The Neo-Hellenic Enlightenment

One of the tropes that often gets repeated is that traditionally Orthodox Christian cultures, such as Greek culture, never experienced “the Enlightenment.” It is a historical truism used to justify or explain a whole host of modern phenomena, from the Greek debt crisis to Russian authoritarianism. However, this, like some many oft repeated historical cliches, is categorically untrue.

The Enlightenment, the 17th- and 18th-century European philosophical and intellectual movement that brought us so many of modernity’s most cherished ideals, from constitutional government to scientific rationalism, was not only inspired in no small part by the ancient Greeks, but also profoundly influenced by contemporary Greeks. Known as the Neo-Hellenic or Modern Greek Enlightenment, the uniquely Greek expression of the Enlightenment has had a profound impact on the subsequent history, both for Greek and the world.

The Greek merchant class of the Ottoman Empire accumulated a considerable degree of wealth throughout the 16th century. By the beginning of the 17th century, Ottoman Greeks were using their significant financial resources to send their sons to study in the great capitals of Western Europe, especially Vienna and Paris. Both cities were quickly becoming, not only educational and cultural centers, but important sites for the creation and dissemination of the Enlightenment. The young Greek men who arrived in the cities as students were soon exposed to a world filled with ideas about equality, liberty, and revolution, ideas couched in reverence for ancient Greece, which was seen by many Enlightenment thinkers as an exemplar for modern societies. Their experience as Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire had furthermore made them deeply aware of the consequences of inequality and injustice in society and made them particularly open to hearing the Enlightenment’s call for equality, tolerance, and pluralism.

Many of these students thus began to offer their own contributions to Enlightenment discourse. Today thinkers such as Theophilos Karis, Adamantios Korais, and Eugenios Voulgaris remain important figures not just of modern Greek philosophy but of European philosophy. And the legacy of men like Rigas Feraios can be seen not just in books and ideas, but in the very existence of the Greek state, because the Greek War of Independence is, in many ways, the greatest child of the Neo-Hellenic Enlightenment.

If you would like to learn more about the Neo-Hellenic Enlightenment, the National Hellenic Museum is offering a course on it as part of its NHM Discussion, an online lecture series, generously funded by the Hellenic Foundation. Learn more about NHM Discussions here.

Furthermore, if you would like to know more about how the Hellenic legacy lives today in Chicago and beyond, please visit us at to learn more about our work and support our effort to promote inquiry and share the Hellenic legacy for generations to come.

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