So I felt like posting a paper I had to write for my Byzantine History class. It was a short paper (only five pages) that had to do with Gregory Palamas's book The Triads and his thoughts on God. I compared it to other philosophical approaches (mostly using wikipedia, this paper wasn't worth a ton of points and I got an A). Almost none of my history papers were this easy to write but the topic is fairly interesting.
“Palamas and Philosophy”
There have been many different approaches from theologians, writers, and philosophers that have moved toward a similar goal: proving God exists. For many, faith and logic seem to be diametrically opposed to one another. There have been some attempts by various holy men to prove the existence of God through logic from many different angles. Palamas took a different approach that deserves consideration as it contrasts with the philosopher’s views of the time but aims at the same ultimate goal. He makes a distinction between the essence and the energy of God and claims that the energy of God can be sensed and felt but the essence of God is something unapproachable. The energy of God could be felt through spiritual experiences and the light emanating from God also proves that His essence exists. In the argument between experience and logic, the two are rarely combined as a proof for God. Philosophers have agreed in many cases through logical proofs that there must be a God because if there were no God, it would lead to a logical contradiction or they lead you to a point that would logically assume a God’s existence, but most philosophers of this type discount experience of God’s energy as any type of proof for his existence.
Palamas introduces his argument for God’s energy proving His essence by using the sun as a prime example. His argument starts with a basic fact of life, “for each visible thing is visible, not in its inner being, but according to what surrounds it: It is not the essence of the sun which the eye perceives, but that which surrounds the essence.” We don’t separate the object from its attributes or the things that surround it. In the case of the sun, the light rays are not a different sun, but the medium through which we can see and feel the sun. Palamas explains that the way to comprehend God’s essence is to prepare the mind and body to conquer passions and physical desires. “The human mind also, and not only the angelic, transcends itself, and by victory over the passions acquires an angelic form. It, too, will attain to that light and will become worthy of a supernatural vision of God, not seeing the divine essence, but seeing God by a revelation appropriate and analogous to Him.” According to Palamas, the ultimate goal of worship is not a vision in which one sees God, but a vision in which one understands God through the light emanating from Him. In that way, worshippers could truly become one with God as multiple apostles and prophets explained in the scriptures.
The light of God actually is comprehended within when a person becomes a follower of Christ and “contemplates His glory.” Though the mind is involved, all intellectual activity is supposed to cease before a union of God is attainable. “This is why every believer has to separate off God from all His creatures, for the cessation of all intellectual activity and the resulting union with the light from on high is an experience and a divinising end, granted solely to those who have purified their hearts and received grace.” I like the idea that in order to understand God, you have to focus on the things taught by the prophets and apostles and you can’t obtain that state through analysis, logic, or reason. It’s a state you arrive at without immense stress trying to comprehend something that you can’t comprehend fully.
The end result of the method Palamas describes deserves attention as well. Since you can’t get there through intellectual means or through use of your physical senses, what exactly is one experiencing when drawing close to God’s energy? Palamas agrees that all have an inherent intellect, but also explains “that our mind possesses both an intellectual power which permits it to see intelligible things, and also a capacity for that union which surpasses the nature of the intellect and allies it to that which transcends it.” So built into us is the potential to surpass our intellect through union with a Being that surpasses and transcends our understanding (at least through use of our intellectual mind). Following the chain set up by Palamas actually leads to a belief that seems logical and reasonable but that can’t be approached by either logic or reason.
Most philosophers tend to separate religion and belief from emotional experience in order to prove their existence through logic alone. Many different logical proofs exist developed to prove through deductive logic that God exists, but I’ve found most of them to be lacking. In the battle between experience and reason, philosophers have crossed over in to pure logic in an attempt to eradicate non-believers on their own battleground. It opens them up for attacks from many people who have the same or more experience using logic as a weapon. It is interesting, however, to see how some have separated emotion and experience from God and have stood behind their arguments with some degree of proof for a very long time.
One of the first proofs of God goes all the way back to the time of the ancient Greeks. Plato and Aristotle were among the first to develop a cosmological argument as proof of a God (and it was later used by others such as St. Thomas Aquinas). Both argued, though in somewhat different ways, that everything in existence had to come from some “First Cause.” Plato’s argument was based on motion, he claimed that all motion “was ‘imparted motion’ that required some kind of ‘self-originated motion’ to set it in motion and to maintain that motion.” The “self-originated motion” from which all motion borrows is God. This could be extended into the realm of Palamas if one considers motion and wisdom (Aristotle’s basis for the cosmological argument) as being energies of God. God put the laws of motion into place and must have all wisdom so, in a way, both of these can be considered evidence of his essence. In fact, Palamas uses basis for a similar idea on the statement from St. Basil who said “He who has been set in motion by the Spirit has become an eternal movement, a holy creature.” He basically meant that those who move with the Holy Spirit can be seen as unified with God and, in a way, as His energy.
The argument I found to be most similar to Palamas was Descartes’ ontological argument. He argued that:
- Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be contained in the idea of something is true of that thing.
- I clearly and distinctly perceive that necessary existence is contained in the idea of God.
- Therefore, God exists.
This seems like a rational explanation of something Palamas said couldn’t be expressed rationally, though some key differences exist. Descartes’ idea is limited to God’s existence being contained within His energies while Palamas’ argument assumes God exists based on the idea that He can be felt when you unify with His energies. Both arguments, however, go back to a part giving evidence of a greater whole. Palamas, however, wanted people to experience God’s energy to believe in His essence. Descartes used a logical train of thought to say that God’s existence is inherent in the idea of God. This is the closest philosophical argument I could find that comes close to agreeing with Palamas, though they approach the conclusion from very opposite angles.
Thomas Aquinas used humans, in a roundabout way, as the starting point for his proof of God. He argued that all things possess what they do to some degree. For example, a stove possesses heat but things both colder and hotter exist. He then moved to speculating that for every attribute or characteristic, something possesses it to the fullest extent (so continuing with the previous example, the hottest thing in existence). From there he explained that there should exist some Being or entity that possesses all attributes to the maximum possible degree and this is God. Palamas actually made an argument similar to Aquinas in this respect. He said “But since God is entirely present in each of the divine energies, we name Him from each of them, although it is clear that He transcends all of them.” Palamas is arguing that God does possess all knowledge so all-knowing can be an appropriate title for God but it doesn’t describe all of what God is. The possession of all knowledge is one of the energies that emanates from God, but one can’t feel His essence simply through God’s all-knowingness. To experience the essence, one must unite with all of God’s perfected energies.
It seems that Palamas found a comfortable position between the rational and the emotional in his search for proof of God. He claimed that God couldn’t be fully understood by one or the other and we can never truly approach His essence but through His energy. His argument has taken its place with that of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Aquinas as something worth considering when searching for God and His nature. Whether or not he was right seems irrelevant when one considers that pondering God’s attributes and teachings in an attempt to unite with Him can only lead to good.
 Palamas, Gregory, The Triads, ed. Nicholas Gendle, pg. 73. (I’m using the page numbers provided by the document that’s posted on Blackboard.)
 Palamas, Gregory, The Triads, ed. Nicholas Gendle, pg. 73.
 Ibid., pg. 24.
 Ibid., pg. 25.
 Ibid., pg. 26.
 Palamas, Gregory, The Triads, ed. Nicholas Gendle, pg. 27.
 Palamas, Gregory, The Triads, ed. Nicholas Gendle, pg. 62.
 Descartes, René. "Meditation V: On the Essence of Material Objects and More on God's Existence."
 Palamas, Gregory, The Triads, ed. Nicholas Gendle, pg. 64.