Friday, March 17, 2006

The Mind of the Fathers

From chapter 7 of The Mind of the Fathers, by George S Bebis, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994

Saint Photios was a son of a noble Byzantine family of ancient Armenian stock which was related to the Macedonian royal dynasty. Because of his noble status, he had the opportunity to enter into the high ranks of the imperial court and to serve as a top-ranking diplomat and ambassador for Assyria for Emperor Michael III (842-867). Next, he was appointed as the first imperial secretary of the royal court, and thus St Photios soon acquired power and glory in the imperial palace of Constantinople. He also became the prime minister of Emperor Michael III, and at the same time he reorganised and taught at the celebrated University of Constantinople, two tasks which could not have been easy even for a man of the stature of the holy Photios.

Yet he became famous, as well as one of the most imposing and controversial personalities of his times when he was elected and consecrated archbishop and patriarch of Constantinople in 858. This great man, bishop, and theologian of wondrous biblical roots, of exquisite theological acumen, of rare erudition and sincere piety became a controversial figure and faced many adversaries and enemies during his lifetime. Perhaps the most antagonistic issue was whether his election and ordination as patriarch was canonical. Many of his contemporaries wrote against him, such as Niketas of Paphlagonia, the metropolitan of Smyrna; Stylianos of Neocaesarea, Pope Nicholas I and Anastasios the Librarian, just to mention a few. They presented him as an unscrupulous and covetous man, as a person blinded by pride and a lust for power.

Later, a whole stream of historians, especially in the West, depicted him as a man of ambition, pride, bias and theological scholarship. They claimed that his actions led to the rift and the schism between East and West. Baronius, the celebrated Western historian of the seventeenth century, Cardinal Hergerther of the nineteenth century, and the French historian E. Amman painted a malevolent picture of St Photios, ignoring the true dimensions of his character while distorting the historical evidence which was at their disposal. Yet even his most fierce enemies could not dismiss the nobility of his character, his splendid education, and his great contribution to teaching and writing.

Thus, Niketas of Paphlagonia, who was not a friend of his, writes: "Photios was not of low and obscure origins; rather, he was the child of noble and highly renowned parents. In worldly wisdom and reasoning, he was viewed as the most capable person in the Empire. He had studied grammar and poetry, rhetoric and philosophy, the healing arts [apparently medicine], and almost every other worldly science. In all of these, he not only surpassed all others of his time, but even competed with learned men of earlier times. He succeeded in all things, and all things benefited him; his natural capabilities, his diligent learning, and his wealth by which every book was able to find its way to him."

Later serious and unbiased scholars, such as Laport, Grumel, and finally, Dvornik, realised that the history of St Photios needed to be rewritten and that all the anti- Photian documents upon which his condemnation was based demanded thorough inspection and revision. The man who fully reopened Photios’ dossier and re-examined his case was Francis Dvornik in his celebrated book, ‘The Photian Schism, History and Legend.’ He based his work on solid historical evidence and proved that Patriarch Photios has wrongly stood as a sign of contradiction, a symbol of disunion, and the father of the schism between the East and the West. Thus, no serious scholar today challenges St Photios’ moral character and his deep devotion to the Church and her unity.
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