31 January 2010

'The World's Best Culture Refines the Soul'

I have recently found it necessary to make explicit something I wished to be assumed about this blog. I have all along taken for granted the teaching of St Basil the Great in his Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature, which I first encountered back in college through Constantine Cavarnos’s superb study, The Hellenic-Christian Philosophical Tradition. St Basil writes:

Into the life eternal the Holy Scriptures lead us, which teach us through divine words. But so long as our immaturity forbids our understanding their deep thought, we exercise our spiritual perceptions upon profane writings, which are not altogether different, and in which we perceive the truth as it were in shadows and in mirrors. . . . Consequently we must be conversant with poets, with historians, with orators, indeed with all men who may further our soul’s salvation. . . . Now, then, altogether after the manner of bees must we use these writings, for the bees do not visit all the flowers without discrimination, nor indeed do they seek to carry away entire those upon which they light, but rather, having taken so much as is adapted to their needs, they let the rest go. So we, if wise, shall take from heathen books whatever befits us and is allied to the truth, and shall pass over the rest. . . . Since we must needs attain to the life to come through virtue, our attention is to be chiefly fastened upon those many passages from the poets, from the historians, and especially from the philosophers, in which virtue itself is praised. [1]

This text is crucial in my mind to all that I have to say about literature and philosophy. All the great classics of world literature and philosophy have something useful to our soul’s salvation and to the acquisition of virtue. But, naturally, if they are not inspired by God there is always the admixture of man’s fallen nature. We must be cautious in reading them, practicing critical thinking shaped by a Christian worldview. That this reading is good and necessary, however, must not be in doubt. As St Gregory the Theologian says in his Funeral Oration on the Great St Basil:

11. I take it as admitted by men of sense, that the first of our advantages is education [paideusis]; and not only this our more noble form of it, which disregards rhetorical ornaments and glory, and holds to salvation, and beauty in the objects of our contemplation: but even that external culture which many Christians ill-judgingly abhor, as treacherous and dangerous, and keeping us afar from God. For as we ought not to neglect the heavens, and earth, and air, and all such things, because some have wrongly seized upon them, and honour God’s works instead of God: but to reap what advantage we can from them for our life and enjoyment, while we avoid their dangers; not raising creation, as foolish men do, in revolt against the Creator, but from the works of nature apprehending the Worker (Rom. i. 20, 25), and, as the divine apostle says, bringing into captivity every thought to Christ: (2 Cor. x. 5) and again, as we know that neither fire, nor food, nor iron, nor any other of the elements, is of itself most useful, or most harmful, except according to the will of those who use it; and as we have compounded healthful drugs from certain of the reptiles; so from secular literature we have received principles of enquiry and speculation, while we have rejected their idolatry, terror, and pit of destruction. Nay, even these have aided us in our religion, by our perception of the contrast between what is worse and what is better, and by gaining strength for our doctrine from the weakness of theirs. We must not then dishonour education, because some men are pleased to do so, but rather suppose such men to be boorish and uneducated, desiring all men to be as they themselves are, in order to hide themselves in the general, and escape the detection of their want of culture. [2]

I cannot help but think that many Orthodox Christians of a traditional bent, overreacting to the evils of the modern world and the pitfalls of heresy and worldliness, have in our day become the very boors that St Gregory mentions here. Many seem not to realise the extent to which the Holy Fathers of the Church were conversant in the learning of their day, and not just conversant, but even enthusiastic for it. Concerning St Gregory himself, for example, Werner Jaeger has observed, ‘His homilies are full of classical allusions; he has a full command of Homer, Hesiod, the tragic poets, Pindar, Aristophanes, the Attic orators, the Alexandrian modernists, but also of Plutarch and Lucian and the writers of the Second Sophistic movement, who are the direct models of his style.’ [3]

The irony of course is that many of these Orthodox boors, while they are ignorant of or care little for the great classical poets and writers, have not remained unaffected by the worthless ‘culture’ of the modern West. In other words, they have been spiritually stunted simply by virtue of having been brought up in an era strikingly empty of truth, goodness, and beauty. Yet they intend to proceed straight to the depths of Orthodoxy without the kind of paideia of which the Cappadocian Fathers speak. In our own day, such a stalwart traditionalist as Fr Seraphim (Rose), who can hardly be accused of being too fond of secular culture, has for this reason observed:

In general, the person who is well acquainted with the best products of secular culture—which in the West almost always have definite religious and Christian overtones—has a much better chance of leading a normal, fruitful Orthodox life than someone who knows only the popular culture of today. . . . The world’s best culture, properly received, refines and develops the soul; today’s popular culture cripples and deforms the soul and hinders it from having a full and normal response to the message of Orthodoxy.

Therefore, in our battle against the spirit of this world, we can use the best things the world has to offer in order to go beyond them; everything good in the world, if we are only wise enough to see it, points to God, and to Orthodoxy, and we have to make use
of it. [4]

Thus, Fr Damascene talks about how Archbishop Andrei of Novo-Diveevo would turn ‘the topic of conversation to some character or idea in the works of Dostoevsky, Goncharev, etc.’ when the young Gleb Podmoshensky would prematurely try to discuss ‘spirituality’ with him. [5]

This is how I view much of the talk about literature, philosophy, and books generally here on Logismoi. Of course I also offer stories about and teachings of the Saints and Fathers, who are the embodiment of the Orthodox Tradition, but apart from this I don’t devote all of my attention to strictly ‘spiritual’ or ‘theological’ matters. I try to talk about what interests me in and what I find good about ‘the best products of secular culture’—keeping in mind that this good is not undiluted—in a way that may often subtly point toward Orthodoxy, but may simply be a reasonable way to pass my time. If secular culture is, as St Basil explicitly says, a preparation for the Gospel, then the study of it, even at a basic level, must at the very least be a respectable hobby. I have quoted before—but the time has surely come to do so again—the thirteenth saying of St Anthony in the Gerontikon:

13. A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So he did. The old man then said, ‘Shoot another,’ and he did so. Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet again,’ and the hunter replied ‘If I bend my bow so much I will break it.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.’ When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened. [6]

I take this to mean those of us who have not attained to St Anthony’s height are not able to maintain his level of focus on spiritual endeavour. As C.S. Lewis says in his apology for culture, ‘we must rest and play’, and ‘where can we do so better than here—in the suburbs of Jerusalem?’ [7]

In conclusion, my adherence to this approach is non-negotiable. Unless I am ordered by my spiritual father or my bishop to cease and desist, I will continue on this blog to seek out, discuss, and recommend ‘the best products of secular culture’, and I see no need constantly to go out of my way to qualify myself with pronouncements about how un-Orthodox these things are. Those who share my views or are at least sympathetic to them, are welcome to comment on specific issues in my posts on ‘the best products of secular culture’, but I do not wish this to be a forum for debating this approach itself. Logismoi is, as a quick glance at the top of the page reveals, a ‘refuge’ for those tired of the worst of secular culture and a ‘treasury’ of the best of secular and Christian culture, not a modern college classroom where everything is up for grabs. Those who insist on wasting my time by trying to provoke such debates will find their comments summarily deleted, and will make things less enjoyable for everyone by causing comments on specific posts to be closed.

[1] St Basil the Great, Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature 2, 4, & 5; from the translation by Frederick Morgan Padelford (here).

[2] St Gregory the Theologian, Funeral Oration for the Great S. Basil (here).

[3] Werner Jaeger, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1961), p. 78.

[4] Qtd. in Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen), Father Seraphim (Rose): His Life & Works (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2003), pp. 964-5.

[5] Fr Damascene, p. 960.

[6] Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984), pp. 3-4.

[7] C.S. Lewis, ‘Christianity & Culture’, The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis (NY: Inspirational, 1996), p. 189.


Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that St. Basil imagines us reading secular books before immersing ourselves in Scripture and theology: "so long as our immaturity forbids our understanding their deep thought, we exercise our spiritual perceptions upon profane writings;" yet capable of taking "from heathen books whatever befits us and is allied to the truth." Clearly, he imagines that we have a knowledge of the "truth" which precedes literacy, secular or religious, perhaps what you call a "Christian worldview." This should be troubling, in my mind, for sola scriptura types who claim the only way to get that world view is by reading the Bible, but eminently reasonable for Orthodox, who have the experience and knowledge of the truth of Christ in the Church to guide them as they embark on their studies.

Makarios said...

Hear, hear!

Andreas Houpos said...

Thanks for this post - this topic has been on my mind for the past couple of months.

Incidentally, His Eminence KALLISTOS (Ware) will be speaking in Richmond, VA on Feb. 10, and the title of his talk is “Athens and Jerusalem:
Hellenic Paideia and the Greek Fathers”. If you think any of your readers might be interested in more information on this event, let me know and I'll post it.

Sophocles said...


Though I haven't often visited here(I began blogging several years ago and developed an attachment to several since that time, such as Owen's blog where I saw this post), I must say now that I have been missing out! Great post and very thought provoking for myself especially.

Just wanted to share that with you. I plan to visit more often. Great blog!

Aaron Taylor said...

Anon.> Yes, obviously as children we do not come to our studies with a pre-formed 'Christian worldview', which is why we must be guided by Christian teachers, if not in the classroom than at home and at church. But I think you are quite right that St Basil assumes we have an intrinsic knowledge of the truth that is hardly in keeping with the views of strict Sola Scripturists.

Makarios> Huzzah!

Andreas> Yes, I think it would be a great idea for you to post on that. In fact, if it was at all possible I would love to see that talk. If you can go, you should blog on it in detail (I did this with Fr Justin Sinaites's talks in TX last year). I would also be interested in acquiring a recording of it (I've got a cassette tape of a talk His Eminence gave in Houston once).

Sophocles> Thank you for your kind words. It's good to hear from a fellow hagio-blogger!

Andreas Houpos said...

If I can make it, I will see if I can capture audio or video, but I plan to at least take notes for a post.

Please post as you see fit. I've done so at my blog.

Invites You To

“Athens and Jerusalem:
Hellenic Paideia and the Greek Fathers”
His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia
(Timothy Ware)


Wednesday, February 10, 2010
FREE and OPEN to the Public

6:30 PM: Wine & Cheese
7:00 PM: Presentation
Reception to Follow

Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral
30 Malvern Avenue, Richmond, VA. 23221-2658

For info: John Bletsos at 804-594-0345 (jbletsos@comcast.net)
Maria Hatzios at 540-552-6504 (mhatzios@vt.edu)
Ioanna Williams (iathenian@verizon.net)

Facebook users can RSVP (not required) by clicking here.

seraphim said...

I have admitted that I missed the point of your blog and I said good by. My participation was accidental, determined by rather negative comments on a material that I posted on another blog. You have invited me to continue with my comments, even if they were critical. I have commented only on things that seemed to me to be a bit to much at variance with the position of ROCOR. So let be the boors be the boors and the educated the educated. I wish you all the best in your endeavours. Good by.

Andreas Houpos said...

P.S. I read your posts about Fr. Justin - great stuff - especially the one about the icon of Moses. And what a blessing for you to have met this man of God. I missed him by a day, a couple years ago, when the Getty Museum in L.A. had their "Icons From Sinai" exhibit - my understanding is that he was among the clergy present for its opening. We had been at St. Anthony's in AZ that day and flew in to L.A. for the exhibit the next.

Aaron Taylor said...

Protov> Ah yes, it is certainly the position of ROCOR that one must never read Virgil or Boethius, or that if one must, one ought to say nothing positive about them. I am also told that, contra the hymnography of the Church and the exegetical tradition of the Fathers, the Synod officially denies any significance to the birth of Christ during the reign of Augustus.

Thank you for once again proving my point about boors. Good bye, and good riddance.

Anonymous said...

I am intrigued, enthused and delighted by this post. I have removed myself from more and more of the Ortho-blogosphere recently.

Perhaps that was too hasty and I'll stop by here more often. In time, and by your patience, I may someday be not so out of my depth.

Aaron Taylor said...

Andreas> It really is too bad that you missed Fr Justin, even for as lovely a place as St Anthony's. I am hoping, however, that he will return eventually. He is a native Texan, after all.

David> Thank you, brother. I'd be glad of your comments.

G Sanchez said...

I still think, for the sake of consistency, that we have to appreciate the great gulf which lies between "secular" thought of the time before Christ and the (post)modern thought we encounter today. The language of the New Testament, and subsequently the Fathers, is still a language which can be, through careful explication, understood by the pagans of the time. The minds shaped by the NT could still understand the works of what we now call "classical Greece." That's perfectly intelligible, but it doesn't change our situation. We are as radically removed from the writings of the pagan Greeks as we are from any of the "classics" of, say, Persia, India, or China. But, in fact, we're more radically alienated than that since the "language" they spoke--conceptually, not substantively--is closer to what the Greeks had than what we have today.

Perhaps another way of saying this is that we have to accept. at some point, what was lost. We don't have to be historicists to recognize the divide. And while I believe we can get beyond the divide or, I should say, we can situate ourselves intellectually under a horizon other than the one we accept as commonplace, it is by no means easy. Ultimately, it's not available to most who profess our faith and to make that a "criteria" strikes me, to say the least, as perverse.

So what are our options? Perhaps it shouldn't be the isolationism of the "traditionalists," but there is security there, is there not? What else do we have as an alternative?

Aaron Taylor said...

I'm afraid you've lost me a little bit in the middle of all of those fair points, Gabriel! ;-) I'll do my best to respond to what seems to me to be the objection, but correct me if I've misunderstood.

You say that the 'best products of secular culture' are 'not available to most who profess our faith and to make that a "criteria"' is 'perverse'. Therefore, complete isolation from culture seems like the only option. (By the way, if only on the basis of Fr Seraphim's example, I don't think we should equate isolationism and traditionalism.)

I agree that not everybody is cut out to be a scholar. I'm not even sure that I am, come to think of it. But I emphasise Fr Seraphim's point that most people neither can nor should simply jump straight from their Lady GaGa, Desperate Housewives, and X-Box into reading nothing but Saints' Lives, the Philokalia, or worse, 'theology'. We need culture, we need some way to 'rest and play', but in such a way that our minds and souls are positively affected and formed. This doesn't have to be Homer or Plato (or Virgil or Boethius). The example Fr Seraphim seems to use most frequently is Dickens. I can't think of any reason that people couldn't read more Dickens than John Grisham or whatever.

Of course, 'most who profess our faith' makes me think you may also be thinking of the yia-yias and babushkas of Greece and Russia (I suspect there are even a few of this sort among plain vanilla Americans). These people do not have the same problem as those Fr Seraphim is talking about. I think many of them really could just read Saints' Lives. But they also have the good poets and writers of their nations. Kontoglou wrote adventure stories about pirates and such for people like that. Many Russians, not all intellectuals, seem to appreciate Pushkin (about whom I hope to post soon).

Of course, those of us under the influence of the '(post)modern thought' you mention are perhaps as removed from Dickens & Pushkin as we are from Homer & Boethius. But surely with some qualifications, including the necessity of much inner struggle, we are capable of 'situating ourselves intellectually under' the horizon you speak of. I think I know some that have.

Does this get at some of what you're saying?

Sophocles said...


Once again I find my own thoughts echoed in what you wrote.

Sophocles said...


I was thinking a bit more about your post and was debating myself if I should add any further comments. I think Gabriel is onto something in his comment.

As well, I believe that what perhaps Father Seraphim had in mind here follows very well with what Gabriel has mentioned.

I can only by way of example mention something that happened yesterday at work, and this is something that has happened many times as well.

I and my brothers own our own Greek food shop in a mall in Las Vegas(Henderson to be exact). Yesterday, a young man(20 years old) came up to my counter who I knew, being that he worked in the mall. We struck up a conversation about small, light hearted stuff and in the conversation I asked him if he read. He said that he did not. Not that he wasn't able to, but simply that he did not. I have heard this more times now than I can remember so I feel it indicative of our particular age.

I continued in conversation using as much as possible my own person to reach this young man, attempting to impress upon him as strongly as possible the notion that he should teach himself to like to read. He seemed to get offended a bit as he felt I was implying that he was dumb and unable to read. I made myself very clear to him that not at all was I implying this but rather telling him, following Neil Postman's thought in Amusing Ourselves to Death, of the necessity of learning via reading rather than through popular media. I actually wrote down the book title for him, asking him to buy and read it. I tried explaining to him one of the book's premises about understanding information through reading it versus viewing it.

I told him that he would think me crazy for giving him another piece of advice: throw away his television, as currently I myself have not had a television for I think about 6-7 years now(I may buy one someday-I'm not preaching this here). Now this I said in order to shock him as I knew there was no way he would carry through with anything so "insane". I just wanted his attention.

Another mall employee walked up to my counter during our conversation(19 years old) and I drew her into our conversation and asked if she liked to read. She said she does not but reads only for her college classes through necessity.

I then, in the space of the few minutes I had available during a lull in business and also recognizing the short attention span of my young audience, proceeded to explain to them how important it was for them and all people to strive to read the classics, to strive to keep the link of this present age with its past intact.

I believe I was following very similarly Father Seraphim in what I think he may have intended with the statement you quote of him.

For me, before me I had two young people who I recognized as being "deficient" in a sense of a depth of soul because they had been formed by Modernity to accept information that required no effort or struggle on their part to acquire. At the tip of their fingers(or voices or whatever with all the new technologies) was an inexhaustible sea of information that was seemingly completely unrelated to itself(the information)and to them. They had no framework to make sense of the information in the classical sense.

What I think we can mean Father Seraphim to be implying is that if one who is shaped by the current secular and nihilistic world was to grab a classical work and not only read it to place it in the category of "just some stuff someone said", but actually engaged the work on its own terms, such a one would be forced to contend with a "bygone" era.

This contending, if the one reading is in earnest, will require the learning of terms, words, histories that cannot help but make the reader of the work begin to question their own present age and wake them up if they continue engaging the classics.

Sophocles said...


But I think my only critique of what you write is perhaps that with St. Basil and all the other learned Saints, they were in the "current" or wave that brought about the change from paganism to Christianity. That is our past, so to speak, that we have received. What I think should be noted here, and I am following on Gabriel's comment, is the "world" has developed "antibodies" to Christianity.

Christianity having shaped the world is now being rejected or expunged from it. In the expunging the "world" in its impressions and remembrance and shape, has within it that which is necessary to counter a real return to a "Christian world" barring of course the sovereign will of God.

The world encountered by St. Basil was as yet "virgin territory" for the Gospel. He and the other Fathers, holding onto the truth of the Gospel could laugh at any and all philosophies thrown at them to counter the Gospel, "knowing in Whom they believed in" and His power.

When we read St. Ignaty (Brianchaninov)and others like him we know that the level of true, robust Orthodox spirituality in the world will wane and lessen as we progress towards the Second Coming, whenever that may be.

Our challenge, I think, in preserving the best of the "secular" world per your post and passing it on, is its use in countering the corrosive effects upon the human psyche of a modernity completely unmoored from its past and which cannot countenance a true understanding of the past because therein lies a challenge to it(Modernity).

I further, not to go on another line of thought, believe that therein lies the allure of "the future", and why Evolution is such a formidable foe in that it always draws the attention of Man forward, towards the future; this promised progress and quantum leap into something other than what is the current state of Man.

Now myself, I happen to believe that to some undetermined(from my own point of limited view), degree, the severing of Man from his past is a programme of some sorts that is necessary to subjugate him completely and utterly into materialism and thereby into a Luciferian mode of being and thinking, ripe for picking at the appearance of the Lawless one who must appear in the world at some point.

But not to detract from my first comment: excellent and thought provoking post(and excellent blog)!

Sophocles said...


Long overdue:


And please bear in mind, dear brother, that I do not do this seeking for you to reciprocate.

Please do not if you do not wish to. I realize I can seem terse to some and my blog is not too "Comment Friendly"(this may change someday).


I was intending on adding your blog as well because yours too is "long overdue" on my end to add but I noticed your blog is now set to private? Is that for good or will that change? I believe you've gone public/private before?

Sophocles said...


I am going to St. Anthony's on Thursday. I go as often as I can. How did you like it there I'm curious to know? I did a post on one of my trips some time back:


and I did this post which related to St. Anthony's(and I think you'd like this as well, Aaron):


G Sanchez said...

I wrote my post filled with scotch, so it's possible I didn't even know what I was saying. Now this thread has taken on a new life. Oh I am lost...

I will think about these entries on the train to work and see if I can't say something proper in response.

Aaron Taylor said...

Sophocles> I will wait to see what Gabriel has to say before writing more on the main thread here (besides, I've got lots to do today!). But I wanted to let you know that I did add your blog, as I myself certainly want to keep an eye on it!

Gabriel> Fair enough! We eagerly anticipate your perhaps more sober remarks!

jcw said...

Aaron, thank you for this post; it was excellent. Sophocles, I appreciated your anecdote greatly. Thank you for it.

I've just finished reading an anthology of Canadian literature (Russell Brown, Donna Bennett, Nathalie Cooke, eds., An Anthology of Canadian Literature in English : Revised and Abridged Edition, [Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990]) (as I'm Canadian) and it may be that an anthology is one of the better ways to connect with a tradition. I recall learning very little about Canadian literature in secondary-school and onward, but this anthology was a good introduction to the major novelists and poets in Canadian history.

Another good way into one's own literary heritage is to visit the public library and examine their "Classics" section: it's not perfect, but it's a good start, I think.

Again, Aaron, thanks for the post. Keep well.

Stephen said...

As a non-scholar, and someone who finds most works of literature, music, and art more than a hundred years old mystifying (and even some of the more recent works difficult too), I am wondering what you would recommend doing to remedy this?

My parents never had any use for pop culture of any sort, and that has rubbed off on me, but on the flip side I wasn't taught much about higher culture, and so really don't know how to approach it. I find even Dickens beyond me. For now I content myself with haphazardly seeking out the better contemporary writers and musicians, etc..., particularly writers from outside of North America, and hope that as I become better versed in these I will become ready to tackle the older works. But this approach doesn't strike me as being ideal.

123 said...

As a non-scholar, and someone who finds most works of literature, music, and art more than a hundred years old mystifying (and even some of the more recent works difficult too), I am wondering what you would recommend doing to remedy this?

I am perhaps too postmodern to understand what that means - or at least to understand what anything other than postmodern was.

I'm also not a scholar or particularly academic, though I enjoy reading such and grasping at a perspective. Most of the time, though, I'm lost.

I have had the good fortune to have been exposed to a good deal of classical Western literature via my training on the stage and my love of big books whose very ownership (together with feigned or incomplete readings) impresses most. Still, I would not say I am deeply read in the classics in the way Aaron is with Vergil, et al.

My recommendation to myself - and take it for what it is worth - is simply to try and read all sorts of good, old stuff. Some of it you will take to, others will overload the brain or be generally incomprehensible. It takes time for one to be able to accept radically new world views and ideas, one's brain can often only take such change in small doses or from specific hands. That is, reading a little Shakespeare makes reading more Shakespeare, next time, easier. Same with the old Greco-Roman writers. Sometimes all of it is maddening, except for that one writer, that one poet, that one piece, which speaks to you. That's a great beachhead from which to build.

I would also say that it is difficult to understand what one lacks without rather broad exposure to all that is out there. So, reading a little Sartre would perhaps highlight what is present in Dickens. Taking any 'highly regarded' piece of art or literature (including films) and comparing it and one's reactions with another 'less well regarded' piece begins the process of discernment. Of course, kids like candy and it's easy to get addicted to junk food, but there is still something that feels quite good about a salad - it's just learning that there's a difference. There is definitely 'good' and 'bad' in such things, but there is also a great deal of subjectivity and room for tasteful disagreement. I'm sure there were pious and faithful Orthodox Christians that found Dostoevsky unpleasant to read and thought Tolstoy simply fabulous, as a writer.

The key seems to be in developing some sensitivity in the soul to things more than crass rather than a canon of good and bad art.

glen said...

"Much time had I spent in vanity, and had wasted nearly all my youth in the vain labor which I underwent in acquiring the wisdom made foolish by God. Then once upon a time, like a man roused from deep sleep, I turned my eyes to the marvellous light of the truth of the Gospel, and I perceived the uselessness of 'the wisdom of the rulers of this world, that come to nothing.' I wept many tears over my miserable life and I prayed that guidance might be vouchsafed me to admit me to the doctrines of true religion. First of all was I minded to make some mending of my ways, long perverted as they were by my intimacy with wicked men. Then I read the Gospel, and I saw there that a great means of reaching perfection was the selling of one’s goods, the sharing of them with the poor, the giving up of all care for this life, and the refusal to allow the soul to be turned by any sympathy to things of earth. And I prayed that I might find some one of the brethren who had chosen this way of life, that with him I might cross life’s deep and troubled strait"

Letter 223 - St Basil to Eustathius Bishop of Sebastea

G Sanchez said...

I’ll try to restate my point here, taking into consideration what you and Sophocles both said…

My expressed skepticism concerning “going back” to antiquity for acculturation is based on the rather simpleminded observation that there are substantial barriers between us and those works—barriers which would have been unknown to the Greek Fathers. I don’t believe it’s impossible for us to get over the barriers, but it’s extremely difficult and the journey is, to say the least, arduous. One illustration which comes to mind is reading Homer of the Greek Tragedians before and after looking at the interpretive efforts of Seth Benardete. Now, whether one ultimately agrees or disagrees with Benardete’s eccentric and contentious readings, the fact is that Benardete had one of the best masteries of Classical Greek of anyone living in the 20th C. (and, according to some, the best mastery the world has seen in over 1,000 years) and took seriously the interpretations and scholia of the Greek medieval period and late classical period. In other words, he saw the benefit of walking through the texts with men who were radically closer to the texts than we can be today. He may not have believed it could bring you “all the way,” but you had to do that before venturing off to understanding the works on your own. Now, Benardete spent his life doing this and left far more questions than answers in his wake. At the very least, his efforts demonstrate in sometimes depressing fashion just how far away we are from these works; their meaning; the questions they raise; and the answers—right or wrong—they point to.

Now, it’s quite possible to read works like the Iliad or Antigone without Benardete; there are “surface readings” which are not without value. But there is an undeniable temptation today to read all of those works through the conceptual/ideological framework that has been manufactured in the last two centuries. To me, this seems distortive and I wonder how many come out “better” for the effort at all. I confess it’s a rather cynical way of looking at reading old books. On the other hand, I can see that it may support an argument that we shouldn’t bother with them at all. I don’t want to go that far. What I am unsure of is how we generate a sort of “openness” to such works which humbles us in our inability to have much more than a tentative grasp yet, at the same time, leads us to appreciate what grasp we do have so that we continue to make the effort. (Does any of this make sense? Uh oh…)

G Sanchez said...

Now, with respect to more recent works like those of Dickens or Dostoevsky, there are barriers which no doubt exist, but I think they are a bit lower. Dostoevsky can certainly—and indeed continues to be—read ideologically Yet Dostoevsky’s books are a response to ideology; they point to a path which leads the reader out of ideology (assume he wants to go there). You can find this as well in the works of such diverse figures as Kierkegaard, Camus, and Solzhenitsyn. If you are going to “acculture” someone, it seems to me that those books present better starting points. Are they all “Orthodox” in a pure sense? No. Certainly Kierkegaard and Camus raise many points which are utterly foreign to Orthodox faith and theology. I suspect, however, that’s not your point. The point is to develop a fuller sense of the world. I think that’s fair, but I’m not sure that engagement with any of these books—classic or modern—can’t lead an unguided man astray. Some raise all sorts of specters that, maybe in the end, a person would have been better off without. I must confess that I am speaking more than a bit on my own behalf. The process of detangling oneself from spiritual and intellectual rot is long and hard; there are more pitfalls on the road than one appreciates when the journey begins.

Now, do I believe that someone who converts to Orthodoxy or is thinking of converting should just jump in and read the Fathers 24/7? No, I don’t. I think there are pitfalls there as well—some of them parallel the pitfalls which go with reading, say, Homer or Platus. There has to be some discernment there as well, but much of that is for one’s priest or spiritual father to make. There’s a big difference between reading St. John Chrysostom’s commentaries on Romans or Acts and St. Gregory Nazianzius’s orations. Similarly, there are considerable obstacles to reading a work like St. John Climacus’ Ladder rather than, say, the Triodion. But my thoughts on Orthodox and “Orthodox reading” are mixed and muddied. After spending my initial time in the Church trying to read “all things Orthodox,” I’ve really pulled back to focusing on what’s contained in the Octoechos, Menaion, and the other service books of the Church.

Ochlophobist said...

Sometimes I think the problem we face in the current context of American Orthodoxy is a literalism inherited from, say, Evangelicalism, or something akin to that. There is fideism friends, and then there is fideism. Fideism is my de facto position in comparison to historicism, but not all fideism is the same.

Take St. Basil's letter 223 above. We hear of the uselessness of 'the wisdom of the rulers of this world but that very letter was written with rhetorical eloquence, indeed, that very letter makes use of certain tools St. Basil had obtained, directly and indirectly, from those who were skilled in the wisdom of this world.

I have long had an anti-academic streak. My first intellectual mentor, aside from my father, was an accomplished anthropologist, and disciple of Thomas Kuhn. He told me that if I wanted to dismiss the academy with any integrity, I needed to get my doctorate first. Only having fully gone the distance with it could I have the full faculties of an appropriate and coherent dismissal. I am not saying this is a truism that applies in all situations regarding an appropriation or determination of right relationship to human knowledge. But I do think it speaks to an existential quality to what we might call a good, clean dismissal. St. Basil can reject as useless the wisdom of this world because he, as fully as a man of his generation could have been able, understood the limits of such wisdom, the boundaries of human knowledge. He is competent to dismiss, if you will. It does not quite work so well when one not competent goes to any lengths in such a dismissal. The humble monk who says simply that he knows nothing of such things is an image of salvation. The arrogant isolationist who loudly dismisses the wisdom of the world as idiocy, and is rather overt with a confidence in his own understanding of the wisdom of the world - that is inane. I have spent time with a good number of isolationist Christians in my life, and you find both humble and the arrogant dismissals of the world’s wisdom (you also find those who don't let their kids go to the movies but make them memorize Virgil and Homer in Latin and Greek). When I meet that person who, say, thinks that the theory of evolution is utter foolishness and goes on and on about the stupidity of the idea that men came from monkeys, etc., while making it very clear that he has never read or engaged the work of a serious evolutionist, well, such a person is one I find a boor, even if on some points I may agree with him. It seems to me that a Christian might isolate himself from debate regarding evolution, but if he is going to ever speak on the matter, he should do so having become familiar, in a fair manner, with the theories, and the theorists, and the texts, and the science involved.

Ochlophobist said...

I agree with Gabriel with regard to the concern about historicism. But this is how I see it. There are different readings, or reading/hermeneutic postures one might take. If I am reading ancient works and critical readings of ancient works with the idea that I can then discern how the fathers read those works and thus I can then, on my own, interpret the fathers, I am headed down to the abyss. Only the Church safely and truly interprets the fathers, and the idea that academic interpretations of the fathers should inform the Church’s interpretation of the fathers is an idea I find repugnant. We have the correct interpretation of the works of the fathers in our hymns and in our living piety. But, there are other postures one might have in which one reads the ancients. I recall a passage in Simone Weil where she compares the activity and state of the mind engaged in advanced mathematics to the activity and state of the mind at prayer. I think her observation is a true one, though I also suspect that the fathers would state that the function of the mind in mathematics is only similar to the function of the mind in a quite ‘low’ form of prayer, the function of the mind in higher forms of prayer being substantially different. But this sense of what might prepare us for a ‘low’ or beginning form of prayer suits Aaron’s thesis. The reading of serious, great literature, the keen listening or singing or playing of serious, great music, the observation of serious, great art, these things require discipline, they require the development of the faculty of attention – without that faculty, the beginning work of prayer is nearly impossible. A man or woman has to be able to sit still for a while and concentrate some. There are things other than literature, music, art, mathematics, and philosophy which can teach the art of attention, say traditional crafts and plenty of manual, quotidian tasks. But there is in complex thought (especially as we see in mathematics and music) a more efficient means of teaching the mind to concentrate and to will one thing, as it were. It seems to me that the reading of the ancients can be in this spirit, as an exercise of the mind. While the cultural and paradigmatic differences are as vast as Gabriel suggests, some of these intellectual exercises are simply what they are. Memorization of texts is memorization. Reading the Elementswith a good tutor, and then applying Euclidian geometry to various problems, and repeating these Math exercises over and over until one knows Euclidian geometry backwards and forwards is an intellectual effort that retains a certain universality regardless of the culture of the person studying geometry. There may be vast semantic, cultural, existential, and other differences between the intellectual postures of the fathers and our own intellectual postures, but surely when we form our minds through a great deal of memorization of varied complex texts, and the earned competency in universal mathematical truths, we share with the fathers something on some basic level with regard to the disciplines by which our intellects were formed. It is these disciplines which helped many of the fathers to have minds generally more prepared to begin to pray.

Ochlophobist said...

- cont'd -

The danger here is when we see these disciplines as the actual running of the race, as things which will actually work toward our salvation. Perhaps it better to see them as exercises which prepare us for battle, which prepare us for the race, but certainly not the battle or the race itself. In that sense, those who achieve theosis leave these things behind. At a certain point a saint has no need for such disciplines, for such preparations, because his life has become, as it were, the peace of pure battle, constant race, his attention always being before God, he has no need to prepare his faculty of attention to strive toward God – it is already there.

One issue I struggle with is to discern where the precise emphases in education should be for Orthodox. For instance, take Aristotle. Much of what is important to learn in Aristotle has been gathered, condensed, and recast specifically for the education of Orthodox by the Damascene in The Fountain of Knowledge.” I think of this when thinking about the education of my daughters when they reach high school age. Do I teach them Aristotle from Aristotle, or Aristotle from St. John? If I teach them Aristotle from St. John, do I take them back to Aristotle, and show them in the pertinent of Aristotle’s texts those portions St. John left out? In those few places St. John altered the text of Aristotle, do I teach them the current theories regarding which might have been altered to keep in line with the worldly wisdom of St. John’s day and which might have been altered to keep in line with Orthodox faith? Surely here we veer into the dangers of historicism. Nonetheless I do know this, I am determined to teach my children Aristotle, as St. John intended educated Orthodox children to be taught. But then again, did he ever intend for young girls to be taught Aristotle? Hmmm.

Andreas Houpos said...


Unfortunately, both my visits to St. Anthony's have been too short. The first was for a few hours; the second was for two days. That said, I very much enjoyed that place, and I believe it is a holy place.

Reading the account of your visit brought back some nice memories for me, especially about helping the monks with the meal. I'm actually working on a post that should be up in a day or two that touches on my first visit there.

Also, the "fortune cookie" idea with sayings of the Saints - I just was thinking of something like that a couple of weeks ago when my wife and I went out for sushi! What a great idea, and I'm glad you went through with it.

I, like Aaron, am now following your blog - thanks for sharing.

Aaron Taylor said...

Glen> Yeah, thanks, I've read that too. Anyone can cut and paste patristic quotes. Perhaps you could now do us all a real favour and explain exactly how you believe this excerpt is to be reconciled with the comments I have posted above.

Everyone else> It will take some time to read all of your comments and process them. I'll try to get back with you!

Aaron Taylor said...

Sophocles> Now myself, I happen to believe that to some undetermined (from my own point of limited view), degree, the severing of Man from his past is a programme of some sorts that is necessary to subjugate him completely and utterly into materialism and thereby into a Luciferian mode of being and thinking, ripe for picking at the appearance of the Lawless one who must appear in the world at some point.

You must have read Screwtape Letters! I entirely agree.

I too appreciated your anecdote. I have been in quite a number of similar situations, many of them with coworkers at my last job. I once convinced a number of people there to read Beowulf. Ditto Anna Karenina. Almost none of them had college degrees.

JCW> Good ideas. Anthologies are indeed good places to start.

Steven> I think Orr has offered a good response to this question. Practice. I don’t think any of us could simply pick up an ancient text (or even a later one—Shakespeare is a good example!) and understand all of it perfectly. One must be willing to be a little mystified. Fortunately, however, we have introductions, notes, monographs, and even Cliffs Notes to help us. That’s what they’re for.

That said, I generally agree with C.S. Lewis on this matter when he writes, ‘The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.’

One last thing, I would also add that neither are the Holy Scriptures or the Fathers ‘easy’ to understand. They too, are mystifying and foreign to us. But we must make the effort. It is likewise with secular writings.

Aaron Taylor said...


Gabriel> On Benardette, yes, point well made. But this is the case with any realm of knowledge. Unless we are insane specialists, we are nearly always accepting a relatively superficial, dilettantish version of something. But the alternative to this is sheer ignorance, whether in literature and philosophy, or in anything else. As you admit, that we cannot master something does not mean we shouldn’t learn something about it. The important thing is to maintain a humble awareness of our limits. Also, I think you are right that we may have done ourselves more harm than good if we are reading all of these things ‘through the conceptual/ideological framework that has been manufactured in the last two centuries’. I said something similar in one of my comments to Protov. I believe most of these books are helpful if we can to some extent escape our (post)modern presuppositions. Otherwise—that is, if we read old books merely as food for our overwheening egos—it may well be better to remain ignorant.

Owen> Excellent, on all points. I will just make a couple of—mostly supportive—comments.

the idea that academic interpretations of the fathers should inform the Church’s interpretation of the fathers is an idea I find repugnant. We have the correct interpretation of the works of the fathers in our hymns and in our living piety.

I would say this is true on the ‘macro’ level. In other words, the Church tells us what the Fathers mean in general. For instance, we read the Cappadocians through the prism of St Gregory Palamas. But I think we can learn something from academics on the ‘micro’ level. When I pick up a translation, or even an edition, of the Fathers I am already to some extent accepting the opinion of some scholar on this micro level. We are not uncritical about this, but there is a certain among of basic information that we can legitimately acquire.

There are things other than literature, music, art, mathematics, and philosophy which can teach the art of attention, say traditional crafts and plenty of manual, quotidian tasks.

Wonderful! I hadn’t even thought of this, largely because I myself am a complete boor when it comes to traditional crafts and manual, quotidian tasks. I’m not proud of this, but it’s true. During one stay at a monastery, I was first assigned to help work on the roof of a new katholikon. My uselessness was quickly discovered, and I was reassigned to sweep the sidewalks. Having developed gargantuan, painful blisters on my hands, I was sent to the infirmary and reassigned yet again to the printshop. There I stayed for the rest of my pilgrimage.

I have a lot of respect for such work. Those who are serious practitioners of it, in my opinion, have little need of books. Although, as you say, we still must not ‘see these disciplines as the actual running of the race’. Which leads to my next comment.

Perhaps it better to see them as exercises which prepare us for battle . . .

Here you are surely alluding to a line from St Basil’s Address that I omitted with one of my ellipses:

Thus we imitate those who perform the exercises of military practice, for they acquire skill in gymnastics and in dancing, and then in battle reap the reward of their training. We must needs believe that the greatest of all battles lies before us, in preparation for which we must do and suffer all things to gain power.

Finally, fascinating reflections on Aristotle and St John of Damascus. This deserves some serious research and thought.

Sophocles said...


Wonderful reflections that got my head working but too much with so little time before my monastic excursion in two short days.


I added your blog as well and did this post:


As well, if you're ever at St. Anthony's again, please feel free to notify me as I don't really need much of an excuse to go there.

In Christ,

glen said...

aaronandbrighid said..."Yeah, thanks, I've read that too. Anyone can cut and paste patristic quotes..."

ouch...I hadn't come across your blog previously and I also wasn't aware of this whole 'is secular culture good/bad' controversy. Reading your post made me curious to find out more and I soon discovered that this topic has come up in a few other places on the net. Letter 223 seemed to me to best sum up the 'opposing' view and I thought it might be of interest. I didn't realise that it was a well known text...apologies.

Given my lack of knowledge with this subject matter I guess I was wanting to fish for feedback from your more learned blog readers on how to best make sense of this seeming counterpoint. I do appreciate Ochlophobist's follow up and it has helped me to put Letter 223 into better perspective.


Aaron Taylor said...

Glen> I was pleasantly surprised at your response to this! To be honest, I took your posting of that passage without comment as a deliberate provocation. A week or two ago, I would have responded to it carefully, with something similar in content, if not eloquence, to Owen’s response. But as one might guess from this post itself and from my response to Protov in an earlier comment in this thread, I have lost all patience for provocation on this topic! So I must apologise to you if my response was a little ‘biting’. I hope you’ll stop by again sometime.

I do stand by what I said however about cutting and pasting. If you were looking for a thoughtful discussion about how to reconcile this Letter with the Address I quoted in the post, then I can’t help but think you would have done better to say so rather than simply post the passage without comment. Otherwise you come off as presuming to have ‘settled’ the matter with your ‘show-stopping’ use of the Letter! ;-)

In Christ,

Sophocles said...


I re-read your comments and I just was just floored by them. You touched on so many things that are so true and which I've reflected on. I wish I had the time to further engage this thread because in so many ways, we have all just barely enen begun opening this subject which is extremely broad,subtle, nuanced and a very good oppurtunity to see the complexity of our Faith.

If time allows when I return from my time off, I would like to pick this up again, citing this post and expecially your very profound comments, Owen. Again, very well said!

John said...

Nice post Aaron. I personally don't feel the need to justify my reasons for liking anything the secular world has to offer outside the Orthodox phronema, since I think maturity in Orthodox matters breeds enough of a discernment so as to cast out such fears altogether. Since the feast of St Photios approaches, I would recommend people read his "Bibliotheca" to see how he openly embraced secular culture and feasted on the good and discarded the bad - and it was a natural process for him as it should be for any mature Christian.


Sophocles said...

Sorry for the typos in my last comment. I was on the last few minutes of my break and was a bit rushed.


Without having had the time to yet read that link, I'm not so sure we should jump that far yet.

I think the case could be made that at least in St. Photios' day as well as in the days of all the Fathers, to a great extent the line of demarcation as to what was "secular" and what was not was a bit more evident to them.

In our own day, we are,I believe, up against something altogether different. I don't have time to really spell it out but a case could be made that here in America,at least, on a country founded on so many different principles and ingredients including but not limited to:Christianity(and even here we could ask whatChristianity), and Enlightment principles built from esoteric/occultic roots, and so on, we have not as Orthodox grappled with the real question of "What is America?"

In the pre-Constantine days at least the Christians knew that the Empire was pagan and thereby were easier able to differentiate between the sacred and the secular. After Constantine, the entire Empire was baptized into the Christian Faith. Now what this baptism means exactly and how far the Faith permeated into everyday life I think can be debated. But, the fact that the Empire, at least in its disposition towards, pointed to Christ, the citizens of the Empire at least could understand the difference better, I think, as to what exactly constituted the sacred and what the secular and could more easily ascertain what to imbibe and why in their learning.

With our nation, I don't know about you, but I have had had to unlearn quite a bit since I began taking the Orthodox Faith just a bit seriously. What I mean, briefly, by this, to cite just one example, is the whole set of ideas entailed just in the telling of the story of the Founding Fathers.

I believe that there is alot of baggage that needs to be examined thouroughly about our nation from a deeply ascetical Orthodox perspective. I think we need to ask questions that may make us uncomfortable.

Uggh. This is rushed and incomplete but I wanted to at least set it down.

John said...

Sophocles, I'm talking about something a bit different. You seem to be talking about a secular spirit invading the Church. I'm talking about a mature and level headed Orthodox Christian participating in secular life in general without being influenced by it in a negative way. I think this can be as easily done today as any time in history in the sense that secularism is indeed the same today as it has always been. The issue I find to be is that the great majority of Orthodox aren't mature and level headed to be able to discern such things, which is why these debates even take place.

Sophocles said...


I'm saying something just a bit different than that.

But to briefly address your point, I see where you're coming from and I agree with you about the nature of secularism being the same in all ages and even agree with you that as mature Orthodox we are able to participate in secular life to some extent without losing our Orthodox phronema altogether but I am cautioning that we are not able exactly to understand what toxic effect the culture is exuding upon us.

What may seem "normal" to us today may not really be that normal but we have become acclimated to our culture perhaps in the same way that one can get used to being in a room with ugly wallpaper. Walking into the room one may notice how ugly it is but after a time when one lives in it long enough the ugliness becomes part of the accepted scenery.

I think we are affected much the same way by our present day culture and alot of the popular music, entertainment and amusements that we have come to regard as "normal", being the wallpaper we are all used to, may be anything but normal.

I don't know--can I pump in occultic television shows to my home, listen to Luciferian infused bands, and walk away unscathed?

I suppose that is a personal struggle unique to each one participating in the culture but somehow I think that it may not be the case that we're getting off scott free without getting marred to some extent. I also doubt we have the proper barometer within ourselves to make such determinations apart from a true ascetic struggle against our culture in whatever limited fashion we are able to do so.

I think, following the Church's teaching on the nature of the Fall that beset the human race and the pride that beguiles us,not to mention that the Enemy of our salvation is not too far removed from each one of us, that we give ourselves far too much credit in the belief that we are that smart.

At the very least I am saying that I am not that smart and need all the help I can get to be a part of the Kingdom when He returns.

John said...

Im not talking about viewing something in the secular world as "normal", its more accepting the fact that this just happens to be the world we live in and knowing that everything in it is affected by the Fall. But it is a personal struggle and each approaches it at different levels. If someone needs to be told what books to read, what music to listen to or what movies to watch, then obviously they are not at a place in their spiritual life to discern what is useful for them or not and thus they submit their tastes, opinions and thoughts to someone else. Which is why it can't be "legislated" in the realms of right and wrong, since the arts are about personal tastes and interpretations even if they essentially are intended to oppose Christianity in some roundabout way. Where one person sees absolutely no value another can see great value. Some people need to be told what to do and how to think and that is their choice. Any path one takes one risks being tainted or just plain wrong, which is why our ultimate purpose as Christians is to abandon everything that ties us to the world, die to it completely, and live for Christ alone. But the path to this goal is approached from different levels and different circumstances and different mindsets.

Sophocles said...

I am in agreement with your entire comment, John. I guess we're after two different emphasis' on the whole matter that are not mutually exclusive but complement one another.