>George Gemistos Plethon was an “underground” Pagan, that is, he kept his true religious identity a secret while publicly professing to be a Christian. He lived six centuries ago, and was a central figure in the intellectual and spiritual reawakening of the West known as the Renaissance. Plethon’s Paganism is not a matter for speculation, because unambiguously Pagan writings that he kept secret (except to his most intimate friends) became public after his death. Therein Plethon explicitly rejected Christianity and embraced the ancient polytheistic religion of the pre-Christian Hellenes.
Plethon was also one of the most celebrated and influential European intellectuals of his day, indeed, he is arguably a pivotal figure in western intellectual and spiritual history. Despite the fact that he lived in exile (due to his religious views) for the last five decades of his long life, those who directly studied under Plethon, or were inspired by him, defined the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century. Plethon and those most influenced by him have had an immense impact on all of subsequent western intellectual history.
The power of Plethon’s impact on his contemporaries is illustrated by the fact that even in death, his disciples were still drawn to him. In the year 1465, Plethon’s remains were disinterred by Sigismondo Malatesta (the first person to ever earn the honor of being personally condemned to Hell by the Catholic Church), who then transported these to a Pagan Temple he had erected in the city of Rimini, the ancestral seat of the Malatestas. This building, officially the Cathedral of San Francesco, is described in the Catholic Encyclopedia as “the most pagan of all professedly Christian churches.”
Unfortunately, most modern Pagans know very little about Plethon. So I am doing a series of posts that will provide some pointers for those interested in learning more. The remainder of this, the first post in the series “An Inconvenient Pagan”, is comprised of four excerpts from Basil Tatakis’ Byzantine Philosophy. These excerpts were selected to emphasize the fact that Plethon himself was just the latest in a centuries long lineage of Hellenizing Byzantine Platonists, stretching back to Michael Psellos and John Italos.
“[T]he text of the charges [against John Italos, who was condemned as a Pagan in the year 1082] summarizes a detailed examination of Italos’ writings and teachings. He himself, moreover, recognized the accuracy of the summary and confessed his errors. The confession of faith, which he was obliged to give the synod, allows us to understand the extent to which Italos was nourished by Neoplatonism. He speaks of the return of the Son to the Father, and of the uncreated and incomprehensible One, without calling it God, which reminds us of the Plotinian One. It is not just a question of rationalistic excesses in attempting to explain Christian doctrines: Italos goes much further. He does not view literature as merely formative for the intellect; and for him, philosophy is neither, as it was for Psellos, merely an exercise of reason nor a preparatory stage for penetrating even further the mysteries of Christian teaching. Basing his thought on philosophical principles and Neoplatonic teachings, Italos risks presenting a system of thought that favors Greek philosophy and reason. Here we are dealing with the first sketch of a philosophical system. As we can see, Psellos and Italos, though different in spirit, returned to the last representatives of pagan thought so as to give continuity to philosophical life.
“Until the time of Italos, we sought philosophical thought within theology. Italos is the first to give philosophy its autonomy within a purely rationalistic movement of thought, one which seeks clear solutions to questions concerning human destiny and the higher mysteries of Christianity such as the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity. Italos attempts to establish philosophical problems upon a philosophical basis, for the time had come for theology to become dependent upon philosophy, which had now become the depository of truth. He seems to lack any sense of the mystical.
“While Italos was alive, this movement of ideas had great repercussions. The emperor Michael VII himself and his brother Andronikos were in favor of it. Patriarch Eustratios Garidas, who was in charge of the inquisition into Italos’s teachings, was won over by these views. A large number of cultured people in Byzantine society welcomed the influence of classical romanticism, which ultimately led to paganism. One of these, Berbilas, went so far as to throw himself into the waters of the Bosphoros crying out: ‘Receive me, O Poseidon.’ We are encountering here all the symptoms that will appear more clearly and more widespread during the time of the Renaissance. Thus we can easily see why the Orthodox Church responded excessively harshly to Italos’ movement, prohibiting not only any borrowing from Hellenism but also the application of any rational procedures to theology. The Church wanted to draw attention once more to the mystical character of religion, a character which transcends human reason.”
“The Russian scholar Thomas Uspenskij was the first to note that Byzantine philosophy asked itself the same cosmological, psychological, and epistemological questions as did the philosophy of the Latin West. There are in effect some striking resemblances: Psellos, Italos, and Abelard agree on many points. On the other hand, the opposition between Realism and Nominalism had been a long-standing question for Byzantium, beginning with Photios. Moreover, as has been said, Michael of Ephesus and Eustratios of Nicea are the two most important Aristotelian teachers at the start of the period that was to bring Aristotle’s triumph to the West. But though Aristotle was triumphant in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance was to give Plato the final victory, a victory not only started but essentially prepared for by Byzantium. It should be added that from the 11th century on, the Byzantines were also interested in the political thought of antiquity; the West would not confront this subject for yeat another two centuries. Thus it is not enough to say that in the 11th and 12th centuries speculative thought in the Latin West runs on the same track as it did in Byzantium. We must acknowledge that in all the essential points of this intellectual movement, Byzantium led the way.“
“As far as philosophy is concerned, it must be noted that during this entire period Psellos’ Neoplatonism wins followers, spreads, develops, and finds its fullest expression with Plethon [“this entire period” means from the end of the 11th century to the time of Plethon, who died around 1453] . All of this does not come about without resistance, however. The Aristotelianism of Orthodox Scholasticism, which was now also being supported by Western Scholasticism, especially that of Thomas Aquinas, forced this Neoplatonism to contend over certain theological questions. This Neoplatonism seems to be a philosophy struggling to secure its own freedom of the thought and escape from dogmatism.”
“Plethon spent most of his life at Mistra …. In his memoir to the emperor Manuel he maintains with emphasis that “we are Hellenes, and we maintain that Peloponnessus was the ancient source from where sprang the noblest Hellenic tribes, which migrated from there to give birth to the grand history of the Hellenic naiton.” This resurrection of the consciousness of Hellenism reflects resistance and reaction to the picture of the empire’s sad decline, for it both announces and determines the future of the Greek nation. Plethon wanted to play a preeminent role in this context, and he devoted al of the resources of his spirit toward this end …. His two memoirs leave us with no doubt that Plethon dreamt of playing the role of Athenian philosopher for the Byzantine princes …. He has become acquainted with Plato through Psellos’s tradition … and his attention is increasingly attracted by the syncretic mysticism of the Alexandrians. Plethon thus comes to dream in the middle of the 15th century that he can resuscitate the efforts of Porphyry, Iamblichos, and Proclus, and upon the barrenness of Christian worship he wants to establish a new universal religion …. The position of the enlightenment philosophers would not be very different …. Plethon sees Christianity as decadence of thought and asks of philosophy a starting point from which he can return to the original sources ….
“Plethon’s presence at Ferrara and then in Florence during the Synod on the unification of the churches (1432-1439) can taken as one of the most significant episodes in his own life and in the rebirth of Platonic philosophy in the West. Since the end of the 14th century, Manuel Chrysoloras, who is said to have been one of Plethon’s students and a professor of Greek, had implanted in the Latins an understanding of the “divine Plato”, who knew how to combine beauty with wisdom. Thus Plethon found in Florence a circle of people thirsting to know Plato, who considered him the herald of the independence of spirit and of conscience. Plethon responded to this pressing need as best he could with both his courses and his written work The Differences between Aristotle and Plato, which appears to be a summary of his courses. Under Plethon’s influence, Cosimo de Medici proposed the plan for his Platonic Academy, the first institution to represent the intellectual aspirations and concerns of modern times. When one reflects upon the fate of Platonism, first in Florence and then throughout the entire West, and on the depth and extent of its influence, one comes to appreciate more fully the historical importance of the Byzantine Plethon’s stay in Florence. Plethon returned to Mistra (1441), where he stayed until his death, keeping up correspondence with his Italian friends and ardently writing his basic work, The Laws, which he left unpublished. In 1459 Marsilio Ficino realized the wish of Cosimo de Medici and founded the Platonic Academy. A year later in Constantinople, Scholarios (renamed Gennadios), Archbishop of Constaninople, incinerated a manuscript of Plethon’s The Laws, since he thought it irreverent and anti-Christian. Plethon’s admirerers, however, did not share Scholarios’s views. In 1475 Sigismundo Malatesta transferred Plethon’s remains from Mistra to the small Italian town of Rimini, where he rests today in the church of Saint Francesco.”