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Intellectual Preconditions of the Greek Revolution

Dr. Paschalis M. Kitromilides

A conventional teleological view, which is still widely voiced, considers the Greek Revolution of 1821 as somehow the predetermined culmination of the resistance of the Orthodox Greeks to alien rule throughout the long centuries of subjection to the Ottoman empire. The main evidence for this interpretation is the repeated risings and insurrections of the Greeks in the centuries of Ottoman rule from the sixteenth century onward. These early forms of resistance to Ottoman rule, however, important as they were as indications that some segments of Greek society were not resigned to the reality of conquest, were unexceptionally the result of secret encouragement and urging by foreign powers, Venice, Spain, Austria, Russia, France and other lesser powers like Tuscany or Savoy. All of these powers were using the Greeks in the service of their own strategic interests and ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean and Southeastern Europe and of course they invariably abandoned them to their fate and to the harshness of Ottoman reprisals after every such rising.

Things were quite different in 1821. The Greek Revolution was not brought about by the orchestration of foreign interests. On the contrary, the Revolution was planned and proclaimed despite the explicit discouragement and disavowal by the only power on which since at least the 1770s the Greeks had focused their hopes for support in their liberation from Ottoman rule, Russia. The Greek Revolution as planned and organized by the secret society Philiki Etaireia (Society of Friends) was a project of the Greeks themselves motivated and made possible by the forces and rising expectations let loose in the world by the “Age of Revolutions”. The historiographical term “Age of Revolution” denotes the period from the 1770s to 1848, a period marked by the epoch-making convulsions in world history initiated by the American Revolution in 1775-1776, reaching its climax in the French Revolution in the years 1789-1799, and eventually completing its historical orbit in the European revolutions of 1848-1849. The Greek Revolution was an integral part of the process of upheaval and change in European and world history as it is now increasingly recognized. The initial revolutionary wave was defeated in 1814-1815 and the powers of the time, led by the Holy Alliance, attempted to undo the effects and hopes of the revolutionary age by the imposition of the Restoration in European politics. The broader historical significance of the Greek Revolution consists in the fact that its outbreak in 1821 and its survival throughout the 1820s, despite the initial hostile reaction of the powers of the Restoration, marked the revival of the age of revolution. Its internationalization through the active Philhellenic movements in Europe and America and through diplomacy and the eventual involvement of major European powers in its outcome brought back the issues of political change, self-determination and the rights of nations and motivated public opinion, the political class and governments and, of course, the intellectual and artistic worlds to face up to these challenges as integral to the present and future of civilization.

The revival of the prospect of freedom in Europe and in the world from the 1820s onward was to a large degree the effect of the determined and desperate struggle of the Greeks to live free or die, proclaimed by the main slogan of their Revolution, Ελευθερία ή θάνατος. Many factors in Greek historical experience in the period leading up to 1821 contributed to this determination and shaped the vision of freedom. The decline of Ottoman power, social change and economic development, the growth of educational activity and the gradual emergence of a secular literature, all contributed to the gradual elaboration of the vision of freedom. The one factor, nevertheless, that made possible the articulation and explicit expression of the visualization of a free and sovereign Greek nation state as a future to which the Greek nation had an inalienable right, was the Neohellenic Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment in Greek culture and thought was a movement of intellectual renewal, change and greater density in education and cultural life, secularization and modernization that aspired to the reintegration of the Greeks as a free modern nation into European civilization, of which, the Greeks felt, their classical ancestry necessarily made them an integral part. What is described as Neohellenic Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that extended throughout the long eighteenth century, from the period of the “early Enlightenment” in the 1720s to the revolutionary period of the 1820s.

The early stirrings of Enlightenment in Greek culture are noticeable in the writings of literally a handful of scholars, who argued for an opening of Greek culture and education to the achievements of modern philosophy. They included Methodios Anthrakitis and the great Phanariot prince Nicolaos Mavrokordatos, who hinted that if Aristotle came back to life he would gladly be a student of the moderns in natural science and philosophy. Vikentios Damados, a teacher on the island of Cephalonia argued that in order to make Greek education effective the language of the people, vernacular Modern Greek, should be used as the language of instruction. These early pioneers were followed by two towering figures, Evgenios Voulgaris and Nikiphoros Theotokis, both of whom natives of Corfu and ordained clergymen of the Orthodox Church. With their teaching and writing in the middle decades of the eighteenth century the two Corfiot scholars made the Enlightenment a tangible option in Greek education and culture and showed that modern philosophy and science and the claims of reason, criticism and toleration are not incompatible with the Orthodox tradition. Both of them published their major works, Voulgaris his Logic and Theotokis his Elements of Physics in 1766 at Leipzig and went on to distinguished ecclesiastical careers in Russia. Voulgaris’s connection with Russia added a strong political dimension to his thought and as a consequence the project of the liberation of Greece penetrated into the political theory of the Greek Enlightenment.

The political aspect of the Greek Enlightenment became more pronounced in the thought of the next generation of its exponents who made their presence in Greek intellectual life from the 1770s onward. They included Iosipos Moisiodax and Dimitrios Katartzis primarily, both of whom were active promoters of the ideas of French Encyclopedism and of the use of the spoken language as the medium of education and culture. From the circle of these Greek Encyclopedists emerged in the 1790s some of the most assertive proponents of the democratic Enlightenment in Greek thought. This third generation of the Greek Enlightenment included scholars and activists who transferred the politics of the French Revolution into the intellectual life and collective hopes and visions of Greek society. Among them were two scholars from Milies, on Mount Pilion, Daniel Philippidis and Gregorios Constantas who in their work Novel Geography (Γεωγραφία Νεωτερική), published in 1791 articulated an acute critical vision and appraised the prospects of political change in Greek society. Next to them stood another enlightener from Thessaly, Rhigas Velestinlis, who during seven years (1790-1797) of incessant writing activity and political planning added a noticeable Southeastern European dimension to the expanding blaze of the French Revolution on the continent of Europe. With his books, his maps, which included the great Map of Hellas, and his revolutionary plans Rhigas voiced the vision of freedom as the culmination of a profound social and moral transformation of the captive societies and national communities of Southeastern Europe. Liberation from despotism would come in the form of the establishment of a “Hellenic Republic”, in which all peoples of the Balkans, regardless of religion, language or ethnic background, would be united by free and equal citizenship and the democratic culture of the Enlightenment. His martyrdom in 1798 in the hands of the Ottomans in Belgrade rightfully has established Rhigas as the protomartyr of the Greek liberation movement.

The Greek Enlightenment reached its culmination and fully mature expression in the thought of Adamantios Korais. Thanks to his authoritative editions of the classics in his Hellenic Library, Korais emerges as a towering figure not only in Greek intellectual life but more broadly in the classical tradition as a central feature of European culture. In his voluminous correspondence and his extensive writings, Korais systematically argues the case of the preparation of Greek society for liberation from despotism and accession to independent statehood through a titanic effort of reform of culture and society, literally through a “moral revolution” as he put it in 1803. Unless this moral revolution was completed, a premature rising against Ottoman despotism could lead to new forms of tyranny, Korais repeatedly warned. He considered educational and language reform, the moral reconstruction of the Church and the reeducation of leadership groups in Greek society as necessary components of the strategy of the moral revolution he visualized. When the actual Revolution broke out in 1821 Korais mobilized all his intellectual resources in the effort to instruct his compatriots in the duties of free citizenship. To this end he published Aristotle’s Politics in 1821 and Nicomachean Ethics in 1822 in order to teach the fighting Greeks that freedom should be invariably guided by the principles of justice.

In considering the prospects of state-building in liberated Greece Korais strongly urged to model the new state’s institutions on those of the “republic of the Anglo-Americans”, meaning the United States of America, in whose constitution he saw the foremost contemporary exemplar of the rule of law and the protection of freedom. He even sought the advice of President Thomas Jefferson in a famous exchange of letters in 1823 on the constitutional arrangements apposite for Greece. Korais also tried to mobilize international support for the cause of Greek freedom and among others he appealed to Edward Everett, President of Harvard University. Korais’s contribution was certainly the foremost, but certainly not the only form of involvement of the Enlightenment, as a movement of intellectual change and criticism, in the politics of the liberation of Greece.