“Nothing less than a revival of Hellenistic Paganism in deliberate opposition to Christianity“
The Center for the History of Hermetic Philosophy recently (2009) celebrated it’s 10th Anniversary, which was marked, among other ways, by the publication of the anthology Hermes in the Academy: Ten Years’ of Study of Western Esotericism at the University of Amsterdam. In this post I take a look at Wouter Hanegraaff’s contribution to that volume, on the subject of “The Pagan Who Came From the East: George Gemistos Plethon and Platonic Orientalism”.
Here is an excerpt:
“Back in Mistra [after the Council of Florence], Plethon wrote his major philosophical synthesis, the Nomoi (Laws), which seems to have been made accessible only to the select membership of his intimate circle of pupils. When Plethon’s manuscript turned up in possession of Princess Theodora in c. 1460-1465, his enemy Scholarius (now Patriarch [Gennadios] of Constantinople) had most of it burned and ordered the destruction of any surviving copies on pain of excommunication. Scholarius himself, however, preserved those parts he felt he needed to buck up his accusations against his former teacher. In the surviving opening chapters of the work, the Platonic orientalist perspective is developed in some detail, beginning with an introduction of the major ancient ‘lawgivers and sages’ who came after Zoroaster: Eumolpus (founder of the Eleusinian mysteries), Minos (the Cretan lawgiver), Lycurgus (the Spartan lawgiver), Iphitus (the reviver of the Olympian Games) and Numa (who had instituted religious laws among the Romans). Plethon continues by stating that the Indian Brahmins and the magi are to be preferred among barbarians, and the kouretes among the Greeks; and he finishes with a further list of authorities, including the priests at the oracle of Dodona, ‘inspired men’ like Polyides, Tiresias, Chiron and the Seven Sages, and finally Pythagoras, Plato and other philosophers belonging to thei school, notably ‘Parmenides, Timaeus, Plutarch, Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus.’ …. Plethon is explicit in opposing his list of ‘lawgivers and philosophers’ as a positive category against its negative counterpart, consisting of ‘poets and sophists.’ This latter turns out to be a code for the founders of revealed religions, and Christianity in particular.”
A little further on, Hanegraaff states bluntly of Plethon’s intentions: “the conclusion cannot be avoided: what he had in mind was nothing less than a revival of Hellenistic paganism in deliberate opposition to Christianity.” To drive this point home, Hanegraaff quotes from George of Trebizond’s recollection of what had transpired in Florence:
“I myself heard him at Florence … asserting that in a few more years the whole world would accept one and the same religion with one mind, one intelligence, one teaching. And when I asked him ‘Christ’s or Muhammad’s?’ he said, ‘Neither; but it will not differ much from paganism.’ I was so shocked by these words that I hated him ever after and feared him like a poisonous viper, and I could no longer bear to see or hear him. I heard, too, from a number of Greeks who escaped here from the Peloponnese that he openly said before he died … that not many years after his death Mohammad and Christ would collapse and the truth would shine through every region of the globe.”
Hanegraaff also states that viewing Plethon as unambiguously Pagan is not some peculiar theory of his own:
“There is almost universal agreement among specialists about the fact that Plethon was indeed a ‘neo-pagan’ opponent of Christianity (although he obviously had to conceal this, since preaching his views openly would have been a capital offense in Byzantium).”
At this point, however, Hanegraaff is suddenly seized with the urge to reassure his, as he seems to imagine them, religiously anxious readers, and, in particular, to head off any silly notions about a “Pagan Renaissance” (perish the thought!):
“It is importan to emphasize how unique and exceptional it [Plethon’s Hellenic apostasy] was. The historiographical cliche of a ‘Pagan Renaissance’ is certainly misleading in its suggestion that the Platonic and Hermetic revival of the later 15th century involved a conscious rejection of Christianity on the part of its major representatives. On the contrary, the Renaissance Platonism that would emerge from Marsilio Ficino’s translations was, and would always remain, a deeply Christian phenomenon. If Plethon was certainly the crucial pioneer of Platonic orientalism in the 15th century, he seems to have remained virtually alone in his radical departure from Christianity.”
Hanegraaff’s assertion of the “unique and exceptional” nature of of Plethon’s Paganism faces three major problems.
First of all common sense demands that we assume that the most dearly held ideas of one of the most celebrated intellectuals of the day must have been shared, at least partially, by at least some of the great many people who admired, and studied under, Plethon. If we start from this perspective, then the question is not how “unique and exceptional” Plethon’s Paganism was, but how widespread it was. Hanegraaff himself told us only a few paragraphs ago that Plethon actively promoted his Pagan religious ideas among his “most intimate friends.”
A second problem with Hanegraaff’s assertion that Plethon remained “virtually alone in his radical departure from Christianity” is that there is strong evidence for the existence a full-blown Pagan “movement” in and around Mistra, where Plethon spent the last five decades of his life. Steven Runciman in his Lost Capital of Byzantium: The History of Mistra and the Peloponnese writes that “it seems certain that there was a neo-paganist cell at Mistra which he [Plethon] dominated and encouraged.” Runciman even goes so far as to suggest the tantalizing possibility that Cardinal Bessarion, who had studied with Plethon in Mistra, “remained faithful in secret to his master’s secret [Pagan] teaching,” despite the high rank and prestige he attained later in the Catholic Church. [See Chapter IX, and especially p. 102 in the 2009 I.B. Tauris paperback edition]
A third difficulty is that Hanegraaff’s characterization in no way excludes (in fact it explicitly accepts) the possibility of a small, determined band of Renaissance Pagans inspired by Plethon. In fact, the stereotypical conception of “Renaissance Pagans” has never been that of a mass movement, but rather of an elite group of philosophers, poets, artists and scientists. So Hanegraaff has not really disproven what he refers to as “the historiographical cliche of a ‘Pagan Renaissance'” at all! Rather he has added his voice to all those others who have pointed to Plethon as the logical starting point for assessing the extent to which Paganism was not merely a viable “religious option, at least in theory” (see below) during the Renaissance, but an option that was exercised and put into practice. With the unassailable evidence concerning Plethon in hand, we know that there were more than zero Pagans during the Renaissance, and the evidence is overwhelming that even if the number was relatively small, Plethon was far from being alone. Therefore we can say with complete confidence that both Pagans and Paganism existed during the Renaissance.
But then, having attempted, lamely, to calm our fears for the safety of Renaissance Christendom, Hanegraaff immediately zigs as sharply as he has just zagged:
“Nevertheless, one might say that with Plethon, the pagan cat was out of the box. His case shows that once the textual sources of the Platonic tradition became available to a Christian culture where the need for religious reform was widely felt, paganism became a religious option, at least in theory.”
What Hanegraaff says above does far more than completely undermine his previous assurances that there was no Pagan funny-business going on beneath the sheets of the Renaissance. If access to “textual sources” of classical Paganism was sufficient to make Paganism “a religious option” in the 15th century, then Paganism was already an option long before that as well. In fact, it had never not been an option! For Hanegraaff’s bizarre implication that such sources only “became available” suddenly, and out of nowhere, in the fifteenth century is complete nonsense, as Hanegraaff himself must be perfectly aware. There was, and obviously so, quite a bit of Pagan religious literature written in Latin, and this Latinate Pagan literature was read and studied continuously during the centuries separating late antiquity from the Renaissance. In fact, Vergil, Ovid, Cicero, Apuleius, and Macrobius were all the equivalent of best-selling authors even during the darkest of the Dark Ages, and their writings provide a thorough course in beginning, intermediate and advanced Paganism.
So here we find yet another case of a scholar protesting overly much, and in precisely the manner that should heighten, rather than allay, suspicion.