Theodore Metochites’s “Lament on Human Life,” A Later Byzantine Perspective on the Anxiety of “Instability”

Cameo, Constantine the Great and the Tyche of Constantinople wearing her turreted crown, sardonyx, 4th century. Image: The State Hermitage Museum.

Alas, alas, Life, you monstrous thing replete with every kind of misfor­tune, breeder of misfortune, theater of misfortune, and most of all of insta­bility!

– Theodore Metochites (SG 27.1.1)

In the wake of COVID-19’s spread into a pandemic, the world has fallen into a state of collective anxiety. As a historian, I find that in such challenging times, my inclination is to look to the past. At this moment when we all contend with isolation, grief, scarcity, and the fear of contagion, we may find some solace and insight by exploring the ways in which humanity has previously coped with such feelings of uncertainty. Much of my work this year at the Medieval Institute has focused on the Byzantine statesman and polymath, Theodore Metochites (1270–1332), and his theorization of memory as expressed in his scholarship and in the iconographic program of the Chora Monastery, the renovation of which he oversaw and endowed (c. 1316–1321). No stranger to turmoil in his own life, Metochites also reflects at length on the idea of “instability” (astasia) in his writings. Several chapters of his encyclopedic work, the Semeioseis gnomikai, or “Sententious Notes,” address this recurring theme as the author himself works through the notion of uncontrollable change and fickle Fortune.

Metochites’s observations on fate draw from his own experiences of the ebb and flow of politics. In 1283, Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (1259/60–1331, r. 1282–1328) ousted Metochites’s father, George, from Constantinople for his opposing policies, and, at thirteen years old, young Theodore accompanied his father into exile. While in Asia Minor, Metochites dedicated himself to his education and, by 1290, as he writes, “the winds shift[ed] from one direction to the opposite” (SG 28.3.5). The same Andronikos II, having learned of Metochites’s reputation for erudition, called him to serve in the imperial court, where he achieved the high rank of Megas Logothetes, or prime minister. He takes care to acknowledge that his change in fortune was an external one, beyond his control: “the difficulties of my life suddenly and perhaps unexpectedly changed … although I had in no way changed, in the way it usually happens among men” (SG 28.3.4–5).

In a rather pessimistic frame of mind, he continues by pointing out that even in the grace of good fortune, the popular saying rings true: “it is impossible to find anyone living a life free of sorrows” (Hult 13). Metochites tells us that as his position and fortune increased, he felt steadily more burdened by state affairs. He writes that it was “extremely distressing … to be personally in charge of conducting and somehow administering the shipwreck of Roman world power, and many times, when I could see no way out in my thoughts and I completely lost hope, I prayed that this seeming blessing and favor from Fortune would not have fallen to my lot” (SG 28.5.4 and 6.4–5). Good fortune brings with it no guarantee of happiness.

Theodore Metochites presenting his foundation to Christ, Esonarthex, Lunette above eastern door, Chora Monastery, c. 1316–1321, Istanbul, Turkey. Image: Brad Hostetler.

In the same essay, Metochites draws an evocative comparison between the whims of political fortune and sudden changes in health:

No, we can see even the strongest and those with bodies in excel­lent condition in absolutely every respect easily lose their physical strength and confidence, struck down now and then by a chance occurrence, some­thing which others who are perhaps not equally well-endowed with bodily strength have managed to escape. And we see the man who yesterday was standing firm, indeed, who was for a long time undefeated by any kind of bodily misfortune, now lying on his back and suffering some malaise in his body, that had, until now, been extremely vigorous, or having lost all his health and now experiencing numerous difficult changes, living with all kinds of sickness—he who for many years seemed completely impervious to the vicissitudes of the body. (SG 28.2.1–3)

As easily and as quickly as the body succumbs to illness, so too do rapid shifts in fate occur in all other contexts of life, from wealth to family and career. This association amplifies points set forth in the preceding chapter of the Semeiosis. In his “Lament of human life,” Metochites opens with a description of the two sides of human reaction to fortune’s instability. Those currently experiencing good fortune constantly live in expectation and anxiety of worse things to come, while those who are struggling live with the hope of better days. With the flip of a coin (or “turn of the ostrakon” in ancient Greek and Byzantine parlance), the greatest wealth yields to poverty, robust health deteriorates to languid weakness. He goes on to say, however, that instability, though unforeseeable, should be expected. Reacting to the assertion that change is abrupt, he argues the opposite: “I unhesitatingly add that [it has been coming] for a long time, indeed from the beginning” (SG 27.2.5). Metochites follows the concept of “universal flux” put forth by Heraclitus, and elaborates on the maxim still referenced today, “the only thing constant is change” (cf. SG 29.2.1–7). He concludes that it is wisest to acknowledge, either through personal experience or observation of others, that life is inconstant; with this in mind, one must “live not unprepared for the likelihood of good things turning utterly bad and so live better” (SG 27.2.7).

Toward the end of his life, Metochites found reason to affirm his comments on misfortune’s predictably unpredictable appearance. In the margins of Paris gr. 2003, pictured below, we find a retrospective remark written in light of his second exile from the capital in 1328. Following the ascendance of Andronikos III to the throne after a long period of civil war, Metochites was forced to reside in Didymoteicho (today in northeastern Greece) before returning to take monastic vows in his foundation of the Chora two years later. To the earlier words of his “lament,” he declares, “I myself have suffered this as I foretold” (Hult xv).

Theodore Metochites, “A Lament on Human Life,” Paris gr. 2003, f. 49r (56r), 15th century. Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Metochites’s essay further deliberates on the saying that, “because of death we are living in a city without walls.” The original Epicurean context of this adage emphasized the indefensibility of the human body and inevitability of death. Building on this metaphorical meaning, Metochites states that we are, “like people living in a city without walls also because of the changes from prosperity to adversity, from perfect health to sickness, and on the whole from good fortune to bad …” (SG 27.2.1–6). Though he was writing in a much different cultural context than ours today, we might bring a critical eye to Metochites’s musings as a way of contemplating COVID-19-era insecurity. The rapid spread of illness threatens to render our “city walls” – the infrastructure of our healthcare and economy – susceptible to collapse. Anxiety arises from the permeability of these defenses. With an understanding that none of us is immune to “the attacks and sieges of Chance,” we can reassess the way we conceptualize and respond to drastically new realities.

While Metochites reflects on Fortune from the viewpoint of a privileged Byzantine elite, the current pandemic has laid bare the shared, but uneven vulnerability to “fate” in our society. In many ways, the virus’s dismantling of our “city walls” has lead to an exposure of inequality, and the situation thus demands that we reconstruct societal concepts of space and community. As we grasp to control contagion through worldwide self-isolation, the “fate” of the individual is inextricably tied to the many. Risk and instability, however, are not experienced equitably. Indeed, the necessity of social distancing has demonstrated just how few “walls” had been erected to fortify the health and well-being of all in the first place. Metochites reflected on his personal experiences to assess the nature of fate and life’s inconstancy. When this crisis is behind us, perhaps we will not forget the diversity of individual experiences in the face of uncertainty. Only then might we rebuild a fortress of collective action better equipped to sustain the many against the next unpredictable, inevitable turn of fate.

Nicole Paxton Sullo
2019–20 Byzantine Studies Postdoctoral Fellow at the Medieval Institute
Ph.D., History of Art, Yale University (2020)

All translations based on:

Karin Hult, ed. and trans., Theodore Metochites on the Human Condition and the Decline of Rome: Semeioseis gnomikai 27–60, Studia Graeca et Latina Gothoburgensia 70 (Gothenburg: Kriterium, 2016). DOI: 10.21524/kriterium.4.

Moral Self-determination and the Byzantine Christian Tradition

Though diverging with regards to detail, most historians of intellectual history would readily acknowledge that the advent of Christian antiquity coincided with a new concept of moral self-governance and, consequently, individual culpability.[1] Antique and medieval Christian thinkers cultivated a universal notion of ethical self-determination, affirming that all possess an inherent and unnecessitated capacity for the recognition and pursuit of the good regardless of one’s social upbringing or physical circumstances. A prima facie examination of these late antique and medieval Christian notions might seem to suggest many common features with post-Enlightenment and contemporary conceptions of moral autonomy, which emphasize self-legislation and independently-derived moral criteria. Nevertheless, a closer reading of these sources discloses a mindset that grounds moral self-determination in an ethic of co-governance, establishing the heteronomous “other” as an indispensable aspect of the quest for the good.

A significant exemplar of this “ethic of co-governance” can be found in the corpus of the early Byzantine monk, Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662 AD), a figure revered by both eastern and western Christian traditions. Imbued with the spirit of the eastern ascetic tradition, the Confessor draws upon both monastic literature and the Hellenic philosophy of the Alexandrian intellectual tradition in order to synthesize his theological vision. Prominent among the doctrines prized by the eastern monastic tradition is indeed the idea that every rational agent possesses a free will, a notion that Maximus himself would also ardently defend and develop. Equally prominent, however, is the practice of “obedience” (hypakoē) to a spiritual guide or superior. This practice became an indispensable aspect of spiritual life in the eastern monastic communities that coalesced in the fourth and fifth centuries, and it remained a venerated feature of eastern monasticism through the end of the Byzantine era. Though not a central motif in his spiritual writings, Evagrius of Pontus (345–399 AD), a pioneer of eastern monasticism, is careful to exhort both male and female monastics living in community to attend to the words of their spiritual guides.[2]

Constantinople. Source:

The most well-known literary source providing an exposition of obedience is The Ladder of Divine Ascent, authored by John of Sinai (c.579–659 AD).[3] In the fourth chapter or “step,” John addresses the practice, defining it thusly: “Obedience is absolute renunciation of our own life, clearly expressed in our bodily actions…Obedience is the tomb of the will and the resurrection of humility.”[4] His endorsement of the renunciation of “will” may sound odd to many readers, especially given the Christian emphasis upon moral self-governance. Nevertheless, John is not denying the concept of free will as such, nor is he suggesting that the volitional faculty must atrophy into non-existence. Scholarly evidence suggests that the term John uses here for “will,” thelēma or thelēsis, comes to be associated with the volitional faculty in a philosophical sense in the writings of Maximus the Confessor, whose engagement with the Christological controversies of the seventh century provided the impetus for the standardization of the expression.[5] Thus, when John speaks of “will” and its denial, he is arguably referring to what Maximus the Confessor and his theological progeny would call gnomē, which in the idiom of the time refers to a private or particular disposition of will, or even to a personal opinion.[6]  John’s monk is not so much denying his own intrinsic freedom of will as he is seeking the co-governance and insight of those who are more advanced in virtue, and, through them, struggling to direct his volitional disposition such that it harmonizes with the other members of the community.

Maximus discloses a similar approach to moral self-determination by establishing his ethical teaching on “love” or agapē, which figures prominently in his philosophical and dogmatic treatises as well as his ascetic writings.[7] Agapē is no mere private sentiment but constitutes the impetus and ground for moral practice as a whole, thereby suggesting that moral judgment and orientation presuppose an awareness of one’s community and the persistent presence of a real, tangible “other.” In this way, Maximus retools an older Aristotelian paradigm, exchanging justice for love as the central and all-defining virtue.[8] Insofar as agapē is the chief virtue, narcissistic self-love, or filautia, is its inverse and the progenitor of all vice. As he demonstrates in one of his earliest works, The Ascetic Life, ascetic discipline should not be considered a private enterprise intended primarily for the sake of internal moral perfection.[9] Rather, its purpose is the effacement of filautia and the diachronic restoration of temporal and eternal relationships with the creator and one’s fellow creatures. To quote the Confessor directly: “He who is unable to separate himself from the passionate yearning for material things shall neither love God nor his neighbor authentically.”[10] Defining this activity in ontological terms, Maximus argues that divine love shall eschatologically gather together the fragmented portions of human nature into a functional unity, existing as a single mode in solidarity of will and disposition.[11] If love is the metaphysical impetus for the pursuit of virtue and the ground of morals, mimēsis or “imitation” is the pedagogical means by which it is recognized and acquired. Creatively appropriating and redeploying principles of Neoplatonic philosophy, the Confessor establishes the imitatio Christi, the existential imitation of Christ and his virtues, as the epistemological core of his ethics.[12] True followers of Christ imitate his mode of existence, disclosing through their lives and examples divine virtue. The lives and modes of these “exact imitators” are in turn imitated and imparted unto the morally immature.[13]

When viewed through a contemporary lens, we might say that Maximus’ view and the tradition that informs him entail the recognition of “autonomy”—as we would construe it now—as the point of departure for human agency. However, the ideal of agapē calls for the voluntary sacrifice of autonomous moral space for the sake of moral co-governance and a reciprocal unity of wills, which depends upon the concrete example of Jesus Christ and his “exact imitators.”

Demetrios Harper
Byzantine Studies Post-doctoral Fellow

[1]This is strongly reaffirmed by Kyle Harper (From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity[Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2013], 80-133), who objects to Michael Frede’s assertions that the concept of free will is not unique to the Christian tradition but can, in fact, be attributed to Epictetus. See Frede’s A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought, Sather Classical Lectures 68, ed. A. A. Long(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), pp. 66-88.

[2]See The Two Treatises: To Monks in Monasteries, and Exhortation to a Virgin, in Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, trans. Robert Sinkewicz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 127-28, 131.

[3]These dates are based on what still remains tentative conjecture. Cf. Alexis Torrance, Repentance in Late Antiquity: Eastern Christian Asceticism and the Framing of the Christian Life c. 400-650 CE (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 158-60.

[4]The Ladder of Divine Ascent 4.3, revised edition, trans. Lazarus Moore (Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1991), 21. For the original text, I consulted the Κλίμαξ, in Ἰωάννου τοῦ Σιναΐτου ἅπαντα τὰ ἔργα, Φιλοκαλία τῶν νηπτικῶν καὶ ἀσκητικῶν πατέρων 16, ΕΠΕ, Ἐλευθέριος Μερετάκη (Θεσσαλονίκη Πατερικαὶ Ἐκδόσεις Γρηγόριος ὁ Παλαμᾶς, 1996).

[5]John D. Madden is among the first to argue for the originality of Maximus’ contribution to the genealogy of the concept of will. Cf. his “The Authenticity of Early Definitions of Will (thelēsis)” in Maximus Confessor: Actes du Symposium sur Maxime le Confesseur, Fribourg (2-5 Septembre 1980), eds. Felix Heinzer and Christoph Schönborn (Fribourg: Éditions Universitaire Fribourg, 1982), 61-82. Madden’s “originality thesis” is defended by David Bradshaw, St Maximus the Confessor on the Will, in Knowing the Purpose of Creation Resurrection, Proceedings of the Symposium on St Maximus the Confessor, ed. Maxim Vasiljević (Alhambra: Sebastian Press, 2013), 143–58 For an up-to-date and comprehensive overview of Maximus’ view, see Ian McFarland, “The Theology of Will,” in The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor, eds. Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 516-32.

[6]Ian McFarland, “The Theology of Will,” 520-522. Cf. for the context and background of “will” and its correlative expressions in Maximus, cf. Paul Blowers, Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 156-65.

[7]Cf. Maximus’ Four Hundred Texts on Love, in The Philokalia, eds. and trans. Kallistos Ware et al., vol. 2 (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), 48-113; Letter 2: On Love,in Maximus the Confessor,The Early Church Fathers, trans. Andrew Louth (Abingdon: Routledge, 1996), 84-93.For a systematic account of Maximus’ aretology and its foundations, see Demetrios Harper, Chapter 4, The Analogy of Love: St. Maximus the Confessor and the Foundations of Ethics(Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2018).

[8]See Maximus’ Quaestiones ad Thalassium I 40.60-70, Corpus Christianorum, Series Graeca 7, eds. C. Laga and C. Steele (Turnhout: Brepols, 1980), 269-71.

[9]Liber asceticus 100-115, CorpusChristianorum, Series Graeca40, ed. P. Van Deun (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000), 17. Cf. also the introduction to the Quaestiones ad Thalassium I 380-390, 39-41.

[10]Liber asceticus 100-110, 17. The translation is mine.

[11]Letter 2: On Love, 88.

[12]Cf. St. Maximus the Confessor’s Questions and Doubts III, 1, trans. Despina Prassas (DeKalb: Northern Illinois Press, 2010),156-57;Ambiguum 48.6,in On Difficulties in the Church Fathers II, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 29, ed. and trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 218-20.

[13]Liber asceticus 635-665, 73-74.