e g r e g o r e s

"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

Which Plato, and which Platonism?

At the very beginning of his The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia, Anthony Kaldellis sets out to demonstrate that Michael Psellos

was a serious philosopher rather than a mere polymath or intellectual dilettante, and that he used his considerable rhetorical skills to disguise the revolutionary nature of his political thought, which was consciously anti-Christian and deeply influenced in some respects by the political philosophy of Plato.

He then immediately adds: “This book is therefore a contribution to the history of Platonism. But which Platonism, and which Plato?

Kaldellis then embarks on a digression in which he briefly provides his assessment of contemporary (20th and early 21st century) Platonic studies in the English speaking world. Kaldellis claims (rightly, in my opinion) that such leading figures in the study of classical philosophy as A.E. Taylor, W.K.C. Guthrie and Gregory Vlastos (all of whom, Kaldellis indelicately points out, were not themselves philosophers) have “seriously misrepresented the great philosophers’ [Plato’s] thought.”

Although this is a good start, things quickly go horribly wrong. Having just found fault with Terence Irwin for saying that “much of what Plato says is false, and much more is confused, vague, inconclusive, and badly defended”, Kaldellis himself then proceeds to agree completely with Irwin, only adding his Straussian twist that much of what Plato wrote was intentionally false, confused, vague, inconclusive and badly defended! For example, Kaldellis repeats the old chestnut that Plato intentionally has Socrates present flawed logical arguments for the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo, and also that Plato, in the Republic, promoted the use of deception by rulers in order to better control their subjects (the so-called “Noble Lie”). This amounts to rather glaring special pleading on Kaldellis’ part, since he is critical of those who “extract” bits and pieces of Plato’s dialogues, and then crudely take these “at face value” without considering the “dramatic and literary context” — in other words, exactly what Kaldellis does when it helps him to further his own agenda.

Despite the strong reservations just expressed, I think Kaldellis is definitely on the right track when he says the following about Michael Psellos and his Chronographia:

Psellos explicitly identified himself as a Platonist. It is clear from many of his writings that he had studied Plato carefully and had an intimate and thorough knowledge of the dialogues…. In 1054 he was accused by his erstwhile friend, the future Patriarch John Xiphilinos, of forsaking Christ to follow Plato. Psellos has no illusions about the seriousness of the charge: ‘you have separated me from Christ and enrolled me among the followers of Plato.’ Psellos realized that, according to Xiphilinos, devotion to Plato was equivalent to a renunciation of Christian Orthodoxy.
[p. 4]

Psellos never denied his allegiance to Plato, but he also had little choice other than to claim “that Plato’s teaching was ultimately compatible with the Christian faith”. Kaldellis insists that this claim of compatibility was “hardly supported by the meager evidence” that Psellos adduces in his written response to Xiphilinos. Kaldellis is right to point out that regardless of Psellos’, or anyone else’s, protestations on behalf of the compatibility of Plato and Jesus, “the argument between these two men demonstrates that Psellos’ involvement with Platonism was viewed by some as improper on religious grounds.” But despite running the risk of having his Christian faith questioned (“the worst possible accusation” that one could face in Byzantium) “Psellos was still unwilling to renounce Plato.”

Immediately Kaldellis once again raises the question: “But which Plato?” — that is to say, “which Plato” is Psellos so “unwilling to renounce”, even at the potential risk of his own life? Unfortunately, Kaldellis then proceeds to once again succumb to the same type of error that he accuses others of making. In the case of Plato Kaldellis rejected the “analytical” approach common in the contemporary English speaking world, only to replace it with Leo Strauss’ equally anachronistic (mis-) understanding of Plato as some sort of riddling crypto-rationalist. It also turns out that Kaldellis uncritically accepts the modern “consensus” concerning late antique Platonism (so called “neo-” Platonism) a consensus that is thoroughly and transparently Christianizing:

The Platonism which prevailed in late antiquity and Byzantium was created by Plotinos and his successors, the so-called Neoplatonists, who centered their thought around definite metaphysical and religious principles. Those thinkers [Plotinus, etc.] completely disregarded the political aims of Plato’s teaching [that’s the Straussian part], and focused exclusively on his doctrine about the supernatural world of the Forms. Their profoundly mystical mentality transfored it into a divine realm worthy of worship adn filled it with a host of luminous entities that formed a chain of being stretching from the One (lying “beyond belief”), through the Forms and the various grades of demons and angels, down to the Soul, and finally to inert matter.
[p. 5]

Kaldellis then really puts his foot in it when he claims that this “profoundly mystical” Platonism of Plotinos & Co. “was easily modified to accord with the official Church doctrine, as the influential works of pseudo-Dionysos and others testify.” [p. 6]

Recall that Kaldellis has already stated up front that his intention is defend Psellos as a (1) a serious philosopher who (2) held “revolutionary” ideas that were (3) “consciously anti-Christian” and also (4) deeply influenced in some respects by the political philosophy of Plato, and (5) all the while masquerading as a good Christian. The problem, though, is that Kaldellis has merely exchanged one Christianizing paradigm of Platonism for another.

Kaldellis uncritically accepts the standard talking points concerning the “neo-” Platonism of Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Julian and Proclus: that it is otherworldly, highly compatible with Christianity, and utterly different from Plato’s “true” philosophy. But in the process Kaldellis becomes entangled in a number of hopeless inconsistencies:

(1) On the one hand he claims that late-antique Platonism (what Kaldellis insists on calling “neo-” Platonism) is utterly otherworldly, being “focussed exclusively on … the supernatural” while completely disregarding all things political. But on the other hand Kaldellis glosses over the fact that this supposedly otherworldly worldview was the guiding philosophy for the Emperor Julian, a man of action who was an extremely successful military commander in Gaul, and who literally fought his way to the throne.

(2) On the one hand he claims that late-antique Platonism was all too easily reconciled with Christianity and therefore utterly foreign to Psellos’ robustly anti-Christian Platonism. But on the other hand Kaldellis acknowledges that Porphyry was “an archenemy of Christianity who developed a definition of piety strikingly similar to Psellos’.”[p. 73] And also Kaldellis is perfectly aware that Julian was the archenemy of Christendom!

(3) On the one hand he claims that despite Psellos’ obvious fascination with late-antique Platonism, and with Proclus in particular, that this interest was nevertheless purely objective and intellectual and in no way amounted to an endorsement of their philosophy. On the other hand Kaldellis is perfectly aware of, and even partially quotes, the section of Psellos’ Chronographia in which he refers to the philosophy of Proclus as “the mighty harbor of the admirable Proclus” — even Plato does not receive this kind of praise from Psellos! In fact, in his little philosophical autobiography (wherein Psellos modestly describes how he “single-handedly resurrected true philosophy”, see Chronographia Book VI. 35-40) Psellos only names six philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus, and of these the only one singled out for special praise is Proclus.

(4) Kaldellis insists that late-antique Platonism was monolithically dualistic in the morbidly life- and world-negating sense that sees the human body (indeed, the entire physical world) as something inherently evil, and that we must escape from as quickly as possible. In fact, however, the Theurgic Platonism of Iamblichus, Julian and Proclus affirmed the value of the physical world and the human body, and had no room for a principle of evil anywhere. Some aspects of Plotinus’ and, especially, Porphyry’s philosophy may have tended in the direction of the kind of dualism imagined by Kaldellis (for all of late-antique Platonism), but to the extent that is true, Theurgical Platonism (of which Proclus is the single most important proponent in history) very specifically counteracts that tendency.

(5) Kaldellis claims that it is because of his interest in late-antique Platonism that Psellos is mistakely viewed as a Christian. But this is nothing more than circular logic. Kaldellis asserts (wrongly, see point #2 above) that late-antique Platonism is highly compatible with Christianity. Therefore, by Kaldellis’ circular logic, anyone who genuinely embraces the Platonism of Proclus is automatically very close to being a Christian and will likely, and justifiably, be thought to be one. Kaldellis must certainly know that both Psellos and his most senior student, John Italos, whom Psellos hand-picked as his successor, faced suspicion, and rightly so, precisely because of their fondness for Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus, who were all die-hard Pagans who defiantly resisted the coercive Chritianization of late-antiquity. Anna Comnena, in her Alexiad, states quite clearly that Italos was persecuted because the “transmigration of souls” and the Platonic “theory of ideas” (i.e. “Forms”) were among the heresies he promulgated — resulting in his trial and condemnation (his life was spared after he recanted). Another heresy to which Italos confessed and recanted was the theory of “the eternity of the world”, a position strongly associated with Proclus.

Basil Tatakis, in his Byzantine Philosophy, paints a much more subtle picture of Psellos’ relationship with the late antique Platonists (Proclus, Iamblichus, Porphyry and Plotinus). Tatakis is at great pains to claim Psellos as a good Christian, and for that reason Tatakis is eager to put as much distance as he can between Psellos, on the one hand, and the Theurgy and “Chaldaism” associated with Proclus & Co on the other hand. Ironically, Tatakis in his quest to Christianize Psellos adopts the same strategy that Kaldellis uses to argue that Psellos only pretended to be a Christian. That is, both Tatakis and Kaldellis claim that despite Psellos’ enthusaistic expertise in Theurgy and Chaldaism, he nevertheless viewed that form of Platonism as aberrant.

Tatakis and Kaldellis both wish to cast Psellos in a thoroughly rationalist light. Tatakis assumes and asserts that Paganism is inherently irrational and therefore portrays Psellos as a Christian rationalist, while Kaldellis assumes and asserts that Christianity is inherently irrational and therefore portrays Psellos as a Hellenic rationalist. Kaldellis is much closer to the truth, but his analysis is hobbled by his distorted view of precisely the subject he most wishes to contribute to: the history of Platonism.

Anthony Kaldellis is probably the most important scholar of Byzantine studies in the English speaking world today. His Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia is an important book that is at the very least groundbreaking, and is potentially revolutionary in it’s impact if it receives the attention it deserves. It is unfortunate that Kaldellis fails to realize that his primary arguments, as he states them in his own words (namely that (1) Psellos was a serious philosopher, and (2) Psellos’ Platonism was consciously anti-Christian) would be much better served by an analysis less colored by an ideological agenda that is extraneous (indeed, anachronistic) when applied to the time and place of Michael Psellos.

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