Ellopos Blog

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ELLOPOS

Byzantine language, society and creativity


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Can we really speak about Byzantine Greek as an artificial language? Let’s read a sentence from the Alexiad: “ὅ γε λόγος ὁ τῆς ἱστορίας ἔρυμα καρτερώτατον γίνεται τῷ τοῦ χρόνου ῥεύματι καὶ ἵστησι τρόπον τινὰ τὴν ἀκάθεκτον τούτου ῥοὴν καὶ τὰ ἐν αὐτῷ γινόμενα πάντα͵ ὁπόσα ὑπερείληφε͵ ξυνέχει καὶ περισφίγγει καὶ οὐκ ἐᾷ διολισθαίνειν εἰς λήθης βυθούς.” 

Then a sentence by Prodromos, a writer who used the popular language of the time: “καὶ θέλω δεῖξαι προφανῶς τὴν ταύτης μοχθηρίαν, ἀλλὰ φοβοῦμαι, δέσποτα, τοὺς ἰταμωδεστέρους, μήπως ἐμὲ ἀκούσωσι, καὶ ὑπάγουν εἰς τὸ ὁσπίτιν καὶ νὰ μὲ πιττακώσωσιν ἐκ τῶν ἀπροσδοκήτων”. 

Is there a great distance between these two forms? Even if we wanted for the Byzantines not to have used the Attic dialect, it would have been incorrect to accuse them of speaking an artificial language, for two reasons; first, because Attic is not an artificial language, and second, because Attic (Byzantine or classical) and popular/modern Greek, are different forms of the same language. 

In case that Byzantine popular was a different language, then, again, we should not speak about Byzantine Attic as an artificial, but as a foreign language. When I speak English, being myself a Greek, I don’t use an artificial language, but a foreign language. If I was a modern Englishman using Shakespeare’s English, I would use a different form of English, not an artificial language. Since both are forms of the same language, Byzantine Attic is neither artificial nor foreign, but just a different form, which Byzantine authors preferred, admiring the classical authors and enjoying the very sense of tradition and continuity. 

Was their sense of continuity servile? This is another important question we should ask, not only to understand them, but also to understand ourselves. Byzantines’ main priority was faith. I remind this, because priorities determine the ways of productivity: we should not judge the Byzantines (or the ancient Greeks) from their scientific or technological endeavors. Both Byzantium and Ancient Greece developed science and technology to a surprisingly small degree given their abilities for such a development, arrested as they were by ultimate metaphysical realities, victory over death and the passing to the other life. Their degree of progress and development should be estimated in the context of how they wanted to live, not of how we want. 

Is Byzantine Theology insignificant? Not only modern Orthodox thinkers, but also Catholic and Protestant recognise its significance, some of them (again, not only the Orthodox) considering it to be the most important theology Christianity ever arrived at. The same can also be said about their iconography. Can such a creativity be attributed to a servile and an artificial mind? If yes, shouldn’t we envy them for their servility rather than condemn them? But creation is not a characteristic of spiritual servitude. 

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4 Comments

  1. George, you have a duty to historical accuracy. Aristotle was not an abberation in Greek culture and Plato was not the mainstream. It was actually the other way around. I know this does not conform to the narrative you try to construct on this site, so as to make Orthodoxy seem like the natural successor to the ancient world, but it is more accurate.

    Good site but try and make it better.

  2. Here is (roughly) the line I have in mind: Homer, Hesiod, Presocratics, Tragedy and Comedy, Socrates, Plato, Plutarch, Plotinus, Proclus. If this is not the main Greek line, perhaps you could give me yours and correct me. Besides this, it is very well known that the life of ancient Greeks was formed around the Divine, whether the many Gods of the popular feeling or the One God of the philosophers. Aristotle is the only thinker that developed a science of ‘knowing everything’, from the growing of plants to the formation of clouds, preparing thus the modern western and un-greek notion of philosophy.

  3. I am a regular visitor of Ellopos, and I can’t say that historical accuracy is a rare element here. Orthodoxy does not need anyone to ‘construct a narrative’ and make it seem a ‘natural successor to the ancient world’. The Greek people by themselves, who became Christians and remain until now, prove it adequately I think.

  4. Hermes’ passion is not for historical accuracy, but against Christianity

 

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