Barlaam of Calabria

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BARLAAM OF CALABRIA (c. 1290c. 1350), humanist, philologist, and theologian; one of the forerunners of the Renaissance. Barlaam was born in Seminara commune, Calabria, a Greek by ethnic descent and language, and a member of the religious groups that still preserved the memory of their Orthodox Christian past in southern Italy. With the passage of time the inhabitants of the region were obliged to submit to Rome, but they felt themselves to be Orthodox as a result of their long tradition. The religious duality of the Greek communities of southern Italy explains the oscillation in Barlaam's advocacy of the two competing traditions. He was possessed of a sentimental love of Orthodoxy on account of his Greek ancestry, but as a theologian and philosopher, he was influenced by Western Scholasticism.

In 1326, traveling from Italy to the Greek peninsula, Barlaam doffed the clothes of a Western monk and put on Greek monastic dress. He stayed in Thessalonica several years and strengthened his reputation as a philosopher. Barlaam later settled in Constantinople, where he soon gained the confidence of ecclesiastical and political circles, especially of the emperor Andronicus III Palaeologus, who gave him a professorial chair at the university. No one had any doubts about the sincerity of his Orthodox convictions. He was made abbot of the Monastery of Our Savior, and two confidential missions on behalf of the emperor were entrusted to him. During the years 13331334, Barlaam undertook to negotiate the union of churches with the representatives of Pope John XXII. For this occasion he wrote twenty-one treatises against the Latins in which he opposed papal primacy and the filioque doctrine. In 1379, he was sent to the exiled Pope Benedict XII at Avignon to suggest a crusade against the Turks and to discuss the union of churches, but he was not successful.

A reaction against Barlaam was not late in coming on both the philosophical and theological fronts. In a public discussion with Nikephoros Grigoros, Barlaam was defeated. More serious was his defeat in the area of theology by the spiritual leader Gregory Palamas. Because of his Western theological presuppositions, Barlaam was not able to understand the mystical-ascetical tradition of the East, and therefore he criticized it, with the result that he was condemned in Constantinople at the synod of 1341, and both he and his followers were formally anathematized there at the synods of 1347 and 1351. After his condemnation, he returned to the West and adhered to Roman Catholicism; he was subsequently ordained a bishop by the pope, a fact that was interpreted in the East as a confirmation of the suspect role he had played in the ranks of the Greek church.

Barlaam's theological works include eighteen anti-Latin treatises, antihesychastic writings (On Light, On Knowledge, and Against the Messalians, all of which are lost), and treatises and letters supporting Western theology such as Advisory Discourse and the draft of the Discourse to Pope Benedict XII. In his antihesychastic works Barlaam held that knowledge of worldly wisdom was necessary for the perfection of the monks and denied the possibility of the vision of the divine life. In addition to theological works, Barlaam also composed philosophical, astronomical, and mathematical works. Among these are his Ethics according to the Stoics, a treatise on calculating the eclipses of the sun, six books on arithmetic, and a paraphrase of the second book of Euclid's Elements.

A product of both East and West, Barlaam influenced the culture of both. Petrarch and Boccaccio were his pupils, and there is no doubt that he contributed to the strengthening of the current that led to the Italian Renaissance. On the other hand, Barlaam's interest in the hesychast dispute resulted in the development of a lively theological movement in the fourteenth century in Constantinople and Thessalonica. One of its consequences was the formulation of the mystical-ascetical teaching of the Orthodox church by Gregory Palamas.

Barlaam overestimated the significance of philosophy (especially of Greek philosophy) for theology, asserting that only through philosophy could humanity arrive at perfection. He thus denied the renewing power of the Holy Spirit, which makes saints even out of uneducated people, as it made the fishermen apostles. Being a humanist, Barlaam placed emphasis on created means of salvation (e.g., philosophy and knowledge) and reduced the role of the grace of the Holy Spirit.


Works by Barlaam

Giannelli, Ciro. "Un progetto di Barlaam per l'unione delle chiese." In Miscellanea Giovanni Mercati, vol. 3, "Studi e Testi," no. 123. Vatican City, 1946. See pages 157208 for excerpts from his writings.

Migne, J.-P., ed. Patrologia Graeca, vol. 151. Paris, 1857. Includes excerpts from the Discourse to Pope Benedict XII and the Advisory Discourse.

Schiro, Giuseppe, ed. Barlaam Calabro: Epistole greche. Palermo, 1954.

Works about Barlaam

Christou, Panagiotis C. "Barlaam." In Threskeutikē kai ēthikē enkuklopaideia, vol. 3, cols. 624627. Athens, 1963.

Jugie, Martin. "Barlaam de Seminara." In Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, vol. 6, cols. 817834. Paris, 1932.

Meyendorff, John. "Un mauvais théologien de l'unité au quatorzième siècle: Barlaam le Calabrais." In L'église et les églises, 10541954, vol. 2, pp. 4765. Chevetogne, 1955.

Theodore Zissis (1987)

Translated from Greek by Philip M. McGhee