On Avarice (St. John Cassian, ca. 420 AD)

NOTE: The following article is taken from On the Eight Vices, which can be found in the Philokalia: https://archive.org/details/Philokalia-TheCompleteText

Also see the Saint’s book: The Institutes of the Coenobia: http://www.osb.org/lectio/cassian/inst/


Our third struggle is against the demon of avarice, a demon clearly foreign to our nature, who only gains entry into a monk because he is lacking in faith. The other passions, such as anger and desire, seem to be occasioned by the body and in some sense implanted in us at birth. Hence they are conquered only after a long time. The sickness of avarice, on the contrary, can with diligence and attention be cut off more readily, because ft enters from outside. If neglected, however, it becomes even harder to get rid of and more destructive than the other passions, for according to the Apostle it is ‘the root of all evil’ (1 Tim. 6:10).


Let us look at it in this fashion. Movement occurs in the sexual organs not only of young children who cannot yet distinguish between good and evil, but also of the smallest infants still at their mother’s breast. The latter, although quite ignorant of sensual pleasure, nevertheless manifest such natural movements in the flesh. Similarly, the incensive power exists in infants, as we can see when they are roused against anyone hurting them. I say this not to accuse nature of being the cause of sin – heaven forbid! – but to show that the incensive power and desire, even if implanted in man by the Creator for a good purpose, appear to change through neglect from being natural in the body into something that is unnatural. Movement in the sexual organs was given to us by the Creator for procreation and the continuation of the species, not for unchastity; while incensive power was planted in us for our salvation, so that we could manifest it against wickedness, but not so that we could act like wild beasts towards our fellow men. Even if we make bad use of these passions, nature itself is not therefore sinful, nor should we blame the Creator. A man who gives someone a knife for some necessary and useful purpose is not to blame if that person uses it to commit murder.

This has been said to make it clear that avarice is a passion deriving, not from our nature, but solely from an evil and perverted use of our free will. When this sickness finds the soul lukewarm and lacking in faith at the start of the ascetic path, it suggests to us various apparently justifiable and sensible reasons for keeping back something of what we possess. It conjures up in a monk’s mind a picture of a lengthy old age and bodily illness; and it persuades him that the necessities of life provided by the monastery are insufficient to sustain a healthy man, much less an ill one; that in the monastery the sick, instead of receiving proper attention, are hardly cared for at all; and that unless he has some money tucked away, he will die a miserable death. Finally, it convinces him that he will not be able to remain long in the monastery because of the load of his work and the strictness of the abbot. When with thoughts like these it has seduced his mind with the idea of concealing any sum, however trifling, it persuades him to learn, unknown to the abbot, some handicraft through which he can increase his cherished hoardings. Then it deceives the wretched monk with secret expectations, making him imagine what he will earn from his handicraft, and the comfort and security which will result from it. Now completely given over to the thought of gain, he notices none of the evil passions which attack him: his raging fury when he happens to sustain a loss, his gloom and dejection when he falls short of the gain he hoped for. Just as for other people the belly is a god, so for him is money. That is why the Apostle, knowing this, calls avarice not only ‘the root of all evil’ but ‘idolatry’ as well (Col. 3:5).

How is it that this sickness can so pervert a man that he ends up as an idolater? It is because he now fixes his intellect on the love, not of God, but of the images of men stamped on gold. A monk darkened by such thoughts and launched on the downward path can no longer be obedient. He is irritable and resentful, and grumbles about every task. He answers back and, having lost his sense of respect, behaves like a stubborn, uncontrollable horse. He is not satisfied with the day’s ration of food and complains that he cannot put up with such conditions for ever. Neither God’s presence, he says, nor the possibility of his own salvation is confined to the monastery; and, he concludes, he will perish if he does not leave it. He is so excited and encouraged in these perverse thoughts by his secret hoardings that he even plans to quit the monastery. Then he replies proudly and harshly no matter what he is told to do, and pays no heed if he sees something in the monastery that needs to be set right, considering himself a stranger and outsider and finding fault with all that takes place. Then he seeks excuses for being angry or injured, so that he will not appear to be leaving the monastery frivolously and without cause. He does not even shrink from trying through gossip and idle talk to seduce someone else into leaving with him, wishing to have an accomplice in his sinful action.

Late 15th Century depiction of Avarice, with the Pope, a Bishop, a Cardinal, monks and a prince/king all receiving just punishment after death.

Because the avaricious monk is so fired with desire for private wealth he will never be able to live at peace in a monastery or under a rule. When like a wolf the demon has snatched him from the fold and separated him from the Hock, he makes ready to devour him; he sets-him to work day and night in his cell on the very tasks which he complained of doing at fixed times in the monastery. But the demon does not allow him to keep the regular prayers or norms of fasting or orders of vigil. Having bound him fast in the madness of avarice, he persuades him to devote all his effort to his handicraft.

There are three forms of this sickness, all of which are equally condemned by the Holy Scriptures and the teaching of the Fathers. The first induces those who were poor to acquire and save the goods they lacked in the world. The second compels those who have renounced worldly goods by offering them to God, to have regrets and to seek after them again. A third infects a monk from the start with lack of faith and ardor, so preventing his complete detachment from worldly things, producing in him a fear of poverty and distrust in God’s providence and leading him to break the promises he made when he renounced the world.

Examples of these three forms of avarice are, as I have said, condemned in Holy Scripture. Gehazi wanted to acquire property which he did not previously possess, and therefore never received the prophetic grace which his teacher had wished to leave him in the place of an inheritance. Because of the prophet’s curse he inherited incurable leprosy instead of a blessing (cf. 2 Kgs. 5:27). And Judas, who wished to acquire money which he had previously abandoned on following Christ, not only lapsed so far as to betray the Master and lose his place in the circle of the apostles; he also put an end to his life in the flesh through a violent death (cf. Matt. 27:5). Thirdly, Ananias and Sapphira were condemned to death by the Apostle’s word when they kept back something of what they had acquired (cf. Acts 5:1-10). Again, in Deuteronomy Moses is indirectly exhorting those who promise to renounce the world, and who then retain their earthly possessions because of the fear that comes from lack of faith, when he says: ‘What man is there that is fearful and faint-hearted? He shall not go out to do battle; let him return to his house, lest his brethren’s heart faint as well as his heart’ (cf. Deut. 20:8). Could anything be clearer or more certain than this testimony? Should not we who have left the world learn from these examples to renounce it completely and in this state go forth to do battle? We should not turn others from the perfection taught in the Gospels and make them cowardly because of our own hesitant and feeble start.

30 pieces of silver.Shekels on 350 year old Hebrew Manuscript.Judas Iscariot betrayal
30 pieces of silver.Shekels on 350 year old Hebrew Manuscript.Judas Iscariot betrayal

Some, impelled by their own deceit and avarice, distort the meaning of the scriptural statement, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35). They do the same with the Lord’s words when He says, ‘If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come and follow Me’ (Matt. 19:21). They judge that it is more blessed to have control over one’s personal wealth, and to give from this to those in need, than to possess nothing at all. They should know, however, that they have not yet renounced the world or achieved monastic perfection so long as they are ashamed to accept for Christ’s sake the poverty of the Apostle and to provide for themselves and the needy through the labor of their hands (cf. Acts 20:34); for only in this way will they fulfill the .monastic profession and be glorified with the Apostle. Having distributed their former wealth, let them fight the good fight with Paul ‘in hunger and thirst . . . in cold and nakedness’ (2 Cor. 11:27). Had the Apostle thought that the possession of one’s former wealth was more necessary for perfection, he would not have despised his official status as a Roman citizen (cf. Acts 22:25). Nor would those in Jerusalem have sold their houses and fields and given the money they got from them to the apostles (cf. Acts 4: 34-35), had they felt that the apostles considered it more blessed to live off one’s own possessions than from one’s labor and the offerings of the Gentiles.

The Apostle gives us a clear lesson in this matter when he writes to the Romans in the passage beginning, ‘But now I go to Jerusalem to minister to the saints’, and ending: ‘They were pleased to do it, and indeed they are in debt to them’ (Rom. 15:25-27). He himself was often in chains, in prison or on fatiguing travel, and so was usually prevented from providing for himself with his own hands. He tells us that he accepted the necessities of life from the brethren who came to him from Macedonia (cf. 2 Cor. 11:9); and writing to the Philippians he says: ‘Now you Philippians know also that . . . when I departed from Macedonia no church except you helped me with gifts of money. For even in Thessalonica you sent me help, not once but twice’ (Phil. 4:15-16). Are, then, the avaricious right and are these men more blessed than the Apostle himself, because they satisfied his wants from their own resources? Surely no one would be so foolish as to say this.

Ananias and Sapphira (4th c. tomb)
Ananias and Sapphira (4th c. tomb)

If we want to follow the gospel commandment and the practice of the whole Church as it was founded initially upon the apostles, we should not follow our own notions or give wrong meanings to things rightly said. We must discard faint-hearted, faithless opinion and recover the strictness of the Gospel; In this way we shall be able to follow also in the footsteps of the Fathers, adhering to the discipline of the cenobitic life and truly renouncing this world.

It is good here to recall the words of St Basil, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. He is reported once to have said to a senator, who had renounced the world in a half-hearted manner and was keeping back some of his personal fortune: ‘You have lost the senator and failed to make a monk.’ We should therefore make every effort to cut out from our souls this root of all evils, avarice, in the certain knowledge that if the root remains the branches will sprout freely.

This uprooting is difficult to achieve unless we are living in a monastery, for in a monastery we cease to worry about even our most basic needs. With the fate of Ananias and Sapphira in mind, we should shudder at the thought of keeping to ourselves anything of our former possessions. Similarly, frightened by the example of Gehazi who was afflicted with incurable leprosy because of his avarice, let us guard against piling up money which we did not have while in the world. Finally, recalling Judas’ death by hanging, let us beware of acquiring again any of the things which we have already renounced. In all this we should remember how uncertain is the hour of our death, so that our Lord does not come unexpectedly and, finding our conscience soiled with avarice, say to us what God says to the rich man in the Gospel: ‘You fool, this night your soul will be required of you: who then will be the owner of what you have stored up?’ (Luke 12: 20).



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.

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.


Philosophy Does Not Save (St. Gregory Palamas, 14th c.)

NOTE: The following article is taken from The Triads


Philosophy and Salvation (from the Translator’s Introduction)

One of the most striking characteristics of Byzantine mediaeval Christianity is its concern with the role of ancient Greek philosophical categories in the formulation of Christian theology and spirituality. 16 In fact, unlike their Latin contemporaries who “discovered” Greek philosophy—in Latin translations from the Arabic—in the twelfth century, the Byzantines had never forgotten Plato or Aristotle, who represented their own Greek cultural past and were always accessible to them in the original Greek text. At the same time, they always recognized that this past was a “pagan” past. Thus, the Ancient Greek heritage could still be useful in such fields as logics, physics or medicine (hence the inclusion of Aristotle in the standard Byzantine educational curriculum followed by Palamas in his youth), but not in religion. Metaphysical and religious truths could validly originate only in the Christian revelation. This is the reason that Plato and the Neoplatonists were always looked at with suspicion in conservative—and particularly monastic—circles of the Byzantine Church: Indeed, in any form of Platonic thought, no understanding of reality was possible without metaphysical, that is, in fact, theological presuppositions foreign to Christianity.

It is not astonishing, therefore, to find out that every year, on the first Sunday of Lent— also known as the “Sunday of Orthodoxy”—all Byzantine Orthodox churches resounded with formal and repeated anathemas against “those who follow the foolish opinions of the Hellenic disciplines” and particularly against those “who considered the ideas of Plato as truly existing” or believe (with Aristotle) in the eternity of matter. 17 These anathemas were first issued in the eleventh century on the occasion of the condemnation of the philosopher John Italos, but their inclusion in the liturgical Synodikon of the Sunday of Orthodoxy gave them permanent significance.  http://www.anastasis.org.uk/synodikon.htm


Clearly, however, Greek philosophical concepts were inseparable from many aspects and formulations of the patristic tradition, which was the common model and authority for all Byzantines. The repeated clashes between “humanists” who tended to minimize the prohibitions against “Hellenic wisdom” and those theologians, predominantly monastic, who insisted on the incompatibility between “Athens” and “Jerusalem” (to use the old expression of Tertullian) could not solve the issue in a definite way. Similarly, in the controversy between Barlaam and Palamas, both sides acknowledged the authority of the Christian revelation and, on the other hand, admitted that ancient philosophers possessed a certain natural ability to reach not only created, but also divine truths. What then separated them, and made the debate appear essentially a debate on the relation between ancient philosophy and the Christian experience?

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

On the one hand, the different backgrounds and intellectual formation of Palamas and Barlaam led them to assign to Greek philosophy a different degree of authority. Barlaam’s contacts with Western thought and his involvement in the “humanist” milieus in Byzantium were leading him to an enthusiastic endorsement of Aristotle and Neoplatonic authors, as criteria of Christian thought. “I cannot conceive that God has not illuminated them in a certain manner, and feel that they must surpass the multitude of mankind,” he wrote. Palamas, on the contrary, preferred to approach the ancient Greek philosophical tradition as requiring the need for a baptismal rebirth—a death and a resurrection—as a condition for its integration into the Tradition of the Church: This is the meaning of his image of serpents’ being killed and dissected before providing materials used in helpful drugs.

Philosophy Does Not Save: The Text

  1. i. The first question

I 1 have heard it stated by certain people that monks also should pursue secular wisdom, and that if they do not possess this wisdom, it is impossible for them to avoid ignorance and false opinions, even if they have achieved the highest level of impassibility; 2 and that one cannot acquire perfection and sanctity without seeking knowledge from all quarters, above all from Greek culture, 3 which also is a gift of God—just as were those insights granted to the prophets and apostles through revelation. This education confers on the soul the knowledge of [created] beings, 4 and enriches the faculty of knowledge, which is the greatest of all the powers of the soul. For education not only dispels all other evils from the soul—since every passion has its root and foundation in ignorance—but it also leads men to the knowledge of God, for God is knowable only through the mediation of His creatures. 5

St. Justin the Martyr and Philosopher, along with Homer the Historian
St. Justin the Martyr and Philosopher, along with Homer the Historian

I was in no way convinced when I heard such views being put forward, for my small experience of monastic life showed me that just the opposite was the case; but I was unable to make a defence against them. “We not only occupy ourselves with the mysteries of nature,” they proudly claimed, “measuring the celestial cycle, and studying the opposed motions of the stars, their conjunctions, phases and risings, and reckoning the consequences of these things (in all of which matters we take great pride); but in addition, since the inner principles of these phenomena are to be found in the divine and primordial creative Mind, and the images of these principles exist in our soul, we are zealous to understand them, and to cast off every kind of ignorance in their regard by the methods of distinction, syllogistic reasoning and analysis; thus, both in this life and after, we wish to be conformed to the likeness of the Creator.” 6

I felt myself incapable of responding to these arguments, and so maintained silence towards these men; but now I beg you, Father, to instruct me in what should be said in defence of the truth, so that (following the Apostle’s injunction) I may “be ready to give an account of the faith that is in us”. 7

  1. i. 18.

By examining the nature of sensible things, 8 these people 9 have arrived at a certain concept of God, but not at a conception truly worthy of Him and appropriate to His blessed nature. For their “disordered heart was darkened” by the machinations of the wicked demons who were instructing them. For if a worthy conception of God could be attained through the use of intellection, how could these people have taken the demons for gods, and how could they have believed the demons when they taught man unenlightened education, they have calumniated both God and nature. They have deprived God of His sovereignty (at least as far as they are concerned); they have ascribed the Divine Name to demons; and they were so far from finding the knowledge of beings—the object of their desire and zeal—as to claim that inanimate things have a soul and participate in a soul superior to our own. 12 They also allege that things without reason are reasonable, since capable of receiving a human soul; that demons are superior to us and are even our creators (such is their impiety); they have classed among things uncreated and unoriginate and coeternal with God, not only matter, and what they call the World Soul, but also those intelligible beings not clothed in the opacity of the body, 13 and even our souls themselves. 14

The Sybil of Erythrae, and the Greek Philosophers Solon, Pythagoras and Socrates
The Sybil of Erythrae, and the Greek Philosophers Solon, Pythagoras and Socrates

Are we then to say that those who hold such a philosophy possess the wisdom of God, or even a human wisdom in general? I hope that none of us would be so mad as to claim this, for, as the Lord declared, “A good tree does not produce bad fruit” (Mt. 7:18). In my estimation, this “wisdom” is not even worthy of the appellation “human”, since it is so inconsistent as to affirm the same things to be at once animate and inanimate, endowed with and deprived of reason, and it holds that things by nature without sensibility, and having no organs capable of sensation, could contain our souls! 15 It is true that Paul sometimes speaks of this as “human wisdom”, as when he says, “My proclamation does not rest on the persuasive words of human wisdom”, 16 and again, “We do not speak in words which teach human wisdom.” 17 But at the same time, he thinks it right to call those who have acquired it “wise according to the flesh”, 18 or “wise men become feebleminded”, 19 “the disputants of this age”, 20 and their wisdom is qualified by him in similar terms: It is “wisdom become folly”, 21 the “wisdom which has been done away”, 22 “vain trumpery”, 23 the “wisdom of this age”, and belongs to the “princes” of this age—who are “coming to an end”. 24


For myself, I listen to the father who 25 says, “Woe to body when it does not consume the nourishment that is from without, and woe to the soul when it does not receive the grace that is from above!” He speaks justly—for the body will perish once it has passed into the world of inanimate things, and the soul will become enmeshed in the demonic life and the thoughts of demons if it turns away from that which is proper to it. 26

But if one says that philosophy, insofar as it is natural, is a gift of God, then one says true, without contradiction, and without incurring the accusation that falls on those who abuse philosophy and pervert it to an unnatural end. 27 Indeed they make their condemnation heavier by using God’s gift in a way unpleasing to Him.

Moreover, the mind of demons, created by God, possesses by nature its faculty of reason. But we do not hold that its activity comes from God, even though its possibility of acting comes from Him; one could with propriety call such reason an unreason. The intellect of pagan philosophers is likewise a divine gift insofar as it naturally possesses a wisdom endowed with reason. But it has been perverted by the wiles of the devil, who has transformed it into a foolish wisdom, wicked and senseless, since it puts forward such doctrines.

Romanian Orthodox Fresco Depicting Philosophers
Romanian Orthodox Fresco Depicting Philosophers

But if someone tells us that the demons themselves have a desire and knowledge not absolutely bad, since they desire to exist, live and think, here is the proper reply which I should give: It is not right to take issue with us because we say (with the brother of the Lord) that Greek wisdom is “demonic”, 28 on the grounds that it arouses quarrels and contains almost every kind of false teaching, and is alienated from its proper end, that is, the knowledge of God; but at the same time recognise that it may have some participation in the good in a remote and inchoate manner. 29 It should be remembered that no evil thing is evil insofar as it exists, but insofar as it is turned aside from the activity appropriate to it, and thus from the end assigned to this activity.


What then should be the work and the goal of those who seek the wisdom of God in creatures? Is it not the acquisition of the truth, and the glorification of the Creator? This is clear to all. But the knowledge of the pagan philosophers has fallen away from both these aims.

The Wise Plato is found in the dome at the Monastery of Evangelistria in Zagorohoria and was painted in 1809.
The Wise Plato is found in the dome at the Monastery of Evangelistria in Zagorohoria and was painted in 1809.

Is there then anything of use to us in this philosophy? Certainly. For just as there is much therapeutic value even in substances obtained from the flesh of serpents, 30 and the doctors consider there is no better and more useful medicine than that derived from this source, so there is something of benefit to be had even from the profane philosophers— but somewhat as in a mixture of honey and hemlock. So it is most needful that those who wish to separate out the honey from the mixture should beware that they do not take the deadly residue by mistake. And if you were to examine the problem, you would see that all or most of the harmful heresies derive their origin from this source.

It is thus with the “iconognosts”, who pretend that man receives the image of God by knowledge, and that this knowledge conforms the soul to God. 31 For, as was said to Cain, “If you make your offering correctly, without dividing correctly…”. 32 But to divide well is the property of very few men. Those alone “divide well”, the senses of whose souls 33 are trained to distinguish good and evil.


What need is there to run these dangers without necessity, when it is possible to contemplate the wisdom of God in His creatures not only without peril but with profit? A life which hope in God has liberated from every care naturally impels the soul towards the contemplation of God’s creatures. Then it is struck with admiration, deepens its understanding, persists in the glorification of the Creator, and through this sense of wonder is led forward to what is greater. According to St. Isaac, 34 “It comes upon treasures which cannot be expressed in words”; and using prayer as a key, it penetrates thereby into the mysteries 35 which “eye has not seen, ear has not heard and which have not entered into the heart of man”, 36 mysteries manifested by the Spirit alone to those who are worthy, as St. Paul teaches.


Do you see the swiftest way, full of profit and without danger, that leads to these supernatural and heavenly treasures?

In the case of the secular wisdom, you must first kill the serpent, in other words, overcome the pride that arises from this philosophy. How difficult that is! “The arrogance of philosophy has nothing in common with humility”, as the saying goes. Having overcome it, then, you must separate and cast away the head and tail, for these things are evil in the highest degree. By the head, I mean manifestly wrong opinions concerning things intelligible and divine and primordial ; and by the tail, the fabulous stories concerning created things. As to what lies in between the head and tail, that is, discourses on nature, you must separate out useless ideas by means of the faculties of examination and inspection possessed by the soul, just as pharmacists purify the flesh of serpents with fire and water. Even if you do all this, and make good use of what has been properly set aside, how much trouble and circumspection will be required for the task!

Devotional and Philosophical Writings, c. 1330. Prior to the condemnations, many scholars relied heavily on Aristotle.
Devotional and Philosophical Writings, c. 1330. Prior to the condemnations, many scholars relied heavily on Aristotle.

Nonetheless, if you put to good use that part of the profane wisdom which has been well excised, no harm can result, for it will naturally have become an instrument for good. But even so, it cannot in the strict sense be called a gift of God 37 and a spiritual thing, for it pertains to the order of nature and is not sent from on high. This is why Paul, who is so wise in divine matters, calls it “carnal”; 38 for, says he, “Consider that among us who have been chosen, there are not many wise according to the flesh”. 39 For who could make better use of this wisdom than those whom Paul calls “wise from outside”? 40 But having this wisdom in mind, he calls them “wise according to the flesh”, and rightly too.



Just as in legal marriage, the pleasure derived from procreation cannot exactly be called a gift of God, because it is carnal and constitutes a gift of nature and not of grace (even though that nature has been created by God); even so the knowledge that comes from profane education, even if well used, is a gift of nature, and not of grace—a gift which God accords to all without exception through nature, and which one can develop by exercise. This last point—that no one acquires it without effort and exercise—is an evident proof that it is a question of a natural, not a spiritual, gift.

It is our sacred wisdom that should legitimately be called a gift of God and not a natural gift, since even simple fishermen who receive it from on high become, as Gregory the Theologian says, 41 sons of Thunder, whose word has encompassed the very bounds of the universe. By this grace, even publicans are made merchants of souls; and even the burning zeal of persecutors is transformed, making them Pauls instead of Sauls, 42 turning away from the earth to attain “the third heaven” and “hear ineffable things”. 43 By this true wisdom we too can become conformed to the image of God and continue to be such after death.

As to natural wisdom, it is said that even Adam possessed it in abundance, more so than all his descendents, although he was the first who failed to safeguard conformity to the image. Profane philosophy existed as an aid to this natural wisdom before the advent of Him who came to recall the soul to its ancient beauty: Why then were we not renewed by this philosophy before Christ’s coming? Why did we need, not someone to teach us philosophy—an art which passes away with this age, so that it is said to be “of this age”44 —but One “who takes away the sin of the world”, 45 and who grants us a true and eternal wisdom—even though this appears as “foolishness” 46 to the ephemeral and corrupt wise men of this world, whereas in reality its absence makes truly foolish those not spiritually attached to it? Do you not clearly see that it is not the study of profane sciences which brings salvation, which purifies the cognitive faculty of the soul, and conforms it to the divine Archetype?

Homer, Thucydides, Aristotle, Plato and Plutarch
Homer, Thucydides, Aristotle, Plato and Plutarch

This, then, is my conclusion: If a man who seeks to be purified by fulfilling the prescriptions of the Law gains no benefit from Christ—even though the Law had been manifestly promulgated by God—then neither will the acquisition of the profane sciences avail. For how much more will Christ be of no benefit to one who turns to the discredited alien philosophy to gain purification for his soul? It is Paul, the mouthpiece of Christ, who tells us this and gives us his testimony.