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Elder Photios of Mysia: Concerning Politics

Once there was a Turkish gentleman who was an advisor to the governor of Iconium (Konya), who had journeyed to visit a childhood friend who lived in Panormos (Bandirma). The nature of the visit was to seek the advice of his trusted friend on a matter of grave importance to his master. The friend in question had taken him to Elder Photios to seek his thoughts on the matter:

“Greetings Ahmet Bey, I have considered your problem carefully”.

Ahmet Bey: “How do you know my name or the concern which I bring you?”

“That is not important, because if you are a man of sincerity, humility and honesty the Lord reveals many things”.

Ahmet Bey: “I have heard from my trusted friend that you live here in obscurity even though you are a wise and respected man amongst all peoples, with Jews and Turks often seeking your counsel”.

“Whether I am wise or good, or whatever epithet people have given me only one will judge whether I am what people say, and that is the Almighty, so let us dispense with these formalities and flatteries and partake of a meal that I have just prepared, and God-willing I might be able to answer your concern.

Now Ahmet Bey, I know that you are a man involved in the art of government, but I also know that you are a scholar, so we can talk in depth and seriously about politics. As a clergyman you should know that I have no personal interest in the subject, and you fully well know that it is a complicated, and at times dangerous and dirty pursuit. Your concern is to govern people, whereas my concern is cultivate righteous and just citizens for the Heavenly Kingdom, but who set an example here on earth.

The thing that I can say to you having read the works of the ancient philosophers as well as what our Scriptures and Church Fathers have taught me, is simply that to be a successful authority whose works will survive him, one needs to learn certain concepts that a mentor can guide you along. A mentor must be a man with experience in your field who has the qualities of integrity, steadfastness, modesty and honesty. This goes for any field of human endeavour, because as people we are all created in the image of God, but because we are incomplete and not perfect we strive towards likeness of God in order to attain perfection. You as a Muslim undertake this calling by fulfilling your religious duties like almsgiving, prayer and making a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Yet what I wish to highlight to you is that this is a lifelong process of formation and education, because if we were born perfect we would have no need of these things. Thus having an experienced mentor who can guide you and seek to enlighten you from different perspectives is a necessity. The other key element is to clearly identify what your task is, that is your goal, and the means of how to achieve them. This itself requires immense thought and reflection consuming much time initially, but without this you will be shooting arrows in the darkness missing your target because you have been blinded by ignorance.

The other essential point is personal development, because an old saying goes that the one who seeks to govern others must first be able to govern himself, otherwise the guidance of a mentor and identifying one’s target will never come to fruition without this element. In Greek we call this the concept of evnomia which means good or perfect governance, good order and discipline. As an administrator you clearly recognise the importance and necessity for these qualities.

For nations and ideas spring up like flowers from the ground, and it goes through its own process of growth, death and regeneration. The institutions that are subsequently formed within this process of growth serve the needs and functions to achieve a certain pinnacle of growth. Every human endeavour has a timeframe in which it operates just like the seasons dictate the cycle of life, thus empires, nations or wealth are born and die like people.

Take for example the ridiculous arguments that people engage in about why the Greeks were conquered and why the Turks have an empire, a subject that I know which has tested your patience. Yet I tell you that these things are mysteries that only God knows and that we should not speculate too seriously on them. It is foolish to believe that the Turk was rewarded because he was a follower of Muhummad. Rather the early Turks were brought to Islam by the Arabs after they were displaced from their own homeland. The truth is that your forefathers sought refuge here and found it.

We could speculate as whether it was their sins that had witnessed their expulsion, and that we Greeks who had tested the Lord’s patience severely, and thus He brought your forefathers to chastise us. That is a possibility to teach repentance to us but also to test you Turks as to lessons in mercy and compassion. Do not delude yourself thinking that because the existence of an empire is a testimony of God looking favourably upon you, nor that power automatically equals righteousness. Instead the question you should ask is, why did the Lord bless us with an empire? What is the Lord expecting us to do? Why have we been given authority over other peoples?

When thinking about this, then consider the old adage that with authority and rights come a corresponding responsibility. No power is absolute nor complete, and the strong do not remain strong forever, nor the weak defenceless forever. History can attest to this point, and as a well-read scholar you know this to be true. The collapse of us Greeks to your forebears is a twofold point which should prove as a warning to you. Firstly, the survival of nations is dependent on that a nation remains authentic to the ethos and principle on which it was founded on, to veer from its path by other distractions brings about its downfall. Once again reiterating the point of needing to identify what your goal is, and what reality presents before you.

The other keypoint is that of the moral and ethical standing of a nation’s citizens, who if they indulge in idle pursuits and lead profligate lifestyles, as many do within the imperial city. Then it should only be expected that a nation shall die a long and slow death for it rots within and will eventually succumb to external pressures. Again, this reiterates the point of evnomia, to govern oneself properly before seeking to govern others. Rest assured that no external power can eradicate a nation unless it is consumed from within by its own termites who feed off from other peoples’ works. Remember that an old saying exclaims that idle hands are the workshop of the devil, nothing good can be made from them for they choose to remain unproductive.

Do you think that the Greeks would have fallen before you Turks if these things were not eating away at the very fabric of society, whereby people were being over-taxed, people squandering money to self-indulge, people refused to work because there was nothing to be gained in honest living? What I describe is what you are confronted with every day as an administrator, the things I describe is what you Turks are now doing! The seeds of your own destruction and those who live within your realms will suffer for these sins. At present to maintain a system whereby you have subject people and citizens in itself will cause immense pressure in the future, for one group is denied freedom and the right to participate. People who could at least fight alongside of you rather than against you, would do so if only they were enfranchised.

On the other hand those who are enfranchised become lazy and dependent on the labour of the subject, thus moral and ethical deterioration of which I mentioned to you before. For us Greeks the question was a choice between accepting you Turks as conquerors or the Papal Franks. We came to such an impasse by virtue of destroying our ethos, and willingness to sell our Faith out to accept the authority of the Pope at one point. The politicians were not concerned because they were merrymaking and enjoying themselves while the common man suffered thirst, hunger, nakedness and injustice.

Now it is the turn of the Turk to be tested by the Lord to see whether he is just, merciful, compassionate, and forgiving, or whether he is barbarous, uncouth and evil.

The problem that plagues your mind is one concerning the ethical governance of people, and it is right that you give proper attention to these things because an unjust rule wields with it terror which will return to destroy it. Our Scriptures summed this point up with an expression, that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword. This also means that whatever he has built will be in turn destroyed with him. Look around you at the persecutions, the poor, the ignobleness of everyday life and then contrast that with the indulgent wealth of the powerful who are willing to sell their principles, as well as their own mothers to maintain their own position. If this land is to survive then there should be one law for all without discrimination or prejudice whether on economic, social, religious or ethnic lines, because if this is not achieved we will all be condemned to suffer together on this earth and then pay for our sins in the next!

There are Turks for example who are poor and treated disgracefully by their own brethren, but because they do not have influence or the ability to pay baksheesh cannot get ahead without having to commit some crime and then pass it off onto a less defenceless person. Such people come to my door asking for food or clothing and I try with the little I have to help them, but it is never enough for the suffering is so great. It hurts me to not be able to give them more, this is where people in your position can do something. For I am a physician of souls who can ground people in ethos and form them into model citizens, but we also need to provide opportunities for all to progress.

The lesson I am seeking to teach you, is that government is not suppose to be an art which is geared to self-serve those who have power, but it is a ministry of care towards its citizens, guided by men of integrity, sound formation and insight.

This is not to say that inequalities can be eradicated altogether, but we can ease the suffering and provide opportunities for those seeking to get out of their negative circumstances if they so wished. Yet it is also a divinely inspired test for us to learn how to love our fellow man.

If we have this as our basis, then a nation can and will survive for a long time. To turn away from this point will begin its demise, even if we do not see it, for the Lord will remove His grace and allow it to be attacked and scattered. If you need more specific details, then I would advise you to seek a wise mentor who is skilled in the political arts to guide your steps, Amen.”

Dedicated to the memory of Liliana Damante.

Eternal is thy Memory.  – VM

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