Adamantios Korais

Brief life of a leader of the Greek Enlightenment: 1748-1833

Portrait of Adamantios Korais on a 100 drachmas banknote, 1978
Portrait of Adamantios Korais, classicist and supporter of political liberalism, on a 100 drachmas banknote, 1978Image by Ivan Vdovin/Alamy Stock Photo

Adamantios Korais was one of the most insightful European philologists of the late eighteenth-early nineteenth centuries and the leading figure of the Greek Enlightenment. Although trained in medicine, his real passion was ancient Greek literature. He was born in Smyrna—an important cultural and economic center of the Greek world in Asia Minor since the early first millennium BCE—and spent most of his long life in Paris. Before moving there in the spring of 1788, Korais had spent six years in Amsterdam (1771-1777), where he combined his work as manager of the family commercial business branch with research in classical literature and foreign languages, and another six years in Montepelier (1782-1788), where he studied medicine, after a five-year return to Smyrna (1777-1782). Having arrived, Korais never left Paris: he died there in 1833.

In 1805, he launched his most important editorial project, the Hellenike Bibliotheke (Hellenic Library). Announcing it, Korais emphasized that it is only education (paideia) that can enlighten people and liberate them from poverty, among other evils. The only kind of superiority that really matters, he argued, is superiority in paideia and virtue. In the 22 years that the series lasted, Korais produced 16 editions and nine additional, supplementary volumes. A variety of literary genres were represented in the Hellenic Library: rhetoric, philosophy, historiography, poetry, geography; and several authors, both major and minor ones: Homer, Tyrtaios, Aesop, Isocrates, Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Strabo, et al. Korais’s editions were accompanied by systematic introductions, which often provided insightful discussions of issues of political philosophy.

Korais was a fervent supporter of the political liberalism that had inspired the American and French revolutionaries. Living in exile, far from his native land (which had been occupied by the Ottoman Turks for more than three centuries), and imbued with the philosophical and educational ideas of the Enlightenment, Korais hailed the early phase of the French Revolution (and the American one before that) as a political event of immense historical significance, which boded well for the future of his enslaved compatriots. He was an eyewitness of the most dramatic events of the revolution, some of which he reported in a series of letters to his friend Dimitrios Lotos of Smyrna written between 1789 and 1793.

Intellectual progress, democracy, respect for civil and human rights, and freedom were ideals which he shared with the French and the American revolutionaries and which he advocated throughout his life. Not unlike his fellow European classicists and major representatives of the Enlightenment, Korais was a great admirer of (idealized) classical Greece: to his mind, the revolutions on the two sides of the Atlantic advanced values that were inherited from classical antiquity, especially from the “golden age” of Athenian democracy.

 Korais’s fame as a leading classicist and important representative of the European Enlightenment reached this side of the Atlantic, too. The Harvard scholar and Philhellene Edward Everett, who would serve as the University’s sixteenth president (1846-1849), had publicly recognized Korais’s sagacity in an 1813 article. Ten years later, in an extensive review of the Greek scholar’s edition of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Everett found the opportunity to familiarize his readers more systematically with Korais’s achievements as a classicist and political thinker. Everett had found a kindred spirit: they shared the same admiration for classical Greece and republicanism. Already at the beginning of the French Revolution Korais insisted that it should result in the establishment of a political system similar to the American one. In many of his writings, including his commentary on the Provisional Constitution of Greece (1822; Everett included his translation of that Constitution in his 1823 article), Korais praised American democracy as a political model that should be adopted by all modern states, including Greece. He exchanged some interesting ideas on the matter with Thomas Jefferson, as is evinced from their surviving correspondence. In his letter of October 31, 1823, to Korais, Jefferson included some astute comments on American polity and its potential use as a model by the Greeks. His concluding words attest to his respect for Korais and for Greek history and cultural tradition as a whole:

I have thus, dear sir, according to your request, given you some thoughts, on the subject of national government.[…] They are but the outlines which you will better fill up, and accommodate to the habits and circumstances of your countrymen, should they furnish a single idea which may be useful to them. I shall fancy it a tribute rendered to the Manes of your Homer, your Demosthenes, and the splendid constellation of Sages and Heroes, whose blood is still flowing in your veins, and whose merits are still resting, as a heavy debt, on the shoulders of the living and the future races of men. While we offer to heaven the warmest supplications for the restoration of your countrymen to the freedom and science of their ancestors, permit me to assure yourself of the cordial esteem and high respect which I bear and cherish towards yourself personally.  

Panagiotis Roilos, Ph.D. ’99, is Seferis professor of modern Greek studies and professor of comparative literature, and the founder and director of The Delphi Academy of European Studies.

Read more articles by: Panagiotis Roilos
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