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Worth a read February 2009 Not necessarily masterpieces or artistically outstanding. Yet none will disappoint the lover of literature. Reading them one will always find something of value... Armenian News Network / Groong By Eddie Arnavoudian March 2, 2009 FOUR GIANTS OF ARMENIAN INTELLECT AND LITERATURE A. The intellectual legacy of 12th and 13th century Armenian Cilicia K. H. Krikorian's `Socio-Philosophical Thought in Armenian Cilicia' (176pp, 1979, Yerevan) introduces us to the three dominant intellectual figures of 12th-13th century Armenian Cilicia - Nerses Shnorhali, Krikor Dgha and Nerses Lambronetzi. Also a polemic, it counters the widespread belief that the three were, in differing measures, proponents of the Armenian Church's subordination to, and even dissolution into, the Byzantine Church. On the contrary, argues Krikorian, these erudite scholars and political activists were spirited ideologists of an independent Armenian Cilicia. They defended, albeit with necessary compromises and concessions, both the organisational and doctrinal independence of an Armenian Church that was then playing a critical role in the newly emerged Armenian Cilician monarchy. I. Armenian communities, Krikorian writes, though with no citation of sources, were established in Cilicia as early as the 7th century AD, and became a majority by the 11th century as a result of mass emigrations from historical Armenia devastated by Seljuk-Turk and Mongol invasions. During the 11th century the Armenian presence was large enough to provide a base for new Armenian principalities and then an Armenian monarchy. Armenian Cilicia experienced thereafter a remarkable socio-economic development, with the expansion of trade, wealth and culture. Nerses Shnorhali, Krikor Dgha and Nerses Lambronetzi appear as the new states' three intellectual peaks. They kept pace with the best thought of their times. They were familiar with and admired Plato and Aristotle and they possessed the intellectual flexibility and creativity to incorporate into their thought contemporary scientific advances and to adjust theological belief to contemporary political and social needs. Central to their outlook was the affirmation of free human will and rationality. The `individual person' just like the `secular prince' - argued Shnorhali is `lord over his own will' and `can do good or bad deeds as he chooses'. Lambronetzi held similarly that `it is myself not the wrath of God, who is the cause of my own perdition.' If he took the wrong road, then this was `as a result of my will and consciousness (p61-63).' In this respect both Shnorhali and Lambronetzi appear as inheritors of 5th century Armenian philosophical thought developed by Yeznig Goghpatzi. Goghpatzi's thesis on freedom of will was argued in opposition to passivity and fatalism and advanced as an ideological spur to Armenian self-organisation against the Persian state. It was a philosophical view appropriate to an age in which the Armenian Church and state was battling for survival. And argues Krikorian, it was appropriate also to 12th-13th century Armenian Cilicia troubled internally and by assaults from external forces. With their insistence on free will and reason Shnorhali, Krikor Dgha and Lambronetzi served to inspire and organise independence and resistance. But this of course was an affirmation of free will only for the royalty and nobility. The common people - serf, urban artisan or servant - had to continue a life of unquestioning obedience to their superiors and must rely, not on individual will, but on the judgement and possible generosity of their lord. Krikorian's protagonists also enunciated a concept of the rule of law and wise governance. Lambronetzi wrote that `the prince and the general, if they are wise, choose wise advisors and with their help they gain in strength and enforce law and order.' (p73) Here he gave expression to the political and social imperatives of the day. The development of regional trade and the need for unity against external threats was bringing together hitherto isolated estates and generating a broader national interest that required law, order and wise governance across provinces. With foundations not yet solid, with an army possessed of no long established tradition, with a royal house still in the process of consolidation wilful and arbitrary rule was especially dangerous. In a passage that reminds one of J. S. Mill's distinction between self-regarding and other regarding actions Lambronetzi underlines a consciousness of a broader, national social and political interest noting that: `the farmer who makes mistakes damages only himself, the Royal mistakes affect the entire land.' (p71) Lambornetzi's consciousness of a general interest also expresses itself as pride in Armenian nationality. He writes, for example, that though Armenians have weaknesses this is no reason `to castigate only our selves while praising foreign nations' (p90). Significantly here national pride runs together with a desire for harmony between nations and national groups. In a passage redolent of democratic humanist thought he writes: `An evil will is possessed only by some (among a nation). It is not the case that an entire nation is by nature evil, whether Greek, Armenian or any other nationality. For example, among Persians there are many who are noble people and pleasing unto God.' (p109) Though one should avoid exaggeration, it is correct to note here significant elements of modern social and political thought whose further development was however halted by the 14th century destruction of Armenian Cilicia. II. Krikorian's argument is particularly forceful when reconstructing his protagonists' militant battle against arid dogmatism in religion and against corruption in the Church. The Church, they believed should be an institution serving spiritual and social need, but it was instead becoming a means of self-aggrandisement and enrichment by the decadent offspring of its hierarchy and feudal nobility. Shnorhali, Krikor Dgha and Lambronetzi all made no qualitative distinction between the Church's religious and secular roles for in essence there could be none. As they attended to matters of theology their purpose was as urgently social as it was spiritual, dedicated as much to securing internal social stability and peace with neighbouring powers as to the salvation of the soul. For them religious principles have value only in their combination of faith and social action. `Faith alone' Shnorhali writes: `...unaccompanied by action cannot transform the person into a house for God. Faith without action, and action without faith, both are death...It is `impossible...to be at peace with God, when one is not at peace with men.' (p94) Consistent with such principle the three were uncompromising in the denunciation of Church corruption, of the clergy's lax morality and its abuse of Church posts to accumulate personal wealth. `Well before their death' writes Lambronetzi `Bishops already treat the Bishopric as private property and bequeath it to their children.' `We Bishops' he adds `have become thieves and wolves and we do violence against the people.' (p107) Lambronetzi was fierce in objection to social inequalities writing that the: `...wealthy swallowed up the poor...seizing their homes and their fields and making these their own property...' (p81) In opposition to uncontrolled exploitation his plea for royal moderation displays a consciousness of the need for communal welfare as a condition for state stability. Shnorhali, Dgha and Lambronetzi were sophisticated political and social activists and so opposed the reduction of faith to a fetish or a dogma. Prompted by weighty political considerations they were tolerant of doctrinal deviation, ready to consider compromise with and even concession to the Byzantine Church The political stability of Cilician Armenia required harmony between Armenians and Greek Christians living within its authority. Internal Greek communities should not be allowed to become fodder for anti-Armenian Byzantine strategy: so the need for collaboration with and concessions to them. Further, threatened by Seljuk-Turks and Egyptian forces, the Church played its role in seeking to disarm Byzantine hostility by means of concessions and compromise. It also considered itself responsible for Armenian communities living under Byzantine tutelage. Here again concessions that secured harmony between the Armenian and Byzantine churches served to reduce Byzantine pressure on these Armenian communities. In all these compromises however, Krikorian argues, there was no surrender of the Armenian Church's independence or its historical tradition and fundamental doctrine. Krikorian's thesis is persuasive. After all, Shnorhali, Krikor Dgha and Lambrontezi were representatives of an ascending power. Why would the intellectual leadership that played so central a role in the affairs of a powerful and prosperous state contemplate subordination to a foreign power? Here it is worth recalling Hagop Oshagan's glowing appreciation of Lambronetzi written in the 1930s or before, where he also, and well before Krikorian, challenges what even in his time appears to have been established orthodoxy. Krikorian may not have been aware of Oshagan's contribution for he does not refer to it. But it is pertinent. Oshagan writes: `The history of the Armenian Church has a `Lambronetzi question', a thorny one. I do not know from where and why the Catholics infer from (his writings) that he had an ideal for Church unity at the expense of the independence of the Armenian Church. It is true that the doors of his mind were wide. I have said already that though a Bishop he was also the sterling political activist and as such was capable of realistically judging the position of the Church...The Council of Hromgla that had unity of the Christian Churches on its agenda offers no evidence of a single retreat from the traditions of the Armenian Church. If at that meeting Nerses's (Lambronetzi) face glowed as an apostle of Church unity, it is necessary to remember at the same time that, as in Armenia itself, along with our priests, it also projected a determined opposition to any suggestion of subordinating our Church to another. * * * * * * * * * Krikorian's book is not without flaw and is marred by a trait common to many Soviet era historians. Seeking to construct an allegedly continuous and typical Armenian national identity through history they made an abstract and a-historical national interest and patriotic virtue fashioned after the 18/19th Armenian experience into a benchmark for historical investigation of ancient and classical Armenia. As a result they frequently overlook the historical particularity of the cultural, social, economic and political life of each age, an awareness of which would perhaps offer a more useful vision of past historical figures and institutions. B. Krikor Narekatzi's Vision of Humanity H. G. Tavtian's and E. V. Lalayants's `Krikor Narekatsi's Worldview' is thoroughly enjoyable, at once enlightening and exciting as the authors first trace the geography and history of this 10th century poet's birthplace before carrying their account through the ages to register his vast influence on the Armenian people and on Armenian literature and culture. And all this just as a preliminary to a substantial, original and insightful evaluation of Krikor Narekatzi's monumental `Lamentations' I. Krikor of Narek (952-1002c) lived in an age of transition marked by immense contradictions and violent oppositions. He witnessed both the peak of an Armenian political and social revival in the Bagratouni era and the beginning of its decline. This was a period of expanding trade and accumulating fortunes alongside which went the practice of conspicuous consumption, of indulgence and hedonism too. But it was also an age of expropriation, of robbery, cheating, theft as well as impoverishment for many and of social and religious turmoil and discontent, all features evident in Narek's lamentations. It was a period of a burgeoning secularism and humanism, but also of conservative religious reaction and of retreats into mysticism to cope with the instability, turmoil, the change and the uncertainty. Narek's absorbed all these contradictions into himself. His overarching vision, his all embracing grasp and comprehension, his perception, his deep feel and sensitivity for the essence of the times, for the fact and the reality of change and transition he compressed into the poetry of `The Lamentations' that is at once a cry of pain and desolation as well as a surge of hope and confidence. Krikor of Narek is regarded by many as a mystic. But this mysticism, say Tavtian and Lalayants, is of an altogether unique order, one that puts the poet apart from all other mystics whether Christian, Buddhist, Brahman or other. These others in the quest for harmony, serenity, wholeness and spiritual communion with their deity dismissed and abjured the material world and the human body, considering them impediments to spiritual fulfilment. But with Krikor of Narek this is not so. The progress and perfection of whole human being - body and soul - is a condition for successfully reaching out to god and godliness. Furthermore with Narek harmony with the Divine is not to be attained in some individual isolated state of ecstasy or in abstraction from the real world, but in the refinement and perfection of the human being's inherently noble and beautiful potential during the course of life itself. Distinguished from other mystics Narektazi was also reserved about one central aspect of orthodox Christian ideology. He did not regard the institution of the Church as a necessary condition for communion with God or for the realisation of the human potential for perfection. In `The Lamentations' Christ features as an all too human role-model that we can all emulate in accord with our own inherent individual reason, conscience and essential virtuousness. This, the traditional Church establishment was inclined to deny. Instead it stood over the individual as judge and as accuser, insisting on the inherent evil of the human being and in the possibility of redemption only in the after life only and that on condition of accepting Church dictate, of subordinating oneself to the Church and its authority. The `conditions' and `keys' that Tavtian and Lalayants suggest for a reading of Narek reveal in the poet a conception of man and woman as powerful self-conscious beings, as self-realising individuals for whom prayer and meditation is a summoning of inner spiritual strength. Prayer and meditation is self-analysis and self-examination in preparation for confronting and overcoming the ills of life as we live. It is a means of becoming conscious of our inherent potential for self-fulfilment and the attainment of decency, harmony, nobility and an ultimately total union with God which Narek believed to be the pinnacle of human ambition. As part of their examination Tavtian and Lalayants summarise historical acclaim for Narek's `The Lamentations' that goes back as far as the XIII century when Lambronetzi acutely noted Narekatzi's affirmation of the unity of reason and spirit, of mind and soul. In the late 19th and early 20th century Arshag Chobanian was instrumental in bringing Narek to the attention of Armenian national revival and noted how Narek's concept and definition of god is a felt and experienced one rather than perceived of as a set of metaphysical statements. But Tavtian and Lalayants appear to reserve their greatest enthusiasm for P. Yeghiayan who depicts Narektazi as the first modern psychologist and psycho-analyst. II. Tavtian and Lalayants successfully accomplish their project of demonstrating that Narekatzi's profoundly Christian vision is not just unique but also amenable to humanist interpretation. Certainly for Krikor of Narek heaven and hell existed for men and women in the afterlife in which he believed. But heaven and hell can also exist here on earth. The challenge for man and woman when alive is not just to live a virtuous life as a means to attain eternal paradise, but to live virtuously in order to also avoid hellish existence on earth, a hellish existence that Narekatzi portrays so powerfully. Furthermore this virtuous path is not dictated by the law of the Church but by one's own reason and conscience. With Narek human salvation is not the act of god, but the endeavour of man and woman. Christ came to earth not to save man and woman but to show man and woman a model of how he or she must save himself or herself. Man/woman has the potential. Life is the process of realising it. Borrowing from the Paulicians, write Tavtian and Lalayants, Narektazi rejected the doctrine of opposition between spirit and body, between the idea and matter where in each case the former is appreciated as divine or positive, while the latter is condemned as evil and negative. In `The Lamentations' matter and the body feature as integral elements of life forming with the spirit and the soul an organic whole. In an assertion worthy of further investigation, the authors claim that here Narekatzi follows philosophical principles elaborated by the founder of the Armenian Church Grikor Lusavortich who according to IVth century historian Agatangheghos claimed that the body and the material world being also God's creation were both necessary and positive. Parallel to the affirmation of the possible virtuousness of the terrestrial and the physical is the elaboration of a vision of the human being's divine potential and capacity for perfectibility, for the attainment of saintliness and unity with God. This is premised philosophically on an axiomatic assumption of God as omnipotent. But this God is not just cause but also substance for all that exists. He does not merely create the world, but creates it as a manifestation of his own substance and being. The world, universe, nature and man and woman themselves are thus particles, moments, expressions of Divine being. They are physical, material, finite manifestations of God's own divine essence. Faith and confidence in the Divine is also an expression of faith and confidence in human potential in this life, in the ability to confront and surmount problems and crises and realise our nobler selves. Human beings are not essentially evil. They are extensions of god. Faith is not an irrational asserted dogma. It is informed by thought and guided by conscience and by love that all together help us decipher, indicate and suggest the proper moral path for life. Lalayants and Tavtian are all the more persuasive in their argument for making no attempt to discount or sideline Narekatzi's Christian convictions. They accept him as a religious man and make no attempt to construct some modern secular thinker by divesting him of his faith. But they do show that within the terms of faith as he grasped it there exists a dimension insisting that an authentic Christianity required harmonious, balanced and civilised social conditions and an equally balanced and harmonious individual. In this context Narekatzi rejected both the sterile asceticism of a great deal of medieval religion and the violence, social injustice, the decadence and the decay of his day. His was the vision of the ideal Christian man and woman on earth - decent, cultured, moderate, healthy, devoted to his fellow beings but always primarily spiritual, seeking to live this good life as an assumed expression of his own godly self and with the hope of eventual union with God. In this impressive reading Krikor of Narek appears persuasively as a great reformer for whom unshakeable religious principle was not exclusively transcendental but required expression in daily life. Claiming that Narek was a great humanist reformer, a precursor, by a number of centuries, of Luther's Protestant Reformation the authors show `The Lamentaitons' as it critically depicts feudal society and its estates in all their unjust and violent detail. Christ in his life on earth, in his life as man offers an example of how we can all save ourselves from such excess and violence, and, most importantly how we should live and behave towards others, to live and behave as one would want others to live and behave towards ourselves. -- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.