Hope for Increased Dialogue Between East and West
Maria Pangia Miola, SSVM
A conference on 'Thomas Byzantinus'
In mid-December 2017, an event took place in Athens that made history both for the long and troubled relations between East and West, as well as for the nation of Greece itself: it was the first time that a conference dedicated entirely to the thought of Thomas Aquinas had been held on Greek soil.
Byzantium has in general had a notoriously antagonistic relationship to the Latin West, as well as to the archetype of Catholic theology, Thomas Aquinas. In 1204, shortly before Aquinas’ birth, the Latin occupation of Constantinople exacerbated this distrust of the West. Sadly, this conflict still survives under various forms today, from Slavophile theology of the twentieth century, which paints Aquinas as a plague contaminating the East with rationalism, to Greek Orthodox leaders who summon their flocks to ‘return to the Fathers’ so as to heal the offense.
Nevertheless, before long, Thomas the scourge became Thomas the remedy. In the 14th century, a couple of. brothers, Demetrios and Prochoros Kydones, began to translate Aquinas into Greek. These translations catalyzed a poignant encounter between East and West. Marcus Plested, a specialist in Orthodox Theology at Marquette University, has recently charted an account of this part of Byzantine history in his Orthodox Readings of Aquinas. He affirms: “the translations unleashed something of great power and incalculable impact onto the Byzantine and post-Byzantine world. Things would never be the same again.”1 Indeed, thanks to these Greek translations, many Byzantine theologians were able to access Aquinas’ work. Perhaps Thomas did not make it to the Council of Lyons in persona (since he died at Fossanova while he was making the journey), but he certainly reached the Council of Florence in mente, where his thought was known and used.
The complete history of this Byzantine discovery of Thomas Aquinas still remains obscure to us, but is now beginning to come to light. An international research project, “Thomas de Aquino Byzantinus”, has been formed to produce the critical editions of all extant Greek translations of Aquinas’ works. The Greek opera omnia of Thomas will appear in a series prima of Corpus Christianorum Series Graeca (CCSG), and secondary works that were influenced by these first translations will be included in a series altera Thomas de Aquino a Byzantinis receptus.2 Some observers might, justifiably, rejoin: why should anyone want to read Aquinas in Greek? Without the critical edition of these texts, however, we will never have a clear idea of how much Thomas actually influenced Byzantine theology, or the Byzantine world, for that matter. It is not a surprise that the wisdom of Card. G. Mercati had already intuited the importance of the Kydones brothers and had advocated for the study of their works and their place in history. Moreover, he himself dedicated an entire volume to this endeavor, which still remains valid today (Studi e Testi, 56, 1931).3
With this background in mind, the international conference on “Thomas Aquinas and his Reception in Byzantium”, held in Athens on December 15th and 16th, proved all the more interesting. It took place at the newly inaugurated Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, under the auspices of the National Library of Greece, the University of Patras, and the Hellenic Institute of the University of London. The directors of the Thomas de Aquino Byzantinus project, John Demetracopoulos (U. of Patras) and Charalambos Dendrinos (U. of London), organized the program of the conference and invited over twenty-five speakers to participate, representing various institutions from all over the world: Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, Venice, Patras, Paris, London.
The first day of the conference offered a more general panorama of Thomas Aquinas, featuring presentations from a variety of disciplines relating to Aquinas’ work. Highlights included a philosophical talk on the relation between Aquinas and Aristotle, Aquinas’ moral and political thought, and a relatively unexplored area of study: the Angelic Doctor as exegete. Lively discussion ensued after each presentation. By the end of the day, the conference had succeeded in achieving its first objective: addressing the universal significance of Thomistic thought.
On the second day of the conference, the theme shifted from the general importance of Aquinas to his influence in Byzantium. Each scholar involved in the Thomas Byzantinus project shared his individual research, and in addition, participated in panels that yielded collaborative reflection. As the scholars reported their progress in paleographical and textual areas, these discoveries opened discussions on the historical, philosophical, and theological level. In particular, the works shed light on the heated debate in Late Byzantium over the real distinction of essence and energies in God, defended by the Palamists and contested by anti-Palamists and Thomists.
The round table discussion at the end of the conference proved to be an especially promising culmination of the event; participating in the panel were Stavros Zoumboulakis, president of the Board of Trustees for the National Library of Greece, Antonio Rigo, professor at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, president of the Italian Association of Byzantine Studies, and member of the editorial board of the CCSG, Marcus Plested, and John Demetracopoulos and Charalambos Dendrinos, co-directors of the research project, Thomas Byzantinus. Among the most important fruits of session was the support for concrete publications, such as a volume containing the “Acts”, or proceedings of the Conference. This book, to be published in Greek by the press, Artos Zois, in the spring of 2018, would be intended for popular distribution so as to spread accessible knowledge about the thought of Thomas Aquinas in the Eastern world. The panel members also, made suggestions on how to maximize the collaboration of the members of the team and unify criteria for the critical editions of their contributions. Finally, there were intriguing questions raised about the Greek Thomas yet to be discovered and the importance of the research project for illuminating not only Thomistic theology and its proper place in history but also the world of Byzantine theology. Finally, the panel members spoke hopefully of how the Byzantine reception of Thomas Aquinas could also be an example for Orthodox theology today.
The importance of this event is multifold. First, such developments suggest a growing integration of Aquinas’ thought in the Greek cultural milieu: the conference was located not only in Greece but at its most illustrious cultural center. In addition, the language of the presentations was, for the most part, modern Greek.
Second, this new understanding of Thomas Byzantinus will reach the modern Greek public through the more popular volume of the proceedings, and third, through the critical editions published hy CCSG, it will enter the academic world of historians, philologists and theologians.
Finally, the conference reflects a hope in its collaborators to dissipate myths or prejudices and share knowledge. This same hope has been vibrantly shining in other recent initiatives: in 2015, a conference was held at Stockholm University on Latins and Greeks learning from each other in Byzantium, entitled, “Never the twain shall meet”, in 2016, a conference in Venice had a similar objective. In late January, Ave Maria University sponsored a conference on “Thomas Aquinas and the Greek Fathers”, and in June, the annual Symposium Thomisticum will be held in Athens on the topic “Aquinas and the Greeks”.
Thomas meets the East, or the East meets Thomas, as the case may be. May such initiative's increase mutual understanding and bear fruit in bridging the gap between East and West.
1 M. Plested, Orthodox Readings of Aquinas. Oxford (2012), p. 72.
2 For more background on the theological reconciliation between East and West, the role of Thomas Aquinas in the unity of Christians, and an introduction of the Thomas Byzantinus project, see Christiaan Kappes’ art- icle in L'Osservatore Romano, 13 June 2012, p. 9. Text also available at: http://www.ewtn.com/library/CHISTORY/dialeastwest.htm.
3 Card. G. Mercati was appointed as scriptor graeais of the Vatican Apostolic Library, in 1898, and subsequently named Prefect (1919) and' then Librarian and Archivist of the H:R.C. (1936) until his death (1957), marking over 50 years of service to the Library.
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23 February 2018, page 8
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