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]

On How To Look For Medieval Pagans (Assuming You Actually Want To Find Them)

One of the key formative experiences of my youth was listening to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” over and over and over again.

Toward the end Arlo suggests that draft-age young men (like himself at the time) go to their local draft boards and “walk in, sing a bar of Alice’s Restaurant, and walk out.” He asks his listeners to become his co-conspirators in a great movement to “end the war and stuff” through the power of song.

Arlo asks us to imagine what it would be like if “one person, just one person does it”, that is, if one lone individual walks into his local draft board, sings a bar of Alice’s Restaurant, and walks out. Well, “they may think he’s really sick and they won’t take him.”

Now please recall that Guthrie was very young (20) at the time, and the year was 1967, when I tell you that in the original version of the song Arlo next says “And if two people, two people do it … in harmony, they may think they’re both faggots and they won’t take either one of them.” These days he phrases that in a way that is (much) more politically correct, of course. Arlo then goes on to say that if three people “walk in, sing a bar of Alice’s Restaurant, and walk out, why, they may think it’s an organization.” And then he lets his imagination run wild and speculates on the impact of ever larger numbers of people joining in:

And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singin’ a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. And friends they may thinks it’s a movement. And that’s what it is, the Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacre Movement, and all you got to do to join is sing it the next time it comes around on the guitar.

Something like what Arlo Guthrie describes above can be applied to the question of Paganism’s survival during the long dark tea-time of the Western Soul, also known as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. We know with certainty, or, at least, with such assurity than which nothing more will be demanded by anyone with a sincere interest in the truth, that George Gemistos Plethon (c. 1355 – 1453) was a Pagan. But was he just one guy who walked in, sang a bar from Alice’s Restaurant, and walked out? Or did he he walk in with a single compatriot, with whom he sang in harmony, and then they both walked out, and that was it? Or were there three? Or were there more, perhaps many more? As far as Plethon’s own Paganism goes see below in this post, and also see these previous posts:
A Gentlemen’s Agreement
George Gemistos Plethon: Sources
Gotta Serve Somebody
C.M. Woodhouse: Scholar-Soldier and Philhellene

Richard Popkin, in his seminal The History of Scepticism, attempts to evaluate the religious allegiance of the so-called libertins erudits, 17th century French intellectuals who are sometimes claimed to be, or accused of being, atheists. Here Popkin is bravely confronting three contentious issues: (1) that we cannot simply accept professions of faith in cases where there is the genuine possibility of dissembling, (2) that historical figures who are admired, or, alternatively, not admired, will have views ascribed to them based first on that admiration, or its opposite, and only secondly on actual evidence, and (3) that points of view that are admired, or not admired, will be ascribed to historical persons based first on that admiration, or its opposite, and only secondly on actual evidence.

The intellectuals in question were all well known in their day, and they left behind voluminous writings. In addition to their own published writings we have impressions of them written by contemporaries and also private correspondences. They all wrote extensively on philosophy and religion in particular. And yet to this day there is reasonable doubt about their true religious feelings and allegiances. On the one hand, according to Perez Zagorin, in his Ways of Lying: Dissimulation, Persecution & Conformity in Early Modern Europe, “Nearly all modern writers have considered most of them [les libertins erudits] to be unbelievers.” [p. 325]

On the other hand, Richard Popkin (one of the leading modern scholars of Scepticism), while acknowledging that his is a minority position, argues that “men like Naudé, La Mothe Le Vayer, and Gassendi [three prominent libertins] were sincere Christians (although, perhaps, not particularly fervent ones).” [p. 96 in The History of Scepticism] Popkin argues, moreover, that the Scepticism advocated by these men was not intended to undermine Christianity at all, but rather to defend, and even to define, a kind of liberal Catholicism against dogmatic Protestantism.

More important than Popkin’s position on the religiosity of les libertins, however, is the methodology he employs. He proposes no less than eight different criteria to be applied in cases of persons suspected of secretly holding beliefs at variance with what they have stated publicly. Four of these are very general, and he groups them together neatly (on p. 89):

(1) “what was said”
(2) “to whom it was said”
(3) “what contemporaries made of it”
(4) “what evidence has been uncovered since time passed”

The other four criteria ask more specific questions, and these are presented by Popkin less systematically, but in the course of the same argument:

(5) Did those in question “make coded communications, or … disguise their actual views while leaving people of similar attitude ways of finding their true message”? [p. 88]
(6) Can it be proven that “at least one of these men was a genuine libertin trying to undermine Christendom”? [p. 96]
(7) In the case of such a person who can be clearly identified as a “genuine libertin” were there others who “accepted his friendship because of” this genuine libertinage? [p. 96]
(8) Is there “evidence that the ecclesiastical or political powers were worried about their [les libertins erudits’] expressions”? [p. 89]

Although Popkin is focusing on purported atheists/nonbelievers during the 17th century, the approach he describes appears, to me, general enough to be applied to purported Pagans during the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. In both cases the question is whether or not nominally/outwardly Christian persons have secretly broken with Christianity? How might Popkin’s criteria be applied to such cases as those of George Gemistos Plethon (c. 1355 – 1453), Sigismondo Malatesta (1417-1468), Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), Francesco Patrizzi (1529-1597), and others associated with them?

First of all, Plethon meets criteria #6, above, as someone who broke with Christianity and embraced Paganism. As Renaissance historian John Monfasani has clearly shown, “There is no new Christian Plethon to be discovered … [he] was not an orthodox, or for that matter, unorthodox Christian,” and that Plethon’s Paganism was “unequivocal”. (For more about Monfasani on Plethon including sources see this post, and for even more sources on Plethon see this post.)

But what of criteria #7, so closely and intimately related to #6? Was Plethon admired because of his Paganism? There can be no doubt whatsoever that Marsilio Ficino and other Florentine Platonists expressed great admiration for Plethon and knew of his Paganism (which was publicly exposed by the discovery of Plethon’s secret and openly Pagan writings after his death). However, I know of no direct evidence that Ficino admired Plethon because of his Paganism (although I not only believe that to be the case, but also that no other view is even remotely sensible). Such evidence does exist, however, in the case of Sigismondo Malatesta, who infamously interred the body of his hero, Plethon, within his own overtly Pagan Temple that he had built in Rimini. Officially this Temple was a Catholic “Church”, but no less an authority than the Catholic Encyclopedia has this to say about that: “The wonderful temple of San Francesco at Rimini, the most pagan of all professedly Christian churches, was built for him by Leon Battista Alberti.”

Joscelyn Godwin describes Malatesta’s “Temple” in some detail in his Pagan Dream of the Renaissance. A major influence on the design of the Temple, according to Godwin, was Porphyry’s essay On the Cave of the Nymphs, a work of late-antique Homeric exegesis. Although the Temple is not completely devoid of all Christian elements, it includes shrines, altars and separate chapels dedicated to the Goddess Diana, the Sybils, the Planets, the Muses, Proserpine, Apollo, and other overtly Pagan themes and subjects. A fitting resting place for Plethon!

But what of when Plethon was alive? Well it turns out that he took full advantage of his nearly 50 years of exile in Mistra to go far beyond anything that could have taken place within the walls of Constantinople. While insisting weakly (almost pathetically) that Plethon simply had to be a Christian (I mean, you know, what else could he have been?) Edgar Wind, in his Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, nevertheless dutifully describes for us the “initiations” that Plethon performed for his students, admirers and followers in Mistra: “Enthusiastically performed as ceremonius pageants, complete with calendary, liturgy, and a hierarchy of celebrants, these feasts were devoted to a spiritual communion with the ancients.” [p. 245]

Look what we have found already by focussing on just two of Popkin’s criteria: can it be proven conclusively that there was at least one Pagan anywhere at all during the Middle Ages?, and, if so, how was this Pagan “received” by others? In particular, the openly Pagan “initiation” ceremonies performed by Plethon indicate that we may have far more than just one, two, or three Pagans — we may be getting close to the “fifty people a day” range envisioned by Arlo Guthrie. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: let’s look more closely at Mistra to see whether or not Plethon really has led us to a whole den of late-medieval Pagan iniquity.

In her Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, Byzantine scholar Judith Herrin (Professor at Kings College London and 2002 recipient of the Golden Cross of the Order of Honor for services to Hellenism) describes (pp. 290-298) Mistra as a place where Hellenism, both as a cultural and as a religious phenomenon, was “more striking and obvious” than elsewhere in the Greek speaking world. Plethon was exiled here sometime around 410 AD “for heresy”. The local Byzantine rulers had already turned this rather small settlement near the ancient site of Sparta into a “rich and cosmopolitan” place which “attracted scholars and artists, who created a vibrant center of Byzantine and Hellenic culture.” Plethon thrived in this “exile”: “More than other philosophers he cherished the notion that 15th century Greek scholars embodied ancient Hellenic wisdoms.”

Steven Runciman (Sir James Cochran Stevenson Runciman CH) Byzantinist extraordinaire (and also a skilled Tarot card reader) wrote a whole book on Mistra: Byzantine Capital of the Peloponnese. In that book Runciman explains the cultural milieu of Mistra and Plethon’s place in it as follows (from Chapter X: The Philosophers of Mistra, pp. 109-117):

[A]t the close of the 14th century Mistra emerged as a cultural capital. Not only had it already attracted many of the best artists from Constantinople, but now it became a haven for scholarship ….

Under the enlightened Despots [the Byzantine term for local and regional rulers subservient to the Basileus in Constantinople], Manuel and Matthew Cantacuzenus, scholars were extremely welcome there; and the frequent visits of their father, the ex-Emperor John Cantacuzenus, one of the more erudite men of his time, added to the intellectual prestige of the city. But what brought to Mistra international renown among scholars was the arrival there early in fifteenth century of the most remarkable and original of all Byzantine thinkers, George Gemistos Plethon….

The Church authorities in Constantinople had always been nervous of teachers of Platonism …. They feared that it might lead to a neo-Platonic polytheism; and in the case of Plethon their fears were not unjustified. There were protests about his lectures and perhaps hints of a prosecution for heresy. Eventually the Emperor Manuel … suggested to [Plethon] that it might be prudent if he moved from the capital to Mistra.

The date was about 1407; for it seems that Plethon was still teaching in the capital in 1405. It was an appropriate moment. Manuel had just sent his second son Theodore, the most scholarly of his children, to take over the rule of the Peloponnese from his dying brother, Theodore I, and he himself was about to pay a long visit there to establish the young Despot’s government. Plethon’s transfer there could be seen as a tribute to his connection with the Imperial family. He could act as a teacher and adviser to Theodore II….

Apart from a year spent in Italy, in 1438-9, Plethon spent the rest of his life in Mistra…. There, under the friendly patronage of the Imperial family and far away from the ecclesiastical authorities of the Patriarchate, Plethon could air his views with some freedom. But he was prudent enough not to publish his writings on philosophy, in which his doctrines might have seemed too Pagan even for his patrons….

His religious views were … repugnant to contemporary Greek thought. Toward the end of his long life, Plethon completed a book which he called On the Laws [Peri Nomoi], and which he had been writing for many years. It is a curious work of which only fragments remain [most of it having been burned by the Church after Plethon’s death, when it was discovered] and about which commentators have argued ever since his day…. [It is] based, he claimed, on the purest Hellenic tradition, in particular on the teachings of Zoroaster, whom he seems to have regarded as an honorary Greek, of Pythagoras and Plato; and he quotes many other sages of [Pagan] antiquity as his authorities, including King Minos, King Numa of Rome and the Brahmins of India…. In his pantheon are to be found many of the Gods of classical Greece…. The work contains a number of liturgical hymns and prayers to be offered to the Gods, and concludes with a fierce attack on the ‘sophists’, by whom Plethon means the theologians of the Orthodox Church….

It seems certain that there was a neo-Paganist cell at Mistra which [Plethon] dominated and encouraged. In 1450 a Peloponnesian local governor, Manuel Raoul Oises, arrested an itinerant scholar called Juvenal. After a hearing, Juvenal was condemned to have his limbs broken and to be cast into the sea…. The details of Juvenal’s case are obscure. The only surviving evidence comes from the letter written by George Scholarius, then Chief Judge at Constantinople, in reply to a report sent to him by Oises. [Please note that although Runciman insists on obfuscating this point, such a letter, between the highest legal officer of the state and the presiding local official involved in the case, is very solid evidence!] ….

Scholarius clearly believed that it was at Mistra that [Juvenal] learned his Pagan doctrines. Further evidence of the neo-Paganist cell is provided by Demetrius Raoul Kavakes, a second-rate scholar who later, when in Italy, edited a work by Julian the Apostate on the Sun-God, which, he said, he greatly regretted that his master Plethon had not known and utilized. He himself, he tells us, had worshipped the Sun-God since the age of sixteen. Plethon’s own sons seem to have followed the neo-Pagan cult, to judge from the letter of condolence sent to them by Bessarion on their father’s death, which is worded in neo-Platonic terms and in which Bessarion declares how much he owed to the Master. Bessarion had been by then for fifteen years a cardinal of the Roman Church. We cannot now tell whether his phrases were simply due to a broadminded courtesy or whether he remained faithful in secret to his master’ teachings….

Plethon became a figure of international repute. In Italy, where the learned world came to realize what a store of knowledge was to found in Byzantium, the intellectuals longed to see this illustrious philosopher. Their opportunity came in the spring of 1438, when Plethon arrived at Ferrara with the delegation led by the Emperor John VIII to discuss and if possible achieve the union of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. It seems at first sight surprising that the Emperor should have chosen a man already suspected of heterodoxy to join the delegation. But John was anxious that the leading philosophers of the Greek world, as well as its clerics, should take part in the discussions….

He left behind him in Italy a very high reputation. Italian scholars came to see him in Greece. Cyriacus of Ancona, who may be considered the founder of classical archaeology in the West, twice visited him in Mistra….

In 1465, a few years after Plethon’s death, a Venetian army under the command of the cultured condotierre, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta of Rimini, penetrated into Mistra [which by then had been conquered by the Turks] and when he was forced to retreat, Malatesta took the body of the famous scholar with him from the simple tomb in which it lay and placed it in a noble sepulchre in Rimini…. It was fitting that his bones should rest in Italy, the country to which he had helped bring the Renaissance.

To Be Continued ….

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