Palmieri’s Biography of Eugenios Boulgaris

Below is the biography of Eugenios Boulgaris written by Aurelio Palmieri, an early 20th century Catholic expert in the Eastern churches (hence the prejudiced remarks near the end, despite Palmieri being one of the more kinder Catholic experts on the East of his time). It is from the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, vol. 12, col. 1236-1238. I have not translated the second part of the entry, which is a very brief summary of Boulgaris’s theological works, but I may in the future. I have included the in-text citations of Palmieri, but for the full bibliography, refer to the end of the entry. I myself have added footnotes which show where Palmieri’s account diverges from a more modern biography, that provided by Efthymios Nikolaides in Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).

BOULGARIS Eugenios. – I. Biography. II. Theological Works.

I. Biography. – The most learned of the Greek theologians of the 18th century was born in Corfu in 1716, of Peter Boulgaris and Jeannette Paramythiotis. His family was originally from Zante (Zakynthos), and this is why those from Zante argue with Corfu over the glory of having give him birth. Idromenos, Ἡ πατρὶς Εὐγενίου τοῦ Βουλγάρεως, Parnassòs, 1881, vol. V, p. 209-216. If we follow Demetrakopoulos, Eugenios Boulgaris himself affirms that he was born in Corfu. Ὀρθόδοξος Ἑλλάς, Leipzig, 1872, p. 189. He received the baptismal name Eleutherios (Eleftherios) in memory of the miraculous delivery of his birthplace, saved from the Turks through the intercession of Saint Spyridon.

From his childhood, he showed the greatest aptitude for the intellectual life. Having completed his primary studies in Corfu, he went to Arta in Epirus, where he had as professor of belles-lettres the genius Athanasios of Candia. After a brief stay in this city, he left for Jannina, and attended the courses of Methodios Anthrakitis who attempted to introduce his students to Western philosophy. It was in this very city that he was ordained a deacon, and following the custom of the Orthodox Church, he changed his name from Eleutherios to Eugenios. Voulismas, Ἐπιστολιμιαῖα σημείωσις περὶ Εὐγενίου τοῦ Βουλγάρεωσ, ᾿Εκκληιαστικὴ αλήθεια, vol. III, p. 205-207. His parents, who were initially opposed to his ecclesiastical calling, used their influence to have him named curé of Zante, to keep him with them, but the young Boulgaris had other plans, leaving Zante and even refusing priestly ordination.

On returning to Jannina, where word of his intelligence had grown, he received the offer, from certain wealthy Greek traders taken with him, of completing his studies in Italy. Thanks to the generosity of his compatriots, he went to Padua, attended the courses of the university there – quickly learning Italian, French, Latin, and Hebrew. He also made rapid progress in the philosophical and theological sciences.

In Venice, the enthusiasm generated by his sermons, preached in the Greek Church of St. George, led the two Maroutsis brothers, rich merchants from Jannina, to offer Boulgaris the direction of a school they wanted to build in their hometown. Veloudis, Ἡ ἐν Βενετίᾳ ἑλληνικὴ ἀποικία, 2nd ed., Venice, 1893, p. 127. He accepted and left for Jannina in 1742, where soon enough numerous students joined his courses in Greek, philosophy, and astronomy. His stunning success provoked the jealousy of one of his confreres, the mathematician Basil Balanos1, archpriest of the church of Jannina and director of the gymnasium of Djiouma in the same city. To avoid the calumnies and accusations that grew against his teaching, he quit his post in 1750 and accepted the many invitations from some wealthy merchants from Kozane in Macedonia, who wanted him to instruct their children. In this city no less than in Jannina, he did not cease preaching on the gospel to the faithful. His preaching earned him the admiration of his eloquence and his strictly classical style.

Phanar soon learned of his oratorical accomplishments. To give him greater authority, Cyril V decided to give him the direction of the academy which had just been created on Mount Athos. Eugenios Boulgaris accepted this with joy (1753)2. There he taught les belles-lettres and philosophy, and his courses soon swelled to almost 200 students. But Cyril V, having had a sudden change of heart regarding Boulgaris and being deposed and relegated to Athos (1757), sowed discord among the students and forced him to stop his teaching. It was these circumstances which led Boulgaris to write to his persecutor a long apologetical letter, where (after having enumerated the many vexations afflicted on him) he wrote: “For the academy of Athos, I gave my life, I sacrificed my health, I dissipated my fortune. What necessary thing did I fail to do for my vineyard? I had plenty of patience to see the growth of the grapes of knowledge, but because of bad fortune, I collected only the thorns of ingratitude. May the Lord judge between me and the vineyard and may Your All-Holiness be more benevolent in the future toward me.” Aenian, Συλλογὴ ἀνεκδότων συγγραμμάτων Εὐγενίου τοῦ Βουλγάρεως, Athens, 1838, vol. I, p. 64. Chased from the Holy Mountain, Eugenios emigrated to Thessalonica, and in 1761 to Constantinople, where the Patriarch Samuel and the holy synod gave him the chair of philosophy and mathematics at the patriarchal academy3. Faced with new calumnies and great suspicion from the patriarch due to his innovations in teaching style, he quit his chair and left for Leipzig (1765)4. There he edited in ancient Greek a logical treatise and his elements of mathematics, and translated a large modern work, Voltaire’s Essai historique et critique sur les dissensions des Eglises de Pologne. In 1769, we find him in Berlin at the court of Frederick II, who took him under his protection and recommended him to Catherine the Great of Russia5. She charged him with translating into modern Greek her Instruction pour la Commission appelée à dresser le projet d’un nouveau code de lois. He accepted with honor. Catherine then called him to St. Petersburg and named him the imperial librarian (1771). By his flattery, he came into the good graces of the empress, who elevated him to highest dignities of the imperial hierarchy. In 1775, at this time still a deacon, he was called to govern the new eparchy of Slaviansk and Cherson, which Potemkin (a favorite of Catherine) had just founded in Crimea. He received ordination, both priestly (August 30, 1775) and episcopal (October 1, 1775), from the hands of Metropolitan Plato. ᾿Εκκληιαστικὴ αλήθεια, vol. IV, pp. 387-388.

At the same time, the imperial academy of St. Petersburg enrolled him in the ranks of its ordinary numbers and Catherine the Great conferred unto him the cross of the order of Saint Andrew.

At the height of his honors, Eugenios Boulgaris, who did not feel capable of fulfilling an episcopal ministry, asked the empress to give his eparchy to his friend Nikephoros Theotokis (1736-1800), who was more fluent in Russian. Receiving his desired freedom, he stayed for a longtime in Cherson and translated into Greek verse the Georgics and Aeneid of Virgil. Returning to St. Petersburg, he devoted himself to the study of theology, and published in Greek works of controversy and exegesis. In his final days, he retired to the convent of Alexander Nevsky, where he died June 12, 1806, at the age of 89 years.

Eugenios Boulgaris, according to one of his biographers, had a universal spirit: he is rightly considered the most intelligent man in modern Greek history. The historians of neo-Hellenic literature have no short supply of praise for him. In the words of Chassiotis, it is Boulgaris “who had given, by the brightness of his genius, a real push to the sciences, and who introduced new systems of philosophy, as well as the best methods of teaching, who created among us, in order words, rational teaching.” According to Coray, “he was one of those who contributed most efficaciously to the moral revolution of Hellenism.” Koumas called him a new Plato; Rizos Neroulos, a genius of marvelous flexibility. Elie Tantalides, an admirable writer, an eminent professor, a glorious bishop. “When he spoke,” writes Aenian, “one believes one is hearing Aristotle developing the principles of Newton, or Descartes explaining the principles of Plato. When he went to the pulpit, one could compare him to Demosthenes explaining the divine and supernatural ethics of the gospel. His numerous and very erudite commentaries prove that he was without doubt the Plutarch of our time.”

These are, as one can see, the pompous praises of rhetoricians. In our humble opinion, the work of Eugenios Boulgaris will not be received by posterity. It is already in large part forgotten. Boulgaris was really a very flexible spirit: in the knowledge of foreign languages, he brought together an astonishing ease of talent and an erudition great, but dense and lacking in criticism. His literary role was beneficial for Hellenism. His highly-attended courses were the prelude to the wars of independence. But this said, one must remember that Boulgaris was not an original writer who will be noted in the history of literature.

His brightest works were in his laborious translations. He popularized among the Greeks the philosophical systems of the West which were, let us say it, not the best. A good Greek man of letters, he always abhorred scholasticism. He always despised Western theology, and at different times, he attempted to attack it, but with harmless stings. The Greek Church considers him the best theologian of his time, yet his many volumes are devoid of original ideas. His polemic is not learned. In a lifeless style, he restates what one finds in the folios of Nektarios (1605-1680) and Dositheos (1641-1707) of Jerusalem. He tried to fight the Latin Church, and in this he gives, in vain, a vast erudition mixed with violent diatribes. Catholicism would have made of him an intrepid defender of Christian dogma, for he was capable of standing up to impiety. The over-the-top and endless rigorism of Orthodox theology quickly drained him of his talents and calcified his spirit. He was reduced to repeating the nonsense of his predecessors and proving once more that “the theological literature, by a defect inherent in the very spirit of the Greek Church, cannot be as fecund in Greece as it is in other Christian countries.” Rangabé, Histoire littéraire de la Grèce moderne. Paris, 1877, vol. I, p. 217-218.

1. According to Nikolaides, it was Boulgaris’s teaching of Leibniz, Locke, and Voltaire at the school that led to the ire of Basil, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy, p. 156.
2. Nikolaides has Boulgaris, allured by a higher salary, returning to Jannina from Kozane before being called to Mount Athos, ibid.
3. Nikolaides portrays things differently. According to him, Boulgaris leaves Athos in 1758 and is called in 1759 (not 1761) to Constantinople by the Patriarch Seraphim II (not Samuel) but is chased away by Seraphim’s successor, Patriarch Ioannikios III. Patriarch Samuel, the one who Palmieri says brought Boulgaris to Constantinople, was the patriarch succeeding Ioannikios, ibid., p. 157.
4. Nikolaides has Boulgaris going to Jassy in Romania before Leipzig, ibid..
5. According to Nikolaides, Boulgaris was introduced to Catherine the Great through a Russian marshal named Theodore Orlov in Leipzig, not through Frederick II in Berlin, ibid.


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