The Enlightenment as Social Criticism: Iosipos Moisiodax and Greek Culture in the Eighteenth Century

The Enlightenment as Social Criticism: Iosipos Moisiodax and Greek Culture in the Eighteenth Century

by Paschalis M. Kitromilides, Paschalis Kitromilides

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In eighteenth-century Greek culture, Iosipos Moisiodax (c.1725-1800) was a controversial figure, whose daring pronouncements in favor of cultural change embroiled him in ideological conflicts and made him a target of persecution. The first intellectual in Southeastern Europe to voice the ideas of the Enlightenment in public and without qualification, he advocated the


In eighteenth-century Greek culture, Iosipos Moisiodax (c.1725-1800) was a controversial figure, whose daring pronouncements in favor of cultural change embroiled him in ideological conflicts and made him a target of persecution. The first intellectual in Southeastern Europe to voice the ideas of the Enlightenment in public and without qualification, he advocated the use of vernacular Greek in education and aspired to see the backward and intellectually conservative Balkan societies remodeled along European lines. In the first modern book-length treatment of this passionate reformer, Paschalis Kitromilides skillfully retraces Moisiodax's career and contrasts the Greek Enlightenment with the Western Enlightenment as a whole, enriching our understanding of each tradition in the process. Moisiodax's efforts failed tragically in his own lifetime, but his vision of the Enlightenment was an impressive project of intellectual reconstruction that had a considerable effect after his death, both in the promotion of modern scientific ideas and in the enunciation of republican politics in Southeastern Europe. The methodology of literary history has traditionally dominated inquiries about his life and about the Greek Enlightenment in general, but here both man and movement are examined from an interdisciplinary perspective. Drawing on a broad range of sources and combining insights from the social sciences, cultural history, and political theory, this work reveals Moisiodax as a figure of major significance in the ideological tradition of Southeastern Europe. "This study of one of the first Enlightenment intellectuals in the European periphery is itself a wonderfully enlightening union of biography on the one hand and social and intellectual history on the other. Kitromilides writes brilliantly about the actual experience of intellectual transmission: the high hopes with which the work begins, the fierce resistance it encounters, the human toll it exacts."--Michael Walzer, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

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The Enlightenment as Social Criticism

Iosipos Moisiodax and Greek Culture in the Eighteenth Century

By Paschalis M. Kitromilides


Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07383-5



IOSIPOS MOISIODAX is the most fascinating enigma in Greek letters. Almost no details that conventionally delineate an individual's biographical coordinates are available to us in his case. His origins, the precise dates of his birth and death, and even his real name are all lost. The evidence for his eventful career is drawn almost exclusively from the testimony he himself provides in his writings, particularly the Apology of 1780. It is as though all traces of his passage throughout the length and breadth of the historical space of Hellenism in his time have been erased by some mysterious Nemesis, as he himself would have put it, which has also deprived us of any visual representation of "what was most precious: his form." The external evidence, then, is virtually nonexistent, and the archives and written records remain stubbornly silent about his personality. Is he really so unknown, however? And did the Nemesis that he himself felt so tormentedly was pursuing him really succeed in the task of irrevocably eradicating his presence?

A significant piece of evidence as to his birthplace suggests that his influence was felt in ways not recorded in the external evidence but which nonetheless mark the sensibility of human beings. Rhigas Velestinlis (1757–1798) notes in his Great Chart that the village of Cernavoda on the south bank of the Danube in the Dobrudja region in present-day southeast Romania is the "birthplace of Iosipos Moisiodax." This is the only reference by Rhigas in the Great Chart to any contemporary man of letters—and the only source we have concerning Moisiodax's birthplace. This simple record suggests the importance attached by Rhigas to Moisiodax's passage through his life, as a teacher and no doubt a champion of the Enlightenment.

Rhigas's sensitivity has preserved this information about Moisiodax's birthplace. The date on which Iosipos was born, however, and the date on which he left Cernavoda behind to begin his endless peregrinations into the wider world are not known with any certainty. His date of birth is conventionally set in 1725, but the sources at our disposal are totally silent with regard to his family and his early years at Cernavoda. Iosipos was the name he assumed later, when he was ordained deacon, a step probably intended to procure for him the educational opportunities and the geographical and social mobility that his origins could certainly not proffer. His secular name is said to have been Ioannis. The surname Moisiodax was not his family name, but simply an indication of his ethnic origin. Cernavoda was one settlement of the Vlach-speaking tribes dwelling to the south of the Danube in the area of ancient Moesia; these were distinguished from the local slavophone inhabitants, who spoke Bulgarian, by their dialect which derived from Latin. As a result of this, they were identified with the "Dacians" of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia to the north of the Danube. These Romanian-speaking inhabitants of north Bulgaria were called Moesiodacians by Greek scholars, to distinguish them from the stock-breeding nomads further south in the Balkans who spoke the same language and were known as Koutsovlachs. One major settlement of the Koutsovlachs in the Southern Balkans was the township of Velestino in Thessaly, to which the transhumant shepherds descended during the winter months, from their summer pasturages on the Pindus mountains. Velestino was Rhigas's native village—hence his surname Velestinlis. His relationship with Moisiodax, therefore, can be seen to originate in not only ideological but also possible ethnic affinities. The surname of Ioannis-Iosipos, then, which he himself does not always write with a capital letter when signing his name, simply indicates his tribal origins. And yet this name, nothing more than a collective definition, has become identified in modern Greek letters with an individuality unique in the intensity of its self-exploration and personal assertion.

Cernavoda, Iosipos's birthplace, did not remain untouched by the incipient social transformations resulting from the growth of trade in Southeastern Europe in the eighteenth century. There is evidence that already at the end of the seventeenth century merchants from Cernavoda had settled in the commercial centers of Transylvania—Brasov and Sibiu—and were members of the important Greek trading associations in these two cities. The majority of the members of these two organizations were Greeks or Hellenized Vlachs, and the common language used was Greek. In their capacity as members of the associations, the merchants of Cernavoda partook in the ethnic and cultural fermentation within the ranks of these organizations. This formed the basis for creating the network of the Greek Orthodox commercial diaspora in Central Europe. For Iosipos, this world was destined to form a place of refuge and a source of support and comfort in his future struggles.

Of the first twenty-seven years of Iosipos's life, nothing is known. The sources remain obstinately silent as to the circumstances and experiences that formed his singular character and forged his highly developed sensitivity. At some stage of this crucial phase of his life, however, the young Moesiodacian must have made his way from Cernavoda to a center of Greek education, perhaps in Wallachia or Thrace, where he learned the Greek language and received an elementary education. He was taught these first letters according to the traditional educational system of the Greek East, under a clergyman, as he himself testifies. His recollections were not particularly favorable: "I recall that when, despite my tender years, the schoolmaster, a man of fierce countenance, with a wild beard, called upon me to recite the lesson to him, I felt that I was being called upon by a savage beast and, out of fear, I would forget the lesson." He himself points out the potential consequences of this first educational experience:

And let us recall here the anguish that we suffered, those of us who had the misfortune to chance upon cruel, inconsiderate schoolmasters. The fierce countenance, the grating voice, the stinging of the rod, everything that follows upon fearsome practices, all of them things outside the experience of children, incapacitate them entirely: there follows one of two things, either that their spirit is brought low, or that they are imbued with a hatred of learning that occasionally remains impressed upon them for their entire life.

The young Ioannis survived this danger in his early schooling. Fortunately for Greek letters, instead of instilling an aversion to learning and shriveling his intellectual curiosity, the traumatic experiences of early education in his case forged a determined desire to discover a more humane way of learning.

Despite the negative impressions left by his early schooling, the crucial role played by this phase of Moisiodax's life cannot be overstressed. The reason for this is not merely the general psychological significance of this period of an individual's life in the formation of the personality. It lies rather in the adoption by the Moesidacian youth of a specific cultural identity as a result of his educational experience: his entry into the Greek system of education, which was a common patrimony to all the Balkan Orthodox Christians in the eighteenth century, determined the content of his identity. This was the only route to an education accessible to the Orthodox Christians of the Balkan peninsula and constituted a powerful mechanism for inculcating in them the symbols of the Greek tradition, as well as implanting in them a sense of identification with it; it thus acted as a catalyst in assimilating into Greek culture members of the Orthodox but non-Greek-speaking groups of Balkan society, whose symbolic boundaries remained quite fluid in the period before the emergence of nationalism. The Greek intelligentsia of the eighteenth century, particularly the intelligentsia of the Enlightenment, was in this way enriched by human resources drawn from those Balkan ethnic groups whose collective identity had not yet been articulated. Moisiodax was an eminent representative of this group, as were many others, among them Nikolaos Zerzoulis, Dimitrios Darvaris, Nikolaos Piccolos, and Athanasios Vogoridis. The effectiveness of Greek education as a channel of assimilation was demonstrated by the future careers of some members of this group, such as Moisiodax and Piccolos, who devoted themselves wholeheartedly to the cause of the rebirth of Hellenism, the former with his passion for reconstructing modern Greek education and the latter as a fighter for Greek freedom. This aspect of the role of Greek education in eighteenth-century Balkan society formed the background to Rhigas's revolutionary visions as well. Himself an heir precisely of the cultural and political tradition that was inaugurated by Moisiodax, Rhigas visualized a common republic of the Balkan peoples, based on the shared symbolic heritage of Greek civilization.

The first autobiographical details provided by Moisiodax refer to his attempts to broaden his Greek education by traveling to the major cultural centers of Hellenism in the middle of the eighteenth century. Thus began his many years of "wandering" that made him completely familiar with the whole expanse of the Greek world and cultivated in him the belief that, on the basis of this knowledge, he was in a position to express an authoritative opinion on its problems: "I have spent time in a great many places in Greece, and I know of what I speak."

In 1752 Moisiodax was in Thessaloniki, where he attended the classes of the scholar Iannakos, whom he describes as "a man who had frittered away all his years in the study of Aristotelianism." He thus came into direct contact with the conventional academic education of the time, in the person, moreover, of a devotee of the neo-Aristotelian tradition introduced into Greek learning in the seventeenth century by the followers of Theophilos Corydaleus (1570–1646). The Iannakos referred to by Moisiodax can safely be identified with the teacher of the same name, who is known in the history of Greek letters from his brawl in 1722 with another scholar named Pachomios for control of the newly founded school in Thessaloniki. Pachomios, whom Iannakos charged with being an "extreme critic of Aristotle," was probably merely advocating a less rigid philosophical approach. He was tainted, however, by his association with Methodios Anthrakitis (ca. 1660–1736), who in August 1723 was to be condemned for heterodoxy by the Holy Synod of the patriarchate of Constantinople. Anthrakitis was allegedly favorably predisposed toward the philosophy of Descartes and Malebranche and preferred natural philosophy and mathematics to Aristotelian logic and metaphysics. He was charged, however, with a predilection for the teaching of the Spanish mystic Miguel de Molinos (1628–1696), who had been condemned by the Catholic Church in 1687. Eventually he was forced to recant and his writings were burned in the courtyard of the patriarchate. The controversy surrounding Anthrakitis had raged for a few years before his official condemnation. The sensitivity over the issues of doctrine involved in this controversy enabled Iannakos to appeal to several high prelates and other church dignitaries and to secure their support in winning his battle against Pachomios. He apparently remained the unchallenged primate of the educational world of Thessaloniki in the subsequent three decades. In September 1752 he is attested as the "teacher of the school in Thessaloniki." Moisiodax encountered him in the same year. Iannakos's ascendancy possibly accounts for the fact that Thessaloniki, despite its cosmopolitan society of merchants, failed to evolve during the eighteenth century into a significant center of Greek education, like other trading cities such as Ioannina and Smyrna.

Moisiodax remained dissatisfied with the intellectual environment he encountered at Thessaloniki, and in 1753 he arrived in Smyrna. The experiences that awaited him there as well were far from rewarding, given his intellectual expectations. At the Evangelical School, which had only recently been founded, the teaching was by Ierotheos Dendrinos (1697–1780), another well-known champion of Orthodox tradition and grammatical education. Adamantios Korais testifies to the quality of his teaching: "The teacher and the school resembled all the teachers and schools elsewhere in Greece at that time—that is, they offered teaching of very poor quality, attended by liberal use of the rod. We were beaten so unsparingly that my brother, not being able to bear it any more, abandoned Hellenic education, and this against the wishes of my parents."

When Thessaloniki and Smyrna, the two largest cities outside Constantinople, proved unable to satisfy his intellectual aspirations, Moisiodax's thoughts and plans began to turn toward the West. The University of Padua, long an established destination for Greek students in quest of higher education in the West, became the focal point of his intellectual desires. To carry out his intention, however, he needed economic support, to which end he addressed himself to the metropolitan of Smyrna, Neophytos (1731–1765). He also sought the assistance of "the other primates" of the community in Smyrna, but his requests fell foul of the bitter opposition of Ierotheos, whose response was openly ideological: "What did he not do, what did he not say, this Ierotheos from Ithaca, the teacher of Smyrna itself, in order to divert from me the support I was seeking, as in the end he did divert it? 'They are atheists,' he cried, twitching convulsively, all those that study in the land of the Franks, and upon their return, they convert others to atheism as well.'"

The image of Ierotheos Dendrinos prevalent in the history of Modern Greek culture has been shaped on the basis of the testimonies left by Korais and Moisiodax. It is worth comparing, however, to the account of both teacher and climate of the school in Smyrna by another mature pupil who, like Moisiodax, also came from the heart of the Balkans to taste the fruits of Greek education. Dositej Obradovic (1739/1740–1811) left the monastery of Hopovo in the diocese of Karlowitz and traveled as a teacher in Serbia and Croatia for five years (1760–1765), before turning toward the Greek lands with the aim of becoming initiated into the language of the Church Fathers and into Greek letters. From Corfu he crossed to the Peloponnese and from there to Mount Athos. At the Serbian monastery of Chilandar, where he stayed for two months, he heard of the school that flourished in the early eighteenth century on the island of Patmos. On his way to Patmos, in October 1765, he naturally passed through Smyrna, then the center of communications in the Aegean, and there learned of the Greek school in the city and the fame of its teacher Ierotheos. The latter responded to Dositej's request to study at the school with an offer of free tuition and residence: "This school supports thirty pupils, and if five persons like you had come from so distant a land, I should be glad to receive you all." In this way Obradovic became acquainted with the "new Greek Socrates," as he calls Ierotheos Dendrinos, and studied Greek letters under his guidance for the next three years (1765–1768). His recollections of the school at Smyrna and its teacher were very different from those of Korais and Moisiodax. Of Ierotheos, Obradovic wrote in his autobiography of 1788:

He was pious and devout yet free from all superstition: though a simple monk, he was nevertheless a sworn foe and rebuker of monkish abuses, falsehoods, and begging; of fraudulent ikons and relics; and of miracles wrought for money. Whenever anybody told him that such and such an ikon was miraculous, he would inquire: "Does it float in the air all by itself, or is it nailed, or pasted on a wall or hung on a peg?" And when he heard that the first of these things was not true and the second was, he would say, "So you see that it is not miraculous." Owing to this philosophical and genuinely pious love of truth that characterized him, the Lord knows what all the monks of Jerusalem or Mount Athos, or anywhere else, would have done to him if they could. But his innocence and virtue were so well known that not only all the Christian folk of Smyrna, but even the very Turks honored and loved him more than all the monks in the world, and therefore it would have gone hard with anybody who had touched him.


Excerpted from The Enlightenment as Social Criticism by Paschalis M. Kitromilides. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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