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SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

Russian medieval thought and Byzantine Hesychasm

Klimkov Oleg

PhD in Philosophy

Doctoral Candidate, the department of Russian Philosophy, St. Petersburg State University

199034, Russia, Saint Petersburg. Universitetskaya Naberezhnaya Street 7-9






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Abstract: The object of this research is the influence of the Byzantine Hesychasm upon the formation and development of Russian medieval thought. The works of Simeon New Theologian and Gregory of Sinai made a significant contribution to the development of this spiritual movement, as well as to the further systematization and conceptual understanding of this doctrine in Byzantium and medieval Russia, influencing the formation of its religious-ritual and philosophical-theological culture. The main representatives of the Russian religious thought of this era are Nilus of Sora, Artemy Troitsky and Maximus the Greek. The author uses the historical-analytical and phenomenological methods, resorting, if necessary, to the method of comparative analysis and historical-philosophical reconstruction. The following are the main points of this research: a review of the ups and downs of "smart doing" in Russia; analysis of the continuity of Byzantine and Russian thought; a study of the spiritual specifics of the Russian Middle Ages; study of the problem of religious freedom and “self-rule” of a person; revealing the significance of the reception of Hesychastic ideas in Russian medieval thought.


russian philosophy, sinaitism, palamism, hesychasm, asceticism, silence, orthodoxy, Gregory Sinait, Nil Sorsky, knowledge of God


Religious and philosophical thought of medieval Russia was greatly influenced by the Byzantine Hesychasm. Hesychastic religious practices became known in Russia during the time of Sergy of Radonezh and his followers. And this fact is outstanding evidence of this influence. “Thanks to translations from Greek, received in the XIV century. from the Balkans to Russia, almost all spheres of its spiritual culture have been refreshed” [1, p. 14]. G.M. Prokhorov notes that “initially hesychastic ideas began to penetrate under the all-Russian Metropolitan Theognostes” [2, p. 139]. Intellectual achievements of Byzantium thinkers also penetrated into Russian culture, although to a lesser extent. “It was a revival not only of the Russian Hesychasm, but precisely of the Christian book culture, including Hesychasm” [3, p. 8-9]. The religious practice of the Jesus prayer always prevailed over theological problems in the Russian medieval consciousness.

After the intensive development of Orthodox Hesychast spirituality, the crisis of the tradition of “mental ascesis” begins. “Thus, in the XIV-th and partly in the XV-th century, Russian culture is experiencing a new attack of Byzantine influences. But it was the eve of the crisis and the gap” [4, p. 10], - G.V. Florovsky notes. “Russia of the 14th and 15th centuries passes under the sign of Byzantium: its influence, the revival of monasticism, the contemplative feat. But by the end of the 15th century, these old ties weaken and even break” [5, p. 169], - I.M. Kontsevich confirms. “After the rise of the XIV-XV centuries, a certain decline occurs in the Russian spiritual and cultural life. Signs of recovery began to appear by the end of the 17th century. ... The forerunner of emerging shifts was the revival of hesychast traditions” [6, p. 191]. Thus, it should be noted the change in the ups and downs of Hesychast Orthodox spirituality in Russian society over several centuries of Russian history.

1. The development of ideas of the Byzantine Hesychasm on Russian soil

The decisive role in the reception of the religious and mystical heritage of Athos Hesychasm was played by Nil Sorsky. G.P. Fedotov asserts "the continuity of the spiritual, mystical tradition, going from St. Sergy to Nil" [7, p. 164]. Researchers have repeatedly noted the features of spiritual continuity between these two devotees. “A century separates the transformations of Sergy from the activities of Nil, but their names can be put side by side” [8, p. 23]. According to V.V. Zenkovsky, “Nil Sorsky is directly adjacent to the tradition that is associated with the rev. Sergy of Radonezh" [9, p. 50]. However, Nil did not completely follow Sergy. “The ideological heir of Sergy on hesychasm, the Russian theorist of this doctrine Nil Sorsky, did not inherit Sergy in his views on the monastic structure. Nil Sorsky contrasted the monastic dormitory - hermitage. The skit was nothing more than a hesychastherium” [10, p. 92].

It is important to emphasize the continuity in the development of Hesychast thinking in Byzantine and Russian medieval thought. The reception of the hesychast heritage in the works of Nil Sorsky was more practical ascetic than theoretical-theological. “Illumination of the highest levels, - D. Maloney notes, - the contemplation and mystical states of Nil is a compilation, assembled from the texts of three of his favorite authors: Isaac Sirin, Simeon the New Theologian and Gregory Sinait” [11, p. 193]. Nil "shifted the focus of his work to self-analysis. Sorsky ascet wrote: “Extend the conscience for the better,” and he most often turned to the analysis of this “conscience” of a person, his mind and heart” [12, p. 12]. Thus, we can state the fact that “Hesychasm deeply entered the Russian cultural tradition. The greatest thinker who applied the theory of Hesychasm to the practice of social reality was Nil Sorsky” [2, p. 142].

L.E. Shaposhnikov argues as an important feature of the Russian philosophy striving for the ontologization of truth. At the same time, he emphasizes the connection between Russian thought and hesychasm: “The Orthodox teaching on salvation proceeds from the understanding of moral improvement as a process of “deification”, i.e. human transfiguration. So, the ontologization of truth is a characteristic feature of Russian philosophizing” [13, p. 255]. “Thus man’s true knowledge of God is the fruit of his deification effected by God” [14, p. 115], - G.I. Mantzaridis notes. “Most collections of the fourteenth century, beginning with its middle, and the fifteenth century. filled with works of experienced Christian ascetics who lived in different centuries, practicing psychologists, experts in the passions of the human soul attacking the human soul and methods of dealing with them. ... All of them are ascetics, “Hesychasts,” who wrote for people who care about their inner world in order to achieve “silence”, light and joyful peace in which personal contact with luminous Eternity is possible. These works can be attributed to the “private” hesychasm” [15, p. 205]. According to J. Meyendorff, “the man “in Christ”, potentially transfigured, and “deified” through participation in Christ’s “Body” [16, p. 55]. Pointing to the contradiction of the views of the Nil morals of his era, I.M. Kontsevich notes that “he systematized the doctrine of internal work in clear and simple forms” [5, p. 163]. G.C. Papademetriou writes that “theology for Palamas is a discourse on God and has as its objective to lead the human person to the vision of the divine light and the participation in the divine energies” [17, p. 74].

2. The main directions of the development of spirituality of the Russian Middle Ages

In the spiritual culture of the Russian society of the XVI century, three directions can be distinguished: “firstly, the desire to unite the spiritual life of the Moscow State and to approve antiquity as the basis for the spiritual success of society; secondly, the desire for liberation from Byzantine influence and, along with this, the penetration of Western influence, expressed first in the acute form of rationalistic heresies; thirdly, the direction of the mystical character that came from Byzantium and was reflected mainly in the teachings of the Trans-Volga elders” [18, p. 314-315]. “But the Byzantine influence, or at least the form of external ritualism and piety in which it developed in us, was opposition from another - the third - direction, namely, the so-called mystical direction. And it also did not originate in the XVI century, and can be kept almost from the end of the XIV century, judging by the time of the appearance of Russian lists of Slavic translations of Byzantine mystics; in fact, the history of this trend in Russia has not yet been sufficiently studied and clarified, but according to all available data, it can also be concluded about its Byzantine origin. Gregory Sinait and Gregory Palamas are usually considered to be the head of this direction in Byzantium, from where it passed to the Slavic lands and to Russia. ... For the first time this direction was clearly expressed in rev. Nil Sorsky and his followers ... the Trans-Volga elders, rejecting the external understanding of Christianity, demanded deepening, penetration into the very spirit of Christianity, and this destroyed the one-sidedness of the established views” [18, p. 315]. “What were they looking for in mysticism? ... Without falling into either free-thinking, or foggy constructions of mysticism, nor to the extremes of rituals, they created a teaching that, according to a deep understanding of Christianity and the height of the ideals depicted in it, still matters” [18, p. 341].

However, many hierarchs and clerics did not share the mystical and ascetic pathos of the Byzantine and Russian Hesychasms. They sought more power and property than divine grace and the joy of spiritual contemplation. This was the cause of fierce disputes between the Josephites and the non-possessors in Russia. “Artemy described his modern era as“ time of crying” [19, p. 116]. “In general, the ideas of Artemy Troitsky, - A.F. Zamaleev notes - refer to the flow of non-possessive Hesychasm. His influence on the Western Russian spiritual tradition went somewhat differently than the influence of Andrew Kurbsky, strengthening primarily the Orthodox worldview and preparing the ground for the religious-ascetic views of Ivan Vyshensky” [20, p. 210].

Elder Artemy was located most of all to this mystical direction, therefore it is important to clarify its conditionality from the religious-historical circumstances that gave rise to the Russian mysticism of the given epoch [21]. “In this respect, - S.G. Vilinsky emphasizes, - the teaching of Gregory Sinait is the most important” [18, p. 316]. “The ideas of the “Trans-Volga elders” enriched the Old Russian anthropology with psychologism, an interest in the deep phenomena of the human psyche. And the attention to the personal characteristics of the mental and bodily structure of a person increased the importance of individuality in the Old Russian thought” [22, p. 108]. The “wisdom” of Artemy Troitsky, as well as the “wisdom” of Nil Sorsky and Maxim Grek, has one common source - Athos Hesychasm” [23, p. 42]. “According to the selfless devotion to the hesychast tradition and theological knowledge, the personality of Artemy was comparable to the personality of Maxim the Greek” [24, p. 121]. "Hesychasm as a mystical doctrine of the transformation ("deification") of a person, - N.S. Zhirtueva notes, - expresses the most intimate essence of Orthodoxy” [25, p. 843].

3. The problem of religious freedom in the works of Maxim the Greek

The controversy surrounding the problem of free will of man, was in line with the struggle with the concept of astrological determinism [26]. It is important to emphasize its ideological proximity to the well-known dispute between Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther, which took place in Europe in the same era. Probably Maxim did not know about this dispute, but the years spent in Italy made him sensitive to the breath of time. “It’s thought, - N. Zaytz supposes, - like other eminent theologians and thinkers, Maxim Grek anticipated the collapse of the Christian consciousness in Western Europe, therefore already in his youth certain spiritual principles were formed which he did not change until the end of his life” [27, p. 58].

Maxim Grek was an adept of religious freedom. However, he accepted the ideas of human “autocracy” only to the extent that they did not contradict Christian dogma. “Maxim Grek chose that part of the Christian tradition, - N.V. Sinitsyna writes, - which emphasized the free will of man” [28, p. 57]. “Before us, therefore, are two different theological approaches to the substantiation of good and evil” [29, p. 66]. "The value of Maxim the Greek is that, - A.I. Klibanov claims - that his personality, erudition, life school served to reveal the cultural forces of the Russian intellectual environment” [30, p. 166]. Moreover, “the works of Maxim Grek were one of the few sources on ancient philosophy and mythology” [31, p. 105]. “In his writings, he attracts significant historical and philosophical material ... this contributes to the formation of philosophical culture in Moscow Russia” [32, p. 48-49]. According to T.V. Chumakova “pure form” line of Hesychasm in the Old Russian tradition, partially interrupted in the XVI century, but to think that this tradition was completely interrupted incorrectly” [22, p. 98].

In the following centuries, the significance of the personal principle in Christian life continued to grow due to the latent influence of hesychast spirituality. “In this epoch, when the spiritual principle was being promoted, spiritually gifted natures should be locked in themselves, go into the inner life hidden for the world” [5, p. 203]. Tikhon Zadonsky, who tried to convey his understanding of "true Christianity" to the general public, became a clear representative of this already implicit influence, which embodied the hesychast ideals in his writings and life itself.


In conclusion of this brief study, we note that the ideas of Athos-Byzantine Hesychasm had a fundamental influence on the formation and development of Russian medieval philosophical and religious thought. This reception turned out to be possible due to the large number of translations of essays by eminent hesychast authors into the Slavic language [33]. The origin of the original Russian philosophy took place, thus, under the influence of the Orthodox Hesychast culture, elaborated in Byzantium, which included both ascetic-psychological and theological-philosophical trends, known as Sinaitism and Palamism [34]. It should also be emphasized that a common feature of Slavic translations of Byzantine-Hesychast literature is a special preference for moral and ascetic subjects and a lack of special interest in high mysticism and theological and philosophical problems.

Nil Sorsky, became the first major representative of the original Russian religious philosophy. We note a characteristic fact - its bias towards an ethical and social understanding of Christianity. In the future, this will become a typical feature of Russian religious thought in general. The writings of Isaac Sirin, Simeon the New Theologian and Gregory Sinait were the favorite spiritual reading of Nil Sorsky and his followers. This choice and spiritual preference was manifested in the very spirit and specifics of the Russian religious thinking. And it had a paramount importance on the formation and development of Russian medieval thought.

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