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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]

Category Archives: philosophy

So who is this Mencius fellow?

Anyone familiar with the great Chinese philosopher Mencius could not help but think of him if they happened to read Jerry Coyne’s July 31 USA Today piece As atheists know, you can be good without God. That’s because Coyne opens his essay with a personal anecdote illustrating “the instinctive nature of moral acts and judgments,” which was the defining theme of Mencius’ philosophy (and which Mencius famously illustrated in a way highly reminiscent of Coyne’s anecdote).

For those not familiar with Mencius, and/or those who know a little and wish to learn more (a category in which I place myself) a very handy resource is the article on Mencius in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (the entry is by Kwong-Loi Shun, Chair Professor of Philosophy at Chinese University of Hong Kong, and he is also author of Mencius and Early Chinese Thought). And for anyone not familiar with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it is to wikipedia as Buffalo mozzarella is to Cheese Whiz.

Here is how Professor Shun begins his article:

Mencius (fourth century B.C.E.) sought to defend the teachings of Confucius (sixth to fifth century B.C.E.) against other influential movements of thought, especially those associated with Mozi (fifth century B.C.E.) and Yang Zhu (fifth to fourth century B.C.E.). He is probably best known for the view that “human nature is good”, a view of human nature on the basis of which he defended the Confucian ideal and developed an account of the self-cultivation process. His view was subsequently challenged by Xunzi (third century B.C.E.), another major Confucian thinker, who defended the alternative view that “human nature is evil”.

Confucian thinkers of the Han (206 B.C – 220 C.E.) were influenced by the teachings of both, but by the late Tang (618–907), influential intellectuals such as Han Yu (768–824) came to regard Mencius as the true transmitter of Confucius’ teachings. This view was shared by Confucian thinkers of the early Song (960–1279), and Zhu Xi (1130–1200) included the Mengzi (Mencius) as one of the Four Books, which became canonical texts of the Confucian tradition. Mencius came to be regarded as the greatest Confucian thinker after Confucius himself, and his teachings have been very influential on the development of Confucian thought in the Song, Ming (1368–1644), Qing (1644–1912), and up to modern times.

Mencius, Jerry Coyne, and Chögyam Trungpa on Basic Goodness

Mencius said, ”Everyone has a heart that is sensitive to the sufferings of others. The great kings of the past had this sort of sensitive heart and thus adopted compassionate policies. Bringing order to the realm is as easy as moving an object in your palm when you have a sensitive heart and put into practice compassionate policies. Let me give an example of what I mean when I say everyone has a heart that is sensitive to the sufferings of others. Anyone today who suddenly saw a baby about to fall into a well would feel alarmed and concerned. It would not be because he wanted to improve his relations with the child’s parents, nor because he wanted a good reputation among his friends and neighbors, nor because he disliked hearing the child cry. From this it follows that anyone who lacks feelings of commiseration, shame, and courtesy or a sense of right and wrong is not a human being. From the feeling of commiseration benevolence grows; from the feeling of shame righteousness grows; from the feeling of courtesy ritual grows; from a sense of right and wrong wisdom grows. People have these four germs, just as they have four limbs For someone with these four potentials to claim incompetence is to cripple himself; to say his ruler is incapable of them is to cripple his ruler. Those who know how to develop the four potentials within themselves will take off like a fire or burst forth like a spring. Those who can fully develop them can protect the entire land while those unable to develop them cannot even take care of their parents.
[From: Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, 2d ed. (New York: Free Press, 1993), pp. 22-23. (online here:http://www.chinapage.com/mencius2n.html)]

Jerry Coyne said (more recently): “One cold Chicago day last February, I watched a Federal Express delivery man carry an armful of boxes to his truck. In the middle of the icy street, he slipped, scattering the boxes and exposing himself to traffic. Without thinking, I ran into the street, stopped cars, hoisted the man up and helped him recover his load. Pondering this afterward, I realized that my tiny act of altruism had been completely instinctive; there was no time for calculation.

“We see the instinctive nature of moral acts and judgments in many ways: in the automatic repugnance we feel when someone such as Bernie Madoff bilks the gullible and trusting, in our disapproval of the person who steals food from the office refrigerator, in our admiration for someone who risks his life to save a drowning child. And although some morality comes from reason and persuasion — we must learn, for example, to share our toys — much of it seems intuitive and inborn.”

Chögyam Trungpa said: “Buddhist psychology is based on the notion that human beings are fundamentally good. Their most basic qualities are positive ones: openness, intelligence and warmth. Of course this viewpoint has its philosophical and psychological expressions in concepts such as bodhichitta (awakened mind), and tathagatagarbha (birthplace of the enlightened ones). But this idea is ultimately rooted in experience-the experience of goodness and worthiness in oneself and others. This understanding is very fundamental and is the basic inspiration for Buddhist practice and Buddhist psychology.

“Coming from a tradition that stresses human goodness, it was something of a shock for me to encounter the Western tradition of original sin. It seems that this notion of original sin does not just pervade western religious ideas. It actually seems to run throughout Western thought as well, especially psychological thought. Among patients, theoreticians and therapists alike there seems to be great concern with the idea of some original mistake, which causes later suffering-a kind of punishment for that mistake. One finds that a sense of guilt or being wounded is quite pervasive. Whether or not such people actually believe in the idea of original sin, or in God for that matter, they seem to feel that they have done something wrong in the past and are now being punished for it.”

As is so often the case with Atheists these days, Jerry Coyne makes the glaringly ignorant ethnocentric mistake of believing that he is arguing against all religions, when in fact he is arguing against Christianity. Mencius, a Confucianist scholar who lived well over two millennia ago, and Chögyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who died in 1987, both affirm that “basic goodness”, to use Trungpa’s term, is inherent in human nature. So we don’t “need God” to be good according to the deeply religious views of Mencius and Trungpa.

Mencius on the Debt Ceiling Crisis

Mencius had an audience with King Hui of Liang.
The king said, “Sir, you did not consider a thousand li too far to come. You must have some ideas about how to benefit my state.”

Mencius replied, “Why must Your Majesty use the word ‘benefit’? All I am concerned with are the benevolent and the right.

“If Your Majesty says, ‘How can I benefit my state?’
your officials will say, ‘How can I benefit my family,’ and officers and common people will say, ‘How can I benefit myself.’

“Once superiors and inferiors are competing for benefit, the state will be in danger.

“When the head of a state of ten thousand chariots is murdered, the assassin is invariably a noble with a fief of a thousand chariots, When the head of a fief of a thousand chariots is murdered, the assassin is invariably head of a subfief of a hundred chariots. Those with a thousand out of ten thousand, or a hundred out of a thousand, had quite a bit. But when benefit is put before what is right, they are not satisfied without wanting it all.

“By contrast there has never been a benevolent person who neglected his parents or a righteous person who put his lord last.

“Your Majesty perhaps will now also say, ‘All I am concerned with are the benevolent and the right.’ Why mention ‘benefit?’ ”

From: Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, 2d ed. (New York: Free Press, 1993), pp. 22-23. (online here: http://www.chinapage.com/mencius2n.html)

The Top Ten Reasons Stephen Batchelor Is Completely Full Of Shit

This post is Part Three in a series concerning Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist (here is a link to a list of Batchelor’s publications at his website). Here are links to the first two parts:
1. Buddhism Without Ironic Detachment
2. “I discover as I grow older …”

And now, here are the Top 10 Reasons Stephen Batchelor is Completely Full of Shit:

1. Herman Hesse said all of this already (almost a century ago), and said it much better.
For those poor souls who simply cannot tolerate any exposure to actual Buddhism, because anything remotely “religious” causes you to go into the spiritual equivalent of anaphylactic shock, that is still no excuse for lowering yourself to Stephen Batchelor’s homeopathically diluted version of Buddhism. Nearly a century ago, Herman Hesse blessed the world with his own beautifully written iconoclasizingly idiosyncratic redaction of the Buddhadharma: Siddhartha. (At least four new English translations have appeared since 1998, indicating that many people are already taking this advice.) Hey, just because you can’t handle the real thing that doesn’t mean you can’t still have some standards!

2. Also, Hesse was honest about the fact that what he was saying was not really what the Buddha taught.
A few years after first publication of Siddhartha, the author wrote that, far from promoting Buddhism, the novel actually represented his own “liberation from Buddhism” (Gessamelte Briefe, Vol. 2 p. 96 of the 1979 Suhrkamp Verlag edition. This is cited in Adrian Hsia’s essay “Siddhartha”, which in turn is to found in A Companion to the Works of Herman Hesse, edited by Ingo Cornils.). Hesse was perfectly well aware of, and perfectly happy with, the fact that the words he was putting into his protagonist’s mouth, and the ideas he was putting into his mind, were not the teachings of the Buddha but rather an eclectic mixture of Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Taoism, Jungianism and Buddhism, and that this mixture was of his own invention. Batchelor, on the other hand, delusionally insists that the world accept Stephen Batchelor’s personal opinions as the original, pure and true teachings of the Buddha.

3. There is nothing “agnostic” about Batchelor’s New Dispensation.
T.H. Huxley, who first coined and defined the term “agnosticism”, touched briefly on the subject of Buddhism in his 1893 essay on Evolution and Ethics. What Darwin’s Bulldog had to say on the subject was described by Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids (who would later become and remain for 20 years as the president of the Pali Text Society) in her own 1912 publication “Buddhism: A Study of the Buddhist Norm“, as the “most remarkable contribution of any lay student to the philosophy of Buddhism.” My point in bringing up Huxley is twofold. First of all, Huxley’s own brief non-expert description of basic Buddhist teachings is far superior to anything Stephen Batchelor has ever written. Secondly, in the course of his presentation of Buddhist ideas, the Agnosticator in Chief demonstrates that the same “metaphysical tour de force” (Huxley’s words) by which the Buddha obliterated the notion of “Self”  can be, and indeed must be (and indeed in Buddhist philosophy for the last 2.5 millennia has been consistently), also applied to the notion of “Matter”: “the ‘substance’ of matter is a metaphysical unknown quantity, of the existence of which there is no proof.” But what is a crude materialist like Batchelor to do without the Mammon of “physical reality” to grovel before? This is the real reason why Batchelor long ago abandoned any pretense of being an “agnostic”.

4. Why Settle For Goenka-Lite?
For several years, Stephen Batchelor lived as a Tibetan Buddhist monk and ostensibly was a student of Tibetan Buddhism. Then he changed teams and became a Zen Buddhist monk and lived in a Korean Buddhist monastery for several years while ostensibly studying Zen. In fact, however, during this whole time Batchelor was actually a practitioner, after a fashion, of “Goenka-style vipassana”. And in fact, what Batchelor “teaches” (and one can only refer to Batchelor as a “teacher” if one does so safely within the confines of ironic quotes) is nothing but his own personal interpretation of Goenka’s teaching. So, why accept some half-baked knock-off, when the real thing is readily available? An even more indelicate question is this: why has Stephen Batchelor never applied himself to a serious and systematic study of Goenka’s teachings, but has rather satisfied himself with only a minimal exposure to the teachings that he claims to hold in such high regard?

5. The Buddha actually did believe in and teach rebirth and karma.
“The slightest acquaintance with Buddhism, in virutally any of its forms,  shows that … Buddhism teaches that when people (or other beings) die, they are reborn according to their moral deserts …. In fact, Buddhism probably has the strongest idea of personal continuity found anywhere. Christians, for example,  believe in personal continuity through just one life that we live here on earth, and perhaps in a second life in a place or state of reward or punishment, a heaven 0r hell — although, since that is often considered to be ‘outside time’, it is not clear how the term ‘continuity’ can there apply. Buddhists, by contrast, believe in personal continuity over an infinite series of lives …. Though karma, ethical volition, is … only one of the elements of continuity in an individual’s life (and beyond), from the religious point of view it is the most important.” Richard Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought, pp. 11-13. Gombrich, it must be emphasized, is primarily concerned not only with the Pali Canon, but specifically with that part of the Pali Suttas that can most reliably be attributed directly to the historical Buddha.

6. Batchelor’s fundamentalism
Batchelor apparently could not be satisfied with presenting his own personal vision of what he thinks the Buddha should have taught (but did not) in an honest and straightforward way and for what it is. Nor was he interested in simply presenting his own personal interpretation of Buddha’s teachings as one valid way of looking at things. Rather, he insists, like any two-bit fundamentalist, that the vast majority of those who have called ourselves Buddhists for the last 2500 years have got it all wrong. And it just so happens that Stephen Batchelor, quite naturally, is just the guy to set us all straight. Like some Tudor-era Protestant “reformer”/psychopath, Batchelor sees evil forces lurking wherever  priests, or pomp, or idols, or rituals of any kind are to be found. But it is not enough for Batchelor to simply choose, for himself, to have nothing to do with these things of which he disapproves. Because Batchelor has convinced himself that he possesses The One Truth, and The One Truth must prevail. The priests must be exposed as frauds, the pomp splattered with mud, the idols smashed, and the rituals mocked and ridiculed and ultimately broken up by the mob.

7. What do you mean “we”, Kemosabe?
There is simply no getting around the ugly ethnocentric core at the heart of Batchelor’s New Dispensation. Batchelor’s mind works in a such a way that his own failures at Buddhist praxis must not merely be the fault of Buddhism, but the problem with Buddhism must be explained in racial and cultural terms. It is not that Batchelor was incapable of sincerely embracing and practicing Buddhism, you see. The inadequacy does not lie personally with Batchelor. No, that wouldn’t do at all. Rather it is a congenital malady afflicting all white people: “I’ve found that this denial of one’s roots, this denial of one’s cultural upbringing, is not actually possible to sustain. If one seeks to sustain it, one often ends up as a kind of mock Tibetan or pseudo-Japanese. Although I have tried to do that on occasion, dressing up in all of the appropriate regalia, more than that I feel it to be still seeking to find an identity outside that of my own culture. It’s, as Freud might say, impossible to repress these things. They simply come out in other ways.” [Deep Agnosticism, 1997]

8. There is nothing new, or interesting, or admirable, in the sad tale of an aging hippie manufacturing justifications for why he no longer feels quite so rebellious, adventurous and culturally flexible as he did in his youth.
I’m just sayin’.

9. Arrested Development.
I read Siddhartha when I was 17. It is important to read Hesse when one is still young. Along with Carlos Castaneda. If one did not manage to read these things when one was 17, then there is perhaps no harm in allowing such an indulgence at a later stage in life. But this kind of reading material must be understood for what it is: a starting point, a point of initial departure. Batchelor appeals to westerners who are still spiritual infants, a state ideally experienced in one’s late teens. Sadly, though, Batchelor’s audience is not primarily made up of teenagers, but rather of those who are, like Batchelor himself, trapped in a perpetually infantilizing and narcissizing state of arrested development. But once we have had our fill of pabulum (regardless at what age this finally happens) it is soon time to move on to solid food. Like actual Buddhism and actual Shamanism.

10. Batchelor, by his own admission, has never made a serious attempt to study and practice actual Buddhism.
According to his own account, Batchelor did not apply himself to the practice of Tibetan Buddhism during his years as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Rather, he chose to devote himself to the practice of his own personal conception of “Goenka-style vipassana”. And during his years as a Zen Buddhist monk, Batchelor cultivated an attitude of “ironic distance” from his teacher, and only put Kusan Sunim’s teachings into practice “in a way that corresponded with my own interests and needs.” [for sourcing see: Buddhism Without Ironic Detachment] And at no time during his years of supposedly studying and practicing “Goenka-style vipassana” has Batchelor ever made a serious effort to systematically learn Goenka’s teaching as it is actually taught by Goenka.

An Erotic & Magical Greek Lesson: "What then can Love be?" "A great Demon, O Socrates"

The text for today’s lesson is Plato’s Symposium. If you wish to follow along at home (or wherever you are), please refer to the Stephanus numbering given below.

First, the warm-up . . . .

[Diotima:] ‘you have admitted that Eros, from lack of good and beautiful things, desires these very things that he lacks.’
[Socrates:] ‘Yes, I have.’
[Diotima:] ‘How then can he be a God, if he is devoid of things beautiful and good?’
[Socrates:] ‘By no means, it appears.’
[Diotima:] ‘So you see, you are a person who does not consider Eros to be a God.’
[Socrates:] ‘What then,’ I asked, ‘can Love be? A mortal?’
[Diotima:] ‘Anything but that.’
[Socrates:] ‘Well, what?’

. . . . and then the main attraction:

ὥσπερ τὰ πρότερα, ἔφη, μεταξὺ θνητοῦ καὶ ἀθανάτου.
As I previously suggested, between a mortal and an immortal.

τί οὖν, ὦ Διοτίμα;
And what is that, O Diotima?

δαίμων μέγας, ὦ Σώκρατες: καὶ γὰρ πᾶν τὸ δαιμόνιον
A great Demon, O Socrates: and all of the Demonic realm

[202ε] μεταξύ ἐστι θεοῦ τε καὶ θνητοῦ.
is between the immortal and the mortal.

τίνα, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, δύναμιν ἔχον;
having what power? [asks Socrates]

ἑρμηνεῦον καὶ διαπορθμεῦον θεοῖς τὰ παρ᾽ ἀνθρώπων καὶ ἀνθρώποις τὰ παρὰ θεῶν,
Interpreting and transporting [ἑρμηνεῦον καὶ διαπορθμεῦον] human things to the Gods and divine things to humans;

τῶν μὲν τὰς δεήσεις καὶ θυσίας,
entreaties [δεήσεις] and sacrifices [θυσίας] from below,

τῶν δὲ τὰς ἐπιτάξεις τε καὶ ἀμοιβὰς τῶν θυσιῶν,
and ordinances [ἐπιτάξεις] and requitals [ἀμοιβὰς] from above:

ἐν μέσῳ δὲ ὂν ἀμφοτέρων συμπληροῖ, ὥστε τὸ πᾶν αὐτὸ αὑτῷ συνδεδέσθαι.
being midway between, it makes each to supplement the other, so that the whole [πᾶν] is combined in one.

διὰ τούτου καὶ ἡ μαντικὴ πᾶσα χωρεῖ καὶ ἡ τῶν ἱερέων τέχνη τῶν τε περὶ τὰς θυσίας καὶ τελετὰς
Through it are conveyed all divination [μαντικὴ] and priestcraft [ἱερέων τέχνη] concerning sacrifice [θυσίας] and ritual [τελετὰς]

[203α] καὶ τὰς ἐπῳδὰς καὶ τὴν μαντείαν πᾶσαν καὶ γοητείαν.
and incantations [ἐπῳδὰς], and all soothsaying [μαντείαν] and sorcery [γοητείαν].

θεὸς δὲ ἀνθρώπῳ οὐ μείγνυται,
The divine with mortals does not mingle:

ἀλλὰ διὰ τούτου πᾶσά ἐστιν ἡ ὁμιλία καὶ ἡ διάλεκτος θεοῖς πρὸς ἀνθρώπους, καὶ ἐγρηγορόσι καὶ καθεύδουσι:
but the Demonic is the means of all society and converse [ἡ ὁμιλία καὶ ἡ διάλεκτος] of humans with Gods and of Gods with humans, whether waking or asleep.

καὶ ὁ μὲν περὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα σοφὸς δαιμόνιος ἀνήρ, ὁ δὲ ἄλλο τι σοφὸς ὢν ἢ περὶ τέχνας ἢ χειρουργίας τινὰς βάναυσος. οὗτοι δὴ οἱ δαίμονες πολλοὶ καὶ παντοδαποί εἰσιν, εἷς δὲ τούτων ἐστὶ καὶ ὁ Ἔρως.
Whosoever has skill in these affairs is a spiritual person [δαιμόνιος ἀνήρ], to have it in other matters, as in common arts and crafts, is for the mechanical. Many and multifarious are these Demons, and one of them is Love.’

[A little further on [203d], Socrates adds the following by way of summing up Eros]:

κατὰ δὲ αὖ τὸν πατέρα ἐπίβουλός ἐστι τοῖς καλοῖς καὶ τοῖς ἀγαθοῖς,
he takes after his father in scheming [ἐπίβουλός] for all that is beautiful [καλοῖς] and good [ἀγαθοῖς];

ἀνδρεῖος ὢν καὶ ἴτης καὶ σύντονος,
for he is brave, strenuous and high-strung

θηρευτὴς δεινός, ἀεί τινας πλέκων μηχανάς,
a famous hunter, always weaving some stratagem;

καὶ φρονήσεως ἐπιθυμητὴς καὶ πόριμος, φιλοσοφῶν διὰ παντὸς τοῦ βίου,
desirous and competent of wisdom, throughout life ensuing the truth;

δεινὸς γόης καὶ φαρμακεὺς καὶ σοφιστής:
a master of sorcery [γόης], witchcraft [φαρμακεὺς], and sophistry [σοφιστής].


The Greek and the English translation are both taken from Perseus. Here is a direct link. The translation is from Fowler (1925), but I have taken certain liberties.

To recap: all of the following are attributed to Eros and the Demonic realm:

  1. Interpreting and transporting [ἑρμηνεῦον καὶ διαπορθμεῦον] human things to the Gods and divine things to humanity
  2. communicating prayers [δεήσεις] and sacrifices [θυσίας] from us to the Gods
  3. communicating injunctions [ἐπιτάξεις] and requitals [ἀμοιβὰς] from the Gods to us
  4. filling in all the space between humans and the Gods, so that everything [πᾶν]is bound to everything else [ἐν μέσῳ δὲ ὂν ἀμφοτέρων συμπληροῖ, ὥστε τὸ πᾶν αὐτὸ αὑτῷ συνδεδέσθαι.]
  5. divination [μαντικὴ]
  6. priestcraft [ἱερέων τέχνη] concerning sacrifice [θυσίας] and ritual [τελετὰς]
  7. incantations [ἐπῳδὰς]
  8. soothsaying [μαντείαν]
  9. sorcery [γοητείαν]
  10. all society and converse [ἡ ὁμιλία καὶ ἡ διάλεκτος] of humans with Gods and of Gods with humans, whether waking or asleep
  11. the ability to be a true spiritual person [δαιμόνιος ἀνήρ] (or is that a truly Demonic person?)
  12. In general, all interaction, of any kind, between the divine and mortals must be by way of the intermediary realm of the Demons. Otherwise, the divine and mortals do not mingle directly [θεὸς δὲ ἀνθρώπῳ οὐ μείγνυται].

>Undervaluing Non-Harming: On Brendan Myers on the Wiccan Rede

>Hey boys and girls, it’s that time of year again! That’s right, it’s Pagan Values Blogging Month!!

So, what should we discuss? I’ve got a suggestion: lets discuss noted Pagan philosopher and author Brendan Myers’ criticisms of the Wiccan Rede.

Myers’ critique is based on his contention that the ethical stance of the Wiccan Rede amounts to what he calls “utilitarianism”. In my opinion, Myers is wrong both about what the Wiccan Rede actually means, and about the nature of genuine Utilitarianism.

In a follow-up post to come soon I’ll say more about the true philosophical import of “an it harm none”, but for now here is Myers in his own words from a discussion he initiated in March of 2010 at MysticWicks on “Alternatives to the Wiccan Rede” (March 4, 2010) (scroll down for more links):

As some of you may know, I’m not a big fan of the Wiccan Rede. I see it as too utilitarian: this is a problem because some questions of right and wrong have nothing to do with benefit and harm. I also see it as too ‘negative’: it tells us what we should not do, but does not offer positive alternatives. It’s an ethic of freedom, which is obviously a good thing, but the Rede doesn’t teach anything about what our freedom is for.

My own preferred alternative is a system of heroic honour and classical civic virtue. But this is perhaps not the only alternative.

Anyone else out there find themselves unsatisfied with the Wiccan Rede? What alternatives do you prefer?

Last edited by BrendanMyers; March 4th, 2010 at 09:38 PM.

Other relevant links (writings on ethics by Brendan Myers available online):

Other (more or less) related posts on Pagan Ethics (with a special emphasis on Socratic ethics) from this blog:

>How to eulogize

>R. Joseph Hoffmann’s sister died recently. He has written a moving tribute to her at his blog. I think this eulogy is well worth reading not only to learn about the remarkable woman described therein by her little brother, but also because it provides a profoundly humane and skillful example of that most important and difficult of philosophical exercises: meditation on death.

Hoffmann is known to me, and to many others, as the author of reconstructions of the critiques of Christianity by Julian and Celsus (originally written nearly two millennia ago). Both of those critiques were condemned to the flames by the Church, and as a result they survive only in fragments. Hoffmann chose to not merely translate these fragments, but to weave them back together and reconstruct, to the extent that this can be done, the original works (or, more accurately, a coherent and faithful recreation of the original arguments). (Hoffmann also attempted the same with Porphyry’s critique of Christianity, but, in my opinion, too much of that work had been too thoroughly butchered for the original to be resurrected successfully.)

Hoffmann’s depth as a writer and a thinker is demonstrated in his willingness to take on the task (and even more so in its accomplishment) of putting those ancient literary shards back together, and in the process to provide words of his own in order to once again make whole what had been so savagely violated. Although he is a committed atheist (or something like that), Hoffmann has thereby provided, in my opinion, a shining example to modern Pagans of the proper attitude toward the surviving ancient fragments of our religious traditions.

Even more so does Hoffmann’s depth as a human being come through in his loving tribute to his sister. Go read it.

"There is no monotheism in Homer or Pindar or Aeschylus or Herodotus; there was certainly none in cult." ("The Totality of the Gods", Part Deux)

“Taking one by one every Greek author who lived and wrote before 350 B.C., he shows by quotation of parallel passages, as often as possible from a single work of the author concerned, that again and again (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi are used to express identical thoughts, and that no distinction can be made between them. Often singular and plural alternate within a single passage or argument, both obviously indicating one and the same divine power, the totality of gods.”

. . . . . .
In 1957, Gilbert François published Le Polythéisme et l’emploi au singulier des mots θεός δαίμων dans la littérature grecque d’Homère a Platon. Therein, François painstakingly examined all of classical Greek literature prior to 350 BC, to determine the true meaning intended by classical authors when they made use of the singular ho theos, which Christians, going back at least to Eusebius, have routinely insisted on interpreting as synonymous with the gaseous invertebrate they call “God”.

For those who do not have direct access to that volume (WorldCat.Org informs me that the closest library that holds a copy of Gilbert’s book is on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in West Yorkshire, UK), and/or for those with little or no skill in the French language, there is, fortunately, a very helpful review of François’ book published by Joseph Fontenrose in 1960 (in English).

Fontenrose’s review is quite thorough, and he is not shy about pointing out what he sees as gaps in François’ argument. Nevertheless, Fontenrose’s assessment of what François had accomplished is unreserved: “These objections and disagreements are not intended to depreciate the worth of François’ treatise, which does a great service in demolishing every support for theories that the ancient Greeks had a monotheistic tendency. There is no monotheism in Homer or Pindar or Aeschylus or Herodotus; there was certainly none in cult.”

Below is the review in its entirety. It was originally published in Classical Philology, vol. 55, No. 1 (Jan. 1960), pp. 55-58. A brief excerpt was included in a previous post in this blog: “The totality of the Gods” (Lies, Damned Lies, & Pagan Monotheism, Part Deux)“. Also, here is a direct link to the review at JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/pss/265449.

Le Polythéisme et l’emploi au singulier des mots θεός δαίμων dans la littérature grecque d’Homère a PlatonBy GILBERT FRANÇOIS. (Bibliotheque de la Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres de l’Universite de Liège, Fasc. CXLVII.) Paris: Société d’Edition “Les Belles Lettres,” 1957. Pp. 374+19.In the entire range of ancient Greek literature from the Homeric poems to Nonnus one encounters the singular noun (ὁ) θεός in passages where it does not refer to a god that is named in the context. Scholars have differed about the meaning of the singular of this word in many of these passages. Some have seen in this use of theos a monotheistic tendency and have rendered it “God,” and it plainly has this meaning in some philosophical writings. Others, insisting that the Greeks were thoroughgoing polytheists, argue that in most such passages the singular refers to a particular god whose name the writer either does not know or does not care to mention; they therefore translate with “the god” or “a god.” For some passages they are certainly right; for a good many others such an interpretation seems forced. Still other scholars interpret (ho) theos as a collective singular in many of these passages. Among them is Gilbert François, who has devoted a fairly big book to a thorough and painstaking study of every passage of Greek literature from Homer to Plato in which the singulars (ho) theos and (ho) daimon are used without obvious reference to an individual deity; and along with these singulars he studies every occurrence of the substantives to theion and to daimonion.

François shows that in most passages where the unspecific theos and daimon occur the singular is equivalent to (hoi) theoi and (hoi) daimones, when these plurals mean all gods or all supernatural powers together. It is used exactly as “man” is used in English as a collective singular to mean “mankind” or “(all) men.” Theos, therefore, often means “godkind” as simply another term for all the gods in one, divinity in general. Taking one by one every Greek author who lived and wrote before 350 B.C., he shows by quotation of parallel passages, as often as possible from a single work of the author concerned, that again and again (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi are used to express identical thoughts, and that no distinction can be made between them. Often singular and plural alternate within a single passage or argument, both obviously indicating one and the same divine power, the totality of gods. Especially when the gods are described as rulers of the world, controllers of fate, dispensers of justice, or as intervening in human affairs, the singular is often used instead of the plural not as much as the plural by most authors, it appears, but often enough by everyone. In reference to the gods as objects of cult the plural predominates, but the singular is found as early as the Homeric poems and is in- creasingly employed thus in later times.

Not in every instance, however, is theos meaning “godkind” collective in sense; opposition’s case, even when it is an sometimes the sense is generic (as in reference to qualities that a god has as god) or abstract (divinity as an abstract term). The plural may also be used generically and abstractly, so that here too singular and plural are parallel. Aside from Xenophanes, Plato, and one or two other philosophers, no Greek writer before 350 ever uses the singular to mean “God” as the one deity of the world or to mean a supreme being that rules over inferior gods; and even these philosophers often use the singular in a collective or generic sense in the manner of other writers. The development of the collective sense of theos, says François, is a linguistic, not a theological, phenomenon.

The singular and plural of (ho) daimon are often used exactly as those of theos; when they differ the former are usually either more impersonal, referring to supernatural power in general, or refer to supernatural beings inferior to gods.

Since prose writers are as likely as poets to use either the singular or plural of theos and daimon when they refer to the gods collectively, it is apparent that the choice of singular or plural is not dictated by the exigencies of meter. Presence or absence of the article with theos and daimon has no significance when the word is used without reference to an individual god: either theos or ho theos may mean”godkind.”

François’ argument is convincing; his careful, thorough, and well-reasoned study proves his thesis that unspecific theos and daimon have in most, instances a collective sense. His method is necessarily the close discussion of one passage after another, with a summary of conclusions at the end of each chapter; his book is pretty much a series of explications de texte. Of such a book we can demand only soundness and completeness and these we have. We cannot insist that it be entertaining too: it is not designed for armchair reading. Nevertheless the book is a bit too prolix, though this fault is largely due to François’ generosity in dealing with alternative interpretations. He constantly hears the opposition’s case, even when it is an imaginary opposition. In instances where his collective interpretation of (ho) theos is obviously right, he will give full consideration to a bare possibility that the singular could refer to an individual god, even though nobody has ever adopted the specific interpretation nor is likely to. François’ argument would have been more effective if the book had been reduced by one third.

Though I agree in general with François’ thesis and conclusions and find his interpretations sound, his zeal has led him astray in his interpretation of a few passages. He is often more logical than the writer whose work he is discussing. In considering the phrase κατὰ δαίμονα καὶ τύχαν which appears in Diagoras, Fragment 2, he maintains (p. 84) that daimon means divine power rather than fate or destiny, since fate and chance are mutually exclusive, whereas the divine power and chance are not. He supports his argument by pointing to the recurring θεὸς καὶ τύχη. The Greeks did not distinguish so sharply as this between fate and chance, or between the divine will and either: the three concepts, and the several Greek words which indicate them, run together. Diagoras’ phrase is simply a redundant expression like “trusting to luck and Jesus,” where the two terms mean essentially the same thing to the speaker. And what does che sara, sara refer to, fate or chance? Diagoras’ phrase recurs in the same or similar form and means the same as κατὰ δαίμονα or κατὰ τύχη alone, both everyday expressions. The reason one does not find κατὰ θεὸν καὶ δαίμονα, the nonappearance of which François uses as an argument, is that such a phrase did not establish itself in idiom. Again, since the gods’ will and fate were constantly identified, it is hardly true that the former concept is less contrary than the latter to chance.

In several other instances François’ excessive logicality leads him to put too much meaning into commonplace idioms. In dealing with σὺν (τῷ) θεῷ, σὺν (τοῖς) θεοῖς, he finds, or looks for, meaning for the noun from the logic of the context, exactly as when he finds the noun used in the nominative or accusative case as the subject or object of discourse; thus he gives the dative of these phrases varying interpretations according to the possible meanings of the noun. He is right that singular or plural form makes no difference to the phrase; but the phrase is colloquial and is used without much regard to the literal denotation of theos: it is “with God’s help” or “with good luck,” which, colloquially, have the same use, and therefore the same meaning, in English. σὺν θεῷ, in fact, differs not at all from σὺν τύχη θεοῦ, τύχη θεῶν, etc., phrases which François also treats much too literally. Of course, a pious person like Xenophon, having used the phrase σὺν θεῷ several times, may justify himself by a discourse on the gods’ omniscience and wisdom (Hipp. 9. 8f.).

In considering the oath formula πρὸς θεῶν καὶ δαιμόνων (p. 192, n. 1), quoted from Andocides and Isaeus, François says that the second noun must refer to inferior divine beings, distinct from the gods. I hardly think so; formulae, especially those which have a legal character, are likely to be redundant, for example, “‘goods and chattels,” “men and citizens.” Even in τους οὕτε δαιμόνων οὕτε θεῶν ὅπιν έχοντας (Herod. 9. 76. 2) the disjunction should not be pressed too hard (p. 201, n. 1): at most δαιμόνων includes more than θεῶν.

In the Politicus, Timaeus, and other late dialogues Plato distinguishes between (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi: the singular refers to the supreme being, ho megistos daimon, the plural to the inferior gods who deal directly with mankind. [In fact, one of the most striking examples of Plato completely obliterating all distinction between (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi, and even theoi kai theai,occurs in the Timaeus at 27b-c, as I have discussed in an earlier post. Therefore the implication that Plato’s “late dialogues” make a systematic theological distinction between (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi is utterly without merit. But then again, nearly any argument based on the “devlopmental model” is bullshit from the get-go. Otherwise I do not have any strong feelings about that subject.] François holds (pp. 272f.) that even here Plato slips sometimes into traditional usage without regard for the distinction which he has made, that, for instance, at Pol. 274D εκ θεῶν refers to the supreme being. There Plato’s Stranger, referring to the time when the supreme god abandoned his direct rule over mankind, uses the plural instead of the singular. But does not Plato refer here to both the supreme being and those gods to whom he had assigned the task of helping him govern the world and who abandoned the world when he did? Again in the Timaeus François believes that the difference established between the supreme being and the inferior gods in respect to the number of the noun is often disregarded. In 44E-47C both singular and plural are used in the account of the creation of men, a task which the supreme god had assigned to his subordinates. Why cannot the singular refer to the supreme god under whose authority and plan the other gods act ? In a philosophical discourse we are justified in assuming consistency unless we are forced to give it up. At Pol. 274C παρὰ θεῶν should not be rendered “by the gods (par les dieux)” but “from gods”; the reference is to the gifts that particular gods of the present order, for example Prometheus, gave to man.

I doubt that Herodotus used the masculine singular ho theos to designate a goddess, as François,following Linforth, maintains (p. 324). Kleobis and Biton, after serving the goddess Hera, were rewarded with death in Hera’s temple (1. 31). Solon, who is telling the story to Croesus, interrupts it to remark that ho theos demonstrated by the event that death was better for man than life. It seems to me that ho theos does not refer specifically to Hera, but to the divine power in general, the gods collectively; here as elsewhere Herodotus draws from a particular story a conclusion about the gods and their relation to men. François, so strong an advocate of the collective sense of ho theos, has refused to adopt it here where he could very well have done so. At 2. 133 King Mykerinos of Egypt received a prophecy from Buto, where the goddess Leto had an oracular shrine, that he would die in seven years; he then sent a message of reproach τῷ θεῷ. François refers the noun to Leto. But what is Mykerinos’ reproach? That his father and grandfather, who had committed grave crimes against the gods, nevertheless lived long lives; whereas he, a pious king, had to die soon. That is, Mykerinos’ reproach is directed to the gods, not specifically to Leto, who was their mouthpiece. At 1. 105 I would read
ή θεός with papyri and Longinus. At 6. 82. 1 the second ho theos can hardly refer to anyone but Apollo.

François, like everyone else, interprets to daimonion of the Apology as Socrates’ inhibiting voice, except at 40A, η ειωθυια μου μαντική η του δαιμονίων: here he translates “Mon avertissement coutumier, celui de la Puissance surnaturelle” (p. 287). He argues that elsewhere to daimonion is equivalent to το (του θεού) σημείον, and that in 40A the latter phrase cannot be substituted for the former. The genitive phrase has given trouble to editors, some of whom have bracketed it; François, however, accepts it. But why must the genitive be differently interpreted from the nominative ? Interpreted as to semeion, it may still depend as a genitive upon mantike, “divination through (by means of) the demonic sign.” Notice Herod. 2. 57. 3, των ἱρων η μαντική, “divinationby means of victims,” as Rawlinson translates it. The genitive alone is equivalent to the prepositional phrase seen in την δια των ψηφων μαντικην (Zenob. 5. 75). Therefore η φωνή του δαιμονίων may stand at Theages 128E. Though Socrates’ daimonion manifests itself as a voice, the genitive may be interpreted as a defining genitive. We may also question the argumentof François and others that if it is a sign or voice it cannot also be a kind of spiritual entity. Remember that we say both that conscience is a voice and that we hear the voice of conscience. In saying this I am by no means accepting P. E. More’s interpretation of Socrates’ daimonion as conscience (the inner check); I am merely pointing an analogy. Certainly Socrates’ daimonion was something more alien to its host than is conscience.

Finally, François (p. 140), dealing with an anonymous tragic fragment, translates εις μουνος ανθρώποις θεός, κτλ., by “C’est une seule et unique divinit6 qui a alloue aux hommes, etc.” This seems to indicate an only God rather than the gods collectively. Better, “God (i.e., godkind) is the one and only (power) that has granted to men, etc.”

These objections and disagreements are not intended to depreciate the worth of François’ treatise, which does a great service in demolishing every support for theories that the ancient Greeks had a monotheistic tendency. There is no monotheism in Homer or Pindar or Aeschylus or Herodotus; there was certainly none in cult. Only certain philosophers, by a process of reasoning about the divine nature, arrived at monotheistic conclusions. On the other hand François shows that we need not always force the singular theos into a reference to an individual god.

The book is provided with useful appendixes, a bibliography, and two indexes, one of the several words with which the book is concerned, the other of passages. A general index would have been useful too.

Joseph Fontenrose
Universityof California

Michael Psellos and the Chaldean Oracles: ‘A hypocritical compliance with the tenets of Christianity’

In his Hellenism in Byzantium, Anthony Kaldellis states the following of Michael Psellos: “He expresses contradictory opinions regarding the worth of the Chaldean Oracles and goes on at length about topics that he then suddenly dismisses as nonsense, which has been seen as a possibly ‘hypocritical compliance with the tenets of Christianity.'”

Kaldellis provides two references for this statement. The first is John Duffy’s 1995 paper “Reactions of Two Byzantine Intellectuals to the Theory and Practice of Magic: Michael Psellos and Michael Italikos”, while the second (from which Kaldellis has taken the words in quotes) is Katerina Ierodiakonou’s 2002 paper “Byzantine Commentators on the Chaldean Oracles: Psellos and Plethon”.

The remainder of this post will consist of excerpts from those works by Duffy and Ierodiakanou.

1. From John Duffy’s “Reactions of Two Byzantine Intellectuals to the Theory and Practice of Magic: Michael Psellos and Michael Italikos”, which comprises Chapter Five in the volume Byzantine Magic, edited by Henry Maguire (Dumbarton Oaks, 1995, (www.doaks.org/etexts.html).

Let us look more closely at the Chaldaean Oracles and Psellos’ association with them. They are a set of hexameter verses, composed probably in the second century A.D., but purporting to transmit a much older revelation about the universe and the hierarchies of powers that control it. The real author is not known, but there is a tradition that connects them with a father and son, both going by the name of Julian. Within the subject matter of the Oracles them- selves there are, from our perspective, two general tendencies which we may label the philosophical or theological, on the one hand, and the theurgical or magical, on the other. The first of these, the philosophical or theological, reveals a system of powers who rule the cosmos and are interrelated in a hierarchy that shows a marked preference for triadic arrangement. At the top of the hierarchy is a trinity consisting of (1) the Supreme Deity, (2) a Demiurge Intellect, and (3) a female divinity identified as Hecate. There follows a long series of beings who, as they descend in order of importance, come ever closer to the world of matter. At the higher end of the series is a triad of powers called iynges, synocheis, and teletarchs, each of which has a distinct role to play in governing the universe. At the lower end are various angels and demons, including good demons that assist the soul in its attempts to ascend to the Supreme Deity and bad demons which are responsible for evils such as sickness and disease.

The other side of the Chaldaean coin is the world of theurgy and magic, part of which is reflected in the surviving fragments, but it is most fully re- ported by people such as the Neoplatonist Proclus, who was an active practitioner of the hieratic art, and Psellos, who made it his business to find out everything he could about the subject. One of the chief aims of theurgy as an art, and of the rites performed in connection with it, is the purification and elevation of the soul toward union with the Supreme Deity. Since this process begins at the lower mundane level, theurgy is deeply involved in both attracting good demons and placating or repelling bad demons. It is not surprising, then, that Hecate, who already had these associations in much earlier times, is given a central magical as well as a leading theological role in the system. Also brought into the magical setting from the cosmological side and given a trans- formed identity are the iynges. In cosmology they function as thoughts or ideas emanating from the mind of the Supreme Deity, but in theurgy they are physical objects employed in magic.

One kind of iynx (also called a strophalos) is a magic wheel used by a theurgist for ritual purposes. Psellos himself explains that the strophalos known as the Hecatic was a golden ball with characters written all over it; it had a sapphire in the middle, was swung by means of a strap made from a bull’s hide, and was used during invocations.

In another type of ritual, again according to information supplied by Psellos, the theurgist used statues of specific deities in order to establish con- tact with them. The process of making contact involved, among other things, special stones, herbs, animals, and sometimes aromatic substances (aromata), which were placed inside the effigy. Stones and herbs were also used in other rituals to scare away bad demons or to purify the soul. lamblichus tells us that in the art of theurgy certain materials—specific stones, plants, animals, and aromatic substances (aromata)—were regarded as especially suitable for attracting the presence of divinities.

Psellos, both through scattered obiter dicta and through the medium of a number of specific expositions, has left a fairly full record of his own dealings with and attitudes toward the Chaldaean material. Without a doubt he was, of
all Byzantines after the seventh century, the most familiar with this “bible” of
the Neoplatonists, even if his knowledge appears to derive largely from the
(now lost) commentary on the Oracles by Proclus. He has also left us an exegesis of some twenty pages, as well as several short summaries of the main doctrinal features, including one inserted in a theological treatise explicating a passage from Gregory of Nazianzus.

When we come to consider his outlook on the Oracles, it must be admitted that, depending on the context, he expresses two kinds of reaction which appear to be contradictory. One is the expected, typical repudiation of pagan nonsense which, in the normal course of events, need be seen as little more than a device to forestall charges of impiety; in unusual circumstances the same response could be turned into a weapon to use against somebody else. This is precisely what Psellos himself does in the course of a church-sponsored attack on Patriarch Michael Cerularios; in the document he drew up for the purpose,10 he refers to the Chaldaean system as a concoction of myths about oracles and various kinds of spirits and gods. In other words, it is an attack not just on the magical elements but on the theological content as well. That attitude, as suggested above, could be anticipated.

Less expected, and all the more noteworthy, therefore, is evidence from several quarters of a genuine interest in and an openness on his part to the content of the collection. In one instance he speaks of the “theology and philosophy” of the system.” In another he reveals what we must take as one of the reasons for his positive disposition, namely,that the Oracles were embraced by a number of the philosophers whom he most respects. He comments that the majority of the doctrines were accepted by Plato and Aristotle; furthermore, Plotinus, Porphyry, lamblichus, and Proclus subscribed to all of them, taking them without argument to be divine revelations.’ Not only were the ancients open to them, but he himself finds some of their ideas parallel to and in agreement with Christian doctrines.’ Further on in the same piece of exegesis, he concludes his comments on one of the passages with the observation “it is correct and full of Christian teaching.” We can cap this in a sense by combin- ing evidence from two autobiographical statements in two different works. In a long section of the Chronographia [Book VI, chaps. 36-43], Psellos provides a detailed account of his intellectual and philosophical progress on a road that led him up, through several distinct and well-marked stages, to the “first” philosophy. His journey began with the study of logic and of certain commentators who then showed him the way to Aristotle and Plato. At the next level he concentrated on the major Neoplatonists: Plotinus, Porphyry, lamblichus, and Proclus. This was followed by the mathematical quadrivium,“which” to use his own words, “occupy a position midway between the science of corporeal nature… and the essences themselves, the objects of pure thought.”

That should have brought him to the very summit, but quite out of the blue another stage is mentioned, introduced by the following words: “I had heard it said by the more adept philosophers that there is a wisdom which is beyond all demonstration, apprehensible only by the intellect of a wise man, when prudently inspired. Even here my resolution did not falter. I read some of the occult books and grasped their meaning, as far as my human abilities allowed, of course, for 1myself could never claim that I had an accurate under- standing of these things nor would I believe anyone else who said he had.”

He does not identify further what these occult or mystic books are that contain a wisdom very close to the summit. There can be little doubt, however, that they included (perhaps above all else) the Chaldaean Oracles. The sup- porting evidence comes from a letter to Patriarch John Xiphilinos in which Psellos offers a fighting apologia for his interest in ancient philosophical systems. One of the passages in the letter describes in detail the ascent of the mind to the summit, here symbolized by Mount Sinai, which culminates in final illumination. “These ideas,” he informs Xiphilinos, “I have taken from the Chaldaean Oracles and have subordinated to our Christian scriptures.”
[pp. 84-87]

2. From Katerina Ierodiakonou’s “Byzantine Commentators on the Chaldean Oracles: Psellos and Plethon”, which is Chapter Ten in the volume Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources (Oxford, 2002). (Here are two reviews that might also be of interest: (1) R.J. Hankinson writing for the Notre Dame Philosophical Review, and (2) Denis M. Searby writing for BMCR.)

To begin with Psellos, we notice straightaway that his interest in the Oracles and in Proclus’ commentary is unduly vivid for a pillar of the Byzantine establishement. Intellectual–and even spiritual–curiosity is certainly to be detected at the root of his choice, but, to judge from his commentary, which nowhere deviates substantially from Christian orthodoxies, one comes to the conclusion that, if Psellos originally approached the collection in a spirit of unprejudiced enquiry, this must soon have given way to a desire to find in the work confirmation of his own faith. Thus Psellos often twists the meaning of the text to meet the dogmatic requirements of Christianity, as for example, when he equates the invariable female second principle of the Chaldean triad–the dynamis–with the Son (1144A-B = 141.15ff.); at other times he cannot withhold his joy at the discovery of points of undeniable agreement between the two creeds, as is clear from enthusiastic interjections of the type: ‘Ημετερον και ἀληθὲς τὸ δόγμα! (1145A = 142.21). However, a closer–and less charitable–examination of the evidence might reveal a hypocritical compliance with the tenets of Christianity on the part of the commentator out of fear. In one instance he describes in great detail–and with obvious relish–a magical instrument, the strofalos of Hecate, only to end with the following pietist remark: ‘all this is nonsense’ (1132C = 133.4-6). Not περιεργασία but φιλομάθεια is his guiding principle as he approaches the Chaldean revelation.

When it comes to magical practices Psellos is wholly engrossed by his material and is eager to turn the slightest hint into a theory with multilple adaptations. Whether in this task he was guided by Proclus we cannot know. What is certain, however, is that the sheer amount of space that he devotes to the magical aspect of the Oracles betrays a considerable bias in this direction.
[p. 246]
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
  • Part Three: Athony Kaldellis’ The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia
  • Part Four: Michael Psellos and the Chaldean Oracles (this is the post you are reading right now)

"Just because a medieval philosopher publicly presents himself as a Christian does not automatically mean that he was one." (duh)

First of all, this post, finally, contains the “money quote” found in the overall title of this series: “Forsaking Christ to follow Plato“. For anyone who has been wondering. Also, here are links to the first two posts: Part One, Part Two.

This third installment in the “Forsaking Christ to follow Plato” series is definitely on the rangy side. But it’s not my fault, honest. Blame Anthony Kaldellis (and/or Leo Strauss). Kaldellis insists on embedding his own very problematic views on late antique Platonism deeply inside of his overall analysis of Michael Psellos, whom he correctly identifies as a Platonist whose Platonism is incompatible with Christianity. Kaldellis wants to put as much distance as possible between Psellos, as a genuine Platonist, and the horse-shit dressed-up like Platonism that “mystical” Christians have been trying to pass off as the real thing ever since pseudo-Dionysos. The problem, at least according to my reading, is that Kaldellis fails to recognize that a clear bright line can, indeed must, be drawn between the Christian pseudo-platonists, a la pseudo-Dionysos, and the genuine late-antique Pagan Platonists, a la Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, Damascius, Simplicius, usw.

Now, before going any further, here is another thumbnail biography of Psellos, this one from Anthony Kaldellis’ Hellenism in Byzantium: the transformations of Greek identity and the reception of the classical tradition:

“Konstantinos Psellos was born in 1018 in Constantinople to a middle-class family, at a time when the empire was at the peak of its power [during the reign of Emperor Basel II, who ruled from 976-1025]. He acquired a superb education and began to serve as a secretary for high officials, eventually acquiring a post at the court. His rhetorical skill and personal charm brought him to the attention of Konstantinos IX Monomarchos (1042-1055), who employed him as an official spokesman (as would all emperors thereafter). At the same time, he was privately teaching philosophy, science, and rhetoric, while his friend Ionnes Xiphilinos taught law. Monomachos was soon persuaded to reform education in the capital, founding two new departments, one of law under Xiphilinos and one of philosophy under Psellos, who took the title “Consul of the Philosophers” [the title later passed on to John Italos].

By the early 1050s Psellos’ circle was losing power at the court. His friends were fleeing the capital, some of them becoming monks. He himself was accused of harboring non-Christian beliefs and was required to produce a confession of orthodoxy. With the ascendancy of the ambitious patriarch Keroularios, Psellos decided to leave and become a monk in Bythnia (under the name Michael). But Monomachos soon died and Psellos hated the monastic life, so this retreat lasted less than a year. In 1056 he was back in Constantinople, teaching, writing, and still playing politics. He was soon allied with the Doukas family, which came to the throne in 1059. Psellos advised the emperor Konstantinos X and tutored his son, who later reigned as Michael VII (1071-1078). But first Psellos has to weather the years of Romanos IV Diogenes (1067-1071), who tried to reverse years of military decline, and finally suffered a disastrous defeat at Manzikert (1071). Psellos was among those who supported Romanos’ vicious blinding [see this lovely wikipedia article on “Political mutilation in Byzantine culture” for background], but the regime of his protégé Michael VII proved disastrous, bringing Byzantium to the verge of total defeat. Even Psellos lost favor at court during the 1070s, and must have died at some point during that decade. While brilliant as an orator, historian, scholar, and teacher, Psellos’ political activity has been characterized as unscrupulous and he has been personally accused of contributing to the decline of Byzantium during the eleventh century.”
[Hellenism in Byzantium, Anthony Kaldellis pp. 192-193]

In a different work, and the one which will be our main focus in this post, Kaldellis provides the following account of how Psellos came into conflict with Christianity because of his Platonic philosophizing. (This is from Kaldellis’, The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia):

“Contrary to scholarly consensus, I argue that Psellos was a serious philosopher rather than a mere polymath or intellectual dilettante, and that he used his considerable rhetorical skills to disguise the revolutionary nature of his political thought, which was consciously anti-Christian and deeply influenced in some respects by the political philosophy of Plato. This book is therefore, a contribution to the history of Platonism. But which Platonism, and which Plato? We must begin with a digression.

The currently dominant view of Plato in the English-speaking world has been created largely by academic historians of ancient philosophy, who are not themselves philosophers. These scholars, including A.E. Taylor, W.K.C. Guthrie, Gregory Vlastos, and many others, interpret philosophical texts by employing modern tools of analysis in order to determine that validity of their arguments. Thus the dialogues are combed for discussions on particular topics which are then extracted from their dramatic and literary context and transformed into formal arguments. These are always taken at face value, subjected to rigorous logical analysis, and, more often than not, found to be false or invalid. According to Terrence Irwin, “much of what [Plato] says is false, and much more is confused, vague, inconclusive, and badly defended.” While the approach that Irwin represents has taught us something about the logical structure of Plato’s arguments, it has seriously misrepresented the great philosopher’s thought.”
[pp. 1-2]

And this point Kaldellis is still just getting warmed up with his “digression”. A couple pages later he manages to come back around to what is, at least as far as I am concerned, the real crux of the biscuit:

[T]here is room for substantial disagreement about the broad nature of Plato’s philosophy. Although this statement is not controversial in itself, its implications constitute a serious challenge to the fundamental presuppositions of most Platonic scholarship. Avid Platonists can perhaps disbelieve that the life of philosophy involves the rejection of the senses, that the soul is immortal, or that metaphysics and ontology take precedence over ethics and politics, and yet still be closer to their master’s teachings than are those who accept such positions.

Psellos explicitly identified himself as a Platonist. It is clear from many of his writings that he had studied Plato carefully and had an intimate and thorough knowledge of the dialogues … Instances where he praises [Plato] can be adduced at will, but a single event reveals the intensity of Psellos’ allegiance. In 1054 he was accused by his erstwhile friend, the future Patriarch John Xiphilinos, of forsaking Christ to follow Plato. Plato had no illusions about the seriousness of the charge: ‘you have separated me from Christ and enrolled me among the followers of Plato.’ Psellos realized that, according to Xiphilinos, devotion to Plato was equivalent to a renunciation of Christian Orthodoxy …. Of course, Psellos … claim[ed] that Plato’s teaching was ultimately compatible with the Christian faith, a claim that is nevertheless hardly supported by the meager evidence presented in his letter [to Xiphilinos].”
[pp. 4-5]

Kaldellis is simultaneously putting forward two different (but not unrelated) arguments concerning Psellos’ Platonism, or, to be more precise (in terms of what Kaldellis himself claims), concerning Platonism itself: (1) On the one hand Platonism, according to Kaldellis, is inherently incompatible with Christianity. (2) On the other hand, Platonism, at least properly understood, as it was (again, according to Kaldellis) by Psellos, is fundamentally a political philosophy.

Two very important subsidiary arguments are involved in Kaldellis’ position: (3) the first being that genuine Platonism is a very different thing from the mystical speculations (as Kaldellis sees them) of the late antique Platonists from Plotinus to Simplicius (so-called “Neoplatonism”, a term that Kaldellis crudely misuses in the most blindingly uncritical and anachronistic fashion), and (4) that “Christianity” can be viewed, like Platonism, as fundamentally a political philosophy (which at least in the context of an unabashedly theocratic Christian state like Byzantium is perfectly reasonable).

At the risk of repetitiveness, let me present these assumptions again more schematically, along with one more assertion that Kaldellis snuck in along the way:

  1. Platonism is incompatible with Christianity.
  2. Platonism is a political philosophy.
  3. Late antique Neoplatonism is a mystical philosophy fundamentally different from the genuine philosophy of Plato.
  4. Christianity is a political philosophy.
  5. The following three ideas are extraneous to Platonism itself, although they are misrepresented as essentially Platonic by “most” modern Platonic scholarship: (i) the rejection of the senses (ii) the immortality of the soul (iii) the precedence of metaphysics and ontology over ethics and politics.

One thing that becomes clear when these are spelled out like this is that 1, 2, and 4 are closely related to one another, while 3 and 5 are essentially independent of the other three, and are even arguably extraneous.

If we take 1 and 2 above as the core of Kaldellis’ main argument, then of the other three points, only number 4 is intrinsic to this main argument, which revolves around making as sharp a division as possible between Platonism and Christianity as mutually exclusive world-views. The reason why position 4 is important to the main argument is that if Christianity and Platonism are both seen as primarily political/ethical in nature then the counterposition of the two is made that much neater and cleaner. To put it very crudely, Kaldellis wishes to compare apples with apples, that is, he is saying that both Christianity and Platonism are apples, with Christianity being a rotten apple not fit to eat, and Platonism being a nice, fresh, ripe apple. But if Platonism is primarily political/ethical, while Christianity is not, then we are left with apples and oranges.

However, the nature of late antique Platonism (that of Plotinus and so forth), and its relationship to Christianity, especially those Christianizing appropriations of Platonism emanating from the “teachings” of pseudo-Dionysos, is a separate, or at least a separable, issue.

That is to say, first of all, one set of positions (1, 2 and 4) comprise a single, coherent argument: Platonism and Christianity are mutually incompatible political philosophies. Secondly, the other two assumptions (3 and 5) comprise an independent argument about the nature of Platonism vis-a-vis so-called Neoplatonism: Platonism is a truly Humanist philosophy of life-as it-is-actually-lived, while Neoplatonism is a bunch of theistical/metaphysical mumbo-jumbo which tends to steer one away from a life of action and engagement with one’s fellow human beings and with “the world”. The interested reader can look here and here for more of my thoughts on where Kaldellis goes wrong in his analysis of late antique Platonism.

It is certainly possible that Kaldellis’ treatment of late antique Platonism has not been properly understood by me, and that there are important parts of his overall argument that I fail to grasp. However, it does appear to me, as of now, that Kaldellis is perpetuating a central tenet of Christian apologetics, namely the Eusebian “strategy of breaking the ‘golden chain’ and the ‘sacred genealogy’ of Plato’s disciples,” as Niketas Siniossoglou puts it in his monograph on the subject of the Christian appropriation of Platonic philosophy. Indeed, Siniossolgou’s description of this apologetic strategy sounds almost as if he were talking about Kaldellis: “This [strategy] consisted in presenting the philosophical theology of Hellenes in late antiquity as alienated from Plato’s philosophy. Eusebius argued at length that with few exceptions Plato’s disciples distorted the philosophy of their master and introduced sophisms and innovations.” For more on Siniossoglou see this previous post concerning his book Plato and Theodoret.

Kaldellis’ analysis of Psellos demonstrates that it is possible to make a strong case for Psellos as an anti-Christian Hellene, that is, a Pagan, even if one does not approach Psellos as part of a ‘sacred geneology’ comprising a (more or less) continuous spiritual movement of Platonic Paganism, the so-called ‘golden chain’, that connects Psellos not only to Plotinus and Porphyry and Iamblichus and Proclus, but also to Cicero and Vergil and Ficino and Agrippa.

Best of all, and to end this post on a high note, Kaldellis also provides us with a wonderfully withering deconstruction of the theory of Psellos-as-sincere-Christian, as seen in the following long excerpt from The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia:

Although there are a few exceptions, modern historians interested in Psellos’ philosophical and religious beliefs tend to draw their conclusions on the basis of selected passages or brief quotations. His works are ransacked for allegedly representative declarations on topics that scholars consider important. These are then stitched together and presented as ‘Psellos’ world-view’. This cut-and-paste approach rarely takes the original context of the quotations into consideration, for it assumes that since Psellos wrote the words, he must have believed them to be true. Like the declarations of a religious creed, or that arguments of a modern scholarly monograph, his various statements are taken at face value, though exceptions are occasionally made for the obvious exaggerations of his rhetorical compositions, and his sarcastic treatment of contemporary individuals. But in general, the individual nature of each text and the unique context of any statements it may contain are completely disregarded. This is exemplified and reinforced by the reprehensible, yet pervasive practice of citing passages by the page number of the most recent edition, even if it is a massive compilation containing dozens or even hundreds of separate texts. Readers are apparently not supposed to care what kind of work is being cited or what the context of a particular passage is.

An example of the inevitable results of such scholarly exegesis can be found in the prestigious and widely used Pauly-Wissowa … Realencyclopädie. The author of the long article on Michael Psellos, E. Kriaras, does not hesitate to ascribe the most glaring contradictions to the Byzantine thinker, for example concerning the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy, or Christianity and Greek philosophy. We learn in the space of a few pages that Psellos believed that Greek philosophy had value independently of Christianity and that it was valuable only insofar as it prepared the ground for Chrisitanity; that rhetoric was philosophy’s equal and that he despised it because it did not seek the truth. Kriaras does not attempt to explain or resolve these blatant contradictions, which are produced by juxtaposing quotations taken from different works. We are not told whom Psellos is addressing in each case, nor under what circumstances each work was composed. Consequently, Psellos emerges as a man utterly confused about the most basic principles of those disciplines to which he had devoted his life.

An article in modern Greek, entitled ‘The Theological Thoughts of Michael Psellos’, illustrates the arbitrariness of prevailing hermeneutical methods. The author, D. Koutsogiannopoulos, promises to resolve some of the apparent contradictions in Psellos’ thought. Yet in order to do so, he simply postulates that Psellos was fundamentally a Christian, and even claims that ‘Psellos, of course, could not follow every aspect of Proklos’ dialectical derivations; this was due to the unsurpassable obstacle posed by the Christian source of his own philosophical thought.’ The author, of course, would hardly countenance the suggestion that the same might be true of a modern Christian scholar of Neoplatonism, including, perhaps, himself. However that may be, he believes that one can derive Psellos’ personal theological beliefs from a single work ‘alone,’ the De Omnifaria Doctrina. This work is a series of conceptual definitions and discussions on religious, philosophical, and scientific topics, which range from the nature of God to the reason why sea water is salty. This work does suggest that Psellos was a believing Christian, albeit an intellectually sophisticated one. But the crucial fact that it was composed for the benefit of Psellos’ imperial protege, Michael Doukas, who was emperor from 1071 to 1078, is never mentioned in the article.

The possibility is never considered that a direct exposition of doctrinal principles before a member of the Empire’s ruling family may not necessarily express its authors genuine views. But it takes only a moment’s reflection to realize that even if Psellos were not a Christian, he would stil have to pretend that he was. His very circumstances would have compelled him to conceal or disguise his true beliefs. After all, he had a highly prestigious career, and was at varioius times director of the schools of higher education in the Capital, tutor of the heir to the throne, and intimate advisor to several Emperors. We cannot expect a man of such public prominence, if he had a shred of prudence in him, to reveal his lack of faith openly before his rather intolerant contemporaries. And he would certainly have declared himself an Orthodox Christian, especially when the sincerity of his faith was challenged. ‘One will be able to do justice to the question of a Byzantine author of the eleventh century, only if one takes into account that he could never overstep the limits imposed by Orthodoxy without seriously endangering himself.’ [Here Kaldellis is quoting from Die hochsprachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner by the noted Austrian Byzantinist Herbert Hunger.] In other words, just because a medieval philosopher publicly presents himself as a Christian does not automatically mean that he was one. In an age of religious persecution and enforced orthodoxy, dissimulation was often a necessary strategy for survival. The desire to wield influence at court, not to mention the fear of punishment or exile, can explain why Psellos’ treatment of sensitive religious matters was occasionally conventional (which the De Omnifaria Doctrina really is not). At hte very least, he had to respect the opinions of his masters, but, as has rightly been pointed out, ‘to respect opinions is something entirely different from accepting them as true.’ [Here Kaldellis is quoting from Leo Straus’ What is Politica Philosophy? and Other Studies.]

Thus we cannot simply assume that the De Omnifaria Doctrina reveal Psellos’ true beliefs. The need for such caution is confirmed by the existence of a curious discrepency between a crucial statement in that text and a comment on the same topic in the Chronographia. In the final section of the De Omnifaria Doctrina (201), Psellos claims that its teachings represent a combination of Christian doctrine and ‘those salty waters, I mean Hellenic thought.’ But in the Chronographia, near the conclusion of its central autobiographical passage (6.42.16), Psellos explicitly compares the texts of ancient rhetoric and philosophy to νᾶμα, which ordinarily refers to the clear running water of a spring. He there claims that his revival of genuine philosophy was based entirely on the teachings of non-Christian antiquity. [Actually, and I really cannot resist interjecting at this point, Psellos explicitly tells us that he relies very heavily on the teachings of non-Christian philosophers of late antiquity, in other words, precisely those other-worldly “neo-” Platonists!] The apparent disagreement between these two passages is significant, regardless of the fact that they are both couched in metaphorical language. We must, in this connection, be prepared to interpret images as well as words, and on this crucial issue the image of the De Omnifaria Doctrina and the Chronographia are fundamentally at odds with each other.

What if for every statement that seems to establish the sincerity of Psellos’ Christian faith, we could find another that seems to undermine it? For instance, in his apologetic Letter to Xiphilinos (lines 11-19), Psellos says that although he had read many non-Christian books, he had found them all to be corrupt and inferior to Scripture, which alone is entirely pure and reliable. Yet, in one of his letters, he instructed his students not to believe anything written by Moses and not to dismiss every aspect of Hellenic, i.e., pagan, theology. This is an astonishing statement for a thinker of his age (it would be centuries before similar ideas were pursued seriously in the West). We are thus faced with a conventional affirmation of the perfection of Scripture, and a revolutionary attempt to establish a relative neutrality between it and Hellenic theology, which inevitably calls for the creation of an independent, i.e., non-Scriptural, method of adjudicating theological truth. Perhaps we now have at least some tentative grounds on which to question the sincerity of Psellos’ faith, for ‘when an author living in an age when people are persecuted for heterodoxy expresses contradictory sentiments regarding religion, the buden of proof … lies with those who would uphold the author’s piety.’
[pp. 13-16]

[The closing quote is from D.L. Schaefer, The Political Philosophy of Montaigne, p. 42, n.5, summarizing an argument by A. Armaingaud.]

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
  • Part Three: Athony Kaldellis’ The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia (this is the post you are reading right now)
  • Part Four: Michael Psellos and the Chaldean Oracles