Nikos Kazantzakis was a playwright and novelist born on Crete in 1885. He lived to see both world wars played out in his beloved Europe, and his writing became his template for philosophy. He called writing his “battlefield” for political change.
Kazantzakis is best known to English language readers for his novels, Zorba the Greek, and The Last Temptation of Christ. In fact, the publication of the latter was long ignored until Martin Scorsese made a film version of it in 1988. The film set off a firestorm of criticism about the portrayal of Jesus as a quite ordinary man, caught in an existential struggle of belief and denial. It also more than hints at a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The film was banned in most Greek theaters and the Roman papacy condemned it.
Condemnation of the film probably resulted in higher box office returns than expected. It further stirred an interest in the writer, and the book enjoyed higher sales than any other of the Kazantzakis novels. The struggle of Christ is the struggle of Kazantzakis, who drew much inspiration from the existentialist philosopher Nietzsche, and from Buddhist philosophy. Though he called himself an atheist, Kazantzakis continually explored the idea of Christ, even spending time in a monastery in an attempt to understand man’s relationship to God.
Kazantzakis, for a time, was also a friend of Soviet dictator, Lenin. Though the writer embraced much of the ideology of communism, he could not reconcile it with his own personal philosophy of religion. His books can be seen as an attempt to work out a new theory, which embraces socialism, while also adding elements of Buddhism and Christianity.
In particular, Kazantzakis’ Buddhist thinking led him to be admired by beat writers, and the flower children of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He wanted a life free from materialism, and free from a social structure that would dictate morality. He advocated for personal freedom so people could figure out their own paths.
Kazantzakis wrote while also pursuing a successful career in public service. He was born to farmers, but his early bent toward education prompted him away from the farm to serious study. He had the equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Athens, and also studied law for four years. He had no desire to practice law however.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Kazantzakis went to Paris to study philosophy at the Collège de France. After studying, he traveled through Russia, China, Spain and England. Upon his return he began a career in social work, and became the director for the Greek Ministry of Public Welfare in 1919. He later served for UNESCO, and became a minister for the Greek government after World War II.
Kazantzakis published his first novel, Serpent and Lily in 1906. His other most remarkable works are a verse sequel to the Odyssey published in 1938, and translated in the 1950s, Zorba the Greek published in 1946 with translation to English in 1952, and Man of God published in 1953, with an English translation in 1962 as the novel Saint Francis. He also translated many classic works into Greek.
Reading Kazantzakis is a challenge, even to those trained in literary or philosophical study. His Odyssey is particularly difficult. Most find Zorba and St. Francis to be his most approachable works. Zorba in particular is clearly a study in Kazantzakis’ approach to life. The book was made into a popular film in the 1960s, with Anthony Quinn taking the title role.
Kazantzakis narrowly missed winning the Nobel Prize in the 1954 to Camus. Camus is reported to have remarked that Kazantzakis deserved the award far more than he did. Kazantzakis wife writes in her biography of her husband that he always traveled with a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and that it was at his bedside when he died in 1957. His gravestone is marked with the following: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”