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]

Michael Psellos: An 11th Century Pagan?

According to Anthony Kaldellis, in his 2007 Hellenism in Byzantium:

[Michael] Psellos appeared almost out of nowhere and very self-consciously revolutionized intellectual life without regard for our categories and narratives. He is especially important for the revival of Byzantine Hellenism, which sprung from him like Athena from the head of Zeus, disrupting any notion of a gradual development. In fact, it took his intellectual and literary heirs long to absorb his thought, and few would go so far as he did in replacing the Christian component of Byzantine culture with Greek philosophical alternatives.
[p. 191]

Psellos was born in the year 1018 in Constantinople, the capitol of the Roman, aka, “Byzantine” Empire (aka “Romania”, aka “Imperium Graecorum”). In 1045, under the Emperor Konstantinos IX Monomachos (reigned 1042-1055) Psellos was asked, along with his friend Ioannes Xiphilinos, to reform the higher educational system of the capitol city. Xiphilinos was put in charge of legal education and Psellos was put in charge philosophy. Psellos’s title was “Consul of the Philosophers”.

Psellos was a brilliant and ambitious young man, and for the moment it appeared as if the Fates were smiling on him. However, he had chosen not only to lead an active and very public life as a philosopher and teacher, but to aggressively pursue a political career, after the manner of the day, in order to maximize his influence. And Byzantine politics were, well, Byzantine:

By the early 1050’s Psellos’s circle was losing power at the court. His friends were fleeing the capital, some of them becoming monks. He himself was accused of harboring non-Christian beliefs, and was required to produce a confession of orthodoxy.
[p. 193]

Michael Psellos eventually fled the capital himself and was briefly a monk, living from 1054 to 1055 in a monastery situated on Mt. Olympos in Bythnia. He hated it. According to Kaldellis, he afterward “exchanged acerbic letters and poems” with some of his former monastic brothers, one of whom taunted him as follows: “Father Zeus, you could not endure Olympos even briefly, your Goddesses weren’t there with you.” [Hellenism in Byzantium, p. 213]

Psellos afterwards openly opposed and even ridiculed the institution of monasticism and called for the state to confiscate the bulk of the monasteries’ property and wealth in order, Psellos claimed, to better assist the brothers in their quest to renounce the world. He also publicly exposed one of the monks on Olympos who was an especially heavy drinker. He was adamantly opposed to what he saw as the world-hating world-view of Christianity. According to Kaldellis, Psellos favored “the concept of the ‘politcal man’, a man educated enough to adorn the state with culture but discerning and morally flexible enough to do what the times demanded.” [p. 213]

In his most famous work, Psellos explained his project of philosophical revival:

You who are reading my book today will confirm that I found philosophy only after it had breathed its last, at least as far as its own exponents were concerned, and I alone revived it with my own powers, having found no worthwhile teachers, nor even a seed of wisdom in Greece or the the barbarian lands, though I searched everywhere.
[Chronographia, 6.37, Kaldellis’ translation]

Psellos made a point of insisting that “whatever small part of wisdom” he possessed came “from no living fount”, while at the same time praising Plato, Plotinus, Poprhyry, Iamblichus, and, most especially, Proclus, each by by name. And he is just as explicit and specific in his claim that neither Constantinople nor Rome “nor any other city is flourishing in the logoi“. [6.43]

As Kaldellis explains

What he [Psellos] has in mind once flourished in cities such as Athens and Alexandria, he tells us, but apparently does so no longer. It’s ‘living fount’ and ‘pure stream’ have been ‘choked up’ — for how long, one wonders? And who blocked them up? Its sources are Plato, Aristotle and Proklos. These thinkers form the basis of Psellos’ philosophical revolution.
[p. 194]

In his earlier (1999) work, The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia, Anthony Kaldellis offers the opinion that in his writings Psellos was “not being entirely straightforward and honest.” In particular, Kaldellis feels that Psellos’ “most puzzling and obscure expressions are reserved for discussions of religion, especially his own personal beliefs. This would certainly not have been the case were his views entirely Orthodox, or, for that matter, Christian.” [p. 116]

Kaldellis pays particular attention to Psellos’ account (in Chronographia 6.168-168) of his own actions on behalf of “certain men [who] went so far as to malign the Lord Himself.” These men were condemned by the Emperor to either exile, house arrest, or to be placed in chains. The Emperor also declared that these punishments would be permanent. Psellos describes how he gently but persistently advocated on behalf of these “most evil men”, until Constantine relented and granted them clemency:

Significantly, Psellos did not propose that they should be released on condition that they repent, and, even though he undermined Constantine’s resolution to punish them, he did not suggest an alternative deterrent for their attacks against the Lord. In effect, under the guise of clemency, he [Psellos] persuaded the Emperor to tolerate and pardon blasphemy …. One suspected blasphemer turns out to be the patron of blasphemers at court.
[p. 117]

The question of the religious identity of historical persons is often far from straightforward. Public figures such as Bob Dylan, Tony Blair, George Gemistos Plethon, and Marsilio Ficino have demonstrated that it is possible to keep people guessing for decades or even centuries about a person’s real religious beliefs. At the very least, to the extent that there must remain a question mark at the end of any statement linking Michael Psellos to Paganism, the same is just as true of any statement linking Psellos to Christianity.

See also these other relevant posts on the question of religious identity, and whether or not there were Pagans during the Middle Ages and Renaissance:
“Gotta Serve Somebody”
The Varieties and Vagaries of Religious Adherence
A Gentlemen’s Agreement
I have also written previously about Kaldellis’ work here:
Which Plato and Which Platonism?
Seek and Ye Shall Find

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