16 February 2010

Plato, Redeemed in Poetry & Prose

In a superb post reporting on a recent talk by His Eminence, Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, entitled ‘Athens and Jerusalem: Hellenic Paideia and the Greek Fathers’, Andreas at Lord, I have cried unto Thee relates an anecdote which His Eminence told:

It is said that every night before he went to bed, St Anastasios would curse Plato: ‘God, damn Plato!’ (His Eminence’s words—at which chuckles filled the cathedral). Then one night, St Anastasios had a dream wherein he met Plato face to face, and he had a chance to speak with him and upbraid him for his errant teachings. When St Anastasios was done with his tirade, Plato responded and said, ‘When Christ descended into Hades to preach the Gospel, I was the first to be converted.’ [Note: Since getting home, I’ve tried to find some kind of source for this but can’t, so if you know of one, please share.]

A bit of digging turned up Fr Andrew Louth’s telling of this story in Greek East & Latin West. There, Fr Louth writes:

But it was not only representatives of the ‘outer wisdom’ like [St John] Mauropous who revered Plato: St Athanasios had called him ‘that great one among the Greeks’ (On the Incarnation 2), while among the writings ascribed to the seventh-century abbot of Sinai, Anastasios, there is a story which relates that it was the custom of a certain learned Christian to curse Plato daily, until eventually Plato himself appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Man, stop cursing me; for you are merely harming yourself. I do not deny that I was a sinner; but, when Christ descended into hell, no one believed in Him sooner than I did’ (Questions & Responses 111 [PG 89:764C]). [1]

This reminded me of a poem by the Byzantine humanist, St John Mauropous (c. 1050-75), Metropolitan of Euchaïta, that I’ve seen in a few places. Fittingly, St John was the Hierarch who had the vision which introduced the Feast of the Three Hierarchs. According to the Synaxaristes, he was ‘a holy hierarch who attained to the summit of virtue. He was a noble and erudite man, well acquainted with Hellenic wisdom, as his writings bear witness to his learning. He was also acclaimed for his writing of hymnographic canons and the lives of the saints.’ [2] Here is my poor attempt at a translation of his hexametric ‘Epigram on Plato and Plutarch’:

If Thou shouldst wish any of those outside the Church
to be raised from beneath Thy threats, O my Christ,
Plato and Plutarch raise up for me;
for both of them in word and deed
approach quite closely to Thy laws.
They did not know Thee as the God of all,
but here is only more of Thy goodness,
a gift through which Thou wouldst save all. [3]

Matthew Reed, of a fur piece, recently posted a lovely prose translation of another poem by the same author in the comments here. Although Joseph Patterson already got the jump on me on reposting it, here anyway is the text as Matthew quotes it from J.M. Hussey:

And thus, O Logos, mayest Thou guide and bear me, constant, unshaken, unmoved, remaining within the bounds of moderation, living among books like a bee among flowers, nourishing myself on words like a grasshopper in the dew, content to live only in the present, demanding nothing save salvation, to which mayest Thou, O Saviour, swiftly bring me, lest I grow very weary of the present. For the longed for haven far excels the easy labour of even a fair voyage, and is the consummation of all toils. May I quickly reach this, O my Christ.

One can also see a few of St John’s poems in a translation by Elizabeth Barret Browning here, at the St Pachomius Library.

[Addendum: As was noted in the comments below, there is a discrepancy between Met. Kallistos's version of the story about Plato and Fr Louth's. In the former's, St Anastasius is speaking of himself, whereas in the second he seems to be speaking of someone else. The resourceful Andreas has discovered (here) and posted the passage in Migne in the comments below, where it seems clear to me at any rate that St Anastasius is indeed speaking in the third person. But as we all know, there is a long and charming Christian tradition of speaking of one's own experiences in this way. As I suspected, it seems Met. Kallistos read St Anastasius as following this tradition!]

[1] Fr Andrew Louth, Greek East & Latin West: The Church AD 681-1071 (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2007), p. 321. I had forgotten it, but Felix Culpa quoted a couple of paragraphs of this book, including the one above, in this post, from which I have also taken part of my title as well as the image at the top of the post (a Romanian fresco showing several pagan philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle).

[2] The Lives of the Three Great Hierarchs, tr. Holy Apostles Convent (Buena Vista, CO: HAC, 1998), p. 305.

[3] Tr. from Paul de Lagarde, ed., Iohannis Euchaitorum metropolitae (Gottingen: Dieterich, 1882), p. 24. I would appreciate any comments or corrections on this translation!


Matthew said...

Thanks for helping spread the word about St. John!

On the subject of pagan literary greats, it also would be interesting to learn how other Byzantine writers (and Orthodox writers in general) felt about Plutarch. Folks don't seem to talk about him too much anymore, but I've read that after the KJV Bible, his Lives was the most read book in colonial America. I recently picked up a selection from his for 99 cents at the thrift store.

PS. I can't find a reference online, but in the blue Holy Transfiguration prayer book the Akathist to our Sweetest Jesus Christ is attributed to St. John Mavropous.

Aaron Taylor said...

Matthew> Yes, I would be interested in learning more about Orthodox views of Plutarch too. All I know at the moment is that St Basils draws frequently on Plutarch in his Address to Young Men, and St Nektarios of Aegina quotes him in his discussion of the term 'ethics' at the beginning of his Christian Ethics. That is the extent of my knowledge of the subject!

Andreas Houpos said...

Wow, "superb"? Very kind description of my post.

I'm really glad you were able to locate the source, and that you have shared it here. The way the source reads, it does not appear that St. Anastasios is the one who had the dream. I'm going to link to this post in my original one as an edit, to direct any future readers here for clarification.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Now this post brings to mind another anecdote, which I wonder whether anyone knows its source.

It is said that there is a church, or some churches, in Greece perhaps, where busts (or icons?) of Plato and Socrates are found in the exonarthex, symbolic of their leading toward a love for truth and virtue from outside the Church.

Does anyone know where this church or churches might be, or at least the original source of this claim?

Plutarch is wonderful. I could go on and one about him....

Matthew said...


I'm afraid your knowledge of the subject is more extensive than my own.


I recently read in Constantine Cavarnos’s book Meetings with Kontoglou (pp. 54-55) the following: "Although Kontoglou had high regard for these philosophers, he never viewed them as saints. He simply showed his esteem for them as was done by some Greek iconographers of the period of Turkish dominion, who painted them in the narthex of churches, without the halo which symbolizes sainthood." Cavarnos goes on to write that Kontoglou discussed the subject, and how certain of them were traditionally depicted, in his Ekpharasis of Orthodox Iconography ("Vol 1. pp. 308-310").

Andreas Houpos said...


That very subject was touched on in Met. Kallistos' lecture (see my notes that Aaron linked to). I may be able to locate one of these churches for you, as one of the women from my parish has been to one and confirmed this phenomenon at the lecture.

Andreas Houpos said...

Oh, and Kevin, the examples briefly mentioned at the lecture were of icons...no mention of busts.

Aaron Taylor said...

Andreas> I wouldn't be TOO quick to decide Fr Louth's account is the more accurate one, if only because I doubt that he really is +Kallistos's 'source' for this story. His Eminence has no doubt read the story for himself in Greek and knows the story just as well if not better than Fr Louth. Unfortunately, I couldn't find St Anastasios's PG texts among the digitised bits of the PG at the one site that I know of, or I would have checked the true 'source' myself. It's true that the fact that Fr Louth is telling the story in print and has a little citation for his version lends it a bit more weight, but we must keep in mind that we are still dealing with a contradiction between two secondary sources and not between a secondary and a primary one!

Perhaps Kevin could look this one up for us! It's PG 89:764C, buddy. Get to it!

Kevin> Yes, Plutarch is rather wonderful...

Andreas Houpos said...

Funny, I found him in the version I was checking, but, shame on me, I couldn't find the story. Granted, I quit after a short while because I stare at a computer screen all day as it is! I also apparently overlooked the fact that you cited the location...

Aaron Taylor said...

Andreas> Where did you find it? I'd really like to look at it, add a link to this post, and clarify this discrepancy once and for all!

Andreas Houpos said...

Found it:


Question 111 (ΕΡΩΤΗΣΙΣ ΡΙΛ΄.)

Give me a little time and I can transcribe it here in the Greek. I defer to those better versed in the Greek to do the translating!

Daniel said...

Thank you aaron! Now I will be on the look out for more stuff about the Brownings!

Andreas Houpos said...

Let's try this again:

[Please excuse any errors, especially with stress and breath marks, as the original image is a little hard to read.]


Τί οὗν; καὶ τοῖς τελευτήσασι πρὸ τῆς Χριστοῦ παρουσὶας, δεῖ εὔχεσθαι, καὶ μὴ ὰναθεματίζειν;


Μηδαμῶς ἀναθεματίσῃς ἅνθρωπον πρὸ τῆς ἐπιδημίας Χριστοῦ τελευτήσαντα· καὶ ἐν τῷ ᾄδῃ προσάπαξ καὶ μόνον ἐγένετο τὸ Χριστοῦ κήρυγμα. Προλαβὼν γὰρ Ἰωάννης ὁ πρόδρομος ἐκήρυξε κἀκεῖσε τὸν Χριστόν· καὶ ἅκουσον τοῦ ἀγίου Πέτρου λέγοντος περὶ Χριστοῦ, ὄτι « Πορευθεὶς, φησὶν, ὲκήρυξε καὶ τοῖς ἐν ᾅδῃ πνεύμασι τοῖς ποτε ἀπειθήσασι. » Καἰ νῦν φέρεται εἰς ἀρχαίας παραδόσεις, ὄτι τις σχολαστικὸς πολλὰ κατηράσατο τὸν Πλάτωνα τὸν φιλόσοφον. Φαίνεται οὗν αὐτῷ καθ' ὔπνους ὁ Πλάτων λέγων· Ἄνθρωπε, παῦσαι τοῦ καταρᾶσθαί με, σεαυτὸν γὰρ βλάπτεις, ὄτι μὲν ἅνθρωπος ἀμαρτωλὸς γέγονα οὐκ ἀρνοῦμαι. Πλὴν κατελθόντος τοῦ Χριστοῦ ἑν τῷ ᾅδῃ, ὄντως οὐδεὶς ἐπίστευσε πρὸ ἐμοῦ εἰς αὐτόν. Ταῦτα δὲ ἀκούων, μὴ νομίσῃς εἶναι πάντοτε ἐν τῷ ᾅδῃ μετάνοιαν· ἄπαξ γὰρ καἰ μόνον τοῦτο γέγονεν, ὅτι Χριστὸς ἐν τοῖς καταχθονίοις κατελήλυθε, τοὺς ἀπ' αἰῶνος κεκοιμημένους ἐπισκέψασθαι.

Daniel said...

"We want the touch of Christ's hand upon our literature, as it touched other dead things—we want the sense of the saturation of Christ's blood upon the souls of onr poets, that it may cry through them in answer to the ceaseless wail of the Sphinx of our humanity, expounding agony into renovation. Something of this has been perceived in art when its glory was at the fullest. Something of a yearning after this may be seen among the Greek Christian poets, something which would have been much with a stronger faculty. It will not harm us in any case, as lovers of literature and honest judges, if we breathe away, or peradventure besom away, the thick dust which lies upon their heavy folios, and besom away, or peradventure breathe away, the inward intellectual dust, which must be confessed to lie thickly, too, upon the heavy poems, and make our way softly and meekly into the heart of such hidden beauties (hidden and scattered) as our good luck, or good patience, or, to speak more reverently, the intrinsic goodness of the Fathers of Christian Poetry, shall permit us to discover."

Elizabeth Browning -
Essays on the Greek Christian Poets and The English Poets

full text available from Google books

Aaron Taylor said...

Andreas> Good work!

Maximus> Sweet! Did you just find that poking around online?

Daniel said...

aaron- sure did. im in library school! it's what i do!!

Joseph Zheng said...

Thanks for this fascinating post. I'm really happy to read Elizabeth Barrett Browning's translations, too.

So why is that guy wearing on his head what looks like an Operation game board?

Aaron Taylor said...

According to Felix Culpa, it's Plato and he's carrying a coffin (I believe that's a little skeleton inside). Without a clearer picture, I have no clue what his scroll says, so if there's an explanation there we don't know. However, in the Phaedo Plato teaches that philosophy is a preparation for death, a point that the Fathers enthusiastically affirm. It seems to me that the coffin may be a reference to this key idea in Platonic philosophy.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Let me know what you find guys! Very iinteresting stuff.

I found the full list of the figures in the Sucevita fresco above: "Porphyrios, Goliud, Umid, Vason, Ason, Astakoe, Udin, Selum, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Pitagor, Sibyl, Saul" (Michael D. Taylor, "A Historiated Tres of Jesse", Dumbarton Oaks Papers 34 (1980-81), p. 135, n. 34. "Umid" is likely a corruption for "Umir", Homer. "Selum" or "Saul" could both represent Solon, with the other unknown. Pitagor is Pythagoras, of course.

It's a very cool article. It's on its way, Aaron!

Andreas Houpos said...

So, weeks later, I have a lead.

I finally saw and had a chance to speak with my fellow parishioner who had visited the above-mentioned (yet unnamed) church in Greece that depicted the likes of Plato in iconography.

She told me she saw this in a church in Pelion (Πήλιο), but did not recall the name of the church. I searched this in Google tonight when I got home and found the church of St. Marina in Kissos (Κισσός), which seems to be a likely candidate.

I didn't put a great deal of energy into searching for photos floating around out there on the Internet, and so did not find any concrete evidence. However, on the church's website, on the 'History' page, it says the following:

"On the frescos [sic] are topics from the New and Old testament, the Revelation, from Natural History, and geography. The reason for this variety of topics was due to the fact that the temple also functioned as secret Greek school, whilst Greece was under the Ottoman domination."

Well that pretty much gives us everything but the photographic evidence. I'll leave it to someone else to pay for the plane tickets.

Given these descriptions, it may be the case that the depictions of the pagan philosophers may not be iconography proper, but perhaps strictly pedagogical art.

Here's the church's website:


Aaron Taylor said...

Thanks, Andreas!

Andreas Houpos said...

If anyone is still following this thread, John Sanidopoulos over at Mystagogy just posted info and photos on several examples of philosophers depicted as we discussed above. I saw his post and immediately recalled this one...it was just a devil of a time trying to get back to it, though :)