Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.64
Richard P. H. Greenfield (trans.), Niketas Stethatos: The Life of Saint Symeon the New Theologian. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 20. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. xxv, 422. ISBN 9780674057982. $29.95.
Reviewed by Andrew Louth, Durham University, UK (email@example.com)
Saint Symeon the New Theologian became well known only in the last century. That he is known at all is due to the labours of Niketas, a monk of the Stoudios Monastery, who towards the end of his life became its superior. It was in 1052, seventeen years after St Symeon’s reminding Niketas, in a dream, of his neglected promise to compose a Life, that Symeon was recognized as a saint and his relics translated to the capital. It seems to have been a pyrrhic victory: Symeon’s star soon declined, and his works were little read. Even the renewed interest in Symeon during the hesychast controversy in the fourteenth century seems to have been inspired by a rare copy of Niketas’ Life, rather than any profound knowledge of the saint’s own works.
There is more to Niketas than his role in the cult of St Symeon, though that role was not simply as a propagandist for Symeon’s understanding of monasticism and the Christian life. It has often been remarked that Niketas’ Life presents a more Studite picture of Symeon than is likely to have been the case. That was probably not only a sensible tactic in promoting such a controversial, indeed tiresome, figure as Symeon the New Theologian; it reflects Niketas’ own monastic commitment, for he seems to have been, all his life, a monk of the Monastery of Stoudios. Niketas’ connexion with Symeon, however, as has again often been remarked, cannot have been very great: if Symeon died in 1022, as is generally agreed, Niketas can have known him for no more than a few years. Nevertheless, it was to Niketas, the young monk who had copied the rough drafts of the Saint’s writings, that Symeon entrusted the task of composing his life, though the fact that it needed a post mortem visitation a dozen or so years later to spur him into action maybe suggests no great enthusiasm on Niketas’ part!
As a monk of the Stoudios monastery, Niketas had continued the traditions of that monastery, not least in noisy criticism of the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos’ publicly keeping a mistress, for which he earned the epithet, stethatos, ‘stout-hearted’. As well as being the biographer of Symeon the New Theologian, he was like him a spiritual writer of some note. He also engaged in polemic: against Keroularios, who had objected to the monk-deacons (hierodeacons) of the Stoudios wearing liturgical belts; against the Jews, as well as the Armenians; and against the Latins (though Cardinal Humbert claimed that he was won over by the Latins and became a good friend: a likely story, one might think). In the Philokalia of St Makarios of Corinth and St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain (published 1782), there are included three ‘centuries’ by Niketas—collections of a hundred chapters, a popular monastic genre—on the spiritual life. The fact that they were included in the Philokalia presumably indicates some tradition of reading him on the Holy Mountain (in contrast, the writings of St Symeon included in that anthology are slight and/or spurious). Some more works were discovered in the last century and published. They include the polemical works referred to above, some letters, a short treatise on that ever-popular topic in Byzantine philosophy, on the terms of life —περὶ ὅρων ζωῆς—and a trilogy consisting of On the Soul, On Paradise, and On the Hierarchies.
There is more, then, to Niketas than his involvement with St Symeon, but nonetheless it was that association that was to prove most important. It was due to him that the Saint’s works were published, and maybe due to Niketas that Symeon was canonized at all: the Life seems to have been part of the canonization process. This Life was first published in a critical edition by Irénée Hausherr, with a French translation by Gabriel Horn, in 1928. In 1994, the Greek scholar, Symeon Koutsas, produced another critical edition with a modern Greek translation. Neither of these is easy of access, so, for this reason alone, this new translation, with a facing Greek text, by Professor Greenfield welcome. There are further reasons to welcome this publication: the translation is excellent; the text, based on Hausherr and Koutsas, combines the virtues of both; the introduction and notes are both concise and informative. Professor Greenfield is well abreast of the available literature on both Niketas and Symeon, though he makes no use that I could find of the valuable account of Symeon’s life and theology by Alexander Golitzin (to be found, rather oddly, in volume 3 of his translation of the Ethical Discourses, listed by Greenfield in his bibliography).
It has become the tradition to play down the significance of Niketas’ Life, on the grounds that Niketas hardly knew Symeon, seems keen to increase his own stock by exaggerating his association with the Saint, and tends to assimilate Symeon to the tradition of the Stoudios Monastery to which Niketas was so strongly attached (though Symeon’s formative years had been spent in the Stoudios Monastery, too). Instead, we have been encouraged to base our understanding of the life of the Saint on his own treatises. Professor Greenfield quietly points out that Niketas was not just the biographer of St Symeon, but his editor: any access we have to the saint has been fingered by Niketas. It is a point that needs to be heeded.
Greenfield’s notes are brief and helpful, particularly over the precise meaning of the Greek text (his occasional corrections of other scholars are quietly deft). At one point, however, I felt that he could have said a little more. One long section of the Life is concerned with Symeon’s defence, before the patriarchal court, of his veneration for his spiritual father, also called Symeon (indeed from whom Symeon took his name): veneration which included the making of an icon of his spiritual father. Symeon defends his action by citing the passage from Basil the Great’s On the Holy Spirit, in which it is stated that honour offered to the image extends to the prototype. In the iconodule Fathers, this invariably meant that venerating the image of the saint is tantamount to venerating the saint (though in most cases, it is the icon of Christ that is in question). For Symeon, this passage is cited to assert that the veneration offered to the icon passes to the saint, and then to Christ Himself, for the human is created in the image of God, and in the saint this image has become manifest. It is an interesting, and profound, extension of the iconodule argument.
This volume is, then, to be warmly welcomed. It provides access to a work of manifold importance for eleventh-century Byzantium and the Byzantine ascetical tradition, improves on the earlier published versions, and is embellished by immensely helpful, and discreet, notes. Furthermore, like the other volumes in this series, it is beautifully printed and produced, despite the very modest price.