Participation in 1821: The Universal Significance Of The Greek Revolution

Two hundred years have passed since the beginning of Greek Revolution of 1821, the first successful revolution, after numerous failed attempts throughout five centuries, against the Ottoman conqueror and tyrant. It is an event of universal significance that not only signifies the resuscitation of Hellenism from the lethal bonds imposed by the Fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453 but also affirms its ceaseless continuity from the depths of antiquity up to today. Though there exist several ways of celebrating such a milestone, only one is suitable par excellence: the tropos of participation, that is, of the communion with recent events two centuries old that abrogates spatiotemporal restrictions and renders to the celebrated not only what is proper to it but also its living perpetual imprint.

In the opening of the Platonic dialogue of The Timaeus, there is a passage where Plato narrates the achievements of the city of Athens against a great and powerful enemy from the west attempting to oppress all European cities. Plato describes how Athens “once upon a time suspended a power that moved by insult (hubris) towards the entire of Europe and Asia” (Timaeus, 24e). Albeit mythical, this Platonic narrative on the Atlantis, spelled out by Critias, contains elements pervading Greek identity and the diachronic universal service of Hellenism as defender of liberty and democracy. In this sense, already since Plato’s times we ascertain a self-consciousness of the Greek nation with respect to history, humanity, and its civilization.

Such self-awareness is expressed and confirmed in manifold ways throughout the centuries: from the resistance of Hellenism during the Persian wars, as testified at the memorial of Leonidas in Thermopylae with the unparalleled statement ‘‘Foreigner, go tell the Spartans that we lie here obedient to their commands’’ (Herodotus, Histories, 7, 228.2.); to the Empire of Alexander the Great and its evolution into the millennium-long life of the Eastern Roman Empire (occasionally misleadingly called Byzantium); up to the most recent resistance of Hellenism to the Nazi atrocity, the latter being a precise verification of the prophetic character of Plato’s mythical narrative in the 20th century.

However, an excellent sample of this fully modest self-awareness is the words about the Greek Revolution proclaimed by Theodoros Kolokotronis, at Pnyx, in November 1838: “…On this land where I am standing today walked wise men who declaimed in the old times, whom I can neither be compared with nor even reach their traces…I am inferior to them. But I am only telling you that they were wise, and from here all other nations borrowed wisdom” (Theodore Kolokotronis, Speech at Pnyx, Institute of the Hellenic Parliament, Athens, 2008).

In the Greek tradition, the notion of freedom and of its derivative, democracy, is neither abstract nor stems from a need for mundane arrangement of the individual by means of individual and social rights, in order for it to secure living conditions such that postmodernity has codified as “quality of life.”

Something else happens with Hellenism. Both before Christ and in its Christified form, Greek logos and tropos abides solidly in a conduct of being that is truly novel: it moves on the boundaries of the confrontation between being (to hon) and very being (to einai); on the verge of the battle of decay with incorruptibility; of the finite with the infinite; of temporality with the timeless; of dasein with the beyond; of lie, falsehood, error with the truth; of slavery with liberty; of authoritarianism with democracy; of selfishness with the unselfish; of evil with the good; of the created with the uncreated; ultimately, of Death with Life.

It is the last pair that is experienced by the Greeks in a unique manner, although the effort by any means to exorcize the first and attach to the latter is proper to the whole mankind. For the Greek knows that the most real and dangerous death is not the biological end that comes with the separation of the soul from the body, but the one that annihilates those human senses that remind us of the fact that the human being has been created for great things, that transcend any notion of race, tribe, and genus. Things that belong to a polity that is not served by parties, factions, fractions, divisions, and ideologies. The Greek knows that his fate is to renovate and transform the world not by means of his or her own powers but by that divinely granted power that renders the human being an heir and container of Godman Christ. This audacious truth shapes both the explosive requirements for a proper celebration of the two hundred years since 1821 and the very event of the Revolution, an event that bears in it the most indomitable evidence of the unbreakable dependence of the Struggle for Independence of the Greeks on the holy faith of Christ: Resurrection (Ep-Anastasê)[1].

As Ep-Anastasê, the Struggle for Independence is not merely a Greek national affair. Rather, it is an ecumenical affirmation to the Life that defeats Death. As such, it concerns humanity entirely. Not only because it shows the path of liberty to every enslaved human being on earth, but also because it leads humanity to grasp what Freedom really is about, by interpreting on truthful grounds what slavery consists in. On the face of the Turk conqueror, the Greek fighter acknowledges the imprisonment of humanity to the bonds of tyrannical closedness and the abstract self-deification that the death of an impersonal god entails. Therefore, rebellion is not a demand for re-establishing a mundane freedom and achieving self-determination, although both are good and sacred. Revolution is about the highest act of resistance to death caused by humanity’s affirmation of the selfish use of the world, that aims at prevailing over it and seeks the necrosis of its non-objectifiable divinity.

As such, Greek Revolution is an ultimate lesson of appraisal of the human being and removal of the insult against the Living God and His cosmos. To such a divine mission, sacrifice and voluntary death appeal not only without second thought, but as the par-excellence Exodus from the bonds of death that insult the Life of Immortality. Only such an overwhelming stake is capable of proclaiming “freedom or death!”

Only the experience of eternity within the created is capable of interpreting the “foolishness” of the inhabitants of Messolonghi that show how the Besieged may, and should, remain Free. Only the deep faith in that the human being is created in order to become God by Grace and to attract creation and cosmos to the Creator, is capable of interpreting correctly and to justify the belief that “an hour of free life is better to forty years of slavery and prison” (Rigas Velestinlis, Thourios, 1797). For he who lives into eternity is in the position to serve the infinite even in a single instance. For him, an hour of free life is incomparable to an eternity of slavery, that is, an eternity without awareness of herself.

If it was not about that no Lord Byron would have been “drunk by the immortal wine of ᾽21,” so as to become Greek himself, to testify with his own blood to such a Truth. If the Greek Revolution was not about affirming the ultimate Event of the victory of Life, Christ, against Death, then what remains is its “deforestation” and its consideration in terms closed, mundane, that seek an elementarily convenient life attached to ideas borne out of a selfish correlation of humanity with the cosmos.

All the above indicates, I believe, why the celebration of 1821 is primarily an event of participation defined by the transcendence of historicity, precisely because the Struggle for Independence is not a mere historical event. One honors 1821 when one lives on the ontological grade of its makers; when one participates in the Truth in which the fighters of 1821 participated while proclaiming: “for the holy faith of Christ and for the freedom of the land.” Such participation requires an internal renewal, and an ascetic life similar to that of John Capodistrias, the first Governor of the young Greek state. Only then, modern Greeks may be ontologically uplifted so as to discern the signified beyond the symbol of the historical events, and to substantiate inside them the ethos and tropos of their antecedents who six generations earlier experienced ‘‘the desire of freedom as a rain falling upon them” (Kolokotronis, Speech at Pnyx).

No matter how paradoxical this reality may sound, it is not alien to modern Hellenism; rather, it is very old and yet totally new, as it imitates the Mystery of the Mysteries, the Holy Eucharist, that is celebrated unchangeably in the Church, now and always, and about which Saint Nicholas Cavasilas writes: “For it is not a type of sacrifice, nor an image of blood; but it is truly a slaughter and sacrifice” (Interpretation of Divine Liturgy, 32, PG 150, 440-441). Thus, our partaking of the fact of 1821 may transform a manifestation of respect and honor into “an imitation of a great and perfect act” (Aristotle, On Poetics, 6, 1449b24-25), with results beneficial to modern Hellenism.

In this sense, Greeks all over the world are invited to be rebaptized to a most progressive, yet traditional, stance of life that is articulated in the essential, the ontological, and not just folklore, and share in the significant and perfect act that began taking place in 1821 and extends to the future by granting to the present the hope of restoration not merely of the Greeks but also of all humanity and the entire cosmos. This hope is not a utopia but a premise for Exodus and Resurrection from slavery and corruption, attested by the duality (synamfoteron) of the Feast of Annunciation of the Blessed Mary and the national day of March 25th, 1821.

Published on Thursday, May 27, 2021, in Public Orthodoxy, at the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University, NY: https://publicorthodoxy.org/2021/05/27/participation-in-1821/

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