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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The fall of Byzantium

The Hesychast movement


The Original Greek New Testament

In the first half of the fourteenth century the interesting Hesychast movement, mystical and religious, made its appearance in Byzantium and gave rise to eager controversies and vigorous polemic. Hesychasts (ἡσυχασταί), i.e. those who live in quiet, or quietists, was the name given to the men whose goal was indivisible and full unity with God, and who chose as the only way to its attainment complete seclusion from the world, hesychia (ἡσυχία) which meant silence, speechlessness.

The quarrel of the Hesychasts, which greatly disturbed the inner life of the state, originated in the troubled and complicated period when the Empire was struggling for its existence, first against invasion by the Turks and later the Serbs, and second, against severe internal troubles arising from the stubborn conflict of the two Andronicoi, grandfather and grandson, and of John Palaeologus and John Cantacuzene. Only a short time had elapsed since the schism of the Arsenites, which had greatly disturbed church and state affairs.

A Greek monk, Barlaam, who arrived from south Italy (Calabria), began the quarrel. He distorted and ridiculed the Hesychast doctrine prevalent chiefly in the Athonian monasteries, which was communicated erroneously to him by an uneducated Byzantine monk. A report presented to the patriarch contains these lines: Until the most recent time we had lived in peace and stillness, receiving the word of faith and piety with confidence and cordial simplicity, when, through the envy of the devil and insolence of his own mind a certain Barlaam was raised against the Hesychasts who, in the simplicity of their heart, live a life pure and near to God. Athos, which had always been the guardian of the purity of Eastern Orthodoxy and monastic ideals, was painfully affected by this quarrel and, of course, took a leading part in its development and solution.

Scholars consider this quarrel a very important event of the fourteenth century. The German Byzantinist Gelzer rather exaggerated when he said this ecclesiastical struggle belongs to the most remarkable and, in its cultural and historical aspect, the most interesting phenomena of all times. Another scholar, the more recent investigator of the problem, a Greek who received his education in Russia, Papamichael, considered the Hesychast movement the most important cultural phenomenon of the epoch, deserving attentive study. Scholars vary greatly concerning the inner conception of the Hesychast movement. Troizky saw in this movement the continuation of the struggle between the zealots and the politicians, or, in other words, the monks and the secular clergy, a struggle which, during the Hesychast quarrel, ended in complete triumph for the monks. Th. Uspensky came to the conclusion that the Hesychast quarrel was a conflict between two philosophical schools, the Aristotelian, whose doctrines had been adopted by the Eastern church, and the Platonic, whose followers were anathematized by the Church. Later the conflict was transferred into the theological sphere.

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