Friday, March 20, 2015

Photios Kontoglou on European and Other Philosophers

Blaise Pascal

By Dr. Constantine Cavarnos

Kontoglou said:

I am a primitive man, I am not versed in philosophies and such things. The other day someone was telling me about Descartes, and mentioned his statement: "I think, therefore I exist." This assertion is absurd. For when I think, I do not simply "exist". It is when I am asleep that I "exist".

The person who was telling Kontoglou about Descartes - the 17th century Frenchman who is regarded as the "father of modern philosophy" - used the Greek word hyparcho for the French je suis, or the Latin sum, which mean "I am". Thus, the absurdity noted by Kontoglou does not occur in the French or Latin texts of Descartes. I explained this to Kontoglou. He had a point. When one asks a Greek how he is, and he answers: "I exist," he means that he feels that he is merely vegetating, is making no headway in life.

Kontoglou's statement that he is a "primitive man" was an expression of his humility. For he was a man of wide learning and was acquainted with the thought of a good many philosophers. He has authored a book on the celebrated French philosopher Pascal, who was a contemporary of Descartes. However, he showed little interest in European philosophy. Even Pascal interested him primarily as an apologist of Christianity and a critic of the rationalism of Descartes and others.

Kontoglou asked me who some of Descartes' followers were. I mentioned Spinoza as one of the most famous and explained that Spinoza wrote his main work, his Ethic, in the manner of geometricians, starting with definitions and axioms, and proceeding to propositions and demonstrations. Kontoglou expressed contempt for such a cold way of philosophizing.

This made me recall what I read in one of his articles, that the ancient Greeks turned knowledge into poetry (i.e., gave poetic form to knowledge), whereas Europeans turned poetry into dry knowledge, deprived it of essential poetic form, of warmth, of power to uplift.

He mentioned Ralph Waldo Emerson as one of the exceptions. Emerson, he remarked, gave poetic expression to his philosophical insights.

As more important than Emerson, he regarded Leon Shestov (1866-1938). Some years before this conversation, in 1947, he included in his book on Pascal, titled The Life and Conduct of Blaise Pascal, two passages from Shestov. Over them he put this heading: "A few words written by the philosopher Shestov, who, like Pascal, in the end became a Christian and was baptized before his death, for he was a Jew." The first passage is as follows:

One distinguishes the truths which come from religious faith by this: contrary to the truths which come from [secular] knowledge, the truths of religion are neither true nor useful for all men, and for this reason they are incapable of forcing mortals [to accept them]. The truths of faith are given freely, and whoever accepts them accepts them freely, no one makes them into a system, they do not give an account to anyone, they do not frighten anyone, and they themselves are not afraid of anyone.

Kontoglou showed interest in another philosopher of the Russian diaspora: Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948). Although in certain subject Berdyaev deviated from the Orthodox tradition, Kontoglou esteemed him for the fact that he gave vigorous expression to many important truths. In the April 1952 issue of Kibotos, he published an excerpt from a book of Berdyaev regarding Orthodoxy. He himself had translated it from the French edition. I quote below the greater part of it:

The West, which is accustomed to its own form of Christianity, can with difficulty understand how the Orthodox faith guides the hearts of the faithful, how it elevates them for life. Its paths are very different from the paths which Western Christianity follows. Orthodoxy educates people above all and before everything else by means of spiritual cultivation, especially by the Liturgy, by the Mystery of the Divine Eucharist. It is chiefly a liturgical religion. Orthodoxy elevates people not by means of precepts of good conduct, but by means of the examples of the life of the saints and by means of holiness. The center for religious life is, for Orthodoxy, prayer, conversation with God.... This concept of Orthodoxy renders it, out of all the forms which Christianity has taken, the one that is most detached from the earthly life and from worldly things, because more than all the other forms of Christianity, Orthodoxy believes that man is destined for the life immortal, and because, more than all the others, it has preserved the bonds with the tradition of the First Christians and continues it.... Spiritual guidance (starchestvo) is the only means of governing souls, something which only Orthodoxy has. The Spiritual Father (Starets) is always some monk.... He possesses special gifts of Divine grace, without having a certain external and secular office.

Another philosopher we discussed in that conversation was Henri Bergson (1859-1941) of France. In 1952 I had sent to Kontoglou a copy of my book A Dialogue Between Bergson, Aristotle and Philologos, written in English. As he did not know English, he gave it to a friend of his who knew English to read. From this person he learned the main points of the Dialogue. He listed it in the column "Books Received" of Kibotos. Kontoglou's attitude towards Bergson was positive as regards his critique of rationalism and materialism. Bergson criticizes and rejects both the methodology of rationalism and the worldview of materialism. Kontoglou was in sympathy with this.

Meetings With Kontoglou by Constantine Cavarnos (Institute For Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Belmont, MA, 1992) pp. 56-59.