Nor earth to me give food, nor heaven light,
Sport and repose lock from me day and night,
To desperation turn my trust and hope,
An anchor’s cheer in prison be my scope,
Each opposite, that blanks the face of joy,
Meet what I would have well, and it destroy,
Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife,
If, once a widow, ever I be wife!
[Hamlet, William Shakespeare, Act III, Scene 2]
Almost everyone seems to agree (in fact they doth protest) that Michael Psellos was a Christian. Which is kind of funny, because in 11th Century Byzantium one really didn’t have all that much choice in the matter: everyone was a Christian (I mean, they were, right?). But if everyone was a Christian, why is it so important to explicitly declare this in the specific case of Psellos?
An examination of the primary sources indicates a likely explanation: Psellos’ own contemporaries questioned his religious orientation to such an extent that one cannot simply pass over his religious identity in silence. Basil Tatakis, in his Byzantine Philosophy, tells us that because of his intense devotion to the philosophy of Plato, Psellos was “accused of ‘Hellenizing’ — that is to say, of Pagan tendencies.” And in response to these accusations, Psellos “was required to give a profession of faith and justify his admiration for Plato.” [p. 135] However, Psellos’ accusers were unconvinced, and they continued to be “scandalized by his free use of Hellenic thought and culture.” The prevailing negative attitude toward “Hellenic thought and culture” is indicated by the fact that Christian monks at the time “would bless themselves and murmur anathemas against the Hellenic Satan,” at the mere mention of the name of Plato! [p. 146] In other words, Psellos, who devoted his life to the revival of Platonic philosophy, was seen by many Byzantine Christians as a prophet of “the Hellenic Satan”. Tatakis also provides us with the detail that Psellos’ “principle accuser” was the future Patriarch John Xiphilinos.
Here are two typical examples of Tatakis’ protestations of Psellos’ Christianity:
- “Assuming that supreme perfection is contained within Christian doctrine, Psellos appropriated all manifestations of Greek civilization; i.e., all of those ideas that he claimed anticipated Christianity and directed the mind toward it.” [p. 135] .
- “[A]ccording to Psellos … Greek thought was a preparatory stage, to be perfected by Christianity.” [p. 137]
And here are some examples of the same manner of protestation from other scholars:
Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christianity: “The outstanding representative of Christian Hellenism … was Michael Psellus … Nevertheless, his Christian Hellenism did not blind him to the ‘heresy’ inherent in ‘ancient Hellenism’ or heathenism, which could not be reconciled with the Christian gospel.” [pp. 243-244]
Katerina Ierandiokonou, “The Greek Concept of Symatheia and Its Byzantine Appropriation by Michael Psellos” (in The Occult Sciences in Byzantium): “We should now turn to Psellos’ use of the notion of cosmic sympatheia. The challenge for him, as for all Christian thinkers, is how to use this notion in order to understand the world and the relations between its parts without coming into conflict with standard Christian dogma.” [p. 106] “That is to say, as a Christian, Psellos cannot accept that the sympatheic relations between th epart of the world are such that human beings may control the powers of daemons for their own benefit” [p. 108]
John Myendorff, Byzantine Theology: “Psellos certainly remained a Christian.” [p. 62]
But in addition to the accusations of Hellenizing apostasy made by his Christian contemporaries, Psellos’ spiritual allegiance is also called into question by his close association with two other philosophers: John Italos and George Gemistos Plethon. Italos was Psellos’ student and his hand-picked successor (as hypatos tõn philosophõn, i.e., Consul of the Philosophers, a title created for Psellos by Emperor Konstantinos IX Monomarchos). Unfortunately for Psellos’ reputation as a good Christian, Italos attracted even more negative attention than his teacher had, and he was formally charged with “Hellenizing”, put on trial, and convicted on multiple counts of religious deviancy based on his philosophical teachings (which, it must be emphasized, he had learned at the knee of his master, Psellos).
In the case of Plethon we have not a direct student, but rather a philosophical heir born almost three centuries after Psellos’ death. Despite the significant separation in time, though, Plethon is inevitably described in terms that tie him closely in spirit to Psellos: “The whole 12th century is replete with dogmatic struggles stimulated by the renaissance of philosophical doctrines. These conflicts allow us to follow the uninterrupted progress of Psellos’ work … until it is finally integrated in the work of Plethon.” [Tatakis, p. 171] “[D]uring this entire period Psellos’ Neoplatonism wins followers, spreads, develops, and finds its fullest expression with Plethon,” [Tatakis, p. 190] “[Plethon] was reviving by implication the heresies of earlier Byzantine Platonists such as Michael Psellos and John Italos …. Like Psellos and Italos, Gemistos gave the primacy to philosophy over theology.” [George Gemistos Plethon: Last of the Hellenes, C.M. Woodhouse, p. 167] And Plethon provides an even stronger case of Platonic Paganism, for Italos found it necessary to recant his Hellenizing ideas (not once but twice), while Plethon went to his grave an unrepentant Pagan.
Therefore it is seen as needful to not stop at merely asserting the sincerity of Psellos’ profession of Christian belief in itself, but to add additional arguments putting spiritual distance between the ostensibly Christian Psellos and these two wayward Platonists, who are in such dangerously close philosophical proximity to Psellos. For example, Basil Tatakis claims: “Psellos saw pre-Christian thinking as a preparation for Christianity, which in itself constitues absolute truth. Plethon sees Christianity as a decadence of thought and asks of philosophy a starting point from which he can return to the original sources that, according to him contain the the absolute truth.” [p. 237] And also: “Plethon’s indifference (if not aversion) toward Christianity allows him to use Platonic philosophy freely, without even attempting to reconcile it with the Scriptures. Unlike Psellos, Plethon’s aim is not to show that Plato is closer to Christianity than Aristotle, but to show that Plato is closer to the truth.” [p. 241]
Similarly, Tatakis is also eager to clear Psellos of any suspicion arising from his closest disciple’s Platonic apostasy: “[For Italos], 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 … Italos risks presenting a system of thought that favors Greek philosophy and reason … Until the time of Italos we sought philosophical thought within theology.” [p. 173]
But the more these scholars protest, the more Psellos’ true religious identity is called into question. At least that is what methinks.
Forsaking Christ to Follow Plato (Or, Was Michael Psellos a Christian?)
- Part One: Mostly Basil Tatakis’ Byzantine Philosophy, with a little help from Jaroslav Pelikan, Katerina Ierandiokonou, John Myendorff, and even C.M. Woodhouse (this is the post you are reading right now)
- Part Two: N.G. Wilson’s Scholars of Byzantium
- Part Three: Anthony Kaldellis’ The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia
- Part Four: Michael Psellos and the Chaldean Oracles