You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Remember the Greek Enlightenment?

Neither does Greece, to judge by its government

Aris Messins/Getty Images

Enlightenment and Revolution: The Making of Modern Greece by Paschalides M. Kitromilides (Harvard)

It would probably come as a surprise to most readers in Europe and America that the Enlightenment spread all the way to Greece in the eighteenth century and spawned revolutionary movements in support of democracy and the rights of man. These movements ultimately faded away by the time a Bavarian prince took over Greece as its king in the aftermath of its glorious but ultimately inconclusive War of Independence. Yet the links forged between Greek liberals and their Western counterparts during two Russo-Turkish wars, the American Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution, and the age of Napoleon reveal that ideas mattered, even if they did not endure.

The historical appreciation of the Greek Enlightenment, known as diafôtismos, began with Constantin Dimaras, an important Greek scholar who taught in Paris after World War II. His collected papers, written over twenty years, were published in French in 1969 under the title La Grèce au temps des Lumières, but it has taken a long time for his work to percolate into the mainstream of Enlightenment studies. Paschalis Kitromilides, more than anyone since Dimaras, has now given this history the exposure it has long deserved. It is a history that necessarily depends upon what was happening in Western Europe, and yet is as different from it as Greece itself was from Europe at that time. It is a history full of courageous and multilingual intellectuals, who saw a chance to bring Greece out of the Byzantine age, orthodox Christianity, and Turkish domination. 

No one is better qualified than Kitromilides to write this kaleidoscopic and tumultuous narrative. He writes as a political scientist, a historian, and a Greek. Despite his subtitle, The Making of Modern Greece, his book is a powerful indictment of the failure of liberalism in his country, as the process of enlightenment finally came undone in the nineteenth century. Whether or not this failure can explain, as Kitromilides hopes it might, the catastrophic deterioration of the Greek political system in the twenty-first century is by no means clear. But it is with a rare combination of passion and erudition that he is moved to lament the end of the New Democracy that Constantine Karamanlis brought to Greece after the nightmare of military dictatorship between 1967 and 1974. That was the heady time when Greece joined the European Economic Community.

It was also the time when Kitromilides was writing his doctoral dissertation in the government department at Harvard. He was lucky in having two incomparable teachers, Michael Walzer and Judith Shklar, and it shows. He took his degree in 1979 with a dissertation bearing the title, “Tradition, Enlightenment and Revolution: Ideological Change in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Greece.” His new book is a direct descendant of that dissertation by way of a Greek edition published in 1996. The unfortunate subtitle of the American edition represents the aspirations of the late 1970s, and its inappropriate attachment to Enlightenment and Revolution today only illustrates the lethal alternation between instability and sclerosis that has characterized Greek society for several millennia. 

Still, the last years of Kitromilides’s graduate study were a good time to be a Greek at Harvard. The departure of the colonels in 1974 and the arrival of Karamanlis brought hope to a lively Greek community in Cambridge, for which the ebullient Lily Makrakis, a professor at the Hellenic College, hosted a salon of Greeks and philhellenes at her house in Belmont. This was a community that was soon enriched by the presence of George Savidis, the great Cavafy scholar, who came to Harvard in 1977 as the first Seferis Professor of Modern Greek Literature through an endowment provided by the Greek government itself. Savidis’s wife, Lena, belonged to the family who owned the left-leaning Athenian newspaper To Vima. There was a palpable sense of excitement that things were changing in Greece, an excitement that could be felt as far away as Cambridge and Belmont. The collapse of Enlightenment ideals in nineteenth-century Greece seemed, in this perspective, only another illustration of the burden of the past that has afflicted the whole of Greek history—but it seemed, at least for a moment, as if this burden might at last be shaken off. Not for nothing did Savidis offer a seminar at that time on the burden of the past in Greek literature.

Yet by the spring and summer of 2012, when Kitromilides was preparing the present book for publication, Greece was, as he states ruefully in his preface, “in the throes of a deep political crisis.” There were the two elections of May and June, from which the world feared an imminent and worldwide economic disaster. There is a tone of bitterness in Kitromilides’s account of the dissolution of the two-party system that Karamanlis had brought to Greece. “Not only was the two-party system replaced by a fragmented multiparty chorus,” he writes, “but the extremes of the political spectrum emerged considerably strengthened: the main party of the Left . . . emerged as the main opposition force, while at the extreme Right political forces espousing chauvinistic, xenophobic, and racist positions were returned to parliament with nonnegligible shares of the vote.” 

If Greece’s threat to the global economy has diminished a little since 2012, the political chaos certainly has not: electoral manipulation, economic pressure, and of course the racist and brutal Golden Dawn arouse the direst premonitions. The end of Kitromilides’s preface becomes ever more bitter, referring to the creation of “a new political class and a vociferous ‘progressive’ intelligentsia that have dominated and plundered the state and the institutions of public life (including the universities). . . and led the country to the present catastrophe. . . . The mass media abetted in the most unscrupulous way this attitude.” These contemporary developments in no way invalidate or diminish the authority of the Enlightenment narrative that Kitromilides provides, but they give it a much darker coloration. The enlightened and revolutionary ideals that inspired so many brave and eloquent leaders left their traces, but they left no intellectual legacy. It would be good to report that what Kitromilides describes might be in some way helpful for addressing the current political and economic crisis in Greece, but in the end there is little optimism that can be extracted from the extraordinary tale that he tells.

Four great figures emerge prominently in the Greek Enlightenment, from the middle of the eighteenth century to the War of Independence that broke out in 1821. They are scarcely household names, even to historians well acquainted with European history, but all of them actively disseminated the influential and revolutionary ideas that better-known Western thinkers, such as Locke and Voltaire, had published. They all contributed to the spread of what Jonathan Israel has called the Radical Enlightenment. These Greek intellectuals were writers, pamphleteers, and translators who courageously took positions in opposition to the entrenched traditions of their age. They were Evgenios Voulgaris, the strangely named Iosipos Moisiodax (perhaps a Romanian Dacian from Hungarian Moesia), Rhigas Velestinlis (sometimes called Feraios), and Adamantios Korais. The four of them, as well as many others, undertook to bring to Greece the revolutionary changes that were sweeping across Europe and America as a direct consequence of the internationalization of Enlightenment thought. The presence in Paris during the French Revolution of Tom Paine and Joel Barlow, another American revolutionary, demonstrated that the Atlantic was no barrier to sharing radical ideas. The successive revolutions in America and France appeared to imply the imminent demise of the old order. 

In Greece, the obstacles to change were less the occupying Turks than a substantial class of highly educated Greeks, called Phanariots, who had made a profitable accommodation with them. These highly educated and intelligent men owed their name to a region in Constantinople called Phanari (the lamp), which was subject to the ecumenical patriarch. He provided their education. Over time the Phanariots became valuable to the Ottomans by placing their knowledge and their languages in the service of the Sultan as dragomans, or translators. Naturally their privileged position and gentlemanly lives could provoke resentment among other Greeks, but equally they had an interest in securing their own position. Change, as represented by the Enlightenment, posed a threat to their influence, which depended upon their mastery of classical Greek learning and language.

Yet a millennium of Byzantine rule had left the Greeks under a crushing burden of the past—classical Greek philosophy as represented by Plato and Aristotle, the canonization of classical Greek literature, the deeply rooted orthodox Church, and of course the ancient Greek language itself. The revolt against ecclesiastical authority had obvious parallels in the West, but there was nothing comparable to the tyranny of ancient Greek literature and ancient Greek language. Written and spoken Greek had been evolving in the region for more than a thousand years. By the late eighteenth century, the disjunction between the classic style and vocabulary of intellectuals and the much simplified speech of the populace could not be avoided. The burden of the Greek past was both spiritual and linguistic.

Evgenios Voulgaris’s long life, from 1716 to 1806, spanned the tumultuous changes that were taking place in the West. He was a celibate priest whose deep learning and brilliant teaching led to a series of prestigious appointments, first as the director of a newly founded school in Ioannina and then as the director of a new academy on Mount Athos at the Vatopedi monastery. It was evidently during this period that Voulgaris had students who introduced him to Enlightenment thought, which he warmly espoused and began to transmit to his compatriots. By means of a great work on logic, he turned respectfully but firmly away from Aristotelian philosophy, not least under the influence of Leibniz and Christian Wolff. More decisively for the future, he made the first Greek translations of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Voltaire’s critical Essai on dissension in the Polish church.

Voulgaris composed an essay of his own on religious toleration, an attempt to reformulate Voltaire’s more extreme view in a way that might be acceptable to Greek Christians. He wrote all of this in traditional classical Greek. If he was the first important mediator of Enlightenment thought to the eighteenth-century Greeks, he still maintained their linguistic conservatism. But this did not protect him from an establishment backlash, which drove him out of Athos and subsequently out of Greece altogether. He ended up as a courtier of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg, translating into Greek her Instruction on laws for the Russian Empire and placing himself squarely on the side of enlightened absolutism. With all his innovations, he remained a man of the older generation, and his conservatism meant that liberal Greeks after him saw that there was much more to be done in bringing the Enlightenment to their nation. 

Moisiodax was a pupil of Voulgaris, and like his contemporary Dimitrios Katartzis he inherited the idea of enlightened absolutism. But the tide was already turning, as both Katartzis and Moisiodax decided that vernacular Greek would provide greater access for new ideas to most of the Greek population. At the end of his life Katartzis sadly succumbed to pressure from the traditionalist Phanariots to abandon his support of the vernacular, but Moisiodax remained a radical. He laid out his principles for educational reform in a treatise on pedagogy, in which he advocated more humane teaching and a new curriculum that would be more suited to the young. He soon went on to compose an incendiary work, Apology, in which he turned to mathematics and physics as the disciplines by which the old order would be transformed. In what Kitromilides describes as “emotionally charged prose,” with frequent reference to himself in the first person, Moisiodax provided revolutionary language for revolutionary ideas. 

His pupil Rhigas Velestinlis became the firebrand that the Greek Enlightenment would inevitably produce, and he paid for his fervor when he was murdered at Belgrade in 1798, possibly after trying to contact Napoleon for help in his revolution after the French campaign in Italy and the fall of Venice. Only a year earlier he had published a pamphlet proclaiming what he called a New Political Constitution for the Greeks of the mainland, Asia Minor, the Mediterranean islands, and the northeast Balkan territories of Wallachia and Moldavia. This audacious document, inspired by Montesquieu, included a declaration of the Rights of Man and ended with a battle hymn composed by Rhigas himself.

That hymn, which he named Thourios after the Homeric adjective thouros for Ares, the god of war, was a poem that evoked the archaic Greek poet Tyrtaeus, who had similarly written to inspire the soldiers of Sparta in the seventh century B.C.E. This meant, astonishingly, that Rhigas reached across time to shake off the burden of the past and to bring antiquity suddenly in touch with the great political movements of his own day. This was something that neither the Orthodox Church nor the Phanariots, nor even Voulgaris himself, could ever have imagined. A click on YouTube will bring up modern performances of Rhigas’s Thourios, which has still not lost its power to inspire.

The last years of Rhigas illustrate the impact of the French Revolution on the Enlightenment revolutionaries in Greece. His declaration of the Rights of Man and his interest in the rise of Napoleon, particularly once the French had taken over the Ionian Islands off the west coast of Greece, show this all too clearly. It was at this time that another Greek intellectual, with Enlightenment sympathies, was living in Paris, where he witnessed the course of the French Revolution day by day. He was Adamantios Korais, a scholar and international personality whose cosmopolitanism took him to Paris and kept him there, much as Voulgaris had settled down in St. Petersburg. But France during the Revolution was a far more exciting place than Catherine’s Russia, and irresistible for a foreigner as steeped in Enlightenment thought as Korais was. 

Korais was an ardent supporter of republicanism. He watched the earlier stages of the French Revolution with admiration, but turned away from the tyranny that followed. His constitutional ideas were closely aligned with the liberal views of Condorcet, who died mysteriously in prison after being arrested in 1794. Korais followed the course of the American Revolution with as much enthusiasm as he followed the French Revolution, and he had an extensive correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, whom he met in Paris. It helped that Jefferson’s knowledge of ancient Greek culture was profound, and the two men were able to discuss reform in Europe and America with a shared understanding of the Greek achievement in antiquity. In a letter to Jefferson in 1823, Korais wrote: “It is a misfortune for us to be neighbors of so-called enlightened European nations at a moment when they are in a crisis. . . . Observe in what perplexity those Greeks who want happiness for their nation must now find themselves. I am the dean of those Greeks (le doyen de ces Grecs) and have been for thirty years.” As a foreigner and less combative than Condorcet, he survived long enough to comment on a constitutional foundation for a new Greek nation, but when he died a few years later, it was with the knowledge that his vision had come to nothing.

Korais was a medical doctor by training, a product of the great school of medicine at Montpellier, but he was at the same time a formidably learned scholar of the ancient Greek classics, philosophy, theology, and linguistics. Like Condorcet, whose treatise on the progress of the human spirit reinvigorated the French Enlightenment, Korais undertook to reinvigorate the Greek Enlightenment through his Mémoire sur l’état actuel de la civilisation dans la Grèce, or Memoir on the Present State of Civilization in Greece. He recognized clearly the impediments to progress that the traditional and mindless espousal of classical Greek thought, especially Aristotle’s, had created, and he similarly recognized that the rigid defense of the old classical language contributed to this sclerosis. He also saw Greek orthodoxy as a pillar of conservatism. He undertook to address all three of these fundamental issues before turning, at the end of his life, to a draft for a Greek constitution.

If slavish devotion to the old texts caused problems, Korais, like Rhigas before him, knew perfectly well that the old texts were precious if only they could be approached with new eyes. They were not to be thrown out as a burden from antiquity, but to be appropriated as a cultural asset in the present. Accordingly Korais launched a huge project of editing and republishing the Greek classics for the new age. He called it the Hellenic Library, and in sixteen volumes he introduced a new canon of Greek literature that included Isocrates, Plutarch, Xenophon, and Strabo. Korais was so well read in his own classics that he understood that some ancient authors were arguably more pertinent to Enlightenment thought than Aristotle, and he put these on display in addition to the two volumes he devoted to Aristotle. In nine more volumes of Parerga of the Hellenic Library, he opened up Polyaenus, Epictetus, Arrian, and Marcus Aurelius, who were, like Plutarch, all Greek writers under the Roman Empire, and one of them actually a Roman emperor. 

Like Moisiodax and Rhigas, Korais recognized how much the Greek language had changed from its old forms, and he therefore proposed that the popular language should be the norm in contemporary Greek culture. Since he granted that parts of that language were debased, however, he felt that the vernacular required some purification. This got him into trouble, and unfortunately he aroused hostility on both sides of the language debate—among traditionalists and reformers. Their criticism was something from which he never managed to extricate himself.

Finally, Korais found orthodoxy as tyrannical as it was backward-looking, and with an eye to Protestantism in Europe he advocated detaching the Greek church from the Patriarchate in Constantinople, not least because the Patriarch was still subject to the alien Ottoman Turks. He argued for a Greek church in Greece that would be liberated not only from Constantinople but also from Russian orthodoxy, which now proclaimed itself as rooted in the Third Rome (Byzantium had been the second) and had attracted no less a Greek priest than the great Voulgaris. Once again Korais, by his attempt to mediate between conflicting parties, aroused fierce hostility from the two sides that were going to suffer. He incurred the wrath of atheist anti-clericals as well as of the Patriarch. He shared Condorcet’s opinions but not his temperament, and perhaps survived as long as he did for that reason. He was certainly no firebrand like Rhigas, and in addition he lived abroad. 

Yet when the War of Independence broke out in 1821 and the National Assembly of revolutionary Greece drafted a charter in January 1822, Korais examined the new constitution in his Notes on the Provisional Constitution of Greece. This lacked the ferocity of Rhigas’s New Political Constitution of a quarter-century before, but it showed that Korais retained all his judgment and sagacity. In 1827, the Third National Assembly of the revolutionary government warmly approved Korais’s recommendations and expressed its gratitude. “It was the Enlightenment’s finest hour,” Kitromilides rightly observes. “A nation fighting for its freedom reached self-consciousness by making the aspirations of the Enlightenment the matrix of its fate.” But this proved to be whistling past the graveyard. Korais’s moderate and modified republicanism could not resolve the incompatibility of both Byzantine orthodoxy and classical tradition with Enlightenment values. The counter-Enlightenment forces of conservatism prevailed and made way for the distinctly unenlightened government of Ioannis Capodistrias, who was ironically the first governor of a supposedly free Greece.

After Voulgaris, Korais was certainly the most learned and possibly the most thoughtful of the leaders of the Greek Enlightenment, and he was far more liberal than his eminent predecessor. Confronted with opposition at home, Voulgaris ultimately took refuge with the Russians and with a monarch he considered, not without reason, enlightened. But once he was out of his own country, his influence collapsed. Korais provides an instructive contrast because he spent most of his creative years abroad, watching firsthand the liberal ideas he espoused, first as they were being put into practice in France and then as they were subsequently subverted. Yet he continued to aspire to lead the Enlightenment in Greece through a steady stream of influential publications.

Korais’s career furnishes an impressive precedent for other exiles, who have tried, occasionally with success, to change the course of government in their native lands. In recent times the dramatic role of the Ayatollah Khomeini in overthrowing the Shah of Iran and establishing a theocracy was played out in France with the help of tape recordings, which replaced the pamphlets of earlier revolutionaries. The current role of Fethullah Gülen in challenging, from his residence in Pennyslvania, the rule of Recep Erdoğan in Turkey is comparable but more technologically sophisticated than Khomeini’s, although the outcome is still far from clear.

Kitromilides’s admirable account of the Greek Enlightenment shows that revolutionary ideas can make their way into a culture for which they were not originally designed. It seemed almost inevitable that the nation that launched the idea of democracy would be receptive to the revolutionary republicanism of the European Enlightenment. The French Revolution set an example, until it devolved into tyranny; and the American Revolution set another example that had greater staying power because it tried to accomplish less. The Greek revolution dissolved almost as quickly as the French, but it is good to be reminded of the selfless patriots who made it happen, and of the intermittent power of ideas. Kitromilides’s story may not be “the making of modern Greece,” but perhaps it is the genius and the curse of the Greeks, from antiquity to the present, to light a torch for the world and then to let it go out.