GREECE: Nikos Kazantzakis


John Gehl sends this bio of the Greek author and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis (1885-1957), who is probably best known for the popular movie made from his novel, Zorba the Greek. Another of his earthy, realistic novels, The Greek Passion, was also made into a film. More controversial was his imaginative book-turned-into film, The Last Temptation of Christ, which prompted angry reactions from both the Roman Catholic Church, which banned it, and from the Greek Orthodox Church which excommunicated him. Perhaps his most ambitious work, however, was his 1938 verse tale, The Odyssey, a Modern Sequel, in which he explores the worldviews of Buddha, Jesus, Nietzsche, Lenin, and other notable historical figures. Among his many other contributions to modern Greek literature, Kazantzakis has produced lyric poetry, philosophic essays, travel books, tragedies, and modern Greek translations of such classics as Dante's Divine Comedy and Goethe's Faust.

Kazantzakis was born in Candia, Crete, at a time when the Greek island was in revolt against the Ottoman Turks. Some of his youth was spent on the Greek Island of Náxos, where his family had fled for safety. From 1902 until
1906, Kazantzakis studied law at the University of Athens, and for the two years following he studied philosophy under Henri Bergson in Paris. After that he traveled widely in Spain, England, Russia, Egypt, Palestine, and Japan. Before World War II he settled on the island of Aegina, and after the war he served as a minister in the Greek government. During the years 1947-48 he worked in Paris for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He then moved to Antibes, France.

His early writing was more philosophical than literary, mostly attempts to synthesize his thoughts about the many disparate worldviews expounded by the philosophers he studied. He also sought to reconcile conflicts generated
by modern thought and traditional Christian and Buddhist views. Later his powers as a poet and storyteller emerged to make him a best-selling author. Philosophic themes were still his potent inspiration, but now he presented
them in literary dress so that his readers would relate to more comfortably. For example, the Bergsonian notion of the elan vital was embodied in the exuberant figure of Zorba, and the value of liberty was shown in the person
of the Cretan resistance fighter against Turkish domination. He considered The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, his epic poem of 33,333 lines, to be his masterpiece, but recognized that he was better known for his novels. In 1956, he was awarded the International Peace Award, and in 1957 he lost the Nobel Prize by a single vote to the French writer Albert Camus. Kazantzakis died in 1957 in Germany and is buried on one of the bastions of the Venetian fort surrounding Iraklion, on the island of Crete.

Jon Kofas writes: "I agree with John Gehl's description of Kazantzakis, and I am glad he brought this subject up. My older brother lives in Hania, Crete, and I love that island almost as much as I enjoy Rhodes, which has a unique history, just as fascinating. Years ago I have spent some time reading up on the literary, artistic, and political contributions of the island, from El Greco to Kazantzakis and Venizelos. Kazantzakis is indeed the best modern Greek philosopher/literary figure who was profoundly influenced by the existentialist philosophical and literary trends in the interwar era when T.S. Elliot, Hollow Men and Oswald Sprengler, The Decline of the West were making an impact. My fellow Greek students in Athens, as well as my fellow U.S. students in the late 1970s, were captivated with Kazantzakis and other existentialists and Eastern philosophers. Was there an urban college student in the 1970s who had not attended a session on ZEN Buddhism or a forum on Indian philosophy? Kazantzakis' works became popular amid the cultural revolution in the western world of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when young educated middle class people were questioning the political status quo, western bourgeois values, and even the very foundations of western civilization like Christianity. Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche, among other existentialist thinkers were of interest to a generation questioning everything from the war in Vietnam, to the white-minority regimes of southern Africa, and to Christianity, which appeared to be identified with the political status quo and with a decadent middle class society bent on materialism as a substitute for human happiness.

Kazantzakis had an interesting life, questioning marriage and sexuality, questioning the ability of human transcendence, questioning all facets of faith while clinging to it. Questioning the foundations of western civilization just as did many of his contemporaries who lost faith in the rationalism of the Enlightenment after the destruction of WWI followed by Communism, Fascism, and Nazism, Kazantzakis tried to find that which fills the void in the spirit/intellect through writing which gave meaning to an otherwise absurd existence. Like most Greeks at a time of a collectivist peasant society not very different than Catholic Spain in values, he was profoundly influenced by Christianity, but his view is closer to Fyodor Dostoyevski's. The enduring quality of his work is that he raised the issue of human alienation, and he tried to answer it by relying on a combination of Buddhism, Christianity, and Existentialist thought. In both Zorba the Greek and The Last Tempetation he raises questions about what matters in man's transcendent spiritual life and in every day life, where meaning is not a priori, but it has to be defined for the moment. His message remains as pertinent today as when he wrote these works".

From Athens, Harry Papasotiriou writes: "I have not seen the film Zorba the Greek, but I have read the book. It is an exuberant celebration of the street-smart common folk, who through Zorba are portrayed as having a folksy wisdom and a care-free zest for life that eludes the educated strata. This can be placed in a tradition going back to Tolstoy: In War and Peace, for example, during his captivity by the French the aristocratic Pierre meets a wise Russian peasant and finds his remarks on various aspects of life very illuminating; the aristocratic Moscovite Natasha is particularly charming when she dances a traditional Russian folk dance in a house out in the country. Zorba the Greek must have been written at a time when Kazantzakis was disillusioned by his philosophical quests. Other works by Kazantzakis reflect different aspects of his thought, making him an author who has touched on many subjects troubling humanity, or at least Europe, in the grips of 20th century modernity".

Ronald Hilton -


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