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Who is Nikos Kazantzakis?

Nikos Kazantzakis was a prolific Greek writer, celebrated for his profound novels, which explore the complexities of the human spirit. His masterpiece, "Zorba the Greek," captures the essence of Greek culture and the quest for life's meaning. His works transcend time, inviting us to reflect on our own journeys. How might his stories resonate with your own life's narrative?
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

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.

Nikos Kazantzakis is known for writing a novel about Jesus Christ.
Nikos Kazantzakis is known for writing a novel about Jesus Christ.

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.

Nikos Kazantzakis drew much inspiration from the existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nikos Kazantzakis drew much inspiration from the existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

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.

Nikos Kazantzakis for a time was a friend of Soviet dictator Vladimir Lenin.
Nikos Kazantzakis for a time was a friend of Soviet dictator Vladimir Lenin.

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.”

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Nikos Kazantzakis and why is he significant in literature?

Nikos Kazantzakis was a prolific Greek writer, born on February 18, 1883, in Heraklion, Crete. He is significant for his extensive literary work, which includes novels, essays, plays, and philosophical writings. His most famous novel, "Zorba the Greek," explores the human condition and the quest for freedom through the character of Alexis Zorba. Kazantzakis's works are known for their existential depth, spiritual questing, and the blending of Greek and Eastern philosophies. His contributions to literature have earned him international acclaim, and he was considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature in nine different years.

What are some of Nikos Kazantzakis's most influential works?

Among Nikos Kazantzakis's most influential works are "Zorba the Greek," which has been adapted into a successful film and musical; "The Last Temptation of Christ," a controversial novel that reimagines the life of Jesus Christ and was also adapted into a film; and "Freedom or Death," which delves into the Cretan struggle for independence. His travel books, such as "Report to Greco," blend autobiography with philosophical musings and are also highly regarded.

How did Nikos Kazantzakis's upbringing influence his writing?

Kazantzakis's upbringing in Crete during a time of political turmoil and cultural transition between Ottoman and Greek rule profoundly influenced his writing. The rich historical and cultural heritage of Crete, along with the island's spirit of resistance and struggle for freedom, are reflected in his themes of existentialism, spiritual conflict, and the search for meaning. His experiences with diverse religious and philosophical traditions during his education further shaped his worldview and literary output.

What philosophical themes are prevalent in Kazantzakis's work?

Kazantzakis's work is imbued with philosophical themes such as the nature of God and man, the struggle between the flesh and the spirit, and the pursuit of personal freedom. He was heavily influenced by existentialism, particularly the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, and his own philosophy of the "Saviors of God," which posits that humans have a duty to improve themselves and the world. His writing often reflects a synthesis of Christian, Buddhist, and classical Greek philosophical ideas.

How has Nikos Kazantzakis's legacy endured since his death?

Since his death on October 26, 1957, Nikos Kazantzakis's legacy has endured through the continued popularity and relevance of his literary works. His novels remain widely read and have been translated into numerous languages, ensuring his place in the global literary canon. The Nikos Kazantzakis Museum in Crete, dedicated to his life and work, helps preserve his legacy, while academic studies and literary societies continue to explore and celebrate his contributions to world literature.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent PublicPeople contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent PublicPeople contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

tjpep1986

Kazantzakis was not an atheist, nor has he ever proclaimed to be. On the contrary, he has produced mountains of literature basically stating that his who life purpose was to save his soul with words. His life was spent in pursuit of God, and this is pretty clear. He was however, often in disagreement with organized religion, as he had developed his faith such that he had his own contrary views of God. He didn't believe that God was omnipotent, but that God was a divine force that worked in tandem with the divinity that we manifest within ourselves, our spirit.

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    • Nikos Kazantzakis is known for writing a novel about Jesus Christ.
      By: poco_bw
      Nikos Kazantzakis is known for writing a novel about Jesus Christ.
    • Nikos Kazantzakis drew much inspiration from the existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
      By: Juulijs
      Nikos Kazantzakis drew much inspiration from the existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
    • Nikos Kazantzakis for a time was a friend of Soviet dictator Vladimir Lenin.
      By: argot
      Nikos Kazantzakis for a time was a friend of Soviet dictator Vladimir Lenin.