Stanley Samuel Harakas|
The Word, the Book, the Library
From "Photian Studies", edited by George Papademetriou, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, Massachusetts, 1989.
The Book: A Gathering place of knowledge
The book is a gathering place of knowledge and learning. For Photios, there were two kinds of books — there was the holy Book and there was the book of natural knowledge. He respected them both.
His regard for the place of Holy Scripture is seen in his "Homily on the Beginning of Lent." It is characterized by a favorite theme, the grace of salvation, and our failure to live up to its call in respect to our actual living. God saves and redeems, yet, as he says, "we make it useless through our wickednesses." I quote from the "Homily on the Beginning of Lent."
We have received the gift of baptism and have made it useless through our wickednesses. We have been illuminated with a heavenly and divine light, and we have darkened it with the murk of our deeds. We have been sealed with a precious and terrible seal (which was unapproachable to enemies and irresistible to foes), but we have torn the seal to pieces, we have broken it up, we have prepared the way against us to savage and wicked robbers — impassioned thoughts. What then do we hope for yet? Do we look to a second baptism? Do we expect a second re-birth? Do we perchance await Christ coming down from heaven again, being crucified, made dead and buried, yea and baptized beforehand that he may renew our baptism again (4)?
Photios' answer to his rhetorical questions is "No!", for we have in hand the holy Book which is the means to overcome our sinful failings. He enumerates some of them with their correction from the words of the holy Book. He speaks of the judgment upon our sins, and quotes Scripture; he speaks of repentance, and quotes healing words from Scripture; he speaks of fornication and corporeal passions and presents Scripture as a defense against them; he speaks of greed and avarice, and counters with scriptural injunctions; he focuses on unrighteousness and provides the therapy with biblical teachings concerning virtue, justice, and righteousness; he castigates gluttony and drunkenness and arms the Christian with weapons from the words of the holy Book. In short, in the face of the chronic machinations of the forces of evil, Photios presents the Word of God as a strong defense and a victory-giving armor.
For Photios, the Scriptures are the chief tool in the struggle against evil. Thus, he says:
You have again swords and shields forged by God, afforded to you from divine Scripture, wherewith arming yourself and struggling against the enemy, you will show him vanquished, and filled with every shame and dishonor ... If we make them our study, [they] have the power to shatter and rout the battleline of [the Devil's] vain designs; the floodgates of heaven opening up, and inundating the whole earth (5).
He would countenance no manipulation of the holy Book. Once a monk by the name of Theodoros asked him to explain how the Bible could speak of Christ sweating great drops of blood during his agony and suggested that, because of its implausibility, the passage should be removed from the Bible. Photios' response is first to interpret the reference to drops of blood in the passage as a literary metaphor. His concluding counsel and advice, however, makes most clear his respect for the word contained in the holy Book:
Refrain, therefore, from thinking any longer that it is plausible that this passage should be excised from the Gospel (even if some of the Syrians, as you said, think that it should). But now that you have recognized well that nothing is contained therein that is feeble but rather, in fact, quite consistent, place it in the same category as the other divine scriptural statements and read it with an unwavering mind (6).
Yet, for Photios, there is not only the holy Book; there is also the book of natural knowledge, for which Photios had a profound respect and attachment. Unlike Ignatios and his followers, who had no use for the knowledge of the world contained in these volumes of natural knowledge, Photios not only respected them; he knew them intimately; he studied them; he taught from them; he loved them. Listen to one description of his education and teaching career. Despina Stratoudakis White provides us with the description:
From an early age, Photios dedicated himself to scholarship. Until recently, the prevailing opinion was that Photios was self-taught because he made no mention of his teachers. Today, however, as we learn more about Byzantine education, especially from the lives of the saints, we can follow Photios' education in greater detail. It has now been established that Byzantium had a basic system of education comprised of grammar, rhetoric, logic, the trivium; and arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, the quadrivium. The student who desired higher education had, in all probability, to go to Constantinople. There one would go either to the school for higher education of the clergy, the Patriarchal Academy, or to the university, which was subsidized by the government. …
In a letter to Protospatharios Michael, Photios himself defined what education meant to him. He advised his friend "to educate the children in such a way that it would be a source of pleasure to them while young and an enduring companion in their later years." In these words, according to Professor Tatakis, it is not Photios the patriarch or the theologian who is speaking. But Photios the lover of knowledge. He is in the tradition of Aulus Gellius, of Cicero, of Isocrates, an admirer of antiquity, a humanist. As is evident from his life and from the information we have, Photios knew always, whether as a private citizen, as an important official in the imperial government, as patriarch during the peaceful years of his life, and later during the years of exile and hardship, how to offer his knowledge to everyone who came in contact with him. Krumbacher calls him "the great teacher of his nation." In his enthusiasm as a teacher, Photios resembles one of the great educators of early Christian times, Saint Basil of Cappadocia (7).
As a scholar and student of the book of natural knowledge, he was committed to Aristotle, but he both knew and criticized Plato on his own terms.
The holy Book and the book of natural knowledge are equally related here at Hellenic College and Holy Cross. We seek to bring and hold them together. Just as Photios acknowledged the value of both of these books, so in this institution we have sought to respect, read, teach, and appreciate them as well. But there is a question. How is this to be done? The response for him and for us is symbolized by the library.
4. Mango, p. 43.
5. Mango, pp. 48-49.
6. White, Letter 49, pp. 183-84.
7. White, pp. 16-17.