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The Critical Corner - 03/02/2009

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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


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.


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.


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 ` 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'


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.


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.

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