Interview with Constantine Niarchos, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Athens
Professor Constantine Niarchos is Professor of Ancient Greek Philosophy at the Faculty of Philosophy in the University of Athens, and specialises in the relationship between ancient Greek philosophy and early Christian thought. In this interview he discusses modern asceticism, the question of the future of Orthodox Christianity, and how Christians can best tackle the crises of the modern world.


Priest Antoniy Borisov: Could you please introduce yourself?

Professor Constantine Niarchos: Yes. My name is Constantine Niarchos, and I am a Professor of Ancient Greek Philosophy at the Faculty of Philosophy in the University of Athens. I teach ancient Greek philosophy, but I am very much interested in the relation between philosophy in general, and especially ancient Greek philosophy, to the Christian doctrines, to the Christian faith, and to Christian ethics. I believe that there is an interaction between ancient Greek philosophy and Christianity, especially in the early times when dogma was formulated, and the Greek Fathers of the early period, let’s say of the 3rd or the 4th centuries, integrated into Christian teaching quite a lot of the philosophical terms and philosophical expressions and even the ideas of the antique Greek philosophers – I’m especially referring to Plato and Aristotle – and concerning ethics we have a great influence of Stoic ethics on the Christian formulation of ethics. Taking into account that there are quite large differences between philosophy and theology, I personally believe that philosophy is an creation of the human mind and theology is the revelation of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, to the universe.

A.B.: Thank you very much for this introduction. And so the first question. What do you think is the role of the traditional Orthodox ascetic in the modern world nowadays?

K.N.: I think that when we say “traditional orthodox ascetics”, as far as I know from the philosophical point of view it is what the ancient philosophers called  “self discipline” first, self-knowledge, the Greek word aftognosía, and then to know ourselves – as Socrates said, gnóthi seaftón. Without knowing ourself we can’t proceed to any kind of actions towards the world, individuals, persons, the community, and the members of the Church, so ascetics and ascetism is the right way of achieving the high goal of human beings, which is happiness. Happiness according to Aristotle is a good life, to live well in this world. But happiness, as far as I know, in the Christian faith is to achieve the salvation of human existence, especially to achieve our immortal life. I must add here that the ancient Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul – especially Plato, and he has given us quite a few arguments supporting the immortality of the soul. While Aristotle himself, the known pupil of Plato, confined the immortality of the soul to the area of might, νους [nous].

I think that by the word “ascetic” we mean from the philosophical point of view the capacity of the human being to achieve so-called self-control, self-knowledge, aftognosía. As Socrates himself called it, “gnóthi seaftón” – “to know ourselves”, which is a very difficult task. Because to know somebody else is more easy than to know ourselves. For there is a difference between knowing somebody who is outside of us, which is an object of knowledge, but to know ourselves is to know the object, which is myself. So, to know myself is more difficult than to know somebody else. In this sense ascetic and ascetism is the highest and most difficult task of human beings, especially when you make reference to the Christian life. Christians have to do a very hard job to achieve ascetism. But ascetism is the place, is the level, is the chance, the opportunity to achieve our high goal, which is salvation, on the side of Christianity, and happiness, on the side of ancient Greek philosophy. I’m especially referring to Aristotle, who said that the highest goal of human beings is eudaimonia – or “happiness”. While Plato said that the highest goal of human beings is facing, achieving or arriving at the highest goal, which is the Supreme Good, the upsiston agathon.

A.B.: Thank you. Many modern theologians think that society nowadays is in a crisis, an ethical or religious crisis. And society nowadays, especially secular society, has some challenges for the Orthodox Church. What are the main challenges of secular society for the Orthodox Church?

K.N.: Yes, it is true that in our world today the 21st century is called the century of crisis. Crises of values. Crisis of principles. Crisis of civilization. Crisis of economy – the economical crisis. All these are referring to the crisis of conscience. All begin from human beings’ consciences. If we are ourselves, do not decide to overcome these detailed crises, in plural, than we can not achieve any highest goal. In this sense I believe that the Orthodox Church, with its rich contents of principles, of doctrines, especially of paradigms, of exemplars, of the way, the sense of the Orthodox Church lives during the centuries starting from the old times up to today. And I make special reference to the holy sense of the Russian Orthodox Church. And I myself, as a Greek, must confess here that I have noticed that in this country there is a deep and sincere believe in Christ. Most men and women behave in such a way which is quite new and fresh for me being a Greek. So I think that the richness of sanctity, the richness of tradition that you have in the Russian Orthodox Church must be given, must be explored, must be spread to the rest of the Orthodox world. And through this, and through your Church, and I think the other denominations, the confessions, the Christian confessions, because I don’t believe that there is any other kind of chance apart from the Orthodox Church – they must look at us, especially at you the Russians, and take us as an example, as a paradigm in order to form for their own societies the true scheme of living in a way that will help the men and women of our society to overcome the existing crisis. And I repeat, all these economical, cultural and other crises start from the crisis of our conscience.

A.B.: Okay. And the last question. What are the chances of Orthodox ethnics to survive in the modern world, to stay safe?

K.N.: Well, the chances are very strong, I believe. That depends on how much we are connected with our Church. How much we participate, not simply to follow the liturgies or the other activities of the Church. The question for me today is that we Christians should participate wholly, spiritually and bodily into the actual life of the Church. And there we will be enlightened and will be helped by our Lord Jesus Christ, in order to overcome all difficulties, even the financial difficulties. This is what I’m talking about every day to my compatriots in Greece. Because in Greece now we are facing a tremendous crisis, a financial crisis and I say to them from the philosophical point of view that we have to be reinforced with our principles, namely the principles of Greek philosophy, and the principles of the Orthodox Church. And I’m quite optimistic for the future of our society. But it all depends on the way we – the teachers, the professors and the clergymen of all status starting from the lowest to the highest – we will give to the people not only teaching, but a paradigm, the example of our personal life. Because as you probably know sometimes it’s much better to keep silent if you are not in a position to teach others, to teach others with your behaviour, with your personal life. Because we have been let astray by several cases of people who teach-teach-teach, we especially have some preachers who we see all the time. But their personal life is exactly the opposite. Our peoples today need us (I repeat: the professors, the teachers, and the clergymen) to teach them keeping silent, while teaching them with our personal life, the personal paradigm, the way of living.

A.B.: Thank you very much. Your answers were very deep, and very important for us. Thank you.

K.N.: Thank you. Through this interview I would like to express my deep respect and adoration to Russian people who we the Greeks consider to be the only brothers on the earth.  And it is a pity that we do not have so close relations. But returning back to Greece I have to be a preacher of the experience I received here in Moscow. I congratulate you and I pray to God to keep you safe and healthy to carry on your difficult work you have for the Church and society.

A.B.: Thank you very much.

K.N.: Thank you.

Interviewed by Priest Antoniy Borisov

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