Thursday, March 19, 2015

Photios Kontoglou on Ancient Greek Philosophers

Wall Painting, with which Kontoglou decorated a wall of his house, 1932; now in the National Gallery. The fifth portrait from the right on top is Pythagoras.

By Dr. Constantine Cavarnos

"Pythagoras," said Kontoglou, "was an important figure. He rose to great heights. He, Empedocles, and some other ancient Greeks were important."

"I believe you would include Heraclitos in your list," I remarked.

"Yes, indeed," he said.

Kontoglou did not explain in just what sense he thought that Pythagoras "rose to great heights", and that Pythagoras, Empedocles, and some others were "important". But from later conversations I had with him and from various writings of his it became clear to me that he believed, as did Saint Seraphim of Sarov and Saint Nektarios of Aegina, as well as earlier Saints, that some of the ancient Greek philosophers had grasped certain important truths, illuminated by God. Saint Seraphim, whom Photios esteemed very highly - as is evident from a long article he wrote about this great Russian Saint - says:

The presence of the Spirit of God also acted among the pagans who did not know the true God, although it did so less strongly than among God's people. Indeed, even among them God found for Himself chosen people.... Such were the pagan philosophers who, although they wandered in the darkness of ignorance of the Deity, yet sought the truth which is beloved of God. By this very God-pleasing search they were enabled to partake of the Spirit of God.*

And Saint Nektarios, whom Photios has honored by painting holy icons depicting him, sharing this view, says that Socrates and "divine Plato" were at times "inspired by God".**

Kontoglou was speaking from the standpoint of an authentic Greek, who cherished what is true and noble in the Hellenic tradition, and as a pious Orthodox Christian who saw the value of such elements for his religion. The very high esteem he had for Pythagoras is evidenced not only by his statement quoted above, but also by the fact that Pythagoras' portrait was included among those which he painted on the walls of his house in 1932 and in the City Hall of Athens in 1937. At the City Hall (Demarcheion), where he has narrated pictorially the uninterrupted history of the Greek people, from the earliest period to the time of the Greek War of Independence (1821-1828), he included the following philosophers: Thales, Pythagoras, Heraclitos, Anaxagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Plotinos. He labels Plato "the heavenly philosopher", and Plotinos "the soaring philosopher".

Although Kontoglou had a 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. Regarding this topic, he says in his Ekphrasis of Orthodox Iconography: "The old icon painters sometimes painted in the narthex of churches these wise Greeks, because they foresaw the dispensation of Christ's Incarnation." He gives as examples eleven names and descriptions of how they have been depicted. Among them are the names of Plato, Aristotle and Plutarch.***

* St. Seraphim of Sarov by Constantine Cavarnos and Mary-Barbara Zeldin, Belmont, MA, 1984, pp. 104-105.

** Christologia, Athens, 1901, pp. 14, 18, 20.

*** Vol. 1, pp. 308-310.

From Meetings With Kontoglou by Constantine Cavarnos (Institute For Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Belmont, MA, 1992) pp. 52-55.