Monday, September 6, 2010

Medieval Russian Thought and Classical Antiquity

I have always wondered when Western learning first came to Russia.  The question of how and from where it entered the country is posed in various ways by different scholars.  One solid tradition, represented by James Cracraft's The Petrine Revolution in Russian Culture and Gary Marker's Publishing, Printing and the Origins of Intellectual Life in Russia, 1700-1800, argues that secular categories of thought only took root with the reforms of Peter the Great.  Especially in Marker's treatment, Western print culture is argued to have provided the proper containers for the transplantation of European intellectual norms in scientific inquiry and literary production.  On the other hand, Kievan Rus', the progenitor state of Muscovite Russia, had received its religion and writing system from Byzantine Greece.  The question is whether any Byzantine classicism (represented, for example, in the work of Michael Psellos) was able to penetrate into Rus'.

Scholars such as Francis J. Thomson and Simon Franklin discount the value of any medieval Russian acquaintance with classical antiquity.  In a book chapter Thomson severs any possible connection between Byzantine classicism and the Slavonic literary culture that the Byzantines created for the proselytization of the Bulgarians and the Eastern Slavs of Kievan Rus' (304).  He admits that while medieval Russians gradually gained access through translations to "a considerable amount of information about classical mythology and legends, even if it is given in a distorted form, they provide no understanding of the main currents of classical philosophy," for example (326).  Moreover, though Russians had access to a smorgasbord of aphorisms and selected passages from various classical authors, "[n]ot a single classical work was translated in its entirety in the sixteenth century" (314).  A smattering of learning cannot masquerade as true understanding.  Franklin even goes so far as to say that "[t]here was no debate over classical learning as there was no classical learning to debate" (quoted in Thomson 303).

I would beg to differ.

Indeed, none of these objections disprove that classical antiquity played an important role in medieval Russian thought, even if the understanding of antiquity was not as sophisticated or as nuanced as that of contemporary Western scholars.  William Ryan has devoted an article to the question of the status of Aristotle in Medieval Russia.  Ryan provides several interesting examples demonstrating how Aristotle was a central figure in the religious debates of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Vassian Patrikeev, a member of the non-possessor party, was condemned by church authorities sympathetic to Joseph for "introduc[ing] into his translation of the Nomokanon (code of ecclesiastical law) the pagan philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, Alexander, Philip, and Homer" (Ryan 652).  Anticipating certain Protestant objections to Catholic doctrines during the Reformation, Russians of the time objected to the use of classical antiquity on the basis of its incompatibility with Christian doctrine:

In the religious polemics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in South-west Russia, the protagonists of Orthodoxy objected to the teaching of classical philosophy in church schools, claiming that their Roman adversaries paid more attention to logic than to sacred tradition (652).

The author of Russia's first substantial work of secular prose (the Zhitie protopopa Avvakuma, or the Autobiography of Avvakum) felt compelled to rhetorically position himself in opposition to everything that Western antiquity stood for:

At a less sophisticated level, the Archpriest Avvakum, one of the leaders of the Old Believer schismatic sect in seventeenth-century Russia, simply consigned all the Greek philosophers to eternal damnation (654).

Classical learning was very much in the foreground of Russian debate, even if its role was to serve as a point of opposition to native Orthodox ways.

Works Cited

Ryan, William F. "Aristotle in Old Russian Literature." The Modern Language Review 63.3 (1968): 650–658. <>.

Thomson, Francis J. "The Distorted Mediaeval Russian Perception of Classical Antiquity: The Causes and the Consequences." Ed. Andries Welkenhuysen, Herman Braet, and Werner Verbeke. Mediaeval Antiquity. Mediaevalia Lovaniensia, ser. 1, studia 24. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 1995. 303-364. <>.