Gregory Palamas and Demetrios Kydones on God, Knowledge, and Humanity at the End of Byzantium

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Gebhardt, Paul
Byzantium , Byzantine history , Hesychasm , Gregory Palamas , Demetrios Kydones , Orthodoxy , Existential Threat , Epistemology
Palaiologan Byzantium is conspicuous not only for the gradual erosion of its autonomy and any pretence to empire, but also for the severity of its religious controversies. Among these, the so-called "Hesychast Controversy" of the fourteenth century has proven to be as difficult now to characterize as it was impossible then to ignore. Modern scholarship has described it variously as a conflict between the monastery and the secular church, between traditionalists and innovators, and between the advocates of a mystical theology and those who favoured a dogmatic or philosophical alternative. While there is truth to each of these descriptions, they are also misleading insofar as each is incomplete. The present dissertation proposes a way of integrating and expanding some of these characterizations. In particular, it attempts to consider what the debates of the early and late controversy reveal of pre-existing and newly crystalizing beliefs about intellection, the human person, and the relationship between humanity and the divine, as well as how a climate of existential threat enabled or modulated expression of these beliefs. Gregory Palamas’ hesychast doctrine not only grounds apodictic cataphatic theology in hesychia, it indicates that the fullness of the human person is only realized in the divinization of that holy silence. That divinization requires the intellect be made completely silent. Contrastingly, Demetrios Kydones presents a vision of the human person as most fully realized while deliberately engaging the intellect. For Demetrios, intellection is nothing less than the act which distinguishes humanity from animal creation. It follows that knowledge of God can also be achieved through intellection. These are the more fundamental and opposed visions of humanity which are revealed in the major texts of that controversy, and whose expression was catalyzed by that climate of chronic existential threat.
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