By Fr. Demetrios J. Constantelos

I was invited to speak before the Section on Education of the 35th Clergy-Laity Congress on “The Church Fathers and Hellenic Paideia,” a most interesting and timely topic which can be treated here only briefly. Volumes have been written on the subject.

But before I speak about the Church fathers, I wish to provide some basic information on paideia (education) in the thought of our forefathers, the ancient Hellenes who first spoke on the significance of paideia and became the founders of what we know as Western Civilization. And Western Civilization’s thinking begins with the Greeks.

“The rise of thinking among the Greeks was nothing less than a revolution…They discovered the human mind,” as Bruno Snell the distinguished German classical scholar has put it. Our way of thought and governance, our political and social values can be traced from modern America and Europe to medieval Europe to ancient Rome and to Greece. “Farther back we cannot go, for the Greeks began it,” writes Chester G. Starr, a leading American scholar, and historian at the University of Michigan.

Church Fathers and many Christian theologians realized that the ancient Greeks, although not Christians, were ancestors and some of them even forerunners to Jesus the Christ. When we turn to the forefathers we discover that because paideia — as education, learning, and language — improves the human mind and cultivates the human heart, it was highly valued. “Education is an ornament for the prosperous and a safe refuge for the less fortunate,” writes Demokritos of Abdera, the father of the atomic theory. Paideia is what contributes to character formation, what exercises and trains body and soul, what elevates the human to the heights where one becomes “like unto God to the extent that it is humanly possible,” writes Plato, one of the most influential individuals in history. And paideia as education is intended not only for practical and expedient goals but “to make human beings intellectually free and help them to refine their inner being — their souls,” writes Aristotle.

It was through Hellenic paideia, language, and culture, that primitive tribes and other people were Hellenized and achieved a higher degree of civilization. Neither victories against enemies nor trade and commerce were the greatest contribution of the ancient forefathers to Western Civilization. It was through paideia that all ancients and many moderns became fellow Hellenes, as Isocrates put it – “pantes oi tes hymeteras paideias metehontes.” (Hellenes are all those who have partaken of our education). With the exception of some recalcitrant individuals and despite some tension neither Judaism nor Christianity rejected Hellenic paideia. In fact, the mainstream of both adopted it and enriched their own beliefs and practices. “From the Greeks, we [the Jews] learned to love education… From the Greeks we borrowed wholesale,” writes Abba Eban, the former Secretary of State of modern Israel and its ambassador to the United Nations.

From as early as the third century before Christ, the time when the Hebrew Bible began to be translated into Greek, and throughout the Hellenistic centuries, when the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament was written, we can trace the influence of the Hellenic mind and wisdom on the Holy Scriptures of both Judaism and Christianity.

From John’s prooimion to his Gospel “in the beginning was the Logos,” to Paul’s citations from the Greek poets that “we are God’s offspring,” that in “God we live, move and have our existence,” and that “bad company ruins good morals,” to Peter’s borrowing from Stoic philosophy that “we may escape from corruption…and may become participants of the divine nature,” we find an affirmation that a close relationship had begun between Hellenism and Christianity. The influence of one language upon another is the greatest indication of the influence of one paideia upon another. While only about 70 Hebrew words are found in ancient Greek, there are numerous Greek terms in Hebrew, Latin, and the theological language of early Christianity. From its very beginning, Christianity gained converts not only among Jews but also among Greeks, as the book of Acts of the Apostles confirms.

Greek paideia encompasses the study of Greek culture and civilization in its entirety from the Homeric age to the present. Its authenticity is confirmed not so much by texts as by the faith of the community, the tradition that was inherited and sustained throughout the centuries. History confirms that the identity of a people can be best researched and verified with tradition as a guide. Greek tradition is not invented. Religion as the deliberate quest of finding the origin and meaning of life and the yearning for union with God cannot be divorced from the totality of human existence.

Christian intellectuals and Church Fathers from as early as the Apostolic age and throughout the centuries adopted Hellenic learning as part of their Christian beliefs and cultural practices. The examples are too numerous to cite: Justin the martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebios of Caesarea, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory the theologian, Cynesios of Cyrene and Maximos the Confessor, Tarasios and Photios patriachs of Constantinople, Eustathios of Thessaloniki and Theophylaktos of Ochrida, Joannis of Euchaita and the monk Joseph Kalothetos of the fourteenth century — to limit myself to only a few well-known fathers — all were excellently educated in the Holy Scriptures and in Hellenic paideia. All of them realized the value of Hellenic paideia. Just one example. Writing to a dignitary, St. Photios, the great Patriarch of Constantinople of the ninth century advised: “Paideia, [education, Christian, and Hellenic] contributes to a life of virtue and without regrets for the young, and it becomes the greatest support to those of old age. Educate your children in wisdom and virtue so that as youth they may live a beautiful life, and that in time of old age they may not need the support of others.” Throughout the Byzantine millennium and beyond, the education of the Fathers and the clergy rested on the study of the Holy Scriptures, the writings of the Fathers, the life of the Saints, and Hellenic learning – the study of ancient Greek philosophy, poetry, literature, and history. After all the Byzantine Empire was no less than the Christianized Hellenistic world as it had evolved after the Age of Alexander the Great.

The Church Fathers set an example and teach us how to approach and what to do concerning Hellenic paideia and its relationship to religious and theological paideia. A kerygmatic proclamation of the Gospel through the fathers, the doctrines, and teachings of ecumenical and local synods, requires that we enter the mind of the Fathers and comprehend the decisions of the Councils. Thus the need for our theologians, including priests and teachers, to have a thorough knowledge of historical culture and the intellectual climate in which the Gospel was proclaimed. “Culture is the form of religion and religion is the heart of culture; that is, the two are inseparable,” as Paul Tillich, a Protestant theologian, and philosopher, has put it. And Christopher Dawson, a Roman Catholic philosopher of history, adds: “The cultural function of religion is both conservative and dynamic; it consecrates the tradition of a culture and it also provides the common aim which unites the different social elements in a culture.” Concerning the relationship between Hellenism and Christianity, the Russian Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky writes: “…The cultural process …which has been variously described as a Hellenization of Christianity can be construed rather as a Christianization of Hellenism. Hellenism was…polarized and divided, and a Christian Hellenism was created.”

The success of early Christianity is attributed not only to the presence of the Holy Spirit and to divine inspiration and religious zeal, but also to Christianity’s ability to integrate many Hellenic philosophical and religious ideas, ethical principles, and spiritual elements.

As Father John Meyendorff has put it: “it is the adoption of Greek language and the use of cultural and philosophical features borrowed from Hellenism which really witnessed to a catholic understanding of the Church… the Christian Gospel had to be proclaimed as a world which spoke and thought in Greek. To do so was not a betrayal of the Scriptures for the Christian theologian…but a direct missionary duty, which was begun by the first generations of Christians and fulfilled by those whom we call the Fathers.”

Like Father Florovsky before him, Father Meyendorff concludes by adding that “there is no way in which that truth [of the Gospel and Christianity] can be known and understood, except by entering the “mind” of the Fathers, becoming their contemporaries in spirit, and therefore allowing oneself to become as Greek as they were. Our theology today must maintain consistency with their positions: all Orthodox theologians must, therefore, become “Greek” in that sense.”

Of course, the question is: how did Church fathers manage to remain culturally and intellectually Greek and yet be Christian at the same time? Let me turn to Professor Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale University, who recently embraced the Orthodox Church. In his book “Christianity and Classical Culture,” Professor Pelikan writes that “the fathers remained essentially Greek because they had been excellently trained in the classical Greek heritage (language, literature, philosophy, history) as well as the Christian Scriptures.” Their historical interpretation of Divine Economy in no way relativizes the centrality of Christ in the Orthodox Church, its faith and worship. The belief that Logos became human in order to save humanity remains the mind and heart of Orthodox theology. Thus the Fathers constitute excellent models for students of theology and future clergy.

In light of this approach to the kerygmatic mission of the church, we realize the need for a reconsideration of the catechetical and theological curricula, for a rediscovery of the mind of the Fathers as it was expressed in sermons, essays, hymns, liturgical and sacramental texts of the Church. The task of educators, Sunday school, and Greek school teachers is to study the teachings and the experience of the church in a holistic manner, vertically and horizontally, God’s presence in history before and after the incarnation of God’s Logos. Let us not forget that “everything is related to everything else” as social psychologists are telling us.

We need a critical assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of our system, of the educational administrative and economic issues, before we embark on a revision and improvement of both catechetical and cultural education, our Sunday and our day and afternoon schools. Before we become teachers and school administrators, we need to educate ourselves in both Christian and Hellenic paideia. We need to know and appreciate both if we are to succeed in our mission.

As we indicated before, the Church fathers set an example for future generations. Their writings synthesized the old and the new, for they observed no disruption, no discontinuity between God-revealed-in-history and God-revealed-in-Scripture. Our task and our challenge, then, is to revitalize our communities as centers of religious education and Hellenistic learning.

In the history of the Greeks, from remote antiquity through the Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods to the present, no part of life was without the divine, and the divine was never divorced from the daily experience of the people. The religious outlook so evident in the Homeric age, its literature, and art, has always been an integral part of our culture. Religious belief was expressed in a cultural, communal context as a vital force in everything that was thought, said, and done.

Revitalizing our community lives by making our communities centers of faith and learning is a worthy goal. How is it to be achieved? To start, bishops and priests, teachers and community leaders need first to learn and appreciate the Orthodox Christian faith and the Greek language and learning, then coordinate their efforts, avoid duplication of resources and expenses, and rise above any antagonisms. Greek religious and cultural education must become a leading priority in any list of diocesan and parish programs. More well-trained teachers are needed. The reopening of St. Basil’s Academy as a teachers and humanities college has been recommended and deserves careful study.

For many college students (and not all of them Greek American), Greek studies are an attractive and desirable alternative to other humanities concentrations. The Archdiocesan Department of Education can further the goal of Paideia in the U.S. by becoming a coordinator of Greek studies programs in the nation’s colleges and universities, providing both moral and financial support. Can we, as an ethnic and religious segment of the American population, make a better contribution to American culture? It is not ethnic pride that makes us emphasize that Greece and America have much in common. For many years the Greek classics enjoyed great popularity in the Republic’s public and private educational system. The Founding Fathers of the Republic were immersed in Greek thought and learning. Writing in 1765, John Adams advised: “Let us study …the history of the ancient ages; contemplate the great examples of Greece and Rome.” For Adams, Jefferson, James Otis, James Madison and several more ancient Greece presented better examples for the young American nation. Solon’s teaching about isonomia, equality under the law; Kleisthenes’ concept of democratia, as power that resides with the demos, the people; Socrates’ emphasis on the importance of logos, thinking rightly and speaking logically; Plato’s belief in dialogue, the principle that it is better to find ways to talk with each other than be left talking against each other; Aristotle’s verdict that poverty is the greatest defect of democracy had a telling effect on the founding fathers.

It should not surprise us that Thomas Jefferson advised his nephew, Peter Carr and other young students that study Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Diodoros Siculus Euripides, Sophocles, Epiketos, Demosthenes, Plutarch, and other masters of ancient Hellas. So great was the influence of Greek thinkers on the founding fathers, that some of them wanted to imitate the Greeks in several other cultural areas. For example, the American-born architect Benjamin Latrobe (1764 – 1820) pioneered the well known Hellenic revival. For him, Greek art and architecture symbolize freedom, simplicity, sanctity and eternity. The beautiful Bank of Philadelphia building completed in 1801 was the first of the pure Greek Revival public buildings in America. In a letter to Jefferson, Latrobe concluded by saying: I pray that “the days of Greece may be revived in the woods of America, and Philadelphia become the Athens of the western world.” His views ignited a fire, and the pure Greek style in art and architecture became the dominant forms during the period before the civil war. The ideals of Hellenism are embedded in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address; they continue to enrich the minds of many leading American intellectuals today. The writings of some of them reveal not only a nostalgia for the ideals of Hellenism but also constitute an appeal for their return in our educational system.

Allan Bloom, in his thought-provoking book The Closing of the American Mind, makes an appeal for the rediscovery of the Greek humanities and a return to the Socratic mind as seen through Plato’s dialogues, which are relevant “in almost all times and places…Throughout this book,” he writes, “I have referred to Plato’s Republic, which is for me the book on education because it really explains to me what I experience as a man and teacher…” Greek culture is a continuum; the Greek language is an indispensable tool for the study of our heritage, including religion. “The whole of Greek culture is a tightly woven tapestry,” Bloom adds.

In his extremely important and articulate report on the state of higher education, former Secretary of Education William Bennett called for a return to the fundamental principles of Western Civilization. His assessment calls on Americans to reclaim our legacy and bring humanities back to the center of the college curriculum. The humanities, according to Dr. Bennett, should communicate Western culture’s “lasting vision, its highest shared ideals and aspirations, and its heritage.” What are the humanities? English, certainly, as well as history, art history, philosophy and the classics. I mention the classics last because they include the principles and components of what we refer to as our Greek heritage: our language, literature, history, philosophy, ethics, religious and political thought. The texts studied as “classics” include Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Thukydides, Plutarch, and the Bible. Recently, the Congregation for Catholic Education of the Roman Catholic Church issued a document emphasizing that “students for the priesthood need to return to the basics, learn Greek and Latin and study the teaching of the earliest writes,” most of whom wrote in Greek.

There are some 3,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. And there are more than 2,500 Greek-American professors in many of the country’s major institutions. It is our responsibility as inheritors of the civilization to which our nation owes its democratic system of governance and much more to exert every effort to introduce and maintain Greek studies in as many institutions of higher learning as possible.

This need not be accomplished exclusively through the establishment of expensive endowed chairs. It is possible to introduce and maintain Greek studies in a major institution with an endowment of some $250,000 to $500,000. The interest of such an amount, averaging six percent, could provide the salary for an adjunct professor in the rank of assistant, associate, or even a full professor. An adjunct professor could teach up to three courses during the academic year; This is the way we started out the Greek language and literature program at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, a young institution of higher learning with some 6,000 students and a faculty of nearly 300 professors. There are many qualified scholars, Greek Americans as well as philhellenes, who would welcome the opportunity to teach courses in Greek language, religion, art, literature, history and folklore. Promoting Greek studies is not an unrealistic goal for the Greek-American community. It requires leadership, commitment, dedication, and funding. Primarily, however, it requires a change in attitude. We need to return to our Greek Orthodox roots and demand a rigorous educational program that includes Greek language, history, the Bible, and the writings of the Church fathers, all unfashionable subjects today but essential nevertheless to the education of a Greek Orthodox America.

Our college students are probably the most neglected component of our community. Of the 35 Greek American students that I canvassed at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey where I teach, most expressed a desire to take a Greek-language course if offered. Relevant polls at Barnard College and other universities have produced similar results. To support our students’ needs and aspirations, we need to coordinate the efforts of the Archdiocese, laity, fraternal and other Greek-American organizations for the purpose of strengthening Greek education in the U.S.

Unfortunately, there are priests and lay leaders who perceive Greek studies as an ethnocentric concern. Some, perhaps because of their own inadequacies in the Greek language and Orthodox history, and lack of knowledge of what the United States is all about, see the Church as an institution divorced from its cultural heritage. Their attitude reveals a misunderstanding of Christianity and Orthodoxy in their historical and spiritual dimensions. It also reveals an anti-intellectual, know-nothing bias that is alien to Greek-Americans as individuals and as a community. I often wonder whether it is love for the Church, American chauvinism or an inferiority complex that makes inferiority complex that makes such individuals of the Greek language and Hellenic learning. The early immigrants who came to the U.S. may have been simple country folk, but they understood the value of education and made it the top priority for their children. We can do no less, especially since we have the advantage of being English speakers from childhood and fully assimilated into American society. Every Diocese needs to make Greek paideia (religious and cultural education) a top priority. As a first step, institutions with a large enrollment of Greek-American students should be identified. Interested students can be approached to survey the student body and determine how many would take courses in Greek language and literature. Next, teachers of Greek studies should be approached and asked whether they would be willing to teach either as visiting instructors or as adjunct members of a concentration in Greek studies. Third, a Committee on Greek studies should seek the cooperation of the appropriate department (e.g. Literature, Religion, and Language) and negotiate the introduction into their programs of Greek classical, biblical, or modern depending on the circumstances. The Archdiocese, each local diocese, our major organizations — all should assume the responsibility of raising the necessary funds.

Just as moral education begins in the home, with the family, so does Greek education begin on the parish level with Sunday and Greek-language school coordinating and complementing, not contradicting, one another’s efforts. Both are essential if we are to prepare our children to be Orthodox, educated members of American society. The biblical aphorism “nations with no vision perish” is à propos for Greek Americans. Greek language and learning should not disappear and perish in a land of opportunity and freedom where at the present time some 104 languages and dialects are spoken, some of which thrive and prosper. We speakers of the language that gave Western Civilization its soul should be the last to disappear and perish.

Father Constantelos’ essay first appeared in the National Herald.