Nikos Kazantzakis (18 February 1883 – 26 October 1957) was a Greek writer, mystic, and philosopher, celebrated for his novel Zorba the Greek, considered his magnum opus. He became known globally after the 1964 release of the Michael Cacoyannis film Zorba the Greek, based on the novel. He gained renewed fame with the 1988 Martin Scorsese adaptation of his book The Last Temptation of Christ.
Starting in his youth, Kazantzakis was spiritually restless. Tortured by metaphysical and existential concerns, he sought relief in knowledge and travel, contact with a diverse set of people, in every kind of experience. In that regard, he wrote:
“I did not know what I was going to do with my life; before anything else I wanted to find an answer, my answer, to the timeless questions, and then after that I would decide what I would become. If I did not begin by discovering what was the grand purpose of life on earth, I said to myself, how would I be able to discover the purpose of my tiny ephemeral life? And if I did not give my life a purpose, how would I be able to engage in action? I was not interested in finding what life’s purpose was objectively – this, I divined, was impossible and futile – but simply what purpose I, of my own free will, could give it in accord with my spiritual and intellectual needs. Whether or not this purpose was the true one did not, at that time, have any great significance for me. The important thing was that I should find (should create) a purpose congruent with my own self, and thus, by following it, reel out my particular desires and abilities to the furthest possible limit. For then at last I would be collaborating harmoniously with the totality of the universe.”
The influence of Friedrich Nietzsche on his work is evident, especially Nietzsche’s atheism and sympathy for the superman (Übermensch) concept. However, he was also haunted by spiritual concerns. To attain a union with God, Kazantzakis entered a monastery for six months. In 1927 Kazantzakis published in Greek his “Spiritual Exercises”, which he had composed in Berlin in 1923. The book was translated into English and published in 1960 with the title The Saviors of God.
The figure of Jesus was ever-present in his thoughts, from his youth to his last years. The Christ of The Last Temptation of Christ shares Katzantzakis’ anguished metaphysical and existential concerns, seeking answers to haunting questions and often torn between his sense of duty and mission, on one side, and his own human needs to enjoy life, to love and to be loved, and to have a family. A tragic figure who at the end sacrifices his own human hopes for a wider cause, Kazantzakis’ Christ is not an infallible, passionless deity but rather a passionate and emotional human being who has been assigned a mission, with a meaning that he is struggling to understand and that often requires him to face his conscience and his emotions, and ultimately to sacrifice his own life for its fullfilment. He is subject to doubts, fears and even guilt. In the end he is the Son of Man, a man whose internal struggle represents that of humanity.
The Church of Greece condemned Kazantzakis’ work. His reply was: “You gave me a curse, Holy fathers, I give you a blessing: may your conscience be as clear as mine and may you be as moral and religious as I” before the Greek Orthodox Church anathematized him in 1955. Many cinemas banned the Martin Scorsese film, which was released in 1988 and based on this novel.
An online link to THE SAVIOURS OF GOD, Spiritual Exercises by Nikos Kazantzakis:
Quotes from Kazantzakis:
“With the passage of days in this godly isolation [desert], my heart grew calm. It seemed to fill with answers. I did not ask questions any more; I was certain. Everything – where we came from, where we are going, what our purpose is on earth – struck me as extremely sure and simple in this God-trodden isolation. Little by little my blood took on the godly rhythm. Matins, Divine Liturgy, vespers, psalmodies, the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening, the constellations suspended like chandeliers each night over the monastery: all came and went, came and went in obedience to eternal laws, and drew the blood of man into the same placid rhythm. I saw the world as a tree, a gigantic poplar, and myself as a green leaf clinging to a branch with my slender stalk. When God’s wind blew, I hopped and danced, together with the entire tree.”
“Every integral man has inside him, in his heart of hearts, a mystic center around which all else revolves. This mystic whirling lends unity to his thoughts and actions; it helps him find or invent the cosmic harmony. For some this center is love, for others kindness or beauty, others the thirst for knowledge or the longing for gold and power. They examine the relative value of all else and subordinate it to this central passion.”
“I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else.”
“I hope nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”
“The truth is that we all are one, that all of us together create god, that god is not man’s ancestor, but his descendant.”
“This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition. To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right and to realize of a sudden that in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairy tale.”
“True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross; then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create their own.”
“God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises.”
“A man needs a little madness, or else… he never dares cut the rope and be free.”
“Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality.”
“I was happy, I knew that. While experiencing happiness, we have difficulty in being conscious of it. Only when the happiness is past and we look back on it do we suddenly realize – sometimes with astonishment – how happy we had been.”
“The only thing I know is this: I am full of wounds and still standing on my feet.”
“I said to the almond tree, ‘Sister, speak to me of God.’ And the almond tree blossomed.”
“You have your brush, you have your colors, you paint the paradise, then in you go.”
“Look, one day I had gone to a little village. An old grandfather of ninety was busy planting an almond tree. ‘What, grandfather!’ I exclaimed. ‘Planting an almond tree?’ And he, bent as he was, turned around and said: ‘My son, I carry on as if I should never die.’ I replied: ‘And I carry on as if I was going to die any minute.’
Which of us was right, boss?”
“When everything goes wrong, what a joy to test your soul and see if it has endurance and courage! An invisible and all-powerful enemy—some call him God, others the Devil, seem to rush upon us to destroy us; but we are not destroyed.”
“Every man has his folly, but the greatest folly of all … is not to have one.”
“For I realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.”
“The highest point a man can attain is not Knowledge, or Virtue, or Goodness, or Victory, but something even greater, more heroic and more despairing: Sacred Awe!”
“All those who actually live the mysteries of life haven’t the time to write, and all those who have the time don’t live them! D’you see?”
“Reach what you cannot.”
“We come from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life.”
“When everyone drowns and I’m the only one to escape, God is protecting me. When everyone else is saved and I’m the only one to drown, God is protecting me then too.”
“Every perfect traveler always creates the country where he travels.”
“Man is able, and has the duty, to reach the furthest point on the road he has chosen. Only by means of hope can we attain what is beyond hope.”
“When shall I at last retire into solitude alone, without companions, without joy and without sorrow, with only the sacred certainty that all is a dream? When, in my rags—without desires—shall I retire contented into the mountains? When, seeing that my body is merely sickness and crime, age and death, shall I—free, fearless, and blissful—retire to the forest? When? When, oh when?”
“What a strange machine man is! You fill him with bread, wine, fish, and radishes, and out comes sighs, laughter, and dreams.”
“My principle anguish and the source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh.”
“I should learn to run, to wrestle, to swim, to ride horses, to row, to drive a car, to fire a rifle. I should fill my soul with flesh. I should fill my flesh with soul. In fact, I should reconcile at last within me the two internal antagonists.”
“My entire soul is a cry, and all my work is a commentary on that cry.”
“Only one woman exists in this world, one woman with countless faces.”
“The sole way to save oneself is to save others. Or to struggle to save others — even that is sufficient.”
“Once more I realized to what an extent earthly happiness is made to the measure of man. It is not a rare bird which we must pursue at one moment in heaven, at the next in our minds. Happiness is a domestic bird found in our own courtyards.”
“Let people be, boss; don’t open their eyes. And supposing you did, what’d they see? Their misery! Leave their eyes closed, boss, and let them go on dreaming!”
“Freedom was my first great desire. The second, which remains hidden within me to this day, tormenting me, was the desire for sanctity. Hero together with saint: such is mankind’s supreme model.”
“So few in reality are the true necessities of man.”
“If I were fire, I would burn; if I were a woodcutter, I would strike. But I am a heart, and I love.”
“What is truth? What is falsehood? Whatever gives wings to men, whatever produces great works and great souls and lifts up a man’s height above the earth – that’s true. Whatever clips off man’s wings – that’s false.”
“Life on earth means: the sprouting of wings.”
“I knew that over and above the truth, there exists another duty which is much more important and much more human.”
“The canary began to sing again. The sun had struck it, and its throat and tiny breast had filled with song. Francis gazed at it for a long time, not speaking, his mouth hanging half opened, his eyes dimmed with tears.
“The canary is like man’s soul,” he whispered finally. “It sees bars round it, but instead if despairing, it sings. It sings, and wait and see, Brother Leo: one day its song shall break the bars.”
“Beauty always had a purpose: to be of service to life.”
“If the soul within us does not change, Judas, the world outside us will never change. The enemy is within, the Romans are within, salvation starts from within!”
“My son, I carry on as if I should never die.’ I replied: ‘And I carry on as if I was going to die any minute.”
“Neither am I nourished by fleshless, abstract memories. If I expected my mind to distill from a turbid host of bodily joys and bitternesses an immaterial, crystal-clear thought, I would die of hunger. When I close my eyes in order to enjoy a country again, my five senses, the five mouth-filled tentacles of my body, pounce upon it and bring it to me. Colors, fruits, women. The smells of orchards, of filthy narrow alleys, of armpits. Endless snows with blue, glittering reflections. Scorching, wavy deserts of sand shimmering under the hot sun. Tears, cries, songs, distant bells of mules, camels or troikas. The acrid, nauseating stench of some Mongolian cities will never leave my nostrils. And I will eternally hold in my hands – eternally, that is, until my hands rot – the melons of Bukhara, the watermelons of the Volga, the cool, dainty hand of a Japanese girl…
For a time, in my early youth, I struggled to nourish my famished soul by feeding it with abstract concepts. I said that my body was a slave and that its duty was to gather raw material and bring it to the orchard of the mind to flower and bear fruit and become ideas. The more fleshless, odorless, soundless the world was that filtered into me, the more I felt I was ascending the highest peak of human endeavor. And I rejoiced. And Buddha came to be my greatest god, whom I loved and revered as an example. Deny your five senses. Empty your guts. Love nothing, hate nothing, desire nothing, hope for nothing. Breathe out and the world will be extinguished.
But one night I had a dream. A hunger, a thirst, the influence of a barbarous race that had not yet become tired of the world had been secretly working within me. My mind pretended to be tired. You felt it had known everything, had become satiated, and was now smiling ironically at the cries of my peasant heart. But my guts – praised be God! – were full of blood and mud and craving. And one night I had a dream. I saw two lips without a face – large, scimitar-shaped woman’s lips. They moved. I heard a voice ask, ‘Who is your God?’ Unhesitatingly I answered, ‘Buddha!’ But the lips moved again and said: ‘No, Epaphus.’
I sprang up out of my sleep. Suddenly a great sense of joy and certainty flooded my heart. What I had been unable to find in the noisy, temptation-filled, confused world of wakefulness I had found now in the primeval, motherly embrace of the night. Since that night I have not strayed. I follow my own path and try to make up for the years of my youth that were lost in the worship of fleshless gods, alien to me and my race. Now I transubstantiate the abstract concepts into flesh and am nourished. I have learned that Epaphus, the god of touch, is my god.
All the countries I have known since then I have known with my sense of touch. I feel my memories tingling, not in my head but in my fingertips and my whole skin. And as I bring back Japan to my mind, my hands tremble as if they were touching the breast of a beloved woman.”
“What first truly stirred my soul was not fear or pain, nor was it pleasure or games; it was the yearning for freedom. I had to gain freedom – but from what, from whom? Little by little, in the course of time, I mounted freedom’s rough unaccommodating ascent. To gain freedom first of all from the Turk, that was the initial step; after that, later, this new struggle began: to gain freedom from the inner Turk – from ignorance, malice and envy, from fear and laziness, from dazzling false ideas; and finally from idols, all of them, even the most revered and beloved.”
“Love’s feet are always pleased to step on ashes.”
“Never in my life had I felt so tangibly and with such astonishment that hate, by passing successively through comprehension, mercy, and sympathy, can be transformed into love.”
“The more he approached the people and perceived their anger-filled eyes and the dark, tortured fierceness of their expressions, the more his heart stirred, the more his bowels flooded with deep sympathy and love. These are the people, he reflected. They are all brothers, every one of them, but they do not know it—and that is why they suffer. If they knew it, what celebrations there would be, what hugging and kissing, what happiness!”
“I tried to establish order over the chaos of my imagination, but this essence, the same that presented itself to me still hazily when I was a child, has always struck me as the very heart of truth. It is our duty to set ourselves an end beyond our individual concerns, beyond our convenient, agreeable habits, higher than our own selves, and disdaining laughter, hunger, even death, to toil night and day to attain that end. No, not to attain it. The self-respecting soul, as soon as he reaches his goal, places it still further away. Not to attain it, but never to halt in the ascent. Only thus does life acquire nobility and oneness.”
“Gradually I began to understand that it does not matter very much what problem, whether big or small, is tormenting us; the only thing that matters it that we be tormented, that we find a ground for being tormented. In other words, that we exercise our minds in order to keep certainty from turning us into idiots, that we fight to open every closed door we find in front of us.”
“The great difference between us is this: you believe you have found salvation, and believing this, you are saved; I believe that salvation doesn’t exist, and believing this, I am saved.”
“What a miracle life is and how alike are all souls when they send their roots down deep and meet and are one!”
“We have but a single moment at our disposal. Let us transform that moment into eternity. No other form of immortality exists.”
“We are to blame if reality does not take the form we desire. Whatever we have not desired with sufficient strength, that we call nonexistent. Desire it, imbrue it with your blood, your sweat, your tears, and it will take on a body. Reality is nothing more than the chimera subjected to our desire and our suffering.”
“In order to mount to heaven, you used the Inferno to give you momentum. “The further down you gain your momentum,” you often used to tell me, “the higher you shall be able to reach. The militant Christian’s greatest worth is not his virtue, but his struggle to transform into virtue the impudence, dishonor, unfaithfulness, and malice within him. One day Lucifer will be the most glorious archangel standing next to God; not Michael, Gabriel, or Raphael—but Lucifer, after he has finally transubstantiated his terrible darkness into light.”
“There are three kinds of men: those who make it their aim, as they say, to live their lives, eat, drink, make love, grow rich, and famous; then come those who make it their aim not to live their own lives but to concern themselves with the lives of all men – they feel that all men are one and they try to enlighten them, to love them as much as they can and do good to them; finally there are those who aim at living the life of the entire universe – everything, men, animals, trees, stars, we are all one, we are all one substance involved in the same terrible struggle. What struggle?…Turning matter into spirit.”
“What is the definition of heaven? Complete happiness. But how can anyone be completely happy when he looks out from heaven and sees his brothers and sisters being punished in hell? How can paradise exist if the inferno exists also? That is why I say—and let this sink deep down into your minds, my sisters—that either we shall all be saved, all of us together, or else we shall all be damned. If a person is killed at the other end of the earth, we are killed; if a person is saved, we are saved.”
“Thy designs are a bottomless pit. How can I descend into this pit to examine it? Thou lookest thousands of years into the future and then Thou judgest. What today seems an injustice to man’s minute brain becomes, thousands of years hence, the mother of man’s salvation. If what today we term injustice did not exist, perhaps true justice would never come to mankind.”
“Because what God wants, that, and only that, is also what we want—but we don’t know it. God comes and awakens our souls, revealing to them their real, though unknown, desire. This is the secret, Brother Leo. To do the will of God means to do my own most deeply hidden will.”
“There, in the desert, there’s hunger, thirst, prostrations—and God. Here there’s food, wine, women—and God. Everywhere God. So, why go look for him in the desert?”
“Nothing is nearer to us than heaven. The earth is beneath our feet and we tread upon it, but heaven is within us.”
“God, what is all this talk put out by the popes? Paradise is here, my good man. God, give me no other paradise!”
“I subdue matter and force it to become my mind’s good medium. I rejoice in plants, in animals, in man and in gods, as though they were my children. I feel all the universe nestling about me and following me as though it were my own body.”
“Behind all appearances, I divine a struggling essence. I want to merge with it. I feel that behind appearances this struggling essence is also striving to merge with my heart. But the body stands between us and separates us. The mind stands between us and separates us.”
“I am a weak, ephemeral creature made of mud and dream. But I feel all the powers of the universe whirling within me. I strive to discover how to signal my companions before I die, how to give them a hand, how to spell out for them in time one complete word at least, to tell them what I think this procession is, and toward what we go. And how necessary it is for all of us together to put our steps and hearts in harmony. To say in time a simple word to my companions, a password, like conspirators.
Yes, the purpose of Earth is not life, it is not man. Earth has existed without these, and it will live on without them. They are but the ephemeral sparks of its violent whirling.
Let us unite, let us hold each other tightly, let us merge our hearts, let us create — so long as the warmth of this earth endures, so long as no earthquakes, cataclysms, icebergs or comets come to destroy us — let us create for Earth a brain and a heart, let us give a human meaning to the superhuman struggle.”
“The moment is ripe: leave the heart and the mind behind you, go forward . . . Free yourself from the simple complacency of the mind that thinks to put all things in order and hopes to subdue phenomena. Free yourself from the terror of the heart that seeks and hopes to find the essence of things. Conquer the last, the greatest temptation of all: Hope.”
“Where are we going? Do not ask! Ascend, descend. There is no beginning and no end. Only this present moment exists, full of bitterness, full of sweetness, and I rejoice in it all.
I surrender myself to everything. I love, I feel pain, I struggle. The world seems to me wider than the mind, my heart a dark and almighty mystery.
Nothing exists! Neither life nor death. I watch mind and matter hunting each other like two nonexistent erotic phantasms — merging, begetting, disappearing — and I say: ‘This is what I want!’
I know now: I do not hope for anything. I do not fear anything, I have freed myself from both the mind and the heart, I have mounted much higher, I am free.”
“Gather your strength and listen; the whole heart of man is a single outcry. Lean against your breast to hear it; someone is struggling and shouting within you. It is your duty every moment, day and night, in joy or in sorrow, amid all daily necessities, to discern this Cry with vehemence or restraint, according to your nature, with laughter or with weeping, in action or in thought, striving to find out who is imperiled and cries out. And how we may all be mobilized together to free him.”
Which of the two eternal roads shall I choose? Suddenly I know that my whole life hangs on this decision — the life of the entire Universe. Of the two, I choose the ascending path. Why? For no intelligible reason, without any certainty; I know how ineffectual the mind and all the small certainties of man can be in this moment of crisis. I choose the ascending path because my heart drives me toward it. “Upward! Upward! Upward!” my heart shouts, and I follow it trustingly.
Someone within me is struggling to lift a great weight, to cast off the mind and flesh by overcoming habit, laziness, necessity. I do not know from where he comes or where he goes. I clutch at his onward march in my ephemeral breast, I listen to his panting struggle, I shudder when I touch him.”
“I am not the light, I am the night; but a flame stabs through my entrails and consumes me. I am the night devoured by light. I put my body through its paces like a war horse; I keep it lean, sturdy, prepared. I harden it and I pity it. I have no other steed. I keep my brain wide awake, lucid, unmerciful. I unleash it to battle relentlessly so that, all light, it may devour the darkness of the flesh. I have no other workshop where I may transform darkness into light. I keep my heart flaming, courageous, restless. I feel in my heart all commotions and all contradictions, the joys and sorrows of life. But I struggle to subdue them to a rhythm superior to that of the mind, harsher than that of my heart — to the ascending rhythm of the Universe.”
“All hopes and despairs vanish in the voracious, funneling whirlwind of God. God laughs, wails, kills, sets us on fire, and then leaves us in the middle of the way, charred embers. And I rejoice to feel between my temples, in the flicker of an eyelid, the beginning and the end of the world.
I condense into a lightning moment the seeding, sprouting, blossoming, fructifying, and the disappearance of every tree, animal, man, star, and god.
All Earth is a seed planted in the coils of my mind. Whatever struggles for numberless years to unfold and fructify in the dark womb of matter bursts in my head like a small and silent lightning flash.
Ah! let us gaze intently on this lightning flash, let us hold it for a moment, let us arrange it into human speech.
Let us transfix this momentary eternity which encloses everything, past and future, but without losing in the immobility of language any of its gigantic erotic whirling.
Every word is an Ark of the Covenant around which we dance and shudder, divining God to be its dreadful inhabitant.
You shall never be able to establish in words that you live in ecstasy. But struggle unceasingly to establish it in words. Battle with myths, with comparisons, with allegories, with rare and common words, with exclamations and rhymes, to embody it in flesh, to transfix it!
God, the Great Ecstatic, works in the same way. He speaks and struggles to speak in every way He can, with seas and with fires, with colors, with wings, with horns, with claws, with constellations and butterflies, that he may establish His ecstasy.
Like every other living thing, I also am in the center of the Cosmic whirlpool.
God confronts me with terror and love — for I am His only hope — and says: ‘This Ecstatic, who gives birth to all things, who rejoices in them all and yet destroys them, this Ecstatic is my Son!’”
“Our profound human duty is not to interpret or to cast light on the rhythm of God’s arch, but to adjust, as much as we can, the rhythm of our small and fleeting life to his. Only thus may we mortals succeed in achieving something immortal, because then we collaborate with One who is Deathless.”
“We have seen the highest circle of spiraling powers. We have named this circle God. We might have given it any other name we wished: Abyss, Mystery, Absolute Darkness, Absolute Light, Matter, Spirit, Ultimate Hope, Ultimate Despair, Silence.
But we have named it God because only this name, for primordial reasons, can stir our hearts profoundly. And this deeply felt emotion is indispensable if we are to touch, body with body, the dread essence beyond logic.
Within this gigantic circle of divinity we are in duty bound to separate and perceive clearly the small, burning arc of our epoch.
Unsourced variant or paraphrase: … We might have given it any name we wished: Abyss, Absolute Darkness, Absolute Light, Matter, Spirit, Ultimate Hope, Ultimate Despair, Silence. But never forget, it is we who give it a name.
I do not care what face other ages and other people have given to the enormous, faceless essence. They have crammed it with human virtues, with rewards and punishments, with certain ties. They have given a face to their hopes and fears, they have submitted their anarchy to a rhythm, they have found a higher justification by which to live and labor. They have fulfilled their duty.
But today we have gone beyond these needs; we have shattered this particular mask of the Abyss; our God no longer fits under the old features.
Our hearts have overbrimmed with new agonies, with new luster and silence. The mystery has grown savage, and God has grown greater. The dark powers ascend, for they have also grown greater, and the entire human island quakes.
Let us stoop down to our hearts and confront the Abyss valiantly. Let us try to mold once more, with our flesh and blood, the new, contemporary face of God.”
“We must understand well that we do not proceed from a unity of God to the same unity of God again. We do not proceed from one chaos to another chaos, neither from one light to another light, nor from one darkness to another darkness. What would be the value of our life then? What would be the value of all life?
But we set out from an almighty chaos, from a thick abyss of light and darkness tangled. And we struggle — plants, animals, men, ideas — in this momentary passage of individual life, to put in order the Chaos within us, to cleanse the abyss, to work upon as much darkness as we can within our bodies and to transmute it into light.
We do not struggle for ourselves, nor for our race, not even for humanity. We do not struggle for Earth, nor for ideas. All these are the precious yet provisional stairs of our ascending God, and they crumble away as soon as he steps upon them in his ascent.
In the smallest lightning flash of our lives, we feel all of God treading upon us, and suddenly we understand: if we all desire it intensely, if we organize all the visible and invisible powers of earth and fling them upward, if we all battle together like fellow combatants eternally vigilant — then the Universe might possibly be saved.
It is not God who will save us — it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit.
Life is a crusade in the service of God. Whether we wished to or not, we set out as crusaders to free — not the Holy Sepulchre — but that God buried in matter and in our souls. Every body, every soul is a Holy Sepulcher. Every seed of grain is a Holy Sepulchre; let us free it! The brain is a Holy Sepulchre, God sprawls within it and battles with death; let us run to his assistance!”
“This ultimate stage of our spiritual exercise is called Silence. Not because its contents are the ultimate inexpressible despair or the ultimate inexpressible joy and hope. Nor because it is the ultimate knowledge which does not condescend to speak, or the ultimate ignorance which cannot.
Silence means: Every person, after completing his service in all labors, reaches finally the highest summit of endeavor, beyond every labor, where he no longer struggles or shouts, where he ripens fully in silence, indestructibly, eternally, with the entire Universe.”