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.

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.