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"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

“Forsaking Christ to follow Plato”, Part Two

.“But he protests too much to be entirely convincing.”


As discussed in Part One of this series, many scholars are eager (maybe a little too eager) to assure us that, in the words of John Myendorff, “[Michael] Psellos certainly remained a Christian.”
Other scholars are less certain about Psellos’ true religious allegiance. In fact, over nine centuries after his death, there is now enough of a controversy on this issue for some scholars to go so far as to boldly declare their neutrality. This is the posture adopted by Dylan Burns who wrote that the question of Psellos’ true attitude with regard to Hellenic Paganism versus Christianity “is probably unanswerable” (in his 2006 article The Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster, Hekate’s Couch, and Platonic Orientalism in Psellos and Plethon).
A far less probabilistic stance regarding the fate, or at least the proclivities, of Michael Psellos’ immortal soul has been voiced by Nigel Guy Wilson, whose Scholars of Byzantiumcontains an excellent biographical sketch of Michael Psellos, from which the remainder of this post is excerpted.

“Psellos was born in 1018. His baptismal name was Constatntine, but he is usually referred to as Michael, the name he took on entering a monastery c. 1055, departing from the normal Byzantine practice of choosing a monastic name with the same initial has the baptismal one. Although this episode marked a temporary fall from episode, he seems to have had no difficulty in returning to his previous activities after a short interval. Most of his career was spent in the service of the emperors, and if the account given in his Chronographia is to be trusted he as for many years the power behind the throne. His activity and influence were confined to the imperial palace. As professor of philosophy, holding a post established by the government, he was well known as a lecturer and attracted many students, who treated him as a polymath with a rich store of knowledge about every field of human activity. The view that he was a prodigy who knew Homer by heart is probably mistaken, the passage from the encomium of his mother sometimes quoted to show this does not seem to prove more than a very close acquaintance with the poems. Nevertheless he was without any doubt uncommonly versatile, as is attested by the range of his writings. The most important are: the Chronographia, a history beginning in the reign of Basil II, full of gossip and intriguing sketches of important people and events, perhaps better described as memoirs than as a formal history; funeral orations on various friends, relatives and important contemporaries; the collection know as De omnifaria doctrina, a set of brief outlines of various notions in philosophy, science and theology, much of which derives from Plutarch’s De philosophorum palicitis. It is probably fair to say that philosophy was his main concern. His enthusiasm for Plato, which he shared with his pupil Italos, was unusual and in the end led to trouble. The Platonic aspect of his thought may have been exaggerated however, and it has recently been maintained that in some important respects his views were firmly Aristotelian [This, it must be noted, appears to assume a dichotomy between Plato and his most famous student that might be completely inappropriate in Psellos’ case.]. The date of his death is uncertain; 1078 and 1096 are the dates most often advanced.

“Psellos’ literary output was vast. Some items in it have yet to be printed. Of those that have been printed only a few have received the care required to produce a serviceable edition. Much remains obscure, and the difficulty of giving an account of Psellos’ thought on any given issue is increased by his discursive manner, which allows him to digress frequently into unexpected topics. My attempt to describe his reaction to the classical heritage is divided into three parts, the first general, the second and third devoted to his critical essays, since these offer a more substantial body of writing than can be found in the work of any other Byzantine scholar.

His attitude toward the classics and to other non-Christian cultures is difficult to assess. At one moment he seems to say that he is an orthodox Christian who finds answers to all intellectual problems in the teaching of the church. At other times he shows a curiosity about pagan culture and the much more dubious fields of magic and astrology which must have aroused the suspicion of conventionally minded contemporaries. To assume that Psellos wavered in his views is not necessarily the right solution to the puzzle. It is equally likely that he was employing the practice known to theologians as economy, which is exemplified by some fathers of the church. [Among early church fathers, the terms oikonomia in Greek and dispensatio in Latin developed fairly abstuse metaphysical connotations, but in later Byzantine theology, oikonomia came to take on the practical and straightforward sense that in order to facilitate “reconciling dissidents to full communion … what was strictly not permissible could be tolerated in order to effect a compassionate reconciliation or healing of a defective situation,” and this especially in the case of attempts at “reconciling dissidents to full communion.” Quotes taken from the entry for “economy” in The Westminster handbook to patristic theology by John Anthony McGuckin.] In other words he presented to his immediate audience the opinions or arguments which he thought would be most effective with them. Since the concept of economy is not rare Psellos must have been acquainted with it from his readings of the patristic literature; he will not have needed any inducement to take a lead from St. Basil and others. It follows that his enemies will have had little difficulty in interpreting correctly the true meaning of his boasts that he had read the literature of other cultures. Psellos did his best to fend them off with assertions of loyalty to the church. In general he succeeded, and although there was a period of his career when he ran into difficulties he never suffered long eclipse. His talents were too outstanding to be suppressed. The fate of the less able [and the less well connected] is shown by what happened to [the foriegner John] Italos [who was, in Psellos’ own opinion, the “ablest” of all his students].

The doubts entertained by his enemies receive tangible expression im the profession of orthodox faith which he was obliged to make during the reign of Constantine Monomarchus. A more spontaneous and balanced statement of principle, which may nevertheless have been affected by the emotional strain of the moment, is to be found in the funeral oration for his mother. Here he asserts that the Chrsitian faith can provide answers to all problems. But having made the assertion at some length he continues: ‘Since however the life allotted to me is not meant to be sufficient for itself alone, but is at the service of others, to be drawn on as from an overflowing vessel, for this reason I dabble in pagan culture, not simply its theoretical aspect, but also its history and poetry.’ One of his notes on the allegorical interpretation of Homer includes the remark: ‘The customs of the Mysians and the Phrygians do not differ as much as the false Hellenic doctrine and our true one; and if someone converts their bitter salt water into the sweetness of our faith, he in my opinion is wide, indeed the noblest of the wise.’ The object of the essay is explicitly stated to be that of changing a false pagan story into a Christian truth. The metaphor of salt water recurs in last chapter of the De omnifaria doctrina, where Greek culture is again recommended with reservations. Psellos is here speaking to the emperor, and discretion was in order. His concluding words are: ‘You should know that the roses of Christian scripture are quite genuine, but others have a poisonous element in the flower.’

“In a letter to the future patriarch Xiphilinus Psellos affects a tone of unjured innocense when he denies that he is totally under the influence of Plato. But he protests too much to be entirely convincing. In the course of his reply to the charge he says that he is following the example of the great luminaries of the church, St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nazianzus, in accepting certain elements of pagan culture as valuable. The extent of Psellos’ acquaintance with pagan literature, especially some unedifying types that had generally and with good reason earned the disapproval of orthodox members of the church, including almost certainly the eminent authorities whom Psellos cites in his own defense, suggests that his assertions should not be taken at their face value.

“The conventional contrast between Christian and pagan does not do justice to the complexity of Psellos’ intellectual outlook. He tells us that his curiosity extended to five cultures: Chaldean, Egyptian, Greek, Jewish and Christian. The antiquity of Egyptian civilization had soon been recognized by the Greeks, and from the time of Herodotus onwards never ceased to fascinate them. It was often debated whether Greece was indebted to Egypt. Psellos joined in the discussion. He believes that Pythagoras, apart from being the inventor of musical theory and the first person in Greece to maintain the immortality of the soul, introduced Egyptian culture to Greece . . . .

“Alchemy might well have been included in the account of [Psellos’] debt to Egypt, since Zosimos of Panopolis can ge regarded as its founder. Psellos certainly knew of Zosimos and refers to another Egyptian author, Theophrastus, but he things of it as ‘the wisdom of Abdera’, owing to the existence of some treatises falsely ascribed to Democritus, the philosopher of that city. His own involvement with the subject went far enough for him to compose a short essay on it …. Psellos gives the impression that he had personally visited practitioners of the art.

“The Chaldean legacy consisted of astrology and magic. As far as the former is concerned, Psellos issued a brief denial of its validity on the ground that it conflicts with divine providence and free will. That was the position adopted but not always successfully maintained by the church. With regard to magic, however, Psellos will have found it much harder to reconcile his professions of orthodoxy with an interest in a topic at best nonsensical and at worst sinister. He is evasive on this question. At one point he remarks: ‘I will not tell you how to make charms that ward off illness; you might not imitate me correctly.’ What Chaldean wisdom meant to him was the collection, complete in his day, but now surviving only in fragments … They are concerned with theurgy, including prescriptions for a fire and sun cult and for the magical evocation of Gods. Psellos wrote several long essays about them. His interest in such matters is strange. It must be explained as a consequence of his Platonism. The Neoplatonists had openly admitted their belief in theurgy, and Proclus had written a commentary on the Chaldean oracles, which Psellos evidently used. He expresses elsewhere great admiration for this author (Chronographia 6.38). How he managed to avoid ecclesiastical and indeed general disapproval remains a mystery.” [In fact, the final years of Psellos’ life are themselves a complete mystery, to the extent that we do not know, even to within a decade, when he died, much less the circumstances of his death. For such a celebrated and outspoken figure to so suddenly disappear from the historical record without a trace is quite remarkable. Therefore it is far from certain that he did manage, in the end, to “avoid disapproval”.]
[pp. 156-160]
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
  • Part Two: N.G. Wilson’s Scholars of Byzantium (this is the post you are reading right now)
  • Part Three: Anthony Kaldellis’ The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia
  • Part Four: Michael Psellos and the Chaldean Oracles

4 responses to ““Forsaking Christ to follow Plato”, Part Two

  1. Apuleius Platonicus March 23, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    >I decided that the Joan Baez pics just didn't work.

  2. Rhondda March 23, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    >Is it too presumptuous of me to ask why the change in images? Do I want to know?

  3. Apuleius Platonicus March 21, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    >I was going to use pictures of women known as "protest" singers, as a silly take off on the whole "the lady doth protest too much" idea. But I ended up just going with Joan Baez.

  4. Rhondda March 21, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    >"for some scholars to go as so far to boldly declare their neutrality" That line just made me laugh.I do think if he were a Christian, then he would have been sainted and we would have a hagiography. It must have been very difficult to have all your intellectual curiosity thwarted by Christian dogma. Poor guy. What is with the pictures of Joan Baez? — the idea of dissent?

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