St. Photios on Books!

St. Photios

The Word, the Book, the Library

by Fr. Stanley Samuel Harakas

From “Photian Studies”, edited by George Papademetriou, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, Massachusetts, 1989.

The Library: The meeting place for books

The Myriobiblos or the Bibliotheca is Photios’ most valuable work. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church describes it in this way:

Photios was a scholar of wide interests and encyclopaedic knowledge. His most important work, his “Bibliotheca” or “Myriobiblion,” is a description of several hundred books, often with exhaustive analyses and copious extracts. It is an invaluable mine of information as a great number of the works mentioned are now lost (8).

Included are references to some of the holy books which he had read, but the majority are descriptions of the books of natural knowledge which he had studied. Photios held them together in his “library.” He did not perceive of them as mutually exclusive. Rather, they were related — part and parcel of a single reality and a description of a single coherent truth. Gathered together into a single library, much like this library, they form a unity, a cohesiveness, and a single unified witness to an inclusive truth which is at once divine and human, each with its own integrity and each with its own important witness to the truth and to knowledge.

Some would hold that the holy Book and all which it represents should so control natural knowledge and science that the relationship should correspond to the ancient heresy regarding the person of Jesus Christ known as Monophysitism. In that understanding, the divine overwhelms and controls the sphere of natural knowledge. Today, “Creation science” is an example of that kind of thinking.

Some would, in a Nestorian manner, separate the holy Book and the book of natural knowledge, isolating them one from another. Nestorios taught that the divine and human natures in Christ could have no contact and relationship. There are many proponents of this view in our society today, the advocates of sectarianism in religion and secularism in society.

Such views are not acceptable to the Eastern Orthodox Christian way of thinking. Not to the Church. Not to Chrysostom. Not to Basil. Not to Photios. Their view of the relationship of the holy Book and the book of natural knowledge was a reflection rather of the Chalcedonian teaching about the two natures of Christ; divine and human in one person or hypostasis. Two natures, united unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably.

There is an integrity, in this approach, accorded to both the books in this one library and this one philosophy of education. Each follows its own nature, its own development, its own law and understanding. Yet, in their use, in their application, in their power to form the lives of human beings and societies, the holy Book maintains a role of giving direction, providing vision, setting the moral goal, and standing as the evaluator of the use of the book of natural knowledge. Nevertheless, they are gathered together in a single place, in a single library, in a single system of education. Just as the one person of Jesus Christ includes the divine and the human in one person, in which, while the identity of the two remains distinct, there is a communication between them, the philosophy of education in this school seeks to unite the two books into one mutually informing unity, “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably.”

One of the most moving and touching letters which Photios ever wrote was to the Emperor Basil, who had deposed him for the last time and had exiled him. The letter is an appeal to the emperor to claim his rights as a human being. Photios denies to the emperor neither the privilege to depose him, nor the power to exile or imprison him. The greatest denial of his rights is the unheard of punishment of refusing him his books. As a last consolation, the great Photios, whose hymn calls him one of the very few personages of the Church, an “Isapostolos,” that is, “Equal to the Apostles,” seeks only to have his books restored to him. He speaks with an enraged sense of the injustice perpetuated against him.

The fact that we have been deprived even of our books is novel and unexpected and a new punishment contrived against us. … Why, then, have books been taken away from us and, in fact, even teachers, in order that by reading we may be benefitted more, and by being proved wrong, we may correct ourselves. If, however, we have done no wrong, why are we wronged (9)?

There is no indication in the letter that Photios distinguished between his holy books and his books of natural knowledge.

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