by Nikos Kazantzakis.

New York: A Touchstone Book, 1953. Translated by Jonathan Griffin. 432 pages.

See comments at end for addition from an internet reader.

Comments of Bob Corbett
August 1999

This is a very challenging philosophical-theological novel set in Greece during the last days of the Turkish occupation, probably in the early 1920s. On Easter Sunday morning the "notables" of the small and remote village of Lycovrissi gather. They have decided to have a live passion play on the next Easter and they select villagers for the key roles of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the apostles including Judas. The villagers are to prepare for this honor by living lives which will bring them close to their characters during the coming year. (They are notably silent on how this is to impact Judas, though the villager Panayotaros who has been chosen, is teased within minutes of selection by the villagers.

In clever twists on the theme, the selected villagers do more than "prepare," they fully BECOME their characters and the passion is played out in bloody existential detail.

The novel is a tour de force for Kazantzakis' version of what we would today call a liberal, even liberation theology, version of Christianity.

A particularly clever plot twist by Kazantzakis widens the philosophical theme beyond Christianity to the philosophical issues at root, taking this novel beyond Christianity to universal themes of justice, individualism and the relationship to the transcendental world.

Early on the village is visited by a band of refugees whose village has been leveled by the Turks. They are homeless, landless, hungry and poor. They first come on Easter Sunday and beg food, but are driven out when the local priest, the arch villain of the novel, incites the people to turn them away. The band, led by a firebrand radical priest of their own, leads the people to a nearby mountain where they settle in to scratch out a living.

As the passion play village characters slowly begin to assume their role, their leader, Manolios the Christ, until then a lowly shy shepherd, begins to articulate a rather literalist Christian moral code: embrace all people, share fully of your wealth, treat all people the same and other such radical notions.

One is reminded tremendously of "The Grand Inquisitor" story in Fydor Dostovesky's THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV. In that tale the brother Ivan is telling his younger brother Aloysha about a time when Jesus reappeared in Spain during the heart of the inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor has him brought in, knows who he is, and lectures Jesus on the impossibility of his radical Christian message. The Inquisitor tells Jesus humans are not capable of such behavior and that the church has careful moved them away from such a radical gospel message. He tells Jesus that he must leave immediately since he will destroy the church if he stays, and Jesus leaves.

In Kazantzakis' tale the center of opposition is the priest of the village of Lycovrissi, Priest Grigoris. He widens the story beyond just Christianity when he reveals that Manolios isn't just a misguided Christian, but that actually he is a Bolshevik as is Priest Fotis, a sort of John the Baptist figure. Both are taken to be agents of Russia.

Kazantzakis paints little subtlety here. He despises Grigoris and the village "notables" and he idealizes the Christ Manolios and his version of radical communistic Christianity. However, he does put two of the most challenging arguments into the mouth of the arch-enemy Grigoris.

The village is actually ruled by a Turkish official, the Agha. He plays the role of Pontius Pilate and stays out of the disagreement and growing crisis, only at the last minute, in extenuating circumstances, washes his hands of the whole situation.

However in an interview with the Agha, when Grigoris is trying to get the Turks to step in and rid the village of the refugees, he reminds the Agha that life hangs by a delicate thread. Disturb that thread and the entire village, all life known to them, might well collapse.

In the context of this novel and the material situation they live in, this is a fascinating argument and I must say, moved me deeply. The village of Lycovrissi is indeed well off for the time and place. They had good fields, a safe political situation and relative prosperity in the village. Yet looked at from where we are, their situation was very tenuous. There is not larger protective social system to undergird them. Let there be a significant change in the weather or let the Turks decide to do to them what they did to the village of the refugees and they are lost. Relative to where most of us are today, indeed the village hangs by a tenuous thread.

A significant part of that thread is the very social fabric of the village, their tradition life in which the Agha, godlike, dispenses protection from on high. Inside the Greek community life is closely regulated and the village notables, all men, and headed by the Priest Grigoris, watch closely over an ancient order. Mess with this and who knows? Life is a tenuous thread. The radicals are over and over described as dangerous revolutionaries. Change, when life is a tenuous thread, is frightening and genuinely dangerous.

The second conservative argument which Priest Grigoris trots out is that the good of the individuals, even the rights and life of the individuals, are secondary to the good and rights of the community. This argument certainly follows from the "Life-is-a-tenuous-thread" argument. This argument was a troubling one in the rise of Utilitarianism and the results that considering the greater good of the greater number seemed to lead to the conclusion that Priest Grigoris claims, namely that the good, justice and rights of the individual may be trampled in the name of the good of the group. We still use this argument in our own society, allowing the state to usurp the property of individuals for the good of the larger society.

However, in twentieth century moral philosophy the position of John Rawls in A THEORY OF JUSTICE, put forward the limits of such Utilitarianism, arguing that there are certain individual human rights which may not be brooked even for the good of the whole. The United States Constitution had named such "inalienable" rights such as life (the allowed the death penalty), liberty and the pursuit of happiness (then allowed dozens of ways in which those were subservient to the state).

We live with constant tensions between the rights and goods of the individuals in comparison with the group. Priest Grigoris and the tradition life and Orthodox Christianity which Kazantzakis portrays are on the side of the group. The radicals, what certainly appears to be Kazantzakis' favored view, is a very liberal, even Bolshevik Christianity which leans strongly to the needs of the individuals.

I was reminded greatly of the contemporary debates in moral philosophy in which Utilitarian thinkers such as Peter Singer and James Rachels argue that each of us have strong moral obligations to the needs of others, appealing to a fundamental principle that says: "If I may help another in desperate need without thereby inflicting a similar level of need upon myself, then I am morally obligated to do so." [For more on this topic please see: Moral Obligations to Distant Others]   However, note that if taken in the radical mode that the Kazantzakis Christ, Monolios and Priest Fotis his ally, then it means a sort of radical communism of all.

I have been very interested in this Singer/Rachels school of thought and have leaned toward positions which were very embarrassing to me, since they sounded like the radical selfishness of Priest Grigoris. However, which Kazantzakis is certainly celebrating the liberal school in his novel, the arguments of Priest Grigoris, as evil and selfish as he clearly is, still moved me.

Part of the appeal of the Singer/Rachels position is that we don't quite live by a "thread" in Grigoris' sense. In one sense we all do. Life could be ended by a car accident, a heart attack, a senseless random attack of a terrorist or nut case. But that's note the real "thread" of which Grigoris speaks. His thread is more a systemic one. The very social system, social fabric of life in which they lived was called a thread. Perhaps Grigoris exaggerates even in the agricultural simplicity and reliance on Turkish protection. Perhaps this is not really a thread, but a string or weakness, yet much greater strength than a mere thread. If that image can be sustained, then the Singer/Rachels positions gathers strength in that we would have to be described as living lives dependent upon rather strong ropes. We live in the most powerful nation on earth, in great economic times. The social, legal and personal climate is one of a great deal of predictability, safety and likelihood of a decent future. We can and do live toward our futures without great fear. When we read and see the horrors of life in Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Russia and many other places in the world today we see life being lived much closer to the notion of a life on a thread of social insecurity.

What this suggests to me is that the moral questions of what we owe to others, particular distant others, like the refugees in Kazantzakis' novel, depends in significant measure on the nature of the social, economic and political situation in we ourselves live. Put in much simpler language, it depends upon our own material situation. Singer and Rachels build that into their moral principle. If we can help the other, without bringing ourselves to a position of similar harm, then we ought to do so. But what is it that endangers the strength of our own system, or own security? This remains unclear. There is always a certain risk toward the other. This is part of the tension that Kazantzakis deals with in the gripping novel.

Bob Corbett


Comments from an internet reader
Peter A. Kimball

Dear Bob,

I read your notes on "The Greek Passion" with some interest. I thought that you might not mind a little more information on the context/dating of the novel. I believe the action can be pretty reliably dated to the year 1922. The village of Lycovrissi is not in present-day Greece but on the coast of Turkish Anatolia not far from Smyrna (Izmir) but not "real close" either, because after World War I (Spring 1919 to Fall 1922) the area around Smyrna was occupied by Greek and Allied troops.

The Treaty of Sevres, imposed on Turkey after WWI, would have confirmed Greece in its possession of the Smyrna region, but the nationalist government of Kemal refused to be bound by its terms. Greece then launched an ill-advised war on Turkey, which resulted in their complete defeat in August-September 1921. (In the novel, this is what resulted in the destruction of the village of St. George.) In fall of 1922 Turkey re-occupied the Smyrna region. In January of 1923, Turkey and Greece, during the discussions of what became the Treaty of Lausanne, agreed to a "mutual population exchange", or what we might today call "mutual ethnic cleansing" - ALL Greeks in Turkey were dispossessed and deported to Greece, and all Turks in Greece were dispossessed and deported to Turkey.

Lycovrissi would have been located in an area which was never reached by the Greek army in 1921. But all of its inhabitants would have been deported immediately after the conclusion of the action of the novel, along with the refugees. (So your observation in your notes that this is "in the last days of the Turkish occupation" is really about 180 degrees off, sorry to say.)

Most non-Greek readers would have been unaware of this even in 1950, I bet, but Kazantzakis and his Greek readership would have known this intimately, and although it's not mentioned in the novel, or even hinted at, the Lausanne Convention stands as a huge ironic backdrop to the whole novel and its conclusion. (Of course I didn't know this either until I stumbled over it.) It is as if someone were to set some kind of morality play in the breakfast bar on top of the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11/01 - the action might end before the planes arrive, but you KNOW what is going to happen.

At the end of the novel, Fotis' refugees head off into the world as refugees, while Lycovrissi is apparently left to re-establish "order". But this "order" is a complete delusion. The aware Greek reader knows that in a few weeks they will **ALL** be refugees, literally "in the same boat". The only differences are in the moral capital that they will carry away with them. Of course you could say that we are all refugees on this planet and we could any one or all of us die at any minute, and the "long run" in which we're all dead is not really SO long after all for any of us, which I think is also part of Kazantzakis's point.

So coming back to the the general issue of moral obligation and the metaphors of threads, strings, and ropes, I think there is a problem which the context really illuminates here, which is that the "thread" argument for not helping others and showing the refugees the gate only works if you are reasonably certain about being in a particular range of "thread strength", and you are usually never really that certain. "Lifeboat" cases, where you survive if you don't help, and know it, and die if you do, and know it, are the exception. If the string is thick enough, you are likely to survive anyway, and your perceptions of danger are really only a rationalization for greed. If the thread is THIN enough, then you face catastrophe anyway and you are not REALLY losing anything by being decent to people, which is the Lycovrissi case.


Peter A. Kimball
Data Analyst/Statistician
American College of Healthcare Executives

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Bob Corbett