Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Science and Orthodox Christianity: An Overview (1 of 2)

By Efthymios Nicolaidis, Eudoxie Delli, Nikolaos Livanos, 
Kostas Tampakis, and George Vlahakis


This essay offers an overview of the history of the relations between science and Eastern Christianity based on Greek-language sources. The civilizations concerned are the Byzantine Empire, the Christian Orthodox communities of the Ottoman Empire, and modern Greece, as a case study of a national state. Beginning with the Greek Church Fathers, the essay investigates the ideas of theologians and scholars on nature. Neoplatonism, the theological debates of Iconoclasm and Hesychasm, the proposed union of the Eastern and Western Churches, and the complex relations with the Hellenic past all had notable impacts on the conception of science held by the Byzantine Orthodox. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the Christian Orthodox world did not actively participate in the making of the new science that was developing in modern Europe. It had to deal with the assimilation of scientific ideas produced by Western Christianity, and its main concern was the “legitimacy” of knowledge that did not originate directly from its own spiritual tradition. Finally, with regard to the Greek state, beyond the specific points of contact between the sciences and Orthodox Christianity—pertaining, for example, to materialism, evolution, and the calendar—the essay presents the constant background engagement with religion visible in most public pronouncements of scientists and intellectuals.

Because Eastern Christianity scarcely participated in the making of the new European science, researchers have not, until recently, focused on the relations between Orthodoxy and science. Seminal works in the study of the relationship between science and religion, the books of Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper, developed the “conflict thesis” mainly for the Catholic Church; the debates and issues considered in these works did not concern Eastern Christianity. In contrast to his view about the Catholic Church, Draper believed that Eastern Orthodoxy never came into conflict with the new science and that it respected rational explanations of nature:

As to the latter [the Orthodox Church], it has never, since the restoration of science, arrayed itself in opposition to the advancement of knowledge. On the contrary, it has always met it with welcome. It has observed a reverential attitude to truth, from whatever quarter it might come. Recognizing the apparent discrepancies between its interpretations of revealed truth and the discoveries of science, it has always expected that satisfactory explanations and reconciliations would ensue, and in this it has not been disappointed. It would have been well for modern civilization if the Roman Church had done the same.1

Even though Draper mentions the attitude of the Orthodox Church, his schematic point of view obscures rather than helps decode the complexities of the Orthodox world’s attitude toward science.

More than 130 years after Draper’s book, the main historical overviews on science and religion continue to neglect Orthodoxy. Influential books published after 2000 by renowned experts such as David Lindberg, Ronald Numbers, Gary Ferngren, Peter Harrison, Thomas Dixon, Geoffrey Cantor, Stephen Pumfrey, and John Hedley Brooke devote little or no attention to Orthodox Christianity, condemning it to a tacit isolation.2 Building on recent historiography and the results of a research project on science–Orthodoxy relations, this essay aims to offer an overview of Eastern Christianity and science based on Greek-language sources.3 It thus considers Byzantium, the Orthodox communities of the Ottoman Empire (whose main scientific language was Greek until the nineteenth century), and the (small) Greek independent state created in 1830.

Officially, the Orthodox Church became distinct from the Roman Catholic Church after the schism of 1054. This rupture, the outcome of a progressive distancing of the theological traditions and political ideologies of Western and Eastern Christendom, deepened with the Norman invasions of Byzantine possessions in Italy (1040–1185) and the aspirations to supremacy of a reformed papacy in the eleventh century, before reaching its peak with the tragic sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204.4 Much earlier, however, the two languages used by the Fathers of the Church—Greek and Latin—had determined two different traditions and religious sensibilities: those of the Greek and Latin Fathers. Formulated in a space deeply penetrated by Hellenic culture, Eastern Christianity emanates from the tradition of the Greek Fathers; and although these figures are recognized by and have influenced the Catholic Church, their teaching has constituted a distinctive approach to the divine and its relation to the natural, created world. Notwithstanding its complexity and contradictions in its attitude toward secular knowledge and human cognition, this approach subsumed science in a larger spiritual and philosophical enterprise and became an authoritative model for Orthodoxy during the following centuries; its influence is felt among Orthodox theologians and thinkers to this day.

Political entities and state borders in Orthodoxy–science studies are variable. At the beginning the focus is the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire, especially after the recognition of Christianity as the official and exclusive religion of the empire by Theodosius I in 380. Later, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Serbia, and the lands conquered by the Crusaders and Venetians from Byzantium will enter the picture. The Byzantine Empire would be consumed by the Ottomans after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the Orthodox world would take its final shape with the independent Orthodox national states emanating from the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire throughout the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. Today, Orthodox geography stretches from southeastern Europe to Ukraine, Russia, and the Caucasus. The main cultures of the Orthodox world are those of the Greeks and the Slavs, the latter not initiated in classical Greek education. Even though the interaction of science and religion has been adapted to the different and changing aspects of the surrounding historical and political context of each area, in all these cultures a seminal role was played by Greek Byzantine culture, which has left indelible traces on mentalities pertaining to the relations of Orthodox Christian believers to the divine.

During the long Byzantine period, Orthodox scholars did not develop groundbreaking new scientific ideas; in fact, “innovation” had a rather pejorative connotation in late antiquity and the Middle Ages. They mainly taught and commented on the Greek science received from the past, adopting some elements of Islamic science as well. Byzantium contributed only indirectly to the European Renaissance, transmitting precious texts and knowledge through the mediation of eminent Byzantine scholars who moved to the West; it thereby lost its “chance to participate in the shaping of the modern spirit.”5 After the sixteenth century, the Christian Orthodox world did not actively participate in the making of the new science that was growing up in Europe. Therefore, in contrast to Western Christianity, the Orthodox Church was not confronted with revolutionary new scientific ideas developed by its believers. Instead, it had to deal with the reception and adoption of ideas produced by the often-hated “Latins,” promoting a distinct anthropological model that advanced the autonomy of rationality in the perception of the natural world while seeking its active manipulation.6 Thus the study of the relations between Eastern Christianity and science has to respond to different questions than those that emerge in the study of the relations of Western Christianity and science. The main concern of Eastern Christianity was the “legitimacy” of knowledge that did not originate from its own spiritual tradition; depending on the period, this knowledge was mainly ancient Greek (pagan), Islamic, or Western European.

Gradually, from the first decades of the twentieth century, and especially since World War II, new elements originating from very divergent scientific and theoretical fields have converged to provide a better understanding of Orthodoxy, while also illuminating its ambivalent relations to science and secular knowledge. First, a revitalization of the Greek patristic tradition came from Russian theologians and thinkers of the Orthodox Diaspora in the West, providing what Father Georges Florovsky called a “neopatristic synthesis” that also targeted the dialogue of Eastern and Western philosophical and religious traditions.7 Second, over the last decades the study of Byzantine philosophical sources and writers has been enriched by new editions of texts and new approaches concerning the history of science and the occult sciences, as well as the philosophy of nature and mathematics.8

From the ninth to the fifteenth century Byzantine philosophy remained “the science of cognition of fundamental truths on humanity and the world.”9 Moreover, for medieval scholars the sciences were understood as a part of philosophy, on which they theoretically depend. What was called “science” came from the external, in contrast to “philosophy” from within—namely, theology. Byzantine philosophy developed its own methods and promoted the intellectual model of the polymath, the erudite master interested in the sciences of the quadrivium (astronomy, arithmetic, geometry, and music) and in scientific matters and topics that concerned the natural world and human physiology. With respect to the core elements of Orthodox dogma and the patristic legacy, and drawing on a rediscovery and assimilation of ancient philosophical and scientific texts, Byzantine scholars judged discursive reasoning and scientific knowledge of the universe to be a necessary intermediary stage for human accomplishment, a step toward the achievement of likeness to God.

Finally, particularly crucial for the better understanding of Byzantine thought was the input of new approaches coming from Byzantine studies. Deeper insight into Byzantine institutions (mainly educational and religious institutions) and Orthodox spirituality, as well as the material culture associated with writing and reading, introduced new perspectives concerning the preservation, reproduction, and dissemination of different types of knowledge within Byzantine society. Moreover, modern research has shed light on the receptiveness of Byzantine scholars to scientific and philosophical knowledge that sprang from other medieval cultures. Early Byzantine society, until at least the ninth century, was influenced by an Eastern Mediterranean culture that incorporated, among others, Jewish, Babylonian, and Gnostic elements that had survived mostly in northern Africa and in the—later extinct—ex Iudaeis Christianity of Alexandria. George Syncellus (eighth century) offered a new calculation of the years since the Creation, much different from the Byzantine standard, that was based on calculations by Julius Africanus.10 Already from the ninth century Byzantine scholars were influenced by Arab science, and after the fourteenth century they translated and adapted texts from the Persian astronomical schools of Tabriz and Maragha, from the medical and astronomical schools of the Karait Jews of Languedoc, and from the Latin medical and astronomical tradition based on Arab sources. Research has also focused on the direct contacts between Byzantine and Western scholars during the fifteenth century, noting the mobility of Byzantine scholars that took place in consequence of the discussions pertaining to the proposed union of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.11

Taking into account the new data on the influence and reshaping of the multiple discourses in Byzantine thought (mainly theological and philosophical) concerning the interaction of faith and secular knowledge during its long history, modern research has enabled corrective reinterpretations, critical reassessments, and more realistic evaluations of the Byzantine worldview and its position in the history of thought in the Middle Ages. Forming the link between late antiquity and the new worldview of Christian revelation, Byzantium is no longer considered only the guardian and transmitter of the textual heritage of Hellenism; it is seen as an active filter, a denominator of dynamic feedback between East and West, as well.

Similar approaches have been seen recently in research on the Orthodox communities of the Ottoman Empire. These approaches have focused on new cultural aspects, such as the teaching and diffusion of science, educational institutions, cultural exchanges, the role of these communities in setting the policy of the empire toward Europe, and their influence on Russian religious and secular education (the Russian Church became independent from the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the sixteenth century). New data on the deeds of Orthodox scholars in Europe, on their interaction with the intellectual, ecclesiastical, and political milieus and their educational and political agendas, puts an end to oversimplified assumptions about a passive reception of Western science by the Orthodox East, offering a far more complex picture of the knowledge transfer between West and East.

These approaches have reaffirmed the importance of the Orthodox Church in the shaping of the scientific and technological culture of Eastern Christianity; at the same time, they have revealed the richness and importance of the exchanges between East and West.

The Byzantine Period

The Byzantine state and Byzantine society were based on Orthodox Christianity as defined by the seven great ecumenical councils of the Orthodox Church.12 Orthodox Christianity constituted the unifying element among the peoples of the empire and gave legitimacy to the emperor. Furthermore, theology and theological debates in Byzantium were not the privilege of the clergy alone, as in the Latin West, and theology never took the form of a discipline relying on a systematic method for the dialectical elaboration of Christian truths; instead, it remained closely linked to spirituality. Orthodoxy retained a vivid presence in all social activities and, of course, in education. In contrast to the West, Byzantium did not have independent universities. Higher education was highly variable and was usually built around renowned scholars who organized private lecture series.

Unlike in the West, Greek philosophy was taught in Byzantium almost continuously, and at certain periods the Byzantines turned to it in search of an ancestral wisdom that would offer answers to various social problems. Such periods have been characterized by Byzantinists as times of effervescence and receptivity, beginning with the so-called First Byzantine Humanism of the ninth century.13 The curriculum of studies, rather unstable until the eleventh century, started with Aristotle’s logic and ethics, advanced to physics and the quadrivium, and culminated in (Neo)platonic metaphysics. The main purpose of institutional higher education was to train state functionaries for imperial and ecclesiastical offices.14 In this framework, philosophical and scientific studies in Byzantium were linked more to the individual and largely theoretical interests of eminent scholars and the groups formed around them, rather than to official—and varying—educational institutions.

During the Byzantine era, therefore, the history of the relations between Orthodoxy and science is the history of the relations between Byzantine society and science. And Byzantine society was divided between what was seen as the secular mentality of scholars, high ecclesiastics, and emperors and the religious mysticism of the monks, the lower clergy, and the people. “The struggle that so often in Byzantium brought the party of monks into opposition with certain high ecclesiastics sponsored by the emperors was largely based on the aversion among wide sectors of monasticism to the appearance of secular humanism. This was an actual drama within Byzantine civilization,” wrote the 1950s Byzantinist John Meyendorff.15 This permanent struggle between the partisans of secular humanism and a monastic spirituality that claimed the exclusivity of truth characterized the attitude of Byzantine Orthodoxy toward secular knowledge—and especially toward what we now call science.

Patristic Tradition: Natural Theology and Sciences

A key for understanding the relation of Byzantine scholars and theologians to natural philosophy and cosmology is the explanation of the book of Genesis (called Hexaemeron) by Basil of Caesarea.16 Written in 378 and based on previous similar texts—those of the Jew Philo of Alexandria (first century) and the Christians Clement of Alexandria (second century) and Origen (third century), it is, historically, the text most read by the Orthodox about the Creation. Its long-lasting impact was due to the importance of Basil in Orthodoxy and to its simple and didactic character. Basil, in a fashion similar to other Greek Fathers—such as Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Maximus the Confessor—achieved by critical syncretism a synthesis of Greek natural philosophy and medieval faith in the process of conceptualizing nature and the created cosmos. In the transition from late antiquity to the Middle Ages (the fourth through the seventh centuries), patristic thought had developed under the shadow of its double belonging—to Hellenism and to Christianity. Oscillation between the features of these two influences would be paramount for Byzantine intellectual and spiritual identity across the centuries, giving birth to the most illustrious fruits of Byzantine thought and provoking passionate polemics and dramatic controversies.

Basil and the Fathers after him who shaped the new philosophical and religious paradigm advanced—though not without regressions and ambivalences—to a critical “harmonization” of Hellenism with Christianity, a reconciliation already begun by early Christian thinkers and apologists, mainly from the second half of the second century. Their contribution marked the turning point in the quest for a possible symmetry between Hellenism and Christianity, and this was achieved by a selective use of the Greek philosophical tradition and sciences (mainly Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics). Their hermeneutical elaborations established new doctrinal concepts linking contemporary scientific knowledge of the universe with the Christian worldview and the Economy of Salvation. In formulating the core of Eastern Christianity’s dogma, the Greek Church Fathers became a medium and a model for the knowledge of ancient philosophical texts and the Byzantines’ scientific views concerning the natural world. The Greek Fathers did not reject natural sciences and the relevant pagan literature, even though they conceived it to be inferior to the Holy Scriptures. On the contrary, they held that the selective use of Greek culture and sciences could serve faith as a preparatory speculative exercise for attaining knowledge of God, with the ultimate goal of achieving likeness to him. On the other hand, however, they emphasized the limited capacity of the human senses and discursive reason to achieve a total apprehension of physical realities without faith, in the sense that there is always a surplus of meaning inherent in creation that remains inaccessible to reasoning alone. Although the Greek Fathers and theologians were well educated, they did not consider Hellenic wisdom from the perspective of research. They approached nature in a contemplative way, through faith in relation to God the Creator and in the light of the Incarnation, seeking the expansion of human cognition in order to recognize the spiritual dimension immanent in the entire Creation. The legacy of the Greek Fathers persisted across the centuries, especially in periods of crisis and destabilization, as a solid point of reference for Byzantine theologians and thinkers, the norm against which the validity of spiritual, theological, and philosophical interpretations could be measured.

The attitude of Byzantine theologians and thinkers toward Hellenism was by no means consistent and linear; it was manifold and variable. Basil of Caesarea, for example, mentioned ancient philosophical ideas without reference to specific philosophers. In his writings, “Hellene” and “Hellenism” had a negative connotation, as synonyms of “paganism.” Later, in the sixth century, John Philoponus, the first Christian director of the Museum of Alexandria, would refer to Plato as having been inspired by Moses in his narration of the creation of the world. “Hellenism” would have a decidedly positive connotation for Byzantine scholars many centuries later, mainly after the thirteenth century, when the second emperor of Nicaea, John Vatatzes, would claim that he and his ancestors were the heirs of the Hellenes.17

Basil used the philosophical logos to explain the holy texts, and at the same time he attacked the main medium of Greek philosophers—dialectical discussion—because it does not establish certain truth. He did not aim to construct truths from observation of the Creation; rather, in approaching the Book of Genesis, he hoped to offer a unique and faithful explanation by faithfully reflecting God’s word. His dogmatic approach to the exegesis of the Bible was contradicted by his brother Gregory of Nyssa, who considered his own analysis of Genesis an exercise of the spirit.18

Basil and Gregory, despite their different approaches to the uniqueness of the truth concerning nature, both drew on the Greek philosophical worldview to explain Genesis. During the same period, John Chrysostom, who explained Genesis in a literal fashion, believed in a flat earth surrounded by a sky in the form of a dome and claimed that the investigation of nature must not go too far.19 Basil, Gregory, and John were all declared Fathers of the Church by Byzantine theologians, and their texts not only became the basis for Orthodox dogma but also served as the common foundation for the Eastern and the Western Christian traditions. Never did the official Church, led by the patriarch of Constantinople—the primus inter pares of all bishops—stake out a clear position with regard to these contradictory approaches. Even the mythical depiction of the world put forth by Cosmas Indicopleustes (sixth century)—as a tabernacle, where the angels had the role of moving the celestial bodies and creating all natural phenomena—was never openly condemned.20 Byzantine Christianity managed to live with its contradictions; at various times and in the context of various theological debates, it leaned toward one or another perception of nature.

Thus, in a long process that lasted more than ten centuries, in a manner neither linear nor consistently creative, Byzantine thought gave birth to multiple approaches relating God and nature to science. These approaches highlight the dynamism of Byzantine culture—but also its resistances and hesitations to integrate the “subversive” activity of human knowledge and the love of secular wisdom within religious faith as determining factors in intellectual and spiritual development.

The Impact of Neoplatonism on Byzantine Scientific Thought

Apart from the influence of the Church Fathers, ancient Greek philosophy also played a direct role in shaping the Byzantine approach to natural philosophy. Byzantine scholars incorporated (indeed, more or less transformed) the philosophical heritage of Neoplatonism in their vision of science and natural philosophy. Neoplatonism did not emerge intact from its encounter with Christianity. Neoplatonists (third–sixth century) and Byzantine thinkers shared the idea that the understanding of nature included metaphysical principles. Both conceived the natural world as inseparable from its metaphysical and formative principles. Consequently, natural sciences were related to areas of knowledge that today are not thought of as scientific. The relation between nature and divine causes was associated with the Christian conception of Divine Providence. In this perspective, physiology (discourse on nature) or natural contemplation could lead, in the view of Byzantine philosophers and theologians, to knowledge of God. According to the Byzantine philosopher Michael Psellos (1018–1078), nature is the hand or the instrument of God, an intermediary between created beings and God the Creator.21

Following this conception, the study of nature did not have only cognitive or practical goals for the Byzantines. It could also be linked to existential purposes and eschatological challenges or to spiritual experiences promising an initiation into the hidden dimension of reality. With the mediation of the senses and reason, man could investigate only the immediate or secondary causes of natural phenomena.22 The first cause of everything is God. Nothing can exist without divine will, and something always remains beyond the limits of human discursive reasoning.23 In Byzantine discourses on nature, rational investigations of natural phenomena coexist with doxological/mystical approaches to the Creation as related to its Creator.24 The natural and the supernatural coexisted and interacted on different levels, from the most sophisticated explanations of natural phenomena to popular superstitions.

There was never an actual dichotomy in Byzantium between Aristotelians and Platonists. Plato and Aristotle reached Byzantine thought mainly through Neoplatonism, which later came to be the most synthetic form of Hellenic philosophy and the closest to Christian thought. During almost the same period as the efflorescence of patristic thought, the Neoplatonic schools of Alexandria and Athens (fifth and sixth centuries) became the guardians of Greek wisdom in a changing world.25 Harmonizing Platonic metaphysics and mathematics with Aristotelian logic and physics, as well as Orphic, Pythagorean, and Chaldean theology with Platonic theology, the Neoplatonists incorporated a panorama of previous Greek philosophers by using and reformulating their doctrines. In considering the contemplation of the Ineffable as the ultimate purpose of reasoning, they associated philosophy with the spirituality that had inspired the intellectual and spiritual formulation of two monotheisms, Christianity and Islam. Moreover, Neoplatonists presented philosophy as a kind of exegesis of textual authorities, a notion largely accepted within Byzantine philosophy, which, especially after Michael Psellos, took a rather exegetical character. Sciences were attached to bookish activity, focusing—with the exception of practical astronomy and alchemy—on theoretical speculations and problems rather than on observation and experimentation.

Even though Byzantine scholars did not endorse Neoplatonic doctrines as a whole, since they were in certain cases—for example, the fundamental Neoplatonic concept of emanationism with regard to the origins of the world—incompatible with Christian faith, they did adopt, albeit critically, the exegetical tools, the intellectual structures, and the demonstrative methods of the Neoplatonists in their understanding of nature. They also followed their classification of the sciences according to a hierarchy of values and adopted their division of the Aristotelian writings, accepting them as preliminary to platonic philosophy and incorporating the introductory role of the mathematical sciences into theology. Mathematics was understood as the scientific knowledge leading to true wisdom and reverence par excellence. Unlike in Western Christianity, Byzantine sciences, from the eleventh and especially from the thirteenth century, had a rather “Platonic” orientation, in the sense that they focused more on geometry and astronomy than on physics. This explains why the high-ranking official and scholar Theodore Metochites (1270–1332) saw the mathematician as the ideal of universal wisdom and the incarnation of true human happiness and why his disciple, the astronomer and scholar Nicephoros Gregoras (ca. 1295–ca. 1360), considered mathematical sciences, linked to the “wonderful” Plato, to be the expression of Byzantine “orthodoxy” and a path to the knowledge of God, in contrast to the Latin image of Aristotle as “natural” and “logical” during the same period.26

Among the Neoplatonists, three thinkers had a crucial impact on the way the Byzantines perceived natural philosophy and mathematics as intersecting with religion and theology: Synesius (370–413), the disciple of Hypatia of Alexandria and later bishop of Cyrene; the very controversial Proclus of Athens (412–485); and, finally, John Philoponus of Alexandria (490–570). Synesius embodied the ideal of the “reconciliation” of Greek wisdom with Christianity. A man of books and science, an active public figure, a harsh critic of the anti-intellectual faith of the monks, Synesius became the inspiration for humanist Byzantine scholars such as Psellos, Metochites, Nicephorus Gregoras, and the physician John-Zacharias Actuarius (ca. 1273–after 1328), a role model for their efforts to connect science and rationality with speculative devoutness and faith.27 On the other side, Proclus was for the Byzantines the most representative figure of pagan knowledge. Discredited among theological circles and rejected by the official Church, Proclus was, however, admired by scholars like Psellos, who selectively drew from his work the necessary intellectual tools and the epistemology for his own scientific inquiries. After the thirteenth century the Byzantines, in a reflective response to Latin conquest, emphasized their Greek ancestry, a social reaction that sparked what came to be known as the Second Byzantine Humanism. Within this context, which gave a new impetus to the study of sciences and philosophy, Proclus’s astronomical work (Exposition of Astronomical Hypotheses) was included in the official teaching of the quadrivium, as the increased number of surviving manuscripts related to the period suggests.28 Humanist scholars as George Pachymeres (1242–ca. 1315) and Cardinal Bessarion (1403–1472) were attentive readers of Proclus’s works, and the latter possessed several relevant manuscripts. John Philoponus (also called “the Grammarian”), though scarcely known in the medieval West, was the leading figure of Byzantine natural philosophy.29 Moving toward more empirical approaches to natural sciences, releasing natural philosophy from the strict frames of the Aristotelian science of his day, he elaborated the synthesis between biblical cosmology and pagan scientific knowledge followed by most Byzantine scholars.
Ecclesiastical Debates and Byzantine Science

Orthodox Christianity had always been strongly opposed to Roman Catholicism after the schism (mainly on the Filioque), but it was also tormented by its own vivid ecclesiastical debates, some of which had an enduring impact. Perhaps the most intense division in Byzantine society was the Iconoclast controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries. Influenced by Eastern doctrines rejecting the depiction of the divine, the Iconoclasts forbade the making and worshiping of icons on grounds that this amounted to a “Christian idolatry,” the opposition to which revived the clash over the pagan heritage of Hellenic philosophy. The teaching of science was influenced by this attitude, as is shown by the lack of scientific texts produced during the period of the First Iconoclasm (730–787).

Nevertheless, Byzantine theologians were too deeply influenced by ancient Greek philosophical methodology to cast it out of theological debates. Mathematics soon regained its status as the scientific knowledge leading to true wisdom and reverence, and Iconoclast partisans and leaders such as Leo the Mathematician (ca. 790–after 869) and John the Grammarian (d. before 867) stood for the revival of ancient Greek philosophy and science. John, the Iconoclast patriarch of Constantinople from 837 to 843, held that the understanding of nature includes metaphysical principles and was an adept of alchemy and occult sciences; he was condemned after his death as a magician by the Iconophile party. Leo promoted geometry as a leading science in the renewed imperial university. In fact, the debate on the icons seems not to have influenced the relations between science and faith in the long run. Its impact was mainly institutional, leading to the closing of some schools and neglect of the teaching of science. The focus was on the continuity of the transmission of scientific knowledge rather than the transformation of the attitude toward this knowledge, as conceived by Orthodox Christianity.

The other great Byzantine ecclesiastical debate was about Hesychasm, which, in contrast to Iconoclasm, exercised a deep influence over the Orthodox attitude toward science.30 During the fourteenth century, the spiritual movement called Hesychasm, from the Greek word “hesychia”—that is, “silence”—had found a safe haven far from daily life, on Mount Athos, the monastic peninsula in eastern Macedonia that has served as the home of Orthodox monasticism, in terms of both theology and religious practice, from the tenth century to the present. Hesychasm as a notion was not new to Eastern Christianity; it is deeply rooted in the very essence of monasticism, and, as a term, it can be found as far back as the fourth-century Christian monk and ascetic Evagrius, though it was expressed mainly through the writings of Maximus the Confessor (sixth–seventh century). Hesychasm was a method of spiritual exercise that aimed at achieving union with God through inner quietude and uninterrupted “prayer of the heart” but also required the participation of the body. Through prayer requiring the participation of both spirit and body, the monk—and indeed any devout Christian—could encounter the Uncreated Light witnessed by the disciples of Jesus on Mount Tabor. As a new mystical experience, it reconnected the ascetic ideal with the experiences of the Desert Fathers and hermits of the first Christian centuries, as well as the later Byzantine mystical theologians. The main exponent of the revival of this movement in the fourteenth century was Gregory Palamas, archbishop of Thessalonica (1296–1359), who was a prominent monk and abbot of Esphigmenou Monastery on Mount Athos. Palamas, who as a young man studied ancient philosophy and especially Aristotle, managed to turn a small grassroots monastic movement into a major theological current through his texts, which were produced in the framework of his controversy with an Aristotelian-minded Orthodox scholar from South Italy named Barlaam of Calabria (1290–1348).31

The influence of Palamas and the Hesychasts on Byzantine society and the state was enormous. They arose as an expression of opposition to lay moral decline and to the secularization of the high-level Orthodox leaders and gave the Church enormous power over the declining imperial government, leaving behind a significant number of disciples who would take over the Orthodox Church in the years to come. The influence of Hesychasm reached far beyond the Greek-speaking world into Serbia, Bulgaria, and Russia, creating—or, more accurately, completing—an Orthodox ecumenism that alienated the East even more from the West. Although the Hesychasts never implicitly rejected scientific knowledge, their expectation of direct union with God through inner quietude and prayer “liberated” them from the need for the intermediation of science between man and God’s created world. They perceived the body not as a burden to the soul but, rather, as the soul’s home, which was to be respected and cared for. Therefore, despite their negative attitude toward secular knowledge, they had a favorable stance toward medicine, which cared for the body, and their ideas had a great impact on religious art, the corporeal depictions of which emphasized the spirituality of the human body.

During the period when Palamas’s ideas disseminated, however, the ideological counterpart of Hesychasm, humanism, was developing in parallel. Barlaam, Palamas’s main opponent, was also a monk on Mount Athos, but he leaned more on the humanist values of Byzantine society that had emerged from the second Neoplatonist movement. He opposed the mysticism of the Hesychasts and their practices, calling them “belly-button watchers” (omphaloscopoi) because of their commitment to prayer, and devoted himself to writing treatises on astronomy and logic. His approach to theology, as he stated numerous times in his letters to Palamas, was evidential: he believed that the understanding of God should follow the method of scientists, whose approach to their topics is based on evidence and facts. It is mainly through Barlaam that Byzantium briefly experienced the influence of Thomas Aquinas.

The last Byzantine ecclesiastical debate that affected science was that concerning the union of the two Churches during the fifteenth century. Byzantine emperors, under the pressure of Ottoman conquest, turned to the West for military support—the price of which, however, was union with the Roman Church. Once more Byzantine society found itself profoundly divided between political authority, which supported the union, and the monks and inhabitants of Constantinople, who opposed it.

During the interminable discussions and debates with the Roman Church, the most important Byzantine scholars of the period visited Italy and came into contact with their Italian colleagues and the rising culture of the West. Pletho Gemistus (ca. 1355–1452), Bessarion (1403–1472), Mark Eugenikos (ca. 1391–1445), and Gennadius Scholarios (ca. 1400–ca. 1473) were part of the Byzantine delegation that participated at the councils deliberating about union in Ferrara and Florence in 1438–1439. These four scholars represent different trends in the debate and different attitudes toward science as well. Mark Eugenikos, a supporter of Palamas, was the leader of the antiunionist party; Pletho, a fervent Platonist, also turned his back on the union, but for reasons of his own; Scholarios, an Aristotelian antiunionist but not a partisan of Hesychasm, was to become the first patriarch of Constantinople under Ottoman rule; and Bessarion developed into the leader of the unionist party and was later named a cardinal of the Roman Church and a candidate for the papacy.32

The influence of the union debate on science seems to have been extremely complex. The unionist Bessarion was a humanist and one of the protagonists of the Italian Renaissance. He devised a plan for the revival of ancient Greek science in Europe by promoting the teaching of Greek and the translation of important texts, such as Ptolemy’s Almagest, into Latin and establishing a library for Greek philosophy in Venice. Bessarion fully adopted the Neoplatonic ideal of the intermediary role of the mathematical sciences between believers and God, together with the notion that Byzantine Greeks are the heirs of the ancients. As for Pletho, although he blamed Orthodox Christianity for the decay of the Eastern Roman Empire, he rejected the union—mostly because his essentially neopagan ideal of returning to ancient Hellenic philosophical roots, with a touch of Zoroastrianism, would be unthinkable for the Westerners, who had long distanced themselves from the ancient tradition. His larger plan was to reconcile Greeks and Latins through Platonism as a common way of thinking and acting, returning to a form of pre-Christian society where philosophers would rule. His writings on astronomy are evidence of this ideal: he computed a new non-Christian calendar that was almost the only original work in a Greek-speaking world dominated by compilations of Ptolemy and translations of Persian astronomical texts.33 The antiunionist Mark Eugenikos, while opposed to Roman Catholic dogma, especially on the Filioque and the Purgatorium, translated Latin astronomical texts into Greek. Although a Palamist, he accepted the Neoplatonic ideal of the revival of mathematical sciences. Finally, Scholarios, who took the name Gennadios when he was named patriarch of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 as a reward for his fierce antiunionist stance, was an Aristotelian influenced by the teachings of Thomas Aquinas who wrote treatises against Pletho and reopened the Patriarchal School, which had closed after the Ottoman conquest. Despite the mixed curriculum, however, his intent was to educate the higher clergy on a more theological basis rather than to promote the universal teaching of science.34

Before the fall of Constantinople, antiunionist scholars did not oppose scientific teaching in general, and some were even involved in the Byzantine humanist movement. However, their antiscience stances would appear after the Ottoman conquest, when the anti-Latin feelings of those who remained in the city intensified. Most renowned scholars had already fled to Italy, and those who remained had to adapt to a new world dominated by the Islamic ideals of Ottoman rule. European science was developing fast in this period, and the current of scientific exchange had shifted direction; from that point on, ideas moved only from West to East. It was a new era for Orthodoxy, and the debate would henceforth mostly concern the reception of a knowledge seen by many in the Eastern Church as alien—and as a mirror of the Western world in the East.


1 Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 2 vols. (New York: Appleton, 1896); and John William Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (New York: Appleton, 1874), p. x.

2 David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, eds., When Science and Christianity Meet (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2003); Gary B. Ferngren, ed., The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland, 2000); Numbers, ed., Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2009); Peter Harrison, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010); Thomas Dixon, Geoffrey Cantor, and Stephen Pumfrey, eds., Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010); John Hedley Brooke and Numbers, eds., Science and Religion around the World (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011); and Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2014). A first overview of science–Orthodoxy relations was undertaken by Efthymios Nicolaidis, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2011).

3 On the NARSES project see the unnumbered footnote, above.

4 For an overview of the Great Schism see Steven Runciman, The Eastern Schism: A Study of the Papacy and the Eastern Churches during the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1955), esp. pp. 1–54; and Philip Sherrard, Church, Papacy, and Schism: A Theological Enquiry (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1978).

5 Hans Georg Beck, Das byzantinische Jahrtausend, 2nd ed. (Munich: Beck, 1994), p. 192. (Here and throughout the essay, translations into English are my own unless otherwise indicated.)

6 See Michel Blay, Dieu, la nature et l’homme: L’originalité de l’Occident (Paris: Colin, 2013).

7 See Andrew Louth, “The Greek Tradition,” in The Orthodox Church World, ed. Augustine Casiday (London: Routledge, 2012), pp. 3–14, esp. pp. 13–14. See also Matthew Baker, “Neopatristic Synthesis and Ecumenism: Towards the ‘Reintegration’ of Christian Tradition,” in Eastern Orthodox Encounters of Identity and Otherness: Values, Self-Reflection, Dialogue, ed. Andrii Krawchuk and Thomas Bremer (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), pp. 235–260.

8 For an overview of Byzantine sciences see Anne Tihon, “Science in the Byzantine Empire,” in The Cambridge History of Science, Vol. 2: Medieval Science, ed. David C. Lindberg and Michael H. Shank (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013), pp. 190–206. On the occult sciences see Paul Magdalino and Maria Mavroudi, The Occult Sciences in Byzantium (Geneva: La Pomme d’Or, 2006).

9 Linos G. Benakis, “Philosophy and Theology in Byzantium,” in Byzantine Philosophy II, ed. Benakis (Athens: Parousia, 2013), pp. 27–29.

10 William Adler, Time Immemorial: Archaic History and Its Sources in Christian Chronography: From Julius Africanus to George Syncellus (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1989).

11 See Brigitte Mondrain, “L’enseignement à Byzance sous les Paléologues,” in Lumières de la Sagesse: Écoles médiévales d’Orient et d’Occident, ed. Éric Vallet, Sandra Aube, and Thierry Kouamé (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne / Institut du Monde Arabe, 2013), pp. 257–263, esp. p. 263; and Maria Mavroudi, “Translations from Greek into Latin and Arabic during the Middle Ages: Searching for the Classical Tradition,” Speculum, 2015, 90:28–59. See also Nicolaidis, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy (cit. n. 2), Ch. 8, pp. 106–118.

12 See Ernst Benz, The Eastern Orthodox Church: Its Thought and Life (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2009), Ch. 4.4: “The Constitutional Principle of the Church,” pp. 70–73.

13 See Paul Lemerle, Le premier humanisme byzantin (Paris: Presses Univ. France, 1971).

14 See Katerina Ierodiakonou, “Introduction,” in Byzantine Philosophy and Its Ancient Sources, ed. Ierodiakonou (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 1–13, esp. pp. 4–5.

15 John Meyendorff, “Les débuts de la controverse hésychaste,” Byzantion, 1953, 23:87–120, on p. 88.

16 See Frank Egleston Robbins, Hexaemeral Literature: A Study of the Greek and Latin Commentaries on Genesis (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1912); and Nicolaidis, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy (cit. n. 2), esp. pp. 5–46, 87–88.

17 Joannis Philoponi de opificio mundi libri vii, ed. Walther Reichardt (Leipzig: Teubner, 1897), 4.15–7.3; and Anthony Kaldellis, Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformation of Greek Identity and the Reception of Classical Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007), p. 370 (claim by John Vatatzes).

18 Saint Basil, Homilies on the Hexaemeron, trans. Sister Agnes Clare Way (Washington, D.C.: Catholic Univ. America Press, 1963), Homily 1:2, p. 5 (for an online edition see Basil of Caesarea, Homilies on Hexaemeron, trans. Philip Schaff [Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1889], [accessed 28 Jan. 2016]); and Gregory of Nyssa, Explicatio apologetica ad Petrum fratrem in Hexaemeron, in Patrologiae Cursus Completus—Series Graeca, ed. J.-P. Migne (hereafter Patrologia Graeca), Vol. 44 (Paris, 1863), col. 68.

19 John Chrysostom, Ὑπόµνηµα εἰς τὴν Γένεσιν [Treatise on Genesis], in Homilies I–XXIII, ed. Spyridon Moustakas (Thessalonica: Patristic Editions Gregory Palamas, 1981), p. 85 (Homily 4, para. 3).

20 Wanda Wolska-Conus, Cosmas Indicopleustès, Topographie Chrétienne, Vols. 1–3 (Paris: Cerf, 1968). On the cosmology of Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, and Cosmas Indicopleustes see Nicolaidis, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy (cit. n. 2), Chs. 1 and 2. On the different cosmological conceptions see A.-L. Caudano, “Un univers sphérique ou voûté? Survivance de la cosmologie antiochienne à Byzance (XI et XII s.),” Byzantion, 2008, 78:66–86.

21 See Maximus the Confessor, Mystagogy, in Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 91, cols. 672b–c, 697d; and A. R. Littlewood, ed., Michaelis Pselli oratoria minora (Leipzig: Teubner, 1985), oration 24, pp. 58–61.

22 See, e.g., J. M. Duffy, ed., Michaelis Pselli philosophica minora (Leipzig: Teubner, 1992), pp. 30, 183–212.

23 The Stromata, in Clemens Alexandrinus, ed. L. Früchtel, O. Stählin, and U. Treu, Vol. 2, 3rd ed. (Berlin: Akademie, 1960), Bk. 2, Ch. 4.

24 See, e.g., Syméon le Nouveau Théologien: Traités théologiques et éthiques, ed. J. Darrouzès (Paris: Cerf, 1966), Oration 2.219–226; and Symeon Neos Theologos, in Hymnen, ed. Athanasios Kambylis (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1976), Hymn 21, lines 114–117.

25 Anne Tihon, “Enseigner les sciences à Alexandrie,” in Lumières de la Sagesse, ed. Vallet et al. (cit. n. 11), pp. 329–335.

26 Börje Byden, Theodore Metochites’ “Stoicheiosis astronomike” and the Study of Natural Philosophy and Mathematics in Early Palaiologan Byzantium (Göteborg: Acta Univ. Gothoburgensis, 2003), Ch. 5. More generally see Lambros Couloubaritsis, “Platonisme et Aristotélisme à Byzance dans l’empire de Nicée et sous les Paléologues,” in Philosophie et sciences à Byzance de 1204 à 1453: Les textes, les doctrines et leur transmission, ed. Michel Cacouros and M.-H. Congourdeau (Leuven: Peeters, 2006), pp. 147– 149, 151–152.

27 See, e.g., Karin Hult, ed., Theodore Metochites on Ancient Authors and Philosophy (“Semeioseis gnomikai” 1–26 and 71) (Göteborg: Acta Univ. Gothoburgensis, 2002), Ch. 18.

28 Michel Cacouros, “Deux épisodes inconnus dans la réception de Proclus à Byzance aux XIIIème–XIVème siècles: La philosophie de Proclus réintroduite à Byzance grâce a l’Hypotypôsis: Néophytos Prodromènos et Kôntostéphanos(?): Lecteurs de Proclus (avant Argyropoulos) dans le Xénôn du Kralj,” in Proclus et la Théologie Platonicienne: Actes du colloque international de Louvain en l’honneur de H. D. Saffrey et L. G. Westerink, ed. Alain Philippe Segonds and Carlos Steel (Leuven: Peeters, 2000), pp. 589–627.

29 Börje Byden, “Natural Philosophy, Byzantine,” in Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy: Philosophy between 500 and 1500, ed. Henrik Lagerlund, Vol. 2 (Dordrecht: Springer, 2011), pp. 858–859.

30 The literature on Hesychasm is enormous. For some useful contributions see H. G. Beck, Kirche und theologische Literatur im byzantinischen Reich (Munich: Beck, 1970), pp. 702–798; George Florovsky, “Saint Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 1959–1960, 5(2):119–131; Katerina Ierodiakonou, “The Anti-Logical Movement in the Fourteenth Century,” in Byzantine Philosophy and Its Ancient Sources, ed. Ierodiakonou (cit. n. 14), pp. 219–236, esp. pp. 226, 228, 231–232, 234–235; J. Meyendorff, Introduction à l’étude de Gregoire Palamas (Paris: Seuil, 1959); Gerhard Podskalsky, Theologie und Philosophie in Byzanz (Munich: Beck, 1977); J. S. Romanides, “Notes on the Palamite Controversy and Related Topics,” Greek Orthodox Theol. Rev., 1961–1962, 6:186–205, esp. pp. 190–191; and Kallistos Ware, “The Debate about Palamism,” Eastern Churches Review, 1977, 9(1–2):45–63.

31 For Barlaam’s works see mainly G. Schirò, Barlaam Calabro, Epistole Greche (Palermo: Istituto Siciliano di Studi Bizantini e Neogreci, 1954); P. Carelos, Barlaam von Seminara, Logistiké (Athens: Academy of Athens, 1996); and A. Fyrigos, Barlaam Calabro Opere contro i Latini (Vatican: Vatican Press, 1998).

32 On Pletho and his philosophical thought see Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism in Byzantium: Illumination and Utopia in Gemistos Plethon (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011).

33 Anne Tihon and Raymond Mercier, Georges Gémiste Pléthon, Manuel d’Astronomie (Louvain-la-Neuve: Bryuland-Academia, 1998).

34 For an overview of the life and work of Gennadius Scholarios see M.-H. Blanchet, Georges-Gennadios Scholarios (vers 1400–vers 1472): Un intellectuel orthodoxe face à la disparition de l’empire byzantin (Paris: Institut Français d’Études Byzantines, 2008).

Part Two