of the world soul, and that they teach justice and reason. What sort of justice? What kind of reason? For if the heavens revolve not by virtue of their own nature but by virtue of the nature of what they call the world soul, and if this world soul belongs to the entire world, how is it that the earth and the water and the air do not also revolve? Yet though in their opinion the soul is ever-moving, none the less the earth is stationary by nature, and so is water, which occupies the lower region, whereas the heavens, which occupy the upper region, are by nature ever in motion and move in a circle. But what is the character of this world soul by virtue of whose nature the heavens revolve? Is it endowed with intelligence? If so, it must be self-determining, and so it would not always move the celestial body in the same way, for what is self-determining moves differently at different times. And what trace of deiform soul do we observe in the lowermost sphere – the sphere of the earth – or in the elements most proximate to it, namely those of water, air, and even fire itself, for the world soul supposedly pertains to them as well? And again, how in their opinion are some things animate and others inanimate? And among inanimate things it turns out that not merely a few examples taken at random but every stone, every piece of metal, all earth, water, air and fire, moves by virtue of its own nature and not by virtue of a soul; for they admit that this is true even of fire. Yet if the soul is common to all, how is it that only the heavens move by virtue of the nature of this soul and not by virtue of their own nature? And how in their view can the soul that moves the celestial body be void of intelligence since according to them it is the source of our souls? But if it is void of intelligence it must be either sentient or vegetative. We observe, however, that no soul moves a body without the assistance of organs, and we cannot observe any such organ that specifically serves the earth, or the heavens, or any of the other element contained within them; for every organ is composed of various natures, while the elements severally, and above all the heavens, are simple and not composite. The soul is the actuality of a body possessing organs and having the potentiality for life; but the heavens, since they have no member or part that can serve as an organ, have no potentiality for life. How, then, can that which is incapable of life possibly have a soul? But those who have become ‘vain in their reasonings’ have invented ‘out of their foolish hearts’ (Rom. 1:21) a world soul that does not exist, never has existed, and never will exist. Yet they claim that this soul is the demiurge and governor and controller of the entire sensible world and, farther, that it is some sort of root and source of our souls or, rather, of every soul. Moreover, they say that it is born from the intellect, and that the intellect is other in substance than the supreme Intellect which they call God. Such doctrines are taught by those among them most proficient in wisdom and theology, but they are no better than men who deify wild beasts and stones. In fact their religiosity is much worse, for beasts, gold, stone and bronze are real things, even though they are among the least of creatures; but the star-bearing world soul neither exists, nor is it anything real, for it is nothing at all but the invention of an evil mind.

4 Since, they say, the celestial body must be in motion, and there is no place to which it can advance, it turns about itself and thus its ‘advancement’ is that of rotation. Well and good. So if there were a place, it would move upwards, like fire, and more so than fire since it is by nature lighter than fire. Yet this movement is due not to the nature of a soul but to that of lightness. Thus if the heavens’ motion is rotational, and this motion exists by virtue of their own nature, and not that of the soul, then the celestial body revolves not by virtue of the nature of the soul but by virtue of its own nature. Hence it does not possess a soul, nor is there any such thing as a celestial or pan-cosmic soul. The only soul that possesses intelligence is the human soul, and this is not celestial, but supra-celestial, not because of its location but because of its very nature, for its essence is noetic.

5 The celestial body does not move forward or upward. The reason for this is not that there is no place beyond it. For adjacent to the heavens and enclosed within them is the sphere of ether, and this too does not advance upward, not because there is no place to which it might proceed – for the breadth of the heavens embraces it – but because what is above is lighter. Hence, the heavens are by their own nature higher than the sphere of ether. It is not because there is no place higher that the heavens do not proceed upward, but because there is no body more subtle and light than they are.

6 Nobody is higher than the celestial body. Yet this is not to say that the region beyond the heavens does not admit a body, but only that the heavens contain everybody and there is no other body beyond. But if a body could pass beyond the heavens, which is our pious belief, then the region beyond the heavens would not be inaccessible. God, who fills all things and extends infinitely beyond the heavens, existed before the world, filling as He now fills the whole region of the world. Yet this did not prevent a body from existing in that region. Thus even outside of the heavens there is nothing to prevent the existence of a region, such as that which surrounds the world or as that which is in the world, in which a body could abide.

7 Since there is no such hindrance, how is it, then, that the celestial body does not move upwards, but turning back upon itself moves in a circular fashion? Because, as it is the lightest of bodies, it rises to the surface of all the others and is the highest of them all, as well .as being the most mobile. Just as what is most compressed and most heavy is the lowest and most stationary, so what is more rarified and lightest is the highest and most mobile. Thus since the celestial body moves by nature above the level of all other bodies, and since by nature it is impossible for it to separate itself from those things on the surface of which it is located, and since those things on which it is located are spherical, it must encircle them unceasingly. And this it does not by virtue of the nature of a soul but by virtue of its own proper nature as a body, since it passes successively from place to place, which is the movement most characteristic of the highest bodies, just as a stationary state most characterizes the lowest bodies.

8 It may be observed that in the regions close about us the winds, whose nature it is to rise upwards, move about these regions without separating themselves from them and without proceeding further in an upward direction. This is not because there is no place for them to rise to, but because what is above the winds is lighter than they are. They remain on the surface of the regions above which they are situated because by nature they are lighter than those regions. And they move around those regions by virtue of their own nature and not that of a soul. I think that Solomon, wise in all things, intended to indicate this partial likeness that the winds bear to the celestial body when he applied the same kind of language to the winds as is used of it; for he wrote, ‘The wind proceeds circle-wise, and returns on its own circuits’ (Eccles. 1:6). But the nature of the winds round about us diners from the nature of higher bodies, in that the winds’ motion is slower and they are more heavy.

Prophets King Solomon and Ezekiel

9 According to the Greek sages, there are two opposing zones of the earth that are temperate and habitable, and each of these is divided into two inhabited regions, thus making four in all. Therefore they assert that there are also four races of men upon the earth, and that these are unable to have any contact with one another. There are, according to these philosophers, men living in the temperate zone lateral to us, who are separated from us by the torrid zone. And there are people who dwell antipodal to these latter, living from their point of view beneath the temperate zone and its inhabitants. In a similar way there are those who dwell beneath us. The first they say are opposite to us, while the second are antipodal and reversed. What these sages did not realize is that only one tenth of the earth’s sphere is land, while the rest is almost entirely swallowed up by the abyss of the waters.

10 You should realize that, apart from the region of the earth which we inhabit, there is no other habitable land, since it is all inundated by the waters of the abyss. You should also bear in mind that (omitting ether) the four elements out of which the world is fashioned balance one another equally, and that each of the elements has its own sphere, the size of which is proportionate to its density, as Aristotle also thinks. ‘For’, he says, ‘there are five elements located in five spherical regions, and the greater spheres always encompass the lesser: water encompasses earth; air encompasses water; fire, air; and ether, fire. This constitutes the world.’

11 Ether is more translucent than fire, which is also called ‘combustible matter’, and fire is many times greater in volume than air, and air than water, and water than earth which, as it is the most compressed, is the least in volume of all the four elements under the heavens. Since the sphere of water is many times greater in size than that of earth, if the two spheres – that of water and that of earth – had the same centre and the water was poured over the entire surface of the earth, the water would not have left any part of the earth’s surface available for use by terrestrial animals, since it would have covered all the soil and the earth’s surface would have been everywhere at a considerable depth beneath it. But since the waters do not entirely swallow up earth’s surface – for the dry land we inhabit is not covered by them the sphere of the waters must of necessity be eccentric to the earth’s sphere. Thus we must try to discover by how much it is eccentric and where its centre lies, whether above or beneath us. Yet it cannot be above us, since we see a part of the water’s surface below us. Thus from our point of view the centre of the sphere of water is beneath the earth’s centre. We have still to discover how far this centre is from the centre of the earth.

12 You can see how far from our viewpoint the centre of water’s sphere lies beneath the centre of earth’s sphere if you take into consideration that the surface of the water visible to us and beneath us – just as the ground we walk upon is beneath us – coincides almost exactly with the surface of the earth which we inhabit. But the habitable region of the earth is about one tenth of its circumference, for the earth has five Stones, and we inhabit half of one of those five. Hence if you want to fit a sphere that encompasses the earth on to one that encompasses this tenth part of its surface you will find that the diameter of the exterior sphere is nearly twice as great as the diameter of the interior sphere, while its volume is eight times greater; and its centre will be situated at what is from our viewpoint the bottom extremity of the sphere of the earth. This is clear from the following diagram.

13 Let us represent the earth’s sphere with a circle on the inside of which are the letters A, B, C, D; and around this let us draw another circle representing water’s sphere, which touches the first circle at its highest point, and on the outside of this second circle let us write the letters E, F, G, H. It will be found that, from our point of view, the centre of the outer circle will lie on the circumference of the inner circle at its bottom extremity. And since the diameter of the outer circle is twice that of the inner circle, and since it can be demonstrated geometrically that the sphere whose diameter is twice that of another sphere is eight times the size of the latter, it follows that one eighth of the sphere of the element of water is contained by and merged with earth’s sphere. It is for this reason that many springs of water gush forth from the earth and abundant, ever-flowing rivers issue from it, and the gulfs of many seas pour into it, and many lakes spread over it. There is scarcely any place on the earth where, if you dig, you will not find water flowing beneath.

Gregory Palamas

14 As the above diagram and logic itself teach us, no region of the earth other than our own is inhabited. For just as the earth would be totally uninhabitable if both earth and water had the same centre, so, even more truly, if the water has its centre at what is from our point of view the lowest extremity of the earth, all the other parts of the earth, apart from the region where we live which fits into the upper section of the water’s sphere, must be uninhabitable since they are flooded by water. And since it has already been demonstrated that embodied deiform souls dwell only in the inhabited region of the earth, and that there is but one such region on the earth – the one in which we live – it follows that land animals not endowed with intelligence also dwell solely in this region.

15 Sight is formed from the manifold impressions of colors and shapes; smell from odors; taste from flavors; hearing from sounds; and touch from things that are rough or smooth on contact. The impressions that the senses receive come from bodies but, although corporeal, they are not bodies themselves. For they do not arise directly from bodies, but from the forms that are associated with bodies. Yet they are not themselves these forms, since they are but impressions left by the forms; and so, like images, they are inseparably separated from these forms. This is particularly evident in the case of sight, especially when objects are seen in mirrors.

16 These sense impressions are in turn appropriated from the senses by the soul’s imaginative faculty; and this faculty totally separates not the senses themselves but what we have called the images that exist within them from the bodies and their forms. It stores them up like treasures and brings them forward ulteriorly – now one and now another, each in its own time – for its own use even when there is no corresponding body present. In this way it sets before itself all manner of things seen, heard, tasted, smelled and touched.

17 In creatures endowed with intelligence this imaginative faculty of the soul is an intermediary between the intellect and the senses. For the intellect beholds and dwells upon the images received in itself from the senses – images separated from bodies and already bodiless – and it formulates various kinds of thought by means of distinctions, analysis and inference. This happens in various ways – impassionately or dispassionately or in a state between the two, both with and without error. From these thoughts are born most virtues and vices, as well as opinions, whether right or wrong. Yet not every thought that comes into the intellect has its origin in the images of things perceived or is connected with them. There are some thoughts that do not come within the scope of the senses, but are given to the thinking faculty by the intellect itself. As regards our thoughts, then, not every truth or error, virtue or vice has its origin in the imagination.

18 What is remarkable and deserving our attention is how beauty or ugliness, wealth or poverty, glory or ill repute – and, in short, either the noetic light that bestows eternal life or the noetic darkness of chastisement – enter the soul, becoming firmly established within it, from merely transitory and sensible things.

The Wise Aristotle as depicted in the narthex of the church at the Monastery of Philanthropinon in Ioannina.

19 When the intellect enthrones itself on the soul’s imaginative faculty and thereby becomes associated with the senses, it engenders a composite form of knowledge. For suppose you look at the setting sun and then see the moon follow it, illuminated in the small part turned towards the sun, and in the subsequent days you note that the moon gradually recedes and is illuminated more brightly until the opposite process sets in; and suppose you then see the moon draw closer from the other side and its light wane more and more until it disappears altogether at the point at which it first received illumination; suppose you take intellectual note of all this, having in your imagination the images you have previously received and with the moon itself ever present before your eyes, you will in this way understand from sense-perception, imagination and intellection that the moon gets its light from the sun, and that its orbit is much lower than the sun’s and closer to the earth.

20 As in this way we achieve knowledge of things pertaining to the moon, so in a similar way we can achieve knowledge of things pertaining to the sun – the solar eclipses and their nodes – as well as of the parallaxes, intervals and varied configurations involving the planets, and in short of all phenomena concerning the heavens. The same holds true with regard to the laws of nature, and every method and art, and in brief with regard to all knowledge acquired from the perception of particulars. Such knowledge we gather from the senses and the imagination by means of the intellect. Yet no such knowledge can ever be called spiritual, for it is natural, things of the Spirit being beyond its scope (cf. 1 Cor. 2:14).


21 Where can we learn anything certain and true about God, about the world as a whole, and about ourselves? Is it not from the teaching of the Holy Spirit? For this teaching has taught us that God is the only Being that truly is – the only eternal and immutable Being – who neither receives being from non-being nor returns to non-being; who is Tri-hypostatic and Almighty, and who through His Logos brought forth all things from non-being in six days or, rather, as Moses states, He created them instantaneously. For we have heard him say, ‘First of all God created heaven and earth’ (Gen. 1:1). And He did not create them totally, empty or without any intermediary bodies at all. For the earth was mixed with water, and each was pregnant with air and with the various species of animals and plants, while the heavens were pregnant with various lights and fires; and so with the heavens and the earth all things received their existence. Thus first of all God created the heavens and the earth as a kind of all-embracing material substance with the potentiality of giving birth to all things. In this way He rightly rebuts those who wrongly think that matter pre-existed on its own as an autonomous entity.

22 After this initial creation. He who brings forth all things from non-being proceeds as it were to embellish and adorn the world. In six days He allotted its own proper and appropriate rank to each of His creatures that together constitute His world. He differentiates each by command alone, as though bringing forth from hidden treasuries the things stored within, giving them form, and disposing and composing them harmoniously, with perfection and aptness, one to the other, each to all and all to each. Establishing the. Immovable earth as the centre He encircled it in the highest vault with the ever-moving heavens and in His great wisdom bound the two together by means of the intermediary regions. Thus the same world is both at rest and moving. For while the heavenly bodies encircle the earth in rapid and perpetual motion, the immovable body of the earth necessarily occupies the central position, its state of rest serving as a counterbalance to the heavens’ mobility. In this way the pan-cosmic sphere does not change its position as it would if it were cylindrical.

23 Thus by assigning such positions to the two bodies that mark the boundaries of the universe – the earth and the heavens – the Master-craftsman both made fast and set in motion what one might call this entire and orderly world; and He farther allotted what was fitting to each thing lying between these two limits. Some He placed on high, enjoining them to move in the upper regions and to revolve for all time round the uttermost boundary of the universe in a wise and ordered manner. Those are the light and active bodies capable of making bodies that lie beneath them fit and serviceable. They are most wisely set above the world’s middle region so that they can sufficiently dispel the excessive coldness there and restrain their own excessive heat to its proper level. In some manner they also restrict the excessive mobility of the world’s outermost, bounds, for they have their own opposing movement and they hold that outermost region in place through their counter-rotation. At the same time they provide us with beneficial yearly changes of season, whereby we can measure temporal extension; and to those with understanding they supply knowledge of the God who has created, ordered and adorned the world. Hence He commanded those bodies in the upper region to dance round it in swift rotation for two reasons: to fill the entire universe with beauty and to furnish a variety of more specific benefits. He set lower down in the middle region other bodies of a heavy and passive nature that come into being and undergo change, that decompose and are re-compounded, and that suffer alteration for a useful purpose. He established these bodies and their relationships to one another in an orderly manner so that all things together could rightly be called ‘cosmos’, that is to say, that which is well-ordered.

Creation of Adam, the son of God
Creation of Adam, the son of God

24 In this manner the first of beings was brought forth into creation and after that another was brought forth, and after that still another, and so on, until last of all man was brought forth. So great was the honor and providential care which God bestowed upon man that He brought the entire sensible world into being before him and for his sake. The kingdom of heaven was prepared for him from the foundation of the world (cf. Matt. 25:34); God first took counsel concerning him, and then he was fashioned by God’s hand and according to the image of God (cf. Gen. 1:26-27). God did not form the whole of man from matter and from the elements of this sensible world, as He did the other animals. He formed only man’s body from these materials; but man’s soul He took from things supra-celestial or, rather, it came from God Himself when mysteriously He breathed life into man (cf. Gen. 2:7). The human soul is something great and wondrous, superior to the entire world; it overlooks the universe and has all things in its care; it is capable of knowing and receiving God, and more than anything else has the capacity of manifesting the sublime magnificence of the Master-Craftsman. Not only capable of receiving God and His grace through ascetic struggle, it is also able to be united in Him in a single hypostasis.

Orthodox icon of Thucidides & Aristotle (Transfiguration Monastery, Meteora)
Orthodox icon of Thucydides & Aristotle (Transfiguration Monastery, Meteora)

25 Here and in such things as these lie the true wisdom and the saving knowledge that procure for us the blessedness of heaven. What Euclid, Marinos or Ptolemy has been able to understand these truths? What Empedocleans, Socratics, Aristotelians and Platonists with their logical methods and mathematical demonstrations? Or, rather, what form of sense-perception has grasped such things, what intellect apprehended them? If the wisdom of the Spirit seemed something lowly to these philosophers of nature and their followers, this fact alone demonstrates its incomparable superiority. In much the same way as animals not endowed with intelligence are related to the wisdom of these men – or, if you wish, as children would consider the pastries they hold in their hands superior to the imperial crown and to all the knowledge of these philosophers – so are these philosophers in relation to the true and sublime wisdom and teaching of the Spirit.

26 To know God truly – in so far as this is possible – is incomparably superior to the philosophy of the Greeks, and simply to know what place man has in relation to God surpasses all their wisdom. For man alone among all terrestrial and celestial beings is created in the image of his Maker, so that he might look to God and love Him and be an initiate and worshipper of God alone, and so that he might preserve his own beauty by his faith in God and his devotion and affection towards Him, and might know that whatever is found on earth and in the heavens is inferior to himself and is completely void of intelligence. This the Greek sages could never conceive of, and they dishonored our nature and were irreverent towards God. ‘They worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator’ (Rom. 1:25), attributing to the sense-perceptible yet insensate stars an intelligence in each case proportionate in power and dignity to its physical size. They wretchedly worshipped these things, called them greater and lesser gods, and committed the lordship of all things to them. Did they not thus shame their own souls, dishonoring and impoverishing them, and filling them with a truly noetic and chastising darkness by their preoccupation with a philosophy based on sense-objects?


27 To know that we have been created in God’s image prevents us from deifying even the noetic world. ‘Image’ here refers not to the body but to the nature of the intellect. Nothing in nature is superior to the intellect, for if there were then it would constitute the divine image. Since, therefore, the intellect is what is best in us and this, even though it is in the divine image, is none the less created by God, why, then, is it difficult to understand or, rather, how is it not self-evident that the Creator of that which is noetic in us is also the Creator of everything noetic? Thus every noetic being, since it is likewise created in the image of God, is our fellow-servant, even if certain noetic beings are more honorable than us in that they possess no body and so more closely resemble the utterly bodiless and uncreated Nature. Or, rather, those noetic beings who have kept their rank and who maintain the purpose for which they were created deserve our homage and are far superior to us, even though they are fellow-servants. On the other hand, the noetic beings who did not keep their rank but rebelled and rejected the purpose for which they were created are totally estranged from those close to God, and they have fallen from honor. And if they attempt to drag us after them and to make us fall, they are not only worthless and disgraced but are also God’s enemies and destructive and inimical to the human race.

28 Yet natural scientists, astronomers and those who boast of possessing universal knowledge are unable to understand anything of what has just been said on the basis of their philosophy. Moreover, they have regarded the ruler of the noetic darkness and all the rebellious powers under him not only as superior to themselves but even as gods, and they have honored them with temples, made sacrifices to them and submitted themselves to their ruinous oracles. In this way they were mocked exceedingly by the demons, through unholy sacred objects, through defiling purifications which only increased their accursed conceit, and through prophets and prophetesses who estranged them totally from the essential truth.

29 For a man to know God, and to know himself and his proper rank – a knowledge now possessed even by Christians who are thought to be quite unlearned – is a knowledge superior to natural science and astronomy and to all philosophy concerning such matters. Moreover, for our intellect to know its own infirmity, and to seek healing for it, is incomparably greater than to know and search out the magnitude of the stars, the principles of nature, the generation of terrestrial things and the circuits of celestial bodies, their solstices and risings, stations and retrogressions, separations and conjunctions and, in short, all the multiform relationships which arise from the many different motions in the heavens. For the intellect that recognizes its own infirmity has discovered where to enter in order to find salvation and how to approach the light of knowledge and receive the true wisdom that does not pass away with this present world.



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