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Category Archives: Renaissance

“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

>Bessarion & the Other Roman Academy (The Heathen Minded Humanists, Part Five)

[The Heathen-Minded Humanists: Part One provides the background of the struggle between Pope Paul II and the Roman Academy; Part Two describes the crisis of 1468; Part Three (which I haven’t posted yet) presents the denouement, in which all charges are dropped and the Heathen Academy survives intact; Part Four tells the tale of the surprising evidence discovered four centuries later of the literally underground Paganism that existed in Rome in the 15th century; Part Five (below) looks at the other Roman Academy and its head, Cardinal Bessarion.]

Recall that 1468 was the year that Pope Paul II “discovered” a supposed conspiracy of Heathen-Republican-Sodomite-Assassins right under his nose in Rome. In fact there is good reason to believe that many, perhaps most or even all, of those caught up in the Pope’s dragnet were one or more of the first three of those four things, but no evidence was ever found at the time, nor has any come to light since, indicating that there was a really existing conspiracy to assassinate the Pontiff, or anyone else.

A very broad overview of the background of the events of 1468 in Rome was presented, a while back, in Part One of this series, while Part Two focussed more closely on the events of that year leading up to the denunciations of the leaders of the Roman Academy. But there were, in fact, two Academies in Rome in the year 1468, and both were suspected of harboring dangerous Pagan tendencies.

One the one hand there was, of course, the “Pomponian” Academy, whose brightest lights were Pomponio Leto and Platina, both of whom figured prominently in what is often referred to as “the” Roman Academy. But there was also a “Bessarionic” Academy, founded originally by Cardinal Bessarion (1403-1472), in whose home this other Academy was headquartered (while the other Academy met in the home of Leto).

Here is the entry for “Bessarion” in The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity:

Bessarion was born about 1400 in Trebizond [somewhat ironically and confusingly, “George of Trebizond”, Bessarion’s arch-nemesis, was not from Trebizond] and named John. In 1423 he entered monastic life and was ordained. In 1437 he was appointed archbishop of Nicea and in that capacity worked to promote union with Rome at the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-45). Bessarion formally entered the Roman Catholic Church. He was made cardinal 91439) and twice received significant support as a candidate for the papacy. In 1463 he became Latin patriarch of Constantinople. Bessarion served as a senior papal diplomat, presided over a scholarly academy devoted especially to the translation of Greek classics, collected manuscripts and was a prolific writer. Greeks fleeing Ottoman power found him a generous patron. He left his collection of texts to the Republic of Venice, where it remains the heart of the Marciana Library. He died in 1472.

Bessarion had been one of the star pupils of George Gemistos Plethon, the Hellenic Pagan philosopher/sage of Mistra. Although he was a Catholic Cardinal (and before that an Orthodox Metropolitan), Basilios Bessarion was, in his heart of hearts, a Platonist. And his Platonism came directly from the more or less openly Pagan Platonism of Plethon, under whose spell Bessarion had fallen at the tender age of 20.

James Hankins, in his Plato and the Italian Renaissance (most of the following is based on pp. 210-212, where all of the direct quotes can be found), tells us that Pope Paul II had been the student of George of Trebizond (the arch-anti-Platonist) and that the two had retained a close bond. Prior to 1464 (the year Paul II assumed the Papal throne, with one of his principal rivals being Bessarion), George had been carrying on a somewhat forlorn little propaganda war against what he saw as the mortal threat to Christendom posed by the increasing popularity of Platonism. George felt the need, or so Hankins speculates, to write his anti-Plato screeds only in Greek, and to limit his audience to a few trusted fellow Byzantine exiles, due to the fact that Trebizond had no friends in sufficiently high places, leaving him “in no position to threaten” the most important representative of the menace of creeping Hellenism: Cardinal Bessarion.

“But”, Hankins tells us, “in 1464 the situation changed dramatically … [and] George lost no time in using his new position [as favorite of the new Pope] to pursue his prophetic vendetta against Bessarion.” In fact, George now openly, and in Latin, accused Bessarion of heresy.

At first it looked as if George might have underestimated his enemies. Over the protests of the Pope himself, Trebizond was arrested in 1466 and confined to a cell in the dreaded Castel Sant’Angelo, where he had to cool his heels for four months. During the time of Trebizond’s imprisonment, an ally of Bessarion, Fernando of Cordoba “published a treatise against Trebizond in which were collected praises of Plato from various Christian and Pagan authorities.” The game was now being played at a very high level, and for the highest of stakes.

The Pope, however, was still the Pope. By February of 1467 George was finally released, and Fernando of Cordoba became the subject of an investigation that made plain “the seriousness with which Paul II regarded the charges of heresy against the Platonists in Bessarion’s circle.” And then the following year Paul II dismissed a number of scholars in the Vatican’s employ whose outspoken Humanism made their spiritual purity suspect. One of these scholars, Platina, protested a little too forcefully, and found himself residing at the Castel Sant’Angelo. Upon his release, Platina, “far from being mollified” became a regular at the meetings of the nascent Roman Academy at the home of Pomponio Leto. Here is Hankins’ account of how things went down at this point:

“It is difficult to say precisely what activities this group [the Academicians meeting at Leto’s home] engaged in — many of them appear to have been cardinals’ secretaries — and with what degree of seriousness, but there is good evidence that they wrote salacious homosexual poetry, longed (like Cola di Rienzo and Stefano Porcari) for a return to the Roman republic, muttered treasonously against ‘papal tyranny’, and gave others the impression of holding heretical beliefs. In February of 1468 the Cardinals Fortiguerri and Gonzaga informed [sic] the Pope that the Academicians were conspiring against his life, and named ‘Callimachus’ (Filippo Buonaccorsi), Platina, ‘Petreius’ (Pietro Demetrio), and ‘Glaucus’ (Lucio Condulmer) as the ringleaders. The Roman police acted swiftly, manking numerous arrests. Platina was incarcerated once more in the Castel Sant’Angelo, and Pomponion Leto, who was standing trial in Venice for sodomy, was brought back in chains for trial. The conspirators were charged with republicanism, irreligion, heresy, neopaganism, and sodomy. Although Leto and Platina were ultimately acquitted of the charge of heresy and released, the affair kept Rome in turmoil for most of the summer, and that papal legate was still trying to secure Callimachus’ extradition from Poland as late as 1470.”

Much of what is said above has already been covered in Part One, and Part Two of this series, but that was back in July of last year, and, besides, it’s very useful to examine the varying accounts of the same events given by different historians. But Hankins now takes a step back from the action and gives us a broader picture of the Academic scene, so to speak, in Rome at the time:

“There is, to be sure, no direct evidence that Paul suspected either Bessarion’s circle or Platonism of having played a role in this [supposed] conspiracy. Insofar as the philosophical views of the [Pomponian] Academicians were known, they seemed to Paul to smack rather of Epicureanism than of Platonism [here Hankins appears to have forgotten that ancient Roman Pagans, upon whom the Pomponians explicitly modeled themselves, right down to their Republicanism, were rather free in mixing not only Platonism and Epicureanism, but also Pythagoreanism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism, and anything else on hand]. Moreover, Bessarion’s hostility to republicanism, which we shall discuss presently [but, at least for now, we shall have to mostly leave for future consideration], must have been well known. Nevertheless, there were still numerous connections between the Academic conspiracy and Bessarion’s Platonism, connections which hostile parties such as Trebizond, Palmieri, and Bishop Battista De’ Giuduci, O.P., would not have hesitated to bring to the Pope’s attention. There was, for instance, a large amount of overlap in the membership of the Pomponian and Bessarionic Academies; Leto and Platina had both been habitues of Bessarion’s house; it was Bessarion who (in effect) stood bond for Leto’s good behavior after his extradition; Bessarion was afterwards the leader in urging their release from prison. One of George’s main charges against Plato was the latter’s supposed [notice how Hankins is perfectly capable of inserting the adjective “supposed” when it suits him] advocacy of voluptas and sodomy, charges that had been made against Bessarion’s proteges Andreas Contrarius and Nicolo Perotti as well as against the [Pomponian] Academicians. George had also exposed in his Comparatio and Adversus Theodorum Gazam the neopagan rites of Gemistos Pletho, rites whose similarity to those practiced by the Pomponian Academy has even led some historians to assume (wrongly) a direct influence of Pletho upon Leto. Moreover, one of the princelings implicated in the Academic conspiracy had been Sigismondo Malatesta, known to be a great admirer of Pletho; so far, indeed, had he carried his admiration that he arranged [in fact, he carried this out personally] to have Pletho’s body brought from the [at the time Turkish controlled] Peloponnesus back to Rimini where he entombed it anew in his ‘neopagan’ Tempio Malatestiano designed by Leon Battista Alberti. Bessarion was a friend of Malatesta and had written some admiring verses on his sister Cleope. So it would have been an easy matter for some opponent of Bessarion to tar him with the same brush that had besmeared the Academicians.”

In a footnote, Hankins also points out yet another fascinating connection: “Bessarion had earlier been responsible for bringing another papal enemy to Rome, who was also a rival of George of Trebizond, namely, Lorenzo Valla.”

At this point it is worth our while to recall something written (and cited in a recent post) by the Honorable Sir James Cochran Stevenson Runciman, C.H., who studied history under J.B. Bury, and studied French, with Eric Arthur Blair (aka George Orwell), under Aldous Huxley, and whom the Daily Telegraph eulogized as “the pre-eminent historian of the Byzantine Empire,” and who, on top of everything else, was famous for his Tarot card readings (it is said that he once gave a reading to King Fuad of Egypt). Anyway, Runciman was of the opinion that there is a distinct possibility that Plethon converted Bessarion to Paganism at the age of 20, and that for next 50 years Bessarion remained a life-long secret disciple of Plethonic Paganism (for that reference, see “Hanegraaff on Plethon”).

To sum up this little sketch: In the mid 15th century there was a significant movement of philosophical/religious dissenters in Rome who drew their primary inspiration from Pagan antiquity. This was a diverse group that seems to have included both sincere Christians and outright Pagan apostates as well as a spectrum of intermediate positions. Some of these dissenters were primarily Latinate and focused on Roman antiquity, whereas others were more Hellenic in their interests and orientation. Many were devoted Platonists, while others may have been more Epicurean, Stoic or Aristotelian, but in truth they were probably all quite eclectic in their philosophical allegiances (just as were there ancient Greek and Roman exemplars). A significant number of them were early adopters of the republicanism that would in subsequent centuries become such an important current in European politics, while others were more conventional in their political views. Some were Byzantine exiles, others were native Romans, and still others were non-Roman Italians. And at the same time there were similar thriving Academies in Florence and Naples, and before long there would be hundreds of Academies throughout Italy.

>"George Gemistos Plethon was a crypto-Pagan." (An Inconvenient Pagan, Part Three)


Church and Society in the Last Centuries of Byzantium, Donald M. Nicol, 1977

“George Gemistos Plethon was surely the least representative of all the Byzantines at Florence. Like Bessarion he was interested in bridging the intellectual and cultural gap between Greeks and Latins. But in him the wind of Hellenism blew so strong that it extinguished his Christian faith. The proceedings of the Council of Florence confirmed his opinion that the only hope for the world was to dispense with Christianity altogether and to evolve a completely new philosophy of life and politics. It was at Mistra in Greece, far away from the beleaguered capital, that Plethon developed his ideas for the regeneration of what he was pleased to call the Hellenic people. This was to be acheived not by breathing new life into the dying body of the Roman Empire but by a reform of society along the lines suggested in Plato’s Republic. Early in the fifteenth century Plethon addresed to the Emperor Manuel II and his son Theodore a series of memoranda on the ways in which Hellenism could be recreated on the Hellenic soil of the Peloponnese. They amounted to an elaborate and comprehensive programme for the reform of the administration, the defense of the economy and the structure of society. They contain some of the most original ideas eer expressed by a Byzantine scholar. But far more strikingly – and more dangerously – original were Plethon’s ideas on religion, which he committed to writing late in his life in a treatise called On the Laws. Here he concocted a new “Hellenic” religion worthy of credence by his regenerated Hellenes. The myths of Christianity were to be supplanted by an artificial theology and ethical system based on Plato and neoplatonism. God reverted to being Zeus and the rest of the ancient Greek pantheon were suitably accommodated as the new presiding deities. The treatise was never published ; and when the text came into the hands of Plethon’s friend, the Patriarch Gennadios, he considered it his duty as a Christian to destroy it.”
[pp. 113-114]

Byzantium: Church, Society, and Civilization Seen through Contemporary Eyes, Deno John Geanakoplos, 1984

“In the fifteenth century several Byzantine thinkers attempted to reform the existing calendar by developing one that corresponded more closely to the rotation of the earth and movement of the planets than the Julian calendar. Among these was the famous Neoplatonic philosopher (and rejector of Christianity) Gemistus Pletho …. The greatest of Byzantine philosophers, Pletho, held views remarkable for his time. Deeply disturbed (as were many other intellectuals) over the terrible condition of the empire, he sought to revive the Byzantine state. One means he proposed was the replacement of traditional Christianity with Paganism.”
[pp. 435-43]

The Last Centuries of Byzantium, 2 ed., Donald M. Nicol, 1993

“Plethon would have agreed that a change of heart was needed if the Byzantines were to live up to the ideal of Hellenes. But his thoughts led him further and further away from any expectation that this could come about through the medium of the Christian faith. Not until towards the end of his life did he commit these thoughts to writing in a treatise called On the Laws. In this he was to advocate a total rejection of Christianity in favour of a new ‘Hellenic’ religion, incorporating the pantheon of ancient Greek gods and based on a theological and ethical system derived mainly from Plato but also from Zoroaster. Little is known of this work, for it was consigned to the flames as an atheistical and dangerous tract by Plethon’s friend George Scholarios, after he became Patriarch.”
[p. 345]

“Gemistus Plethon and Platonic Political Philosophy”, Peter Garnsey, in Transformations of Late Antiquity: Essays for Peter Brown, edited by Philip Rousseau and Manolis Papoutsakis, 2009

Plethon was a crypto-Pagan: he dreamed of introducing a new religion based on wisdom that was older than Christianity and Islam, namely a blend of Zoroastrianism, Pythagoreanism and Platonism. In respect of his religious and philosophical beliefs, Plethon belongs in the tradition of the Neoplatonist philosophers of Late Antiquity.”
[p. 328]

A History of Byzantium, Timothy E. Gregory, 2010

“Plethon was not the first of the Byzantines to point out the connection between Byzantine and ancient Greek culture, but he put that point eloquently and clearly. ‘We are,’ he wrote, ‘Greeks [Hellenes], as our language and ancestral culture show.’ Thus, to Plethon, as to many Byzantines, Greekness was not a matter of blood or descent, but rather determined by language and culture. Plethon was also willing to call himself a Hellene, the term that had long been used by the Byzantines to refer to Pagans. This did not trouble him and, unlike most of his contemporaries, he was unabashedly in favor of the (certainly impossible) task of restoring classical Paganism as the religion of the empire!
[pp. 386-387]

>Hanegraaff on Plethon: "The Pagan cat was out of the box." (An Inconvenient Pagan, Part Two)

“Nothing less than a revival of Hellenistic Paganism in deliberate opposition to Christianity
The Center for the History of Hermetic Philosophy recently (2009) celebrated it’s 10th Anniversary, which was marked, among other ways, by the publication of the anthology Hermes in the Academy: Ten Years’ of Study of Western Esotericism at the University of Amsterdam. In this post I take a look at Wouter Hanegraaff’s contribution to that volume, on the subject of “The Pagan Who Came From the East: George Gemistos Plethon and Platonic Orientalism”.

Here is an excerpt:

“Back in Mistra [after the Council of Florence], Plethon wrote his major philosophical synthesis, the Nomoi (Laws), which seems to have been made accessible only to the select membership of his intimate circle of pupils. When Plethon’s manuscript turned up in possession of Princess Theodora in c. 1460-1465, his enemy Scholarius (now Patriarch [Gennadios] of Constantinople) had most of it burned and ordered the destruction of any surviving copies on pain of excommunication. Scholarius himself, however, preserved those parts he felt he needed to buck up his accusations against his former teacher. In the surviving opening chapters of the work, the Platonic orientalist perspective is developed in some detail, beginning with an introduction of the major ancient ‘lawgivers and sages’ who came after Zoroaster: Eumolpus (founder of the Eleusinian mysteries), Minos (the Cretan lawgiver), Lycurgus (the Spartan lawgiver), Iphitus (the reviver of the Olympian Games) and Numa (who had instituted religious laws among the Romans). Plethon continues by stating that the Indian Brahmins and the magi are to be preferred among barbarians, and the kouretes among the Greeks; and he finishes with a further list of authorities, including the priests at the oracle of Dodona, ‘inspired men’ like Polyides, Tiresias, Chiron and the Seven Sages, and finally Pythagoras, Plato and other philosophers belonging to thei school, notably ‘Parmenides, Timaeus, Plutarch, Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus.’ …. Plethon is explicit in opposing his list of ‘lawgivers and philosophers’ as a positive category against its negative counterpart, consisting of ‘poets and sophists.’ This latter turns out to be a code for the founders of revealed religions, and Christianity in particular.”
[p. 39]

A little further on, Hanegraaff states bluntly of Plethon’s intentions: “the conclusion cannot be avoided: what he had in mind was nothing less than a revival of Hellenistic paganism in deliberate opposition to Christianity.” To drive this point home, Hanegraaff quotes from George of Trebizond’s recollection of what had transpired in Florence:

“I myself heard him at Florence … asserting that in a few more years the whole world would accept one and the same religion with one mind, one intelligence, one teaching. And when I asked him ‘Christ’s or Muhammad’s?’ he said, ‘Neither; but it will not differ much from paganism.’ I was so shocked by these words that I hated him ever after and feared him like a poisonous viper, and I could no longer bear to see or hear him. I heard, too, from a number of Greeks who escaped here from the Peloponnese that he openly said before he died … that not many years after his death Mohammad and Christ would collapse and the truth would shine through every region of the globe.”
[p. 40]

Hanegraaff also states that viewing Plethon as unambiguously Pagan is not some peculiar theory of his own:

“There is almost universal agreement among specialists about the fact that Plethon was indeed a ‘neo-pagan’ opponent of Christianity (although he obviously had to conceal this, since preaching his views openly would have been a capital offense in Byzantium).”
[pp. 40-41]

At this point, however, Hanegraaff is suddenly seized with the urge to reassure his, as he seems to imagine them, religiously anxious readers, and, in particular, to head off any silly notions about a “Pagan Renaissance” (perish the thought!):

“It is importan to emphasize how unique and exceptional it [Plethon’s Hellenic apostasy] was. The historiographical cliche of a ‘Pagan Renaissance’ is certainly misleading in its suggestion that the Platonic and Hermetic revival of the later 15th century involved a conscious rejection of Christianity on the part of its major representatives. On the contrary, the Renaissance Platonism that would emerge from Marsilio Ficino’s translations was, and would always remain, a deeply Christian phenomenon. If Plethon was certainly the crucial pioneer of Platonic orientalism in the 15th century, he seems to have remained virtually alone in his radical departure from Christianity.”
[p. 41]

Hanegraaff’s assertion of the “unique and exceptional” nature of of Plethon’s Paganism faces three major problems.

First of all common sense demands that we assume that the most dearly held ideas of one of the most celebrated intellectuals of the day must have been shared, at least partially, by at least some of the great many people who admired, and studied under, Plethon. If we start from this perspective, then the question is not how “unique and exceptional” Plethon’s Paganism was, but how widespread it was. Hanegraaff himself told us only a few paragraphs ago that Plethon actively promoted his Pagan religious ideas among his “most intimate friends.”

A second problem with Hanegraaff’s assertion that Plethon remained “virtually alone in his radical departure from Christianity” is that there is strong evidence for the existence a full-blown Pagan “movement” in and around Mistra, where Plethon spent the last five decades of his life. Steven Runciman in his Lost Capital of Byzantium: The History of Mistra and the Peloponnese writes that “it seems certain that there was a neo-paganist cell at Mistra which he [Plethon] dominated and encouraged.” Runciman even goes so far as to suggest the tantalizing possibility that Cardinal Bessarion, who had studied with Plethon in Mistra, “remained faithful in secret to his master’s secret [Pagan] teaching,” despite the high rank and prestige he attained later in the Catholic Church. [See Chapter IX, and especially p. 102 in the 2009 I.B. Tauris paperback edition]

A third difficulty is that Hanegraaff’s characterization in no way excludes (in fact it explicitly accepts) the possibility of a small, determined band of Renaissance Pagans inspired by Plethon. In fact, the stereotypical conception of “Renaissance Pagans” has never been that of a mass movement, but rather of an elite group of philosophers, poets, artists and scientists. So Hanegraaff has not really disproven what he refers to as “the historiographical cliche of a ‘Pagan Renaissance'” at all! Rather he has added his voice to all those others who have pointed to Plethon as the logical starting point for assessing the extent to which Paganism was not merely a viable “religious option, at least in theory” (see below) during the Renaissance, but an option that was exercised and put into practice. With the unassailable evidence concerning Plethon in hand, we know that there were more than zero Pagans during the Renaissance, and the evidence is overwhelming that even if the number was relatively small, Plethon was far from being alone. Therefore we can say with complete confidence that both Pagans and Paganism existed during the Renaissance.

But then, having attempted, lamely, to calm our fears for the safety of Renaissance Christendom, Hanegraaff immediately zigs as sharply as he has just zagged:

“Nevertheless, one might say that with Plethon, the pagan cat was out of the box. His case shows that once the textual sources of the Platonic tradition became available to a Christian culture where the need for religious reform was widely felt, paganism became a religious option, at least in theory.”

What Hanegraaff says above does far more than completely undermine his previous assurances that there was no Pagan funny-business going on beneath the sheets of the Renaissance. If access to “textual sources” of classical Paganism was sufficient to make Paganism “a religious option” in the 15th century, then Paganism was already an option long before that as well. In fact, it had never not been an option! For Hanegraaff’s bizarre implication that such sources only “became available” suddenly, and out of nowhere, in the fifteenth century is complete nonsense, as Hanegraaff himself must be perfectly aware. There was, and obviously so, quite a bit of Pagan religious literature written in Latin, and this Latinate Pagan literature was read and studied continuously during the centuries separating late antiquity from the Renaissance. In fact, Vergil, Ovid, Cicero, Apuleius, and Macrobius were all the equivalent of best-selling authors even during the darkest of the Dark Ages, and their writings provide a thorough course in beginning, intermediate and advanced Paganism.

So here we find yet another case of a scholar protesting overly much, and in precisely the manner that should heighten, rather than allay, suspicion.

“Forsaking Christ to follow Plato” (Or, Was Michael Psellos a Christian?)

Nor earth to me give food, nor heaven light,
Sport and repose lock from me day and night,
To desperation turn my trust and hope,

An anchor’s cheer in prison be my scope,
Each opposite, that blanks the face of joy,
Meet what I would have well, and it destroy,
Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife,

If, once a widow, ever I be wife!

[Hamlet, William Shakespeare, Act III, Scene 2]

Almost everyone seems to agree (in fact they doth protest) that Michael Psellos was a Christian. Which is kind of funny, because in 11th Century Byzantium one really didn’t have all that much choice in the matter: everyone was a Christian (I mean, they were, right?). But if everyone was a Christian, why is it so important to explicitly declare this in the specific case of Psellos?

An examination of the primary sources indicates a likely explanation: Psellos’ own contemporaries questioned his religious orientation to such an extent that one cannot simply pass over his religious identity in silence. Basil Tatakis, in his Byzantine Philosophy, tells us that because of his intense devotion to the philosophy of Plato, Psellos was “accused of ‘Hellenizing’ — that is to say, of Pagan tendencies.” And in response to these accusations, Psellos “was required to give a profession of faith and justify his admiration for Plato.” [p. 135] However, Psellos’ accusers were unconvinced, and they continued to be “scandalized by his free use of Hellenic thought and culture.” The prevailing negative attitude toward “Hellenic thought and culture” is indicated by the fact that Christian monks at the time “would bless themselves and murmur anathemas against the Hellenic Satan,” at the mere mention of the name of Plato! [p. 146] In other words, Psellos, who devoted his life to the revival of Platonic philosophy, was seen by many Byzantine Christians as a prophet of “the Hellenic Satan”. Tatakis also provides us with the detail that Psellos’ “principle accuser” was the future Patriarch John Xiphilinos.

Here are two typical examples of Tatakis’ protestations of Psellos’ Christianity:

  1. “Assuming that supreme perfection is contained within Christian doctrine, Psellos appropriated all manifestations of Greek civilization; i.e., all of those ideas that he claimed anticipated Christianity and directed the mind toward it.” [p. 135] .
  2. “[A]ccording to Psellos … Greek thought was a preparatory stage, to be perfected by Christianity.” [p. 137]

And here are some examples of the same manner of protestation from other scholars:

Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christianity: “The outstanding representative of Christian Hellenism … was Michael Psellus … Nevertheless, his Christian Hellenism did not blind him to the ‘heresy’ inherent in ‘ancient Hellenism’ or heathenism, which could not be reconciled with the Christian gospel.” [pp. 243-244]

Katerina Ierandiokonou, “The Greek Concept of Symatheia and Its Byzantine Appropriation by Michael Psellos” (in The Occult Sciences in Byzantium): “We should now turn to Psellos’ use of the notion of cosmic sympatheia. The challenge for him, as for all Christian thinkers, is how to use this notion in order to understand the world and the relations between its parts without coming into conflict with standard Christian dogma.” [p. 106] “That is to say, as a Christian, Psellos cannot accept that the sympatheic relations between th epart of the world are such that human beings may control the powers of daemons for their own benefit” [p. 108]

John Myendorff, Byzantine Theology: “Psellos certainly remained a Christian.” [p. 62]

But in addition to the accusations of Hellenizing apostasy made by his Christian contemporaries, Psellos’ spiritual allegiance is also called into question by his close association with two other philosophers: John Italos and George Gemistos Plethon. Italos was Psellos’ student and his hand-picked successor (as hypatos tõn philosophõn, i.e., Consul of the Philosophers, a title created for Psellos by Emperor Konstantinos IX Monomarchos). Unfortunately for Psellos’ reputation as a good Christian, Italos attracted even more negative attention than his teacher had, and he was formally charged with “Hellenizing”, put on trial, and convicted on multiple counts of religious deviancy based on his philosophical teachings (which, it must be emphasized, he had learned at the knee of his master, Psellos).

In the case of Plethon we have not a direct student, but rather a philosophical heir born almost three centuries after Psellos’ death. Despite the significant separation in time, though, Plethon is inevitably described in terms that tie him closely in spirit to Psellos: “The whole 12th century is replete with dogmatic struggles stimulated by the renaissance of philosophical doctrines. These conflicts allow us to follow the uninterrupted progress of Psellos’ work … until it is finally integrated in the work of Plethon.” [Tatakis, p. 171] “[D]uring this entire period Psellos’ Neoplatonism wins followers, spreads, develops, and finds its fullest expression with Plethon,” [Tatakis, p. 190] “[Plethon] was reviving by implication the heresies of earlier Byzantine Platonists such as Michael Psellos and John Italos …. Like Psellos and Italos, Gemistos gave the primacy to philosophy over theology.” [George Gemistos Plethon: Last of the Hellenes, C.M. Woodhouse, p. 167] And Plethon provides an even stronger case of Platonic Paganism, for Italos found it necessary to recant his Hellenizing ideas (not once but twice), while Plethon went to his grave an unrepentant Pagan.

Therefore it is seen as needful to not stop at merely asserting the sincerity of Psellos’ profession of Christian belief in itself, but to add additional arguments putting spiritual distance between the ostensibly Christian Psellos and these two wayward Platonists, who are in such dangerously close philosophical proximity to Psellos. For example, Basil Tatakis claims: “Psellos saw pre-Christian thinking as a preparation for Christianity, which in itself constitues absolute truth. Plethon sees Christianity as a decadence of thought and asks of philosophy a starting point from which he can return to the original sources that, according to him contain the the absolute truth.” [p. 237] And also: “Plethon’s indifference (if not aversion) toward Christianity allows him to use Platonic philosophy freely, without even attempting to reconcile it with the Scriptures. Unlike Psellos, Plethon’s aim is not to show that Plato is closer to Christianity than Aristotle, but to show that Plato is closer to the truth.” [p. 241]

Similarly, Tatakis is also eager to clear Psellos of any suspicion arising from his closest disciple’s Platonic apostasy: “[For Italos], philosophy is neither, as it was for Psellos, merely an exercise of reason nor a preparatory stage for penetrating even further the mysteries of Christian teaching … Italos risks presenting a system of thought that favors Greek philosophy and reason … Until the time of Italos we sought philosophical thought within theology.” [p. 173]

But the more these scholars protest, the more Psellos’ true religious identity is called into question. At least that is what methinks.

Forsaking Christ to Follow Plato (Or, Was Michael Psellos a Christian?)
  • Part One: Mostly Basil Tatakis’ Byzantine Philosophy, with a little help from Jaroslav Pelikan, Katerina Ierandiokonou, John Myendorff, and even C.M. Woodhouse (this is the post you are reading right now)
  • Part Two: N.G. Wilson’s Scholars of Byzantium
  • Part Three: Anthony Kaldellis’ The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia
  • Part Four: Michael Psellos and the Chaldean Oracles

>An Inconvenient Pagan: The Story of George Gemistos Plethon

>George Gemistos Plethon was an “underground” Pagan, that is, he kept his true religious identity a secret while publicly professing to be a Christian. He lived six centuries ago, and was a central figure in the intellectual and spiritual reawakening of the West known as the Renaissance. Plethon’s Paganism is not a matter for speculation, because unambiguously Pagan writings that he kept secret (except to his most intimate friends) became public after his death. Therein Plethon explicitly rejected Christianity and embraced the ancient polytheistic religion of the pre-Christian Hellenes.

Plethon was also one of the most celebrated and influential European intellectuals of his day, indeed, he is arguably a pivotal figure in western intellectual and spiritual history. Despite the fact that he lived in exile (due to his religious views) for the last five decades of his long life, those who directly studied under Plethon, or were inspired by him, defined the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century. Plethon and those most influenced by him have had an immense impact on all of subsequent western intellectual history.

The power of Plethon’s impact on his contemporaries is illustrated by the fact that even in death, his disciples were still drawn to him. In the year 1465, Plethon’s remains were disinterred by Sigismondo Malatesta (the first person to ever earn the honor of being personally condemned to Hell by the Catholic Church), who then transported these to a Pagan Temple he had erected in the city of Rimini, the ancestral seat of the Malatestas. This building, officially the Cathedral of San Francesco, is described in the Catholic Encyclopedia as “the most pagan of all professedly Christian churches.”

Unfortunately, most modern Pagans know very little about Plethon. So I am doing a series of posts that will provide some pointers for those interested in learning more. The remainder of this, the first post in the series “An Inconvenient Pagan”, is comprised of four excerpts from Basil Tatakis’ Byzantine Philosophy. These excerpts were selected to emphasize the fact that Plethon himself was just the latest in a centuries long lineage of Hellenizing Byzantine Platonists, stretching back to Michael Psellos and John Italos.

“[T]he text of the charges [against John Italos, who was condemned as a Pagan in the year 1082] summarizes a detailed examination of Italos’ writings and teachings. He himself, moreover, recognized the accuracy of the summary and confessed his errors. The confession of faith, which he was obliged to give the synod, allows us to understand the extent to which Italos was nourished by Neoplatonism. He speaks of the return of the Son to the Father, and of the uncreated and incomprehensible One, without calling it God, which reminds us of the Plotinian One. It is not just a question of rationalistic excesses in attempting to explain Christian doctrines: Italos goes much further. He does not view literature as merely formative for the intellect; and for him, philosophy is neither, as it was for Psellos, merely an exercise of reason nor a preparatory stage for penetrating even further the mysteries of Christian teaching. Basing his thought on philosophical principles and Neoplatonic teachings, Italos risks presenting a system of thought that favors Greek philosophy and reason. Here we are dealing with the first sketch of a philosophical system. As we can see, Psellos and Italos, though different in spirit, returned to the last representatives of pagan thought so as to give continuity to philosophical life.

“Until the time of Italos, we sought philosophical thought within theology. Italos is the first to give philosophy its autonomy within a purely rationalistic movement of thought, one which seeks clear solutions to questions concerning human destiny and the higher mysteries of Christianity such as the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity. Italos attempts to establish philosophical problems upon a philosophical basis, for the time had come for theology to become dependent upon philosophy, which had now become the depository of truth. He seems to lack any sense of the mystical.

“While Italos was alive, this movement of ideas had great repercussions. The emperor Michael VII himself and his brother Andronikos were in favor of it. Patriarch Eustratios Garidas, who was in charge of the inquisition into Italos’s teachings, was won over by these views. A large number of cultured people in Byzantine society welcomed the influence of classical romanticism, which ultimately led to paganism. One of these, Berbilas, went so far as to throw himself into the waters of the Bosphoros crying out: ‘Receive me, O Poseidon.’ We are encountering here all the symptoms that will appear more clearly and more widespread during the time of the Renaissance. Thus we can easily see why the Orthodox Church responded excessively harshly to Italos’ movement, prohibiting not only any borrowing from Hellenism but also the application of any rational procedures to theology. The Church wanted to draw attention once more to the mystical character of religion, a character which transcends human reason.”
[pp. 173-174]

“The Russian scholar Thomas Uspenskij was the first to note that Byzantine philosophy asked itself the same cosmological, psychological, and epistemological questions as did the philosophy of the Latin West. There are in effect some striking resemblances: Psellos, Italos, and Abelard agree on many points. On the other hand, the opposition between Realism and Nominalism had been a long-standing question for Byzantium, beginning with Photios. Moreover, as has been said, Michael of Ephesus and Eustratios of Nicea are the two most important Aristotelian teachers at the start of the period that was to bring Aristotle’s triumph to the West. But though Aristotle was triumphant in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance was to give Plato the final victory, a victory not only started but essentially prepared for by Byzantium. It should be added that from the 11th century on, the Byzantines were also interested in the political thought of antiquity; the West would not confront this subject for yeat another two centuries. Thus it is not enough to say that in the 11th and 12th centuries speculative thought in the Latin West runs on the same track as it did in Byzantium. We must acknowledge that in all the essential points of this intellectual movement, Byzantium led the way.
[pp. 179-180]

“As far as philosophy is concerned, it must be noted that during this entire period Psellos’ Neoplatonism wins followers, spreads, develops, and finds its fullest expression with Plethon [“this entire period” means from the end of the 11th century to the time of Plethon, who died around 1453] . All of this does not come about without resistance, however. The Aristotelianism of Orthodox Scholasticism, which was now also being supported by Western Scholasticism, especially that of Thomas Aquinas, forced this Neoplatonism to contend over certain theological questions. This Neoplatonism seems to be a philosophy struggling to secure its own freedom of the thought and escape from dogmatism.”
[p. 190]

“Plethon spent most of his life at Mistra …. In his memoir to the emperor Manuel he maintains with emphasis that “we are Hellenes, and we maintain that Peloponnessus was the ancient source from where sprang the noblest Hellenic tribes, which migrated from there to give birth to the grand history of the Hellenic naiton.” This resurrection of the consciousness of Hellenism reflects resistance and reaction to the picture of the empire’s sad decline, for it both announces and determines the future of the Greek nation. Plethon wanted to play a preeminent role in this context, and he devoted al of the resources of his spirit toward this end …. His two memoirs leave us with no doubt that Plethon dreamt of playing the role of Athenian philosopher for the Byzantine princes …. He has become acquainted with Plato through Psellos’s tradition … and his attention is increasingly attracted by the syncretic mysticism of the Alexandrians. Plethon thus comes to dream in the middle of the 15th century that he can resuscitate the efforts of Porphyry, Iamblichos, and Proclus, and upon the barrenness of Christian worship he wants to establish a new universal religion …. The position of the enlightenment philosophers would not be very different …. Plethon sees Christianity as decadence of thought and asks of philosophy a starting point from which he can return to the original sources ….

“Plethon’s presence at Ferrara and then in Florence during the Synod on the unification of the churches (1432-1439) can taken as one of the most significant episodes in his own life and in the rebirth of Platonic philosophy in the West. Since the end of the 14th century, Manuel Chrysoloras, who is said to have been one of Plethon’s students and a professor of Greek, had implanted in the Latins an understanding of the “divine Plato”, who knew how to combine beauty with wisdom. Thus Plethon found in Florence a circle of people thirsting to know Plato, who considered him the herald of the independence of spirit and of conscience. Plethon responded to this pressing need as best he could with both his courses and his written work The Differences between Aristotle and Plato, which appears to be a summary of his courses. Under Plethon’s influence, Cosimo de Medici proposed the plan for his Platonic Academy, the first institution to represent the intellectual aspirations and concerns of modern times. When one reflects upon the fate of Platonism, first in Florence and then throughout the entire West, and on the depth and extent of its influence, one comes to appreciate more fully the historical importance of the Byzantine Plethon’s stay in Florence. Plethon returned to Mistra (1441), where he stayed until his death, keeping up correspondence with his Italian friends and ardently writing his basic work, The Laws, which he left unpublished. In 1459 Marsilio Ficino realized the wish of Cosimo de Medici and founded the Platonic Academy. A year later in Constantinople, Scholarios (renamed Gennadios), Archbishop of Constaninople, incinerated a manuscript of Plethon’s The Laws, since he thought it irreverent and anti-Christian. Plethon’s admirerers, however, did not share Scholarios’s views. In 1475 Sigismundo Malatesta transferred Plethon’s remains from Mistra to the small Italian town of Rimini, where he rests today in the church of Saint Francesco.”
[pp. 236-238]

>"A Different World"? (Ronald Hutton’s Recantations, Part Deux)

>1. Introduction
For those just tuning in, this post is part of an ongoing series looking at the concept of “the Old Religion” (“The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise”). Behind that concept is the belief that modern Paganism represents the survival of ancient forms of religion that Christians (and Muslims) have been trying to “extirpate” (that is their word for it) for two millennia (although the Muslims have only been in on the fun for a slightly lesser span of time).

In 1999, English historian Ronald Hutton (who also happens to be a Pagan himself who may or may not be a Pagan himself) published a book titled Triumph of the Moon, in which he claimed to have demonstrated that there was no basis whatsoever for the notion of “the Old Religion”. But then in 2003 he published another book, Witches, Druids and King Arthur, in which he announced to the world that he had changed his mind. In that book, he devotes two chapters (which, somewhat awkwardly, come sandwiched in the middle, making up the fourth and fifth chapters) to attempting to explain his reversal. The post you are reading right now (and several future posts) will focus on the chapter “Paganism in the Missing Centuries”. In a previous post (“The Recantations of Ronald Hutton, Part One”) I have already discussed, briefly, the chapter “The New Old Religion”.

Once we get to the essay in question (“Paganism in the Missing Centuries”), it is painfully clear that Ronald Hutton is like the proverbial general who is “still fighting the last war” (a war, by the way, that was decisively lost). By this time it has been conceded by Hutton that modern Paganism “closely resembles”, has been “certainly influenced” by, and possesses “linear connections” to ancient Paganism. In other words, the question of if ancient Paganism survived into modernity has been resolved in the affirmative, and it is now time to move on to how Paganism survived. But this is something that Ronald Hutton simply cannot bring himself to do in any constructive way.

Having failed in his campaign to prove to the world that modern Paganism is completely lacking in historical connections to ancient Paganism, Hutton turns to petulantly obscuring and misrepresenting these connections, which is all that is left to him since even he can no longer pretend that they simply do not exist. Still, old habits die hard, and so he reverts to framing his discussion, ignoring what he himself has already granted as true, as if it were still an open question whether or not there is anything that, “to any extent”, constitutes “a ‘survival’ of ancient Paganism.”

Anyway, here is Hutton in his own words from somewhere near the beginning of “Paganism in the Missing Centuries”:

The purpose of this chapter is to trace …[the subsequent history of] those particular forms of paganism that appeared in the Roman Empire towards the end of the ancient world, and have been noted as bearing most resemblance to the religions of the modern Pagan revival.

Between the early nineteenth and the mid twentieth centuries there was a significant scholarly tradition of belief that an active and organised paganism had survived in Europe throughout the Christian middle ages. It was conceived as having been essentially a resistance movement of the common people, especially in the countryside, and (as seen) was disproved by more thorough research since the 1960s. The present investigation moves through a different world, that of the scholarly elites. Late pagan monotheism, Neoplatonism, theurgy and Graeco-Egyptian ritual magic were all cultural forms that were conveyed by texts and developed by intellectuals. It remains to be asked now what was made of them during the succeeding thousand years, by people operating within societies restructured by the new monotheistic faiths of Christianity and Islam. In the process, it may be possible to answer the larger question of whether they provided any continuity of traditions during this long period that opposed, challenged or compromised the norms of the dominant religions. Did they, to any extent, represent a ‘survival’ of ancient paganism?
[pp. 137-138]

In this post the focus will be on one specific issue raised in the excerpt above: Hutton’s claim that medieval “scholarly elites” (who studied and practiced Astrology, Alchemy, Kabbalah, Hermeticism, etc) inhabited and constituted “a different world”, religiously speaking, completely separate from “the common people”.

This “different world” paradigm is a direct extension of Hutton’s grotesque mischaracterization of late antique Pagans (or at least those who most stubbornly resisted conversion to Christianity and who are the most closely related to modern Pagans) as a “private and avant-garde” clique that was “very much the preserve of a self-conscious intellectual elite, detached from the masses.” Hutton wishes to portray the “golden thread”, as it is often called, of those who kept the ancient Mysteries alive throughout the persecutions of the Middle Ages, as an isolated “elite”, hermetically, if you will, sealed off from any connection with “the masses”, that is, disconnected from from the vast bulk of their fellow human beings. In other words, Hutton wishes to portray this vital connection between modern an ancient Paganism as nothing more than the furtive hobby of well-heeled antiquarians and aficionados, rather than as a living spiritual tradition. This characterization plays a central role in Hutton’s schizophrenic narrative of how Paganism didn’t really survive, even though it actually did.

Is there any basis for this narrative positing an unbridgeable chasm between “elites” and “the masses”? Lets take a closer look.

2. On the arbitrary sociological compartmentalization of ancient Paganism
Patricius Aurelius was a Roman citizen in the North African town of Thagaste during the fourth century AD. According to historian Peter Brown, Patricius “was a poor man, a tenuis municeps, a burgess of slender means,” and his son, Augustine, grew up “in a hard competitive world, among proud and impoverished gentlefolk.” Fortunately, there was a way up and out: “A classical education was one of the only passports to success for such men … His early life will be overshadowed by the sacrifices his father made to give him this vital education.” In fact, even once Augustine’s father had been able to send his son to be educated in the “university town” of Madaura, this education had to be interrupted “for one disastrous year”, during which time Patricius was unable to send Augustine any money, and the young man had to scrape by on his own. But it all paid off. By the age of 31, Augustine was a professor of rhetoric and had gained acceptance, and a growing admiration, in all the right circles. Sixteen centuries later he is known to the world as “Augustine of Hippo”, or simply “Saint Augustine.” (See Brown’s excellent biography Augustine of Hippo, especially pages 7-10, for the basic outlines of Augustine’s early life.)

Augustine lived at a time when Christianity was the official religion of the Roman state, the largest and most powerful political entity on planet earth at the time. In the early centuries of its existence, however, Christianity had lurked tenuously at the margins of Roman society, and Christians who were well educated, or even poorly educated, were extremely rare exceptions. What evidence there is tells us that Christianity in the centuries prior to Constantine only slowly evolved from being completely unknown by those who could read and write, to being silently ignored, to being silently shunned to, finally, being openly acknowledged by way of mockery and ridicule. Over the same period, a small number of Christian intellectuals slowly developed an “apologetic” literature of their own, which consisted largely of variations on the theme of requests to be taken seriously. And to be taken seriously in Roman society required being able to express oneself in the language of rhetoric, philosophy and classical literature.

But those Christian elites who engaged in early apologetics did not speak on behalf of some separate Christianity walled off from the unwashed, ignorant, superstitious masses who made up the vast bulk of the faithful. Although they attempted to express the beliefs and practices of Christianity in a language completely incomprehensible to nearly all of their fellow Christians, nevertheless we do not speak as if there were two completely different Christianities inhabiting two “different worlds.”

And yet it is quite common to find the religiosity of Pagan intellectuals being characterized as not only utterly separate from, but actively opposed to the “traditional” religious beliefs and practices of their fellow Pagans, the majority of whom (even among the rich, the powerful and the educated) either had little interest in philosophy and “high” literature, or were even openly hostile toward them.

The fact is that if one bothers to look at what, for examples, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the so-called “Middle” Platonists, and the mislabled “neo-” Platonists, had to say on religious subjects, one finds that they all, far from attacking traditional Pagan religion, were engaged in something very much like the same kind of “apologetic” enterprise that occupied Irenaeus, Lactantius, and so forth.

Not only did the great Pagan philosophers and writers explicate and defend traditional religion, they also practiced it (just as Christian philosophers both “apologized” for and practiced the same religion as their fellow Christians). For there were not separate temples dedicated to Gods and Goddesses only worshipped by “the elites”. Nor were there separate festivals and holidays, one set for the elites, the other for the commoners. In fact, Pagan cults tended to cut across, and even to obliterate, such social divisions.

Christians have tried to have it both ways. Ancient Pagan intellectuals, they insist, couldn’t possibly, I mean not really, I mean how could they, believe in all that nonsense about Gods and Goddesses and so forth! I mean look at those silly myths! Look at those ridiculous superstitions! Philosophers and other smart Pagans might have gone through the motions, just to get along, but they obviously did not believe any that nonsense. But naturally these same Christians see no difficulty in highly educated and highly intelligent people, such as Augustine, Aquinas, and so forth, believing in all the obscene bullshit that one finds in the Old and New Testaments, not to mention the demented teachings of the Church that surpass even what is found in their “scriptures”! Here we have two interlocking circular arguments. The coupled premises are that Paganism is patently irrational and Christianity is perfectly reasonable, therefore intelligent people can’t really believe in Paganism, whereas they can, indeed should, believe in Christianity.

An early example of this standard Christian trope is to be found in the writings of Augustine himself, who, in Book VIII of his Against the Pagans, posits a threefold division of Pagan theology: (1) the “fabulous” theology of Pagan myths, “which displays the crimes of the Gods”, (2) “the civil, that is, urban theology” of the official cults of a given polis, which “manifests the criminal desires of the Gods”, and (3) “natural theology”, of which Augustine asserts, “it is not with ordinary men, but with philosophers that we must confer concerning the theology which they call natural.”

3. Was late antique Paganism “detached from the masses” and “very much the preserve of a self-conscious intellectual elite”?
Here is how Garth Fowden talks about the social milieu of late antique Hermeticism (from his The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind):

“It is time, at long last, to take up Casaubon’s cue, and ask who were the men and women who hid behind the name of Hermes Trismegitus, and how their search for God was articulated in everyday experience. Not, it must be said from the outset, that there can be any easy or even very specific answers, when they have to be sought for the most part between the lines of philosophical texts. Even as an approach to the late pagan mind, our search will have its limitations. Hermetism was only one of a number of non-elite currents of thought which drew on Greek philosophy; and anyway it is easy to over-estimate how non-elite it was …. Even so, my conclusions touch on broader areas of society than did those which emerged from my earlier investigations of the circles of Plotinus and his successors …. [M]y treatment of the movement’s historical milieu represents, I hope, a useful step forward in the wider sociological analysis of late paganism – a subject whose neglect is now slowly being overcome.” [p. xxiv]

And here is Fowden’s description of how the ancient God Thoth gradually transformed into the Egyptian Hermes:

“… [T]o understand the genesis of the Egyptian Hermes is to take a first step into the historical milieu of the Hermetica. Thoth was among the most diverse and popular of all the Egyptian Gods. Like many of his colleagues he was an accumulation, rather than a figure cast whole and unambiguously defined; he was a powerful national God who yet had certain specialties and local associations …. He presided over almost every aspect of the temple cults, law and the civil year, and in particular over the sacred rituals, texts and formulae, and the magic arts that were so closely related …. [H]e came to be regarded as the lord of knowledge, language and all science – as Understanding or Reason personified …. Esoteric wisdom was his special preserve, and he was called ‘the Mysterious’, ‘the Unknown’. His magical powers made him a doctor too …. Perhaps, though, it was to his role as guide of souls and judge of the dead that Thoth most owed his popularity with ordinary people. And he continued to inspire strong popular devotion throughout the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. His was an inseparable presence. And it is easy to see why foreign settlers in Egypt were tempted to try to establish some sort of link with him …. [T]he Greek settlers identified Thoth with their God Hermes. Like Thoth, the classical Greek Hermes was associated with the moon, medicine and the realm of the dead. Furthermore, both had a reputation for inventiveness and trickery, and both functioned as messengers of the Gods, which in Hermes’s case prepared him as well for his characteristic function in the Hellenistic period, as the logos or ‘word’, the interpreter of the divine will to mankind. Hermes Trismegistus, then, was the cosmopolitan, Hellenistic Hermes, Egyptianized through his assimilation to Thoth, and in fact known throughout the Roman world as ‘the Egyptian’ par excellence … a divinity who could deservedly could be place among the dei magni of the pagan pantheon that presided over the Roman world.”
[pp. 22-24]

Toward the end of Fowden’s book he engages in a prolonged comparison of Hermeticism with three other, related, late antique religious currents: Platonism, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism (pp. 186-195). It is important to note that Fowden characterizes all three of those movements as “intellectual and elitist,” even though one, Manichaeism, was an extremely successful religious movement that persisted for centuries and spread through much of Asia. The Gnostics, too, managed to attain something like the size and status of a mass movement that, at least for a while, was able to run with the big dogs alongside the major Christian sects. Therefore, at least in the hands of a social scientist who knows what he is talking about, “elite” explicitly does not mean “detached from the masses” in the way that Hutton loutishly insists. As for late antique Hermeticists, they were, according to Fowden, “literate but not (usually) learned …. [and] most late antique Platonists would, one suspects, have regarded the Hermetists as socially and culturally homespun.” [p. 193]

Two of the late antique religious movements discussed above, Hermeticism and Platonism, are separated “by less of a gap than has often been assumed.” [p. 134] That any clear bright line separated the two at all seems unlikely considering the fact that Iamblichus not only placed great emphasis on the Egyptian component of Theurgy, but he “specifically claims to have found the theurgical liberation of the soul from the bonds of fate described in Hermetic books.” [p. 134] Several pages later Fowden concedes that “Scholars have not found it easy to make sense of” the relationship between Platonic Theurgy and the Hermetic movement. [p. 138] A little later on he makes it clear that there are grounds for speaking of “theurgical Hermetica”. [p.141]

Hutton’s conception of an effete “late antique avant-garde” that was “detached from the masses” is clearly derivative of GW Bowersock’s “analysis” of the Emperor Julian. Bowersock had claimed, in his Julian the Apostate (first published in 1978), that his fellow Pagans were actually quite hostile to Julian’s Platonic Paganism, to the extent that Bowersock (who clearly despises Julian and Paganism generally, without possessing even the slightest understanding of either) epitomizes the death of Julian with these words: “The fanatic was gone, and there were few to regret him.” [pp.118-119]

Rowland Smith’s far more detailed and thoughtful treatment of Julian’s spirituality, Julian’s Gods: Religion and Philosophy in the Thought and Action of Julian the Apostate (1995), paints a quite different picture. Smith points out, among other things, that Julian’s Paganism was not at all limited to Theurgy, and that Julian’s philosophic leanings did not “put him hopelessly at odds with his subjects.” [pp. 47-48] Overall, Smith’s view is that Julian’s Paganism was conventional when it came to matters of piety, cult and tradition, and that the much of Julian’s philosophical interest was motivated by a desire to defend traditional polytheistic Paganism from the predations of “the creed making fishermen”. [See, in particular, Smith’s disussion of Julian’s Against the Galileans.]

4. Was Marsilio Ficino a member of the “elite”?
When Marsilio Ficino was still a boy he fell in love … with philosophy. For a time it was possible to indulge this youthful infatuation, but eventually it was necessary, due to “dire financial straits” (quotes are from Giovanni Corsi’s biography of Marsilio Ficino, written in 1506, seven years after its subject’s death) for more practical considerations to take precedence: it was time for him to learn some useful trade in order to earn a living. Marsilio’s father was a physician, and it was decided that the boy should put away his philosophy books and study medicine, which he reluctantly did.

Fortunately, though, Marsilio’s father was a very successful physician; successful enough, in fact, to be in the employ of the wealthy and powerful Medici family. Even more fortunately, Cosimo de’ Medici not only had a great love of philosophy, but also felt a passionate calling to support and propagate philosophy, and, even better, had the means to act on that noble aspiration. So when Cosimo discovered that his personal physician’s son had both a great aptitude and a burning desire for the study of philosophy, but that the father had felt compelled, because of economic considerations, to have the boy study medicine, the employer instructed his employee “to take especial care over Marsilio’s studies so that he should not go against his natural disposition.” Naturally, Cosimo added that money should be no object, and offered to personally “supply everything most generously.” Thus was set not only the course of one man’s life, but the course of all that has been praiseworthy in the subsequent intellectual and spiritual history of the West.

Was Marsilio Ficino one of the “elite”? Those who must earn a living by selling their own labor power in exchange for money (as opposed to living off inherited wealth, which is the hallmark of true hereditary aristocrats) are members of no social elite anywhere, except perhaps in some non-existent Marxist Workers’ Paradise. And access to education was no sign of “elitism” in Renaissance Florence, where half or more of all children received education, to the extent that not only the entire business class, but most of the artisans and craftsmen in their employ, were literate. In a word, Marsilio Ficino was solidly middle class. But Ficino was far better off than Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, who never enjoyed the secure benefits of long-term, stable employment, and who was forced by both economic hardships and ideological persecution to remain on the move throughout his life. Giordano Bruno, whose father was a soldier, faced similar difficulties (and ultimately far worse) as those that beset Agrippa. Then there is the case of Eliphas Levi, born 210 years after the death of Bruno, who lived out his life in grinding poverty, when he wasn’t in prison due to his religious ideas. These are some of the most important representatives of the “elite” of which Hutton speaks. (It is true, though, that some links in the “golden chain” were more fortunate in their choice of parents, such as Pico della Mirandola, who father was a Lord and a Count, and whose mother was the daughter of a Count.)

5. “A Europen-wide system of popular beliefs”
In her study, Witchcraft and the Inquisition in Venice, 1550-1650, Ruth Martin raises the question of “how the ‘popular’ aspects of witchcraft were influenced by the ‘learned’ during this period (and vice versa).” Her opinion is that “[t]here is clear evidence of a great deal of interpenetration of ‘popular’ and ‘learned’ beliefs throughout this period … but the actual mingling of these two strands, if they ever were entirely separate, seems to have taken place earlier [that is, prior to 1550] ….” [p. 225]

“Until more work is done on Venetian social history as a whole it will be hard to draw … conclusions …. Even so, it seems that witchcraft of one type or another held an interest for people from all levels of society …. Womens’ social standing ranged from the gentildonne who would often consult witches or even try the experiments themselves, through wives of retailers and craftsmen, to washerwomen, arsenal workers (making sails or ropes), the wives of boatmen, prostitutes, to some with no visible means of income at all. Witchcraft had in fact become the main craft of many, hence their titles: la Pirotta, la Caballada, l’Astrologo and la medegha.”
[p. 234]

“There was also a close degree of contact between the different classes of Venetian society. The rich and poor lived side by side and the flow of ideas and beliefs between them must have been considerable. As we have seen, the distinction between the ‘learned’ and the ‘popular’ elements of witchcraft beliefs in Venice was not always easy to define. This distinction has perhaps been overemphasized in the past in any case. Christina Larner’s recent work on Scottish witchcraft, for instance, has revealed a considerable degree of interpenetration between the so-called learned and popular beliefs. In Venice this sharing of beliefs by popular and learned elements of society was even closer.”
[p. 243]

“It is clear that Venetian witchcraft was by no means unique. Each category of witchcraft in Venice … paralleled what is known to have existed elsewhere in Europe during the period and, no doubt, outside this period as well ….

“Necromancy, or the practice of the learned tradition of magic, was current throughout a great part of Europe, and certainly throughout Italy during this period. Some records still survive for the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition which contain copies of certain processi, usually just the sentence and/or abjuration, which were forwarded to Rome from all over Italy. Necromantic exploits feature prominently in these records. The sentence of the 1580 Vicentine trial against Antonio de Franci, for instance, refers to the work of Pietro d’Abbano and to the Clavicula Salomonis being used used in the celebration of a mass as part of a love magic ceremony. There is little doubt that these and other books of magic like them circulated widely in Europe during this period as did the corrupted versions of traditions evident in many of the conjurations and divinatory experiments seen in Venice.

“At a different level of society other forms of witchcraft also were all part of what was presumably a Europen-wide system of popular beliefs. Mary O’Neil describes the same experiments, with some local modifications, being practiced in Modena. The Udine records, and those in Trinity College, Dublin, covering the whole of Italy contain references to similar practices. Indeed, whenever the available records provide us with a glimpse into traditional beliefs and activities, for instance those of the so-called ‘cunning folk’ in England, we see time and time again what were basically the same types of witchcraft as those observed in Venice.

“England is indeed the one country outside Italy to display the most obvious similarities with Venice as far as witchcraft practices are concerned …. [T]he nature of the records in each area enables us to see beyond the large trails, the epidemics of witch-hunting, to the day-to-day beliefs and attitudes of the population as a whole …. The Venetian records provide us … with a detailed picture of a way of life … [W]hat Venice shows us was, broadly speaking, the picture throughout most of Europe.”
[pp. 239-241]

The Old Religion: Getting Beyond the Noise

  1. Part One: Two Myths
  2. Part Two: “A very specific historical claim”
  3. Part Three: The Recantations of Ronald Hutton
  4. Part Four: “A Different World” (Recantations, Part Deux)
  5. Part Five: More on “A Different World” (Recantations, Part Trois)
  6. Part Six: Huttonian Triumphalism (Recantations, Part Quatre)
  7. Part Seven: The Recantations of Ronald Hutton, The Final Episode [parts 5, 6 & 7 are not done yet]
  8. Part Eight: 21st Century Pagans on the Old Religion
  9. Part Nine: Coeval With Time [part 9 is still to come]

>"Renaissance and Rebirth: Reincarnation in early modern Italian kabbalah" (Hutton & Reincarnation, Part Four)

“The interest of English-speaking intellectuals in reincarnation, however, was supercharged in the 1880s by the Theosophical movement led by Madame Blavatsky. Drawing directly on Hindu and Buddhist thought, once more, it made the doctrine both widely known and fashionable in the West, as it has been ever since.”
[From ‘Dion Fortune and Wicca’, a talk presented by Ronald Hutton at the 2009 Dion Fortune Seminar]

“The ideas of theosophy filtered through to large numbers of people who never joined the Society, encouraging them to seek an alternative from the apparent bonds of both traditional Christianity and of the new science in syncretic faiths and heterodox reinterpretations of Christ’s teachings, often infusing concepts taken from classical paganism. Indian ideas, however, remained a much greater source of inspiration. The two biggest achievements of Blavatsky’s movement were probably to make the notions of a single divine world soul, of which all life is a part, and of reincarnation, both widely known and widely held in the modern European and American worlds.”
[Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton, p. 20]

“Indeed, metempsychosis stood as a salient element in the Renaissance conceptualization of the human being, the universe, and the former’s place in regard to the latter. Under the rubric of this doctrine, which is known in variant forms with diverse subtleties of meaning by the English terms palingenesis, the transmigration of souls, rebirth, and reincarnation, and which is associated with the Hebrew locutions gilgul neshamot, ha’atakah, ‘ibbur, din b’nei halof, and sod ha-shelach, stand concepts and theories as diverse as its names ….

“This present study will focus on eight significant fifteenth century thinkers who discussed the idea of metempsychosis from with Jewish and humanist contexts. The first two scholars to be treated, Rabbi Michael ha-Cohen Balbo and Rabbi Moshe ha-Cohen Ashkenazi, were Jewish communal leaders at the ends of two opposing philosophical camps in the community of Candia on the Venetian controlled island of Crete ….

“The next two thinkers to be treated in this study, Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel and Rabbi Judah Hayyat, were prominent Spanish Jewish thinkers who both made their way to Italy after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 …. The next two thinkers who will be examined, Rabbi Elia Hayyim ben Binyamin of Genazzano and Rabbi Yohanan Alemanno, were born in Italy and were active in Tuscany ….

“The final two thinkers to be analyzed in this book were prominent Christian philosophers of the Italian Renaissance who fell under the influence of kabbalistic lore. Giovanni Pico dello Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino were two of the most influential and important Italian humanist philosophers of the fifteenth century, and an analysis of their thought concerning metempsychosis will help us to moor the idea in the wider cultural and philosophical context of the Italian Renaissance. Indeed, both Pico and Ficino discussed the idea at some length within their writings, and both seem to have lent it a degree of support. Nevertheless, the idea was in opposition to the standard sentiments of the Church, and both thinkers veiled their support of the doctrine of metempsychosis is allegory. Interestingly, Pico, who is widely known for his familiarity with kabbalistic lore, completely omits kabbalistic reference to metempsychosis and relies most heavily on Plotinus in the formulation of his own theories. In contradistinction, Ficino, who is not known for his reliance on kabbalah, invokes the kabbalistic tradition in regard to metempsychosis, oftentimes at points that go beyond mere allegory and venture into questions of veridicality ….”
[Renaissance and rebirth: reincarnation in early modern Italian kabbalah by Brian Ogren, Brill, 2009, pp. 2-5]

“After the Bahir normalized the concept of transmigration within Judaism and gave it credence by reading it into canonical texts, later generations of Jewish thinkers followed suit. In a standard interpretive process of arcanization, these thinkers read the enigmatic doctrine of metempsychosis back in to the classical canon of Judaism, including the bible itself. Through this process, thinkers would interpret biblical and other canonical texts as though they contained within themselves the secret doctrine of transmigration, seeking legitimacy for the doctrine from these very texts themselves …. In the original kabbalistic thought of Nahmanides [1194-1270], this idea was highly veiled, and in the words of Nahmanides himself, “The matter is a great secret from the secrets of the Torah concerning the generation of man, and it is seen by the eyes of those to whom God gave eyes to see.” In other words, it is a secret tradition that explains the human generations throughout the ages, and it cannot readily be revealed, but is left up to the understanding of those who are capable of understanding on their own accord. Nahmanides also perceived the doctrine to be the key to the entire book of Job. Nevertheless, in this case too, according to Nahmanides, the matter is highly secretive, should not be expounded, and can only be understood by the select few.

“After the generation of Nahmanides, perhaps due to a desire to unravel the mystery of the secret that enticed by means of its very secrecy, the topic of metempsychosis became more open for discussion amongst kabbalistic thinkers. Among these thinkers, the thirteenth century Isaac of Acco, who sought to synthesize several mystical strands and elements including Sufism, ecstatic kabbalah and theosophical thought, discussed the idea of metempsychosis in his influential work Sefer Me’irat Einayim. Most of the sections of Me’irat Einayim dealing with transmigration are based upon, and attempt to decode the mysteries of Nahmanides. Indeed, in the very first place in which Isaac of Acco discusses the idea, in relation to the death of Abel in the book of Genesis, he directly quotes Nahmanides: “The received secret concerning the matter of Abel is very great.” He proceeds, “Alas, I am properly writing a clear clarification for you, with the help of He who is good and who makes good; know that the secret of Abel is the secret of transmigration.” In a motif that is later to become prominent with kabbalistic thought, Abel’s is the first soul to be transmigrated, and eventually finds its way into the figure of Moses. Isaac of Acco expands upon the idea of metempsychosis in various other ways, and with this declaration and others, and this blatantly stated transmigrational reading of Nahmanides’ secret, he opens up the way for further exploration and inquiry into the matter.

“Around 1275, the same period in which Isaac of Acco was active, the Zohar made its appearance onto the scene of Jewish thought in Castile, Spain. Later to become the central text of kabbalah, the Zohar is in actuality not a single book, but an entire body of literature. Within the specific portion of this corpus known as ‘the body’ of the Zohar, which is fundamentally a running mystical midrashic commentary on the weekly portions of the Torah, the discussion concerning metempsychosis takes its fullest form in the commentary on the Torah portion Mishpatim, known as Sava d’Mishpatim. This section of the Zohar contains the discourse of Rav Yeiva Sava, and unassuming old man who appears to be a lowly donkey driver, but who in reality is a remarkable mystic. Rav Yeiva gives a rather elaborate homily concerning the soul, in which the theory of metempsychosis is the most developed of the Zohar ….”

“The fourteenth century Italian kabbalist Menahem Recanati based himself heavily on Zoharic literature and profusely expounded upon the idea of metempsychosis on his own accord …. [Recanati] offers a type of summary of the idea as it appears within prior kabbalistic sources, basing himself mainly upon the Bahir and upon the Zohar; in regard to the latter, he basis himself especially, though not exclusively, upon the Midrash ha-Ne’elam l’Ruth. Recanati proved to have had a profound effect upon the subsequent course of Italian kabbalah, which relied heavily upon his theories and his citations of the Zohar. Indeed, his works were a main source of Zoharic literature for those within the Italian milieu. Recanati also influenced the likes of David ibn Avi Zimra concerning transmigration, a figure who was the purported teacher of Isaac Luria. Without a doubt, Recanati’s reach was wide-ranging, both as a transmitter of previous texts and ideas and as an interpreter in his own right.”
[Brian Ogren, ibid, pp. 15-18]

“Fifteenth century Italy witnessed notable developments in notions of metempsychosis, partly due to a turn in philosophical psychology to more homocentric notions, partly due to an influx of texts, ideas and scholars and the meeting points of various cultures, and partly due to a struggle for the assertion of national and cultural identity. Many other factors were involved as well, such as the exotericization of previously esoteric modes of thought, and indeed, no single factor stands at the crux of the process of these developments. Rather, the picture remains as complex as the doctrine of metempsychosis itself. What is certain is that in the late fifteenth century Italy, the fluid doctrine of metempsychosis advanced to a position of theoretical prominence. Aided by the greater acceptance of both prior kabbalistic concepts and Neoplatonic thought, which were both esteemed elements of prisca theologia in Italian Renaissance Jewish and Christian camps alike, the doctrine of metempsychosis began to be taken very seriously, even by those outside of the strictly mystical camps. As such, by turning to this increasingly popular doctrine of individual continuity in all of its complexities, greater light can be shed upon the dynamics, complications and consequences of Italian Renaissance thought, both Jewish and Christian analogously, concerning the creation of man in the divine image and the resulting uniqeness of his distinctive soul.”
[Brian Ogren, ibid, p. 39]

About Brian Ogren, author of Renaissance and Rebirth (from Brill website):
Brian Ogren, Ph.D. (2008) in Jewish Thought, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, teaches Jewish Thought and mysticism at the Hebrew University and at other institutions in Israel. He has published several articles on philosophy and Jewish Thought.

About the book Renaissance and Rebirth (also from Brill):
Metempsychosis was a prominent element in Renaissance conceptualizations of the human being, the universe, and the place of the human person in the universe. A variety of concepts emerged in debates about metempsychosis: human to human reincarnation, human to vegetal, human to animal, and human to angelic transmigration. As a complex and changing doctrine, metempsychosis gives us a well-placed window for viewing the complex and dynamic contours of Jewish thought in late fifteenth century Italy; as such, it enables us to evaluate Jewish thought in relation to non-Jewish Italian developments. This book addresses the problematic question of the roles and achievements of Jews who lived in Italy in the development of Renaissance culture in its Jewish and its Christian dimensions.

Ronald Hutton & Reincarnation:

  1. Part One: Dion Fortune, Ronald Hutton, Wicca & Reincarnation
  2. Part Two: Ronald Hutton, Tertullian, John Italos, Anna Comnena & Reincarnation
  3. Part Three: Ronald Hutton, Reincarnation & the Renaissance
  4. Part Four: “Renaissance & Rebirth: Reincarnation in early modern Italian kabbalah”
  5. Part Five: Ronald Hutton,Vergil, Ovid & GradeSaver.Com
  6. Part Six: Ronald Hutton, Voltaire, and Metempsychosis
  7. Part Seven: Erotic Metempsychosis

>Ronald Hutton, Reincarnation, and the Renaissance

“As for reincarnation … it is not a western idea at all, though some confusion has been created among English-reading occultists by the American mystic Edgar Cayce….”

[From “Dion Fortune and Wicca”, a talk presented by Ronald Hutton to the 2009 Dion Fortune Seminar]

“Defenders of Plato [during the Renaissance] maintained that Plato’s belief in individual immortality and in the creation of the world by a divine Demiurge made his philosophy more easily reconciled with Christianity, but critics noted the difficulties posed by Plato’s belief in the transmigration of souls and by the fact that the creation described in the Timaeus was not a creation ex nihilo but rather from preexisting matter.”
[Natural Philosophy by Ann Blair, which is Chp. 17 of The Cambridge History of Science, Vol. 3 (2006). The quote is taken from p. 374. In this and all quotes below, emphasis in bold has been added.]

“To counter such arguments [in favor of Platonism], the Byzantine scholar and fanatical Aristotelian, George of Trebizond, in 1458 wrote A Comparison of the Philosophers Aristotle and Plato …. The rise of Platonism, in George’s view, was a greater threat to western civilization than the advance of the Turks, not least because Plato’s philosophy, in striking contrast to Aristotle’s, was completely incompatible with Christianity. Plato’s doctrine of immortality, George contended, was undermined by his belief in the pre-existence and transmigration of souls; and in the Timaeus he did not describe a creation ‘out of nothing’, as in Christian theology, since it is clear that the ‘receptacle’ was already in being.”
[The legacy of ancient philosophy by Jill Kraye, which is Chp. 12 in The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy (2003). The quote is from p. 333.]

The most renowned of the early [pre-Socratic] Greek philosophers, however, was Pythagoras … In addition to the biography [of Pythagoras] in Diogenes Laertius, there were various works on Pythagoras by Iamblichus, which some humanists certainly read — Ficino even made a Latin translation, though it never got into print … and a Neo-Pythagorean treatise ascribed to Timaeus of Locri, the principle speaker in Plato’s Timaeus, carried sufficient weight to accompany the dialogue in the Greek editions of Plato published in Aldus in 1513 and Estienne in 1578.

“It was this close connection between Pythagoreanism and Platonism, underscored in many Neoplatonic works, which gave Pythagoras a special significance for Renaissance Platonists from Ficino to Patrizi. Pythagoras, for them, was the philosopher who bequeathed to Plato the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, among the best advertisements for Christian Platonism — though this did not prevent them from using him as a convenient fall guy for Plato’s embarrassing belief in the transmigration of souls.”
[Jill Kraye, ibid, pp. 341-342]

“Plato’s philosophy … also contained elements profoundly troubling to the larger Christian culture of the early Renaissance. It is true that Plato had (arguably) held something like a Christian doctrine of creation, and he had undoubtedly believed in the immortality of the soul. But increassing familiarity with the dialogues would disclose other doctrines less easy to reconcile with orthodoxy. Though Plato had believed in immortality, he had also apparently believed in the preexistence and transmigration of souls. A determined Christianizer could, studying the account of creation in the Timaeus, identify the demiurge with Christ and the Forms with Ideas in the mind of God. But it was difficult to know what to do with the “receptacle”, the chaotic matter which was explicitly stated (52D) to have existed from all eternity, in direct contradiction of the Christian ex nihilo.”
[Plato in the Italian Renaissance, Vol. 1 by James Hankins, pp. 10-11]

“This leads to the third group of charges against Plato: that his theological views were incompatible with Christian truth. The humanists, quoting a famous passage in Augustine’s De civitate Dei, had argued that Plato’s belief in individual immortality and creation made his theology closer to Christianity than Aristotle’s. Plato’s critics replied that, whatever his merits as a theologian, they were outweighed by his defects. They attacked his heterodox views on the pre-existence and transmigration of souls. They noted that, even if Plato had believed in creation, he had not believed in creation ex nihilo; in the Timaeus it seemed that the ‘receptacle’ (or ‘prime matter’, as it was called by Renaissance interpreters) was already in being at the moment of creation.”
[Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy, entry for “Platonism, Renaissance”, p. 442]

To the above I will just add three brief footnotes:

(1) One of the charges against John Italos that was not mentioned by Anna Comnena, was that Italos had rejected the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo in favor of the Pagan view that the material out of which the Cosmos is fashioned has existed for all eternity.

(2) In Witches, Druids and King Arthur, Ronald Hutton actually makes several references James Hankins’ work on Platonism in the Renaissance.

(3) I apologize for the repetitive nature of these selections. The point, however, is to demonstrate that this stuff is not difficult to find, at least not so long as one actually looks for it.

Ronald Hutton & Reincarnation:

  1. Part One: Dion Fortune, Ronald Hutton, Wicca & Reincarnation
  2. Part Two: Ronald Hutton, Tertullian, John Italos, Anna Comnena & Reincarnation
  3. Part Three: Ronald Hutton, Reincarnation & the Renaissance
  4. Part Four: “Renaissance & Rebirth: Reincarnation in early modern Italian kabbalah”
  5. Part Five: Ronald Hutton,Vergil, Ovid & GradeSaver.Com
  6. Part Six: Ronald Hutton, Voltaire, and Metempsychosis
  7. Part Seven: Erotic Metempsychosis

>Renaissance Italy: "Paganism Everywhere"


In Italy … the tendency was strong toward everything ancient, whether in art of in books. Whatever was heathenish in painting, in sculpture, in pottery, in books, was welcomed, admired, treasured. More than all his contemporaries, Lorenzo de Medici fostered this taste.

The furor swept into the church. Scarcely a vestige or semblance of Christianity remained in it. Essentially the people were heathen amid all the splendor. “Italy was the darkest spot in all Christendom,” remarks one in speaking of that period.

This inclination backward and downward Savonarola clearly saw from the moment he entered Florence. The state of things sorely troubled him. Everywhere he protested against it. As soon as possible he meant to effect a reform, in every line of literature especially. No sooner was he prior of San Marco than he began the work.

Did his condemnation include all ancient literature?— Far from it. Few men were better versed in the classics than Savonarola. But the enthusiastic study of pagan authors and pagan art had corrupted the Christian faith, and displaced the Holy Scriptures. These, and not Greek fables, he believed to be the basis of all true education. Why should Livy and Thucydides engross the whole attention of students, and the historians of the Old Testament be neglected ? he would ask.

The study of the Old Testament was his delight, as has already been remarked. And when he would lead others into its rich fields, his words were spoken with thrilling effect. Often the telling of what he himself had found therein changed the plan and purpose of a human life. To too great an extent, perhaps, he attached a spiritual meaning to everything. But this faculty gave him an immense influence in teaching and preaching, as well as in quiet, earnest talks with friends. Thus, in urging the Florentines to shun intellectual idolatry, his prohibitions were strengthened and supported by text after text of Scripture. From every wandering path he brought them straight back to its lessons.

“Isaac,” he said, “commanded not to take a wife of the daughters of Canaan, warned Christians not to seek truth in heathen writings.” “The Jews, loathing manna in the wilderness, and sighing for the flesh-pots of Egypt, prefigured those who have the word of God but neglect it for the study of pagan philosophy.” To this symbolism he added the noble exhortation to “believe in the all-sufficiency of the word, and in the wisdom of Christ, who has left his precepts so clearly expressed that no human wisdom is required to explain them.” How contradictory is this last statement to the teaching of the papal church, which maintains that the common people cannot understand the Scriptures, and should not read them without explanation by the priests.

He exclaimed: “Go into all the schools of Florence, and you will find professors paid to teach logic and philosophy, the arts and sciences, but not one paid to undertake the teaching of Holy Scripture. Dost thou not perceive that faith is degraded by resting it on the profane sciences? Call to mind David going forth to meet Goliath, and, laying aside the armor of pagan study, arm thyself with a lively and simple faith, after the example of the apostles and martyrs.”

Prodigious was the evil effect of this exclusive cultivation of classical literature. All branches of education suffered from it. The standard of excellence in art was found in pagan models. Not only so, artists often selected their models from the most unworthy classes. “Madonnas, Magdalens, and saints were picked up anywhere, and under the artist’s transforming hand became holy, humble men and women, and even glorified saints.” Before such pictures the people paid homage. To Savonarola the thought of all this was torture. At the same time he realized that the mere putting away of impure things wouid not secure purity of heart. So, with all the energy of his soul, he implored his people to strive after inward cleanliness.

As he no doubt anticipated, loud voices were raised in opposition, and perhaps the most hostile were those of the priests, for some of them even refused absolutions to persons who attended the prior’s lectures. These things Savonarola well knew, and therefore looked for but little fruit of his labor in his own day. But from the youths and children who heard him, he hoped much. He delighted in filling their minds with his own healthy thoughts, and often tenderly urged them “to remember his words, and to see that they bore fruit when his voice should be heard no more.”

Sometimes he told them that in their hands might be placed the guidance and government of their country, the education of children yet unborn. Then, addressing the mothers, he entreated them “to restrain and guide their children as only mothers can. Now he admonished the fathers to secure to their sons the soundest education possible; to assure to them a knowledge of true Christianity, while they acquainted themselves with Virgil, Cicero, and Horace; thus would they acquire both eloquence and the truth.”

Great must have been Savonarola’s confidence that from his seed-sowing in the hearts of the youthful Florentines a rich harvest would be reaped, for at the close of one of these sermons, we hear him exclaim: “O Florence! deal with me as thou wilt. I have mounted the pulpit this day, to tell thee that thou wilt not destroy my work, because it is the work of Christ. Whether I live or die, the seed I have sown will not the less bear fruit. If my enemies are powerful enough to drive me from thy walls, I shall not be grieved. Some desert I shall find where I can take refuge with my Bible, and enjoy a repose which thy citizens shall not be able to disturb.”

Indeed, Savonarola’s career proved that with the children his influence was marvelous. Under his gentle, persuasive words and manner, the children of Florence, formerly rude and willful, yielded to his every request. They attended his preaching; joined most heartily with him in the devotional exercises; chanted the sacred songs and hymns which he himself had composed and adapted to music, and which, as he ardently hoped, would induce the older Florentines to discard the pernicious ballads provided by Lorenzo de Medici, to be-sung during the annual carnival.

Savonarola, the Florentine Martyr, by Emma Hildreth Adams, first published in 1890, from Chapter VIII: “In Italy — Paganism Everywhere”]