The great Georgian epic, The Knight in the Panther's Skin, belongs to the twelfth century. In one chapter of the epic, "The Testament of Avtandil While He Stole Away", the protagonist of the poem, Avtandil, proclaims:
If the deed is carried out, what sense is in the knowledge
of philosophers' wisdom.
That's the way to learn and join the heavenly hierarchy.
These lines present not only the world outlook of the author, Shota Rustaveli, but the moral attitude and stance of its spiritual life of the whole Georgian nation.
Avtandil is presented as a king's general and spouse of the king's sole daughter. On a hunt with the king who raised him, he encountered a stranger, a young knight, and tried to make his acquaintance. But the slaves sent to invite him for a meeting became the victims of his anger; he killed all of them and fled. According to the desire of the King and his daughter, Avtandil undertook a long search for the lost knight. He encountered and promised to assist a stranger, named Tariel, the prince and heir of a kingdom in India. Tariel was an unhappy spouse in search of his sweetheart, the daughter of the supreme King of India, Nestan-Darejan, who had been kidnapped by the evil souls, the Kajis. With the help of their third friend, Phridon, the two attacked the castle, won the battle and liberated the beauty. That is the plot of the epic.
The "Testament" under discussion deals with the text, written by Avtandil, after his decision to begin a second journey to assist Tariel, and all that is done against the will of his own king.
The study of the philosophical basis of Rustaveli's poem dates from the early decades of the twentieth century and still continues. During this period a number of counter opinions have developed, among these the idea of a Neo-Platonic influence upon Rustaveli calls for the most attention.
A number of aspects appear to link Rustaveli's poem with the European Renaissance. These include the Neo-Platonic theory of the emanation of the universe, the overcoming of the rupture between the earthly world and the other world, the value of earthly life, the enjoyment of the beauty of the material world, and humanitarian ideals.
The influence of Neoplatonism upon Rustaveli's world outlook was brought out first by an outstanding Orientalist, Niko Marr. This was inspired by stanza 884 where Tariel, exhausted after his fight with a lion and a panther, addresses Avtandil in the tone of a hopeless lover:
The death's approaching, leave me alone,
I have too little time left,
All my connections are broken,
I am joining the range of spirits.
Niko Marr tried to explain the idea of the stanza with the help of the great Georgian philosopher Ioane Petritzi, the translator and commentator of Proclus' Connections (The Basis of Theology). Marr pointed out the presentation of Death as a break of connections (Earth, Water, Fire, Air) and the liberation of spirit from the world, its ascent to heaven. This opinion is strengthened by stanza 1304, where Nestan-Darejan on the brink of a nervous breakdown, sends a letter to her beloved from her imprisonment:
Pray to the Lord in order to free me
from the worldly torture, to leave the fire,
water and earth and air.
In Neoplatonic thinkers, and the commentaries of Ioane Petritzi, the four elements frequently are mentioned as components of worldly existence. The division of the creator into four elements exists also in other religions and philosophical trends, but Marr's choice of Petritzi is based on the word "sira" used by Shota Rustaveli. In Greek philosophy the term means an order, rank or range and often is used in that sense in Petritzi's commentaries.
That was the point at which Marr stopped. Later a Georgian philosopher, Shalva Nutsubidze, pointed out that the Neoplatonism in Rustaveli's epic is of a specific Christian form. Its source is attributed to pseudo-Dionysius, the Areopagite. According to the opinion of Nutsubidze and Ernest Honigman, a Belgian researcher, pseudo-Dionysius was Petre Iberi, the fifth century Georgian theologian, and Bishop of Mayum.
Stanza 1492 of The Knight points directly to pseudo-Dionysius' influence on Rustaveli's world outlook:
Dionysius the sage has revealed the following wisdom to us:
God is the giver of good and not creator of evil.
Evil is short-lived and transient while good endures forever.
He, the supreme and Perfect, makes His Perfect self more Perfect.
These lines not only present the name of the thinker, whose ideas were used by Rustaveli, but illustrate the soul of the Areopagitic philosophical system in the shortest and most skillful manner.
According to pseudo-Dionysius, the Lord is Goodness Itself, which dawns on each existing substance. Evil is not derived from the Lord. but belongs to non-substance. In all conditions it is opposed to goodness, not as a self or independent substance, but as Goodness which is subject to a privation. The contemporary Georgian philosopher, Shalva Shikashely, writes on the problem as depicted in The Knight:
The basis for the victory of Goodness over Evil is the reality of the former, its eternal existence and substantial being, in contrast to the unreality of Evil, its chance, temporary and its accidental character. Goodness itself is the substance, "the existing one", while Evil does not exist by itself, it is "non-existing".
The Areopagitic view on the interrelation of Evil and Goodness is itself the source or starting point of Rustaveli's moral principles. It is significant that Basil the Great was one of the early authors of the formula on the nonsubstantiality of Evil and the presentation of its existence as a privation of Goodness. His works were translated into Georgian in the twelfth century and though Rustaveli must have known them, he mentions only pseudo-Dionysius.
Now let us return to Avtandil's testament:
If the deed is not carried out,
what sense is in the Knowledge of philosophers!
These words not only present an ethical standard to Avtandil, but are the principal basis of his philosophical world view, his most important definition of worldly existence.
The philosophical aspect of the world view should be underlined because "The Testament" begins by mentioning Plato:
Permit me, O King, to recall to your mind the teaching of Plato:
Falseness and double-dealing are destroyers of body and soul.
Of course, this aphorism is not an exact citation of Plato, but Rustaveli was right in attributing these words to Plato, whose name and prestige meant a great deal to him. For him Plato was the greatest sage, the patriarch of the wise men he considered to be his teachers. In this case the protagonist of the epic points not only to the premise of his own opinion, but in addition declares that the wisdom he acquired from his teacher was interpreted by him rather in a distinctive manner and converted into a program of action.
The aim of learning and the result of action is given in the following line:
That's the way to learn and to join the heavenly hierarchy.
Thus, learning with subsequent corresponding action draws a man closer and "joins" him to the heavenly order.
According to Avtandil communication with eternal Goodness or the Lord is possible only through the force of Love which must bring us to the divine hierarchy. That constitutes pure Christian love which is especially underlined in "The Testament", that is, the Love of which the "apostles write" in their books.
It should be noted that certain researchers are suspicious of the Christian foundation of Rustaveli's world outlook; they reject also the influence of pseudo-Dionysius upon Rustaveli. Their reason is the total absence of the Trinity in the poem, whereas it occupies one of the main places in the works of pseudo-Dionysius as a genuine Christian thinker. But it should also be noted that there is no point in searching for a complete religious and philosophical system in this epicwe would not find it there and there is no need for it. The Knight belongs to creative literature, to poetry, and in it can be traced the spirit of the epoch.
Shota Rustaveli is the child of a Christian epoch and a Christian country; accordingly, his world outlook is fed with Christian sustenance. The fact then that not all points of Christian dogmas are found in the poem, for instance the dogma of the Trinity, does not prove Rustaveli's non-Christianity. To strengthen our position we would note that this absence of the Trinity is true also of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf or of the poem Percival, written by Wolfram von Eschenbach who was a poet contemporary to Rustaveli, although it certainly belongs to the Christian period and is written in a Christian cultural environment.
The Lord mentioned and characterized in aliphatic and cataphalic ways in the epic is the creator of all: He bestows upon man the ability to "overcome foes"; He is "the helper", "the invisible", "the immortal" the one who can turn one into many, and many into one.
Besides all this we find the Christian point of view regarding the creation of the Universe. On that are based the ideas of a personal God and His will, the creation of this world, and the existence, life and fate of men. All are in God's hands, everything depends on His will, that is Avtandil's belief:
What the Lord will not desire, not a deed
will meet its end.
Human fate is premeditated and what is determined cannot be changed. Though from this there follows the idea of man as a toy in the hands of fate, Avtandil proclaims not blind fate, but the will of God. He asserts also the human will:
No point there is in where I am, unless free will
for me provided.
This is not against the will of God, on the contrary, the two wills coincide. The Lord creates only Goodness which, after making a circuit, returns again to its source. When a man exercises his will and begins the struggle against Evil, he carries out God's will. In the environment of medieval centuries the problem of the relation of God's will and human action is connected to the general problem of the Absolute will and the free will. This problem is solved in a special way in Rustaveli's epic. When a man's action is directed to Goodness, its fulfillment becomes the result of God's will and its fate is determined by that will conjointly with the person's own subjective action.
Human unhappiness is brief; patience and struggle are needed to overcome it. The basis for this struggle is knowledge or enlightenment and the highest moral categories.
In the struggle against Evil one of the main supports is the courage and bravery of the knight. These features determine Rustaveli's philosophy of action. Death and life are too close to each other; death is the lot of every being. This proves Rustaveli's famous slogan on the preference of heroic death to nameless existence:
Better die with fame, than to live with shame!
Death in the struggle against Evil and fame that follows such death is one of the conditions for return to the eternal source.
According to Avtandil's will, upon his death his property is to be distributed among the meek and the poor, to free the slaves, and to build bridges and nursing homes for the sick. Besides, he asks the king to pray for his soul and asks for forgiveness. Satan is mentioned and fear is expressed of being defeated by him:
Thus I pray my soul to take it, letter'll tell you won't deceive,
And the lie will destroy me, so the Satan can win.
Thus, the "Testament of Avtandil" begins and ends with the curse of the lie and the praise of truth.
This short part of the great epic presents an apology for knowledge, truth, love and morals. The term "knowledge" in the poem relates neither to obtaining information, nor to learning some profession, but to "philosophical wisdom" which moves a man closer to truth and helps him discern it and reject falsehood. Lies affect drastically not only the flesh, but the soul as well. Besides lies, inactivity and fear are manifestations of the evil which prevents the victory of Goodness and the ascent of the spirit. Action and struggle are means for carrying out the moral categories identified by philosophical wisdom. Thus, according to Rustaveli, man's ascent to heaven is like stairs. Knowledge or philosophic enlightenment and love, moral empowerment, action and struggle against any kind of evil lead humanity to the Heavenly Hierarchy.
Institute of Philosophy
Academy of Science of Georgia
1. Ioane Petritzi, Works (Tbilisi, 1942), Vols. I, II.
2. Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagite, Works (Tbilisi. 1961).
3. Proclus' The Basis of Theology (Tbilisi, 1972 in Russian).
4. Shalva Nutsubidze, Works (Tbilisi, 1980), Vol. VII.
5. Shalva Khidasheli, The History of Georgian Philosophy (Tbilisi, 1988).
6. Mosé Gogiberidze, Rustaveli, Petritzi, Preludes (Tbilisi, 1961).
7. Mikheil Makharadze, The Philosophic Problems of the Areopagite
The poem of S. Rustaveli, "The Knight in the Panther-Skin", constitutes a basic document for Georgian culture analogous to the Mahabharata in India, the Divine Comedy in Italy or Shakespeare's writings for Anglo-Saxon culture. Its sources can be traced back to the Christian Neoplatonic tradition of Pseudo Dionysius and others, though the poem does not present detailed philosophical or theological structures.
The cultural content of Rustaveli's epic is a vivid presentation of the humanitarian ideals of love and friendship. Its image of the knight brings to life the value, dignity and responsibility of the person. Presented in epic form this work has been the basic bearer of the self-understanding and values of the Georgian people.
A characteristic feature of this work is its ability to move freely between the concrete, sensibly observable world and the metaphysical world of immortality, heaven and God. This raises the question of whether and in what ways such metaphysical vision is and will remain viable in the present times.
The very question, however, may reflect a situation of reductionist humanism which is already past. As noted in the chapter of Professor Walsh the attempt to explain all simply in material and human terms rather than in terms of the spiritual and, by extension, the divine is not characteristically modern; it is but one phase of the recurring human hubris by which a creature attempts to become God as in the Bible story of the Fall, first of the angels, and then of mankind in Adam and Eve. Similarly, the initial humanist phase of the enlightenment was followed by a recognition of its inadequacy and in contrast of the essential importance of the spirit. The present situation has strong similaritic to this second moment. After seventy years of the harshest oppression in which all the modern techniques of educational, social and political controls were applied to a campaign of materialistic reductionism, its utter failure and radically dehumanizing effect impels people toward a rediscovery and reaffirmation of human freedoms and their spiritual bases. This is truly resurrection and new life.
It has meaning not only for opening attention to such trans-physical realities as the soul, immortality and God, but, mediated through metaphysics as a science of all things, it brings a renewed valuation of allboth physical and non-physicalin broader, deeper and richer terms. At this moment in history our particular vantage point is the person as free. On this basis it can be seen with new and special clarity that the human spirit is not limited according to Kant's necessitarian laws of temporal and spatial phenomena, but lives rather in terms of the possibilities of the limitless truth and love that is God. The point of entry is the person; the point of arrival is the plenitude of life itself; and between these two lies the field of creative freedom.
This, in turn, gives renewed importance to culture and tradition. These are the product of free and creative human choices in response to the concrete challenges of personal and social life. Tradition is constituted of these choices which continually have been reevaluated and reaffirmed through time, and thereby constitutes the trove of discovery by a people regarding the meaning and means of human life. This provides materials and content for metaphysics, whose task is to apply the most open and effective means to bring this into the full light of being as true, to leaven it with present insight and carefully to draw out its implications for truly humane progress in the good. This constitutes a continuing dialogue between the sense of person emerging from contemporary struggles and that of the divine foundations of human life, between public life and theology, mediated by a metaphysics in which the human understanding of both poles will be enriched.
This has important implications for our day. Some who are trapped within the Cartesian search for clarity and unity reject any effort to attain an overall and integrated vision as merely a selection of some factors to which all else is reduced. Such a reductionism would be an ideology by which all that is concrete or free would be discounted, excluded or repressed. They interpret in this light any attention to an absolute foundation or to a national identity which they see therefore as repressive and totalitarian which, if not materialist and Marxist, must then be Fascist. As a result, they are reinforced in a lobotomous positivism without mind or in a universalism without heart. But can such life as then remains be human in any real sense?
Such a position is itself an ideology and reflects the fatal limitation running through the modern history of man's search for clarity, which in its exclusiveness and under the impulse of hubris becomes a search for control. Just as today one begins to find the importance of "fuzzy" logic, so one needs to recapture the wisdom in a life that lives concretely, because only thus can one encounter existence lived freely. Without discounting clarity we need a broader appreciation of being and meaning and of the multiple modes in which this is discovered, envisaged and expressed. We need philosophizing that does not begin by rejecting the human experience of free commitment, but values it as the mirror in our world of the life and meaning of being. This will enable us to look deeply into our traditions as the mother lode for our discoveries about human life.
Read in this context, national epics such as Rustaveli's inspire neither an exclusive self-centeredness that has no room for others nor an abstract universal that has no room for concrete freedom. Rather, they reflect meaning which has been drawn from deep within the searchings of a people, but which transcends any particular life or lives, and thereby can be an inspiration and guide to all.