While the formation of the Byzantine empire saw itself shape heavily around its freedom to practice Christianity (and later oust the practice of other religions with pagan or Roman influences), its historical origins lay deeply within Greek culture, most notably due to the fact that Greeks and Persians fought for a time over the area of the Asia Minor that would later give rise to the Byzantine capital Constantinople before it became folded into the Roman (and later, Eastern Roman/Byzantine) empire. These cultural origins gave rise to the prominence of thinking developed by the great philosophers of ancient Greece, most notably Aristotle and Plato, as well as Neoplatonists. However, the Byzantine empire also saw a rise to a movement known as Hesychasm, which some would credit ironically to the influence of the European Renaissance later in history.
Like much of ancient Greek philosophy, Byzantine philosophy sought to answer questions revolving around existence and purpose of such existence. Byzantine philosophy in itself primarily focused on these chief issues:
- The personal hypostases of God as the principle, not only of substance but also of being
- The creation of the world by God and the limited timescale of the universe
- The continuous process of creation and the purpose behind it
- The perceptible world as the realization in time of that which is perceptible to the mind, having its eternal hypostasis in the divine intellect
Despite the many religious influences that spawn from widespread Christianity in the Byzantine empire, however, Byzantine philosophers often agreed upon the concept of free will and self-determination as a method of happiness. This belief lies entwined and embedded within the very foundation of the creation of the universe, that being the concept of love, with the soul as its embodiment and innate connection to the aforementioned divine intellect. These beliefs concerning man’s innate connection to God via the soul while maintaining free will of mind (or “nous”) to perceive and interact within that perceptible world created by God are the constructs to what later become known as Neoplatonism.
Contrary to the methods of Neoplatonism, that which relies predominantly on rational thought and – thus – empirical knowledge, Hesychasm, developed within the Byzantine empire by the monk Gregory Palamas, focuses primarily on prayer and the dilution of the sensory perception in an attempt to search for the inner Light, often referred to as the Illumination or Vision of God. In fact, the world “hesychasm” itself derives from Greek origins and is often interpreted to mean “stillness” or “silence.”
Hesychasm utilizes, in particular, the Jesus prayer, recited as the following:
“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Considered to be an ascetic practice, The Orthodox Church itself discourages the search for ecstasy within the material world, and thus many practitioners of Hesychasm were regarded as hermits who prioritized self-purification in preparation for an encounter with God and regarded pleasures of the body as secondary and even dangerous to their being.
These beliefs eventually caused a rift in thought with Eastern Christianity, driving philosophically-minded individuals to venture westward. Many believe this rift and the subsequent wave of thinkers into Europe was one of the primary catalysts for the formation of Roman Catholic theology as well as the Renaissance that would eventually come about.