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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The Heraclian epoch (610-717)

Literature, learning, and art 


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Page 3

In the field of theology the Monotheletic disputes of the seventh century, just as the Monophysitic disputes of earlier ages, gave rise to a fairly extensive literature which has not, however, been preserved, having been condemned by the councils of the seventh century and destined to perish early, in a manner similar to that of the Monophysitic writings. This literature must be judged, therefore, almost exclusively on the basis of the acts of the Sixth Ecumenical Council and the works of Maximus Confessor, which quote fragments of these extinguished works in the course of confuting them.

Maximus Confessor was one of the most remarkable Byzantine theologians. As a contemporary of Heraclius and Constans II, he was a convinced defender of orthodoxy during the period of the Monothelete disputes of the seventh century. For his convictions he was sent to prison and, after numerous tortures, exiled to the distant Caucasian province of Lazica, where he remained until the end of his days. In his works dealing with polemics, the exegesis of the Scriptures, asceticism, mysticism, and liturgies he reflected chiefly the influence of the three famous church fathers Athanasius the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa as well as the mystical views of the so-called Dionysius the Areopagite (Pseudo-Areopagite), widely spread in the Middle Ages. The writings of Maximus were of particular importance in the development of Byzantine mystics. By combining the dry speculative mysticism of Dionysius the Areopagite, wrote one of the modern students of Maximus, with the living ethical problems of contemplative asceticism, the blessed Maximus created a living type of Byzantine mysticism which reappeared in the works of numerous later ascetics. He may thus be considered the creator of Byzantine mysticism in the full sense of the term. Unfortunately Maximus did not leave a systematic account of his views, and they must be winnowed from his numerous writings. Besides his theological and mystical writings, Maximus left also a large number of interesting letters.

The influence and importance of the writings of Maximus were not confined to the East alone. They found their way into the West and were later reflected in the writings of the famous western thinker of the ninth century, John the Scot Eriugena (Johannes Scotus Eriugena), who was also greatly interested in the works of Dionysius the Areopagite, and later averred that he attained an understanding of the obscurest ideas of Dionysius only through the marvelous manner in which they were explained by Maximus, whom Eriugena calls the divine philosopher, the all-wise, the most distinguished of teachers, etc. Maximus work on Gregory the Theologian was translated by Eriugena into Latin. A younger contemporary of Maximus, Anastasius Sinaita (of Mount Sinai), developed his own polemic and exegetic literary works in a manner similar to that of Maximus, exhibiting, however, much less genius.

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