Live Free or Die: How Adamantios Koraes Turned Greek Thought Into Power for the Benefit of the Greek Revolution of 1821

Adamantios Koraes, 1748-1833, did his intellectual and revolutionary work in Paris — far from his hometown Smyrna and the Turks who  controlled Smyrna and Greece. From the relative safety of Paris, he was aware of the secret and deceptive role of the ecclesiastics in Greek life. In public, he expressed his respect for Orthodox Christianity and support for the clergy. He zeroed in on the Turks and could not afford divisions among the oppressed Greeks. Yet, a few times, and without revealing his identity, Koraes lashed out at the traitorous policies of the senior ecclesiastics largely serving the Turks.

The first time was on the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789. European governments, including that of the Ottoman Turks, went into alert about subversion from within and without. Patriarch Anthimos of Jerusalem launched a campaign on behalf of the Sultan among the Orthodox. In late 1790s, he published Paternal Teaching, a shameful and demeaning defense of Turkish tyranny, telling the Orthodox they had to put up with oppression as their ticket to heavens.

The news reached Koraes in Paris, and, immediately, he trashed the ludicrous and awful propaganda of Anthimos. But Koraes was too embarrassed to bring the dirty Christian laundry out for all to see. In 1798, he published anonymously in Rome his Brotherly Teaching, a vigorous denunciation of the clerical lies praising the rule of the Ottoman Turks over the Orthodox Christians. Anthimos said that Jesus raised the Ottoman Turks from nothing to heights of power in order to protect the Orthodox from the scheming Western Christians. Koraes argued that such a slander could not have been written by a patriarch.

In contrast to the dark-age submission of Patriarch Anthimos to tyranny, Koraes connected the struggle for freedom of the Greeks in his time to the struggle for freedom of the Greeks against the Persians in the battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. He quoted lines 401-406 from the play The Persians by the Athenian dramatic poet Aischylos, urging the Greeks to think about nothing else but their life and death struggle against the Persians: Your struggle against the Persians is all you have, Aischylos said: free the land of your fathers, free your sons, wives, burial grounds, and the temples of the gods. Nothing, not even fire and iron, Koraes said, can divert the Greeks from their hatred for tyranny and their passion for freedom.

The second time Koraes turned his attention to the clergy was in 1806. He suspected the clergy made up a secret army of the Sultan undermining Greek society and freedom. He published anonymously in Livorno, Italy, a Philippic against priests, monks, and bishops. He entitled this powerful, ethical, political, patriotic, and revolutionary book: The Greek Nomarchia (Rule of Law), Namely a Speech On Freedom. Koraes likened the synod of bishops in Constantinople to a pack of wolves who kept the Greeks in the Turkish enclosure.

The Greek Rule of Law (Nomarchia), Namely a Speech on Freedom by an Anonymous Greek, Italy 1806. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos.

How do I know Koraes wrote the Greek Nomarchia? In the early 1970s, I wrote my dissertation about him. The man touched me profoundly.

I was then at the University of Wisconsin. In my late twenties and far from home. I was perplexed why Americans and Western Europeans were so far advanced in the sciences, while, Greece, mother of the sciences and civilization, was impoverished to the point I had to seek an education in a country thousands of miles away from Hellas.

I chose Koraes for my doctoral thesis because I suspected he might help me clear my mind about the doubts I had about myself and Hellenic culture. More than that: I wanted to know the relevance of ancient Greek thought. Did it make any difference, or was there an influence from what your ancestors did on what you do or on what you could have done?

So, I went deep into the massive work of Koraes, who spent his productive years in “New Athens,” Paris, away from Smyrna and the Turks.

I read thousands of his letters and went through something like seventy volumes of his work: of original writing, translations, edited books with commentary-reflections counting hundreds of pages. This reading gave me confidence to judge his style, language, and, primarily, his ideas and intimate grasp of Greece of his time and his knowledge of Hellenic philosophy and politics and science. This led me to see behind the anonymity of Nomarchia and identify it as a genuine work of Koraes.

In another anonymous pamphlet he wrote in 1801, Blowing the War Trumpet, Koraes said the Turkish nation, “thrice-barbarous and vile,” was the antithesis of freedom, which was sacred and, to the Greeks, as much a vision as vision is to the eyes. Freedom, he said, has been necessary for man so that he knows he is a man. In other words, freedom is everything. Koraes warned the Greeks not to rely on foreigners but fight to the last man and free themselves with their own strength.

Koraes knew that not all Orthodox clerics were Turkish agents or wolves. He respected the Orthodox faith of his ancestors. In his Autobiography, which he wrote in 1829, he said it was inevitable that the lengthy rule of the Turks would have a distressing, unpatriotic, and corrupt impact on the  Greek population, and the Orthodox clerics in particular. It did. Education nearly disappeared, Koreas said. That had a deep corrupting influence on the clergy and the Christian traditions of the people.

However, if one compared corruption among chief Orthodox ecclesiastics to that of the clergy serving the Pope, Koraes said, the “sins” of the Orthodox clergy paled into insignificance to the horrific abuse of justice and other crimes of the Catholic priests, monks, and bishops. Koraes had probably the crusades and religious wars in mind.

Koraes was no enemy of the Orthodox clergy. Some of his most devoted students were clerics. Not a few of them protected ancient Greek culture. They were endowed with the virtues of sensibility, patriotism, and knowledge. They were aware of the crime of their religion.

The ninth-century Patriarch Photios, for example, abridged 280 classical authors. He was a great humanist and scholar that protected classical Greek learning.

Metropolitan Bessarion in mid-fifteenth century presided over the failed effort of uniting the Orthodox and Catholic Churches at the Council of Ferrara-Florence, 1438-1445. Pope Eugene IV was so pleased with the work of Bessarion that he made him a cardinal. When Bessarion left Constantinople for Rome, he carried with him the greatest collection of Greek manuscripts ever to reach Europe. These philosophical, scientific, and literary works seeded the Renaissance with Greek thought and science.

In the 1820s, there were clerics who protected the vulnerable Greek population from excessive violence. They educated the young rudimentary reading and writing. And when the Greek Revolution broke out, they fought with the irregular forces against the Turks. The Greeks had the burning desire to live free or die. They wanted to revenge their humiliation; they wanted to punish the Turks for crushing taxation, the abuse of their children, and the kidnapping of their young sons.

Koraes in Enlightened Europe

Koraes knew of these enlightened clerics who were fundamental in the transmission of Hellenic science and wisdom to the West. Koraes knew Europe well. In addition to his mastery of Greek and Latin, he was fluent in French, English and German. A Protestant pastor in Smyrna was his language teacher. He worked in Amsterdam as merchant for six years. Nevertheless, he was concerned with turn of European politics during the Napoleonic administration and after..

He kept calling Europe Enlightened, but he was certain that that enlightenment was superficial. Down deep, Europe remained stuck to the dark ages. He praised the French Revolution, which damaged despotism. Napoleon, however, said Koreas in his Autobiography, failed to free Europe from tyranny, becoming a despot of despots. Instead of spreading eudaimonia (happiness) all over Europe and become a god on Earth, Koraes said, Napoleon preferred the lies of his flatterers.

Koraes shared the Platonic idea of philosopher king or, at least, government by well-informed people. He saw the increasing influence he had in the pre-revolutionary decades. So, he thought the Greek Revolution should break out in the 1850s. Greeks then would be in a position to have a successful revolution and good government.

But political reality dictated the outbreak of the revolution in 1821. This was a time of the Holy Alliance that disturbed Koraes. He also did not expect the first president of independent Greece to come out of Russia. His Greek contacts so biased him about President Kapodistrias, that he needlessly and wrongly attacked him as a Russian agent.

Aside from this grave error in his old age, Koraes was one of a kind. Of all Greek intellectuals who helped the liberation of their country, Koraes was by far the most important. He was a revolutionary and a classicist who understood the power of Hellenic thought and  civilization – millennia after they originated and flourished in Hellas. He lived in the twilight of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment when all things seemed possible, what with the resurrection of Greek mathematics, astronomy, and mechanics, including classical studies and scholarship.

His books brought all that power of the ancient and modern world together. He got the European scholars thinking that ancient Greeks were alive in persons like him. Besides, European respect for Koraes increased Philhellenism in Europe. Modern Greeks were fighting a grossly unequal struggle with the Moslem Turks supported by European governments. Wasn’t that wrong?

The books of Koraes found most of their readers among Greeks. They inspired them to revolt and fight and die for freedom.

That’s also what attracted me to him. I, too, was fighting my own revolution. He answered my student anxieties. He assured me that reading Homer, Hesiod, Thales, Anaximander, Herakleitos, Pythagoras, Demokritos, Aischylos, Herodotos, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, Euclid, Aristotle, Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Hipparchos and Ptolemaios was useful and timely for understanding myself, my ancestors, and the world. In fact, these ancient thinkers became my contemporaries.

Koraes made that possible. He was a golden link reuniting ancient and modern Greece.

Koraes received his medical degree at the University of Montpellier, France. On May 24, 1788, he arrived in Paris. This was on the eve of the outbreak of the French Revolution. He had strong letters of recommendation from his professors, which opened important doors for him.

He saw in Paris the Athenian democracy of the fifth century BCE. The French Revolution shocked him, but despite its danger, he decided to make France his permanent home, and never return to the tyranny of the Turks. His apartment overlooked the Bastille royal tower-prison.

He never practiced medicine but a pedagogy of liberation. Like Aischylos, he never ceased telling the Greeks their struggle against the Turks was of the utmost timeliness and of the highest political importance. It was a life and death struggle for freedom.

He spent his life translating the virtues and achievements of ancient Greek civilization into accessible wisdom and inspiration. For about 44 years he edited Greek classical texts with lengthy prolegomena-introductions in modern Greek, highlighting the tremendous political significance of ancient Greek thought to modern Greek freedom, language, culture, democracy and prosperity. His books circulated among Greek merchants and most Greek schools as student textbooks.

His famous edition in 1800 of Hippocrates’ Airs, Waters, Places, and his translation of the Greek text into French, was paradigmatic of the medical and scientific knowledge and wisdom of the father of medicine, Hippocrates, and Koraes. But even more than his outstanding contributions to classical scholarship, Koraes opened the doors of Hellenic civilization to his contemporary Greeks, preparing them for the struggles ahead. Koraes became the father of the Greek Revolution.

Koraes was seventy-three years old at the outbreak of the Greek Revolution in 1821. Though he was concerned the revolution came prematurely, he spent the last twelve years of his life, 1821-1833, editing political texts from ancient Greece and Europe. His purpose was to inspire successful strategies for defeating the Turks. He emphasized the intimate connection of politics to ethics and the need for civilized government to abolish capital punishment and torture and other barbaric customs.

The texts Koraes edited during the Greek Revolution include: the Politics (1821) and Ethics (1822) of Aristotle; the Strategikos (Strategics, 1822) of the Platonic philosopher Onesander who flourished during the first century; the 1764 Traito dei delitti e delle pene (On Crimes and Punishments) of the Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria. Koraes edited the work in 1823; Koraes also edited Plato’s insightful political and ethical dialogue, Gorgias (1825), and the equally powerful political treatise of Xenophon, Memoirs (1825).

Both Plato and Xenophon were students of Socrates and earned their wisdom  from the misfortunes of the Greek civil war known as the Peloponnesian War. Koraes then edited the Oration Against Leokrates (1826) by the Athenian orator and statesman Lykourgos who lived after the Peloponnesian War and during the supremacy of Macedonia. Lykourgos accused Leokrates of treason for his pro-Macedonian views.

Next Koraes edited the Enchiridion (1826) and Discourses (1827) of Epiktetos, a Greek philosopher who lived under Roman rule in the second half of the first century and early second century. Epiktetos experienced slavery and preached practical wisdom and universal brotherhood. In 1822, Koraes wrote his own commentary on the Constitution of Epidauros, in which he urged the legislators to be tolerant to Jews and Turks born in free Greece. They, too, deserved Greek citizenship. In 1831, he published Sacred Handbook, in which he summarized his understanding of Orthodox Christianity. In addition, he wrote a five-volume study of the Greek language, which came down to us under the title Atakta(Miscellaneous Notes, 1828-1835).    

Koraes influenced the Greek Revolution. His introductions to the texts he edited highlighted the wisdom of classical Greek political l thinkers. His linguistic contributions shaped modern Greek language. He was funded by Greek merchants.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.