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

Category Archives: things byzantine

How To Look for Crypto-Pagans, 2.0

[This is an updated version of a post from 12/20/09: On How To Look For Medieval Pagans (Assuming You Actually Want To Find Them.)]

If we accept that there is room for doubt concerning the sincerity of Michael Psellos’ claims to be a good Christian, then what? (If you have no idea what I am talking about, you might want to look here.) Is there any way to resolve such doubts? And what about other possible cases of Byzantine crypto-Pagans, from Procopius (6th century) to Plethon (15th century)? And what of the even more tantalizing possibility of “dissident circles” of Byzantine Pagans (to borrow a phrase from Anthony Kaldellis, see below)?

Richard Popkin, in his seminal The History of Scepticism, addresses similar questions concerning the religious allegiance of the so-called libertins érudits. These were 17th century French intellectuals who are sometimes claimed to have been (or accused of having been, depending on one’s perspective) atheists. The intellectuals in question were all well known in their day, and they left behind voluminous writings. In addition to their own published writings we have impressions of them written by contemporaries and also private correspondences.

And yet despite a great wealth of evidence, including the direct testimony of the individuals in question who all wrote a great deal on the subjects of philosophy and religion in particular, nevertheless, to this day there is reasonable doubt about the true religious feelings and allegiances of les libertins érudits.

On the one hand, according to Perez Zagorin, in his Ways of Lying: Dissimulation, Persecution & Conformity in Early Modern Europe, “Nearly all modern writers have considered most of them [les libertins érudits] to be unbelievers.” [p. 325] This is generally assumed to be the most widely held opinion among those who care enough to have an opinion on the matter.

On the other hand, Richard Popkin (one of the leading modern scholars of scepticism), while acknowledging that his is a minority position, argues that “men like Naudé, La Mothe Le Vayer, and Gassendi [three prominent libertins] were sincere Christians (although, perhaps, not particularly fervent ones).” [p. 96 in The History of Scepticism] Popkin argues, moreover, that the scepticism advocated by these men was not intended to undermine Christianity at all, but rather to defend, and even to define, a kind of liberal Catholicism against dogmatic Protestantism.

More important than Popkin’s position on the religiosity of les libertins, however, is the methodological approach that he not only employs, but that he very helpfully spells out for us:

I would certainly agree that the fear of persecution, as Leo Strauss has taught us, affects the way people write. The fear of prosecution would obviously lead people with critical views about established religion to be cautious in how they presented their beliefs and who they presented them to What had happened to Bruno and Vanini, both burned at the stake, would make a esprit fort think many times about what might happen if certain views were enunciated to the wrong parties. So it is easy to conceive that some people were leading double or triple if not quadruple lives and that these people would seek protection from the powerful figures of church and state. At the same time, these people would follow something like the steps presented in Strauss’ book Persecution and the Art of Writing. They would write between the lines, they would make coded communications, or they would disguise their actual views while leaving people of similar attitude ways of finding their true meaning.

Considering the various disguises that people have, is it possible to really ascertain in any given case, what somebody actually believes? Besides the religious reasons people might have for disguising their true identities, we’ve learned over the last century from psychoanalysis and Freud that people are busy suppressing features of their real being. It may not really be possible to tell three hundred to four hundred years later what somebody believed if there is also a problem with knowing it right now. Nonetheless, we have to make judgements about this all the time in determining who we can trust, who we can believe, who we want as our leaders in an election, and who want as mates, and so on. In all these cases, in spite of the most intense research, we could still be deceived. Scandals occur all the time about people who turn out to be different from what we thought. Religious figures turn out to be living nonreligious lives, political figures turn out to be other than how they have represented themselves. We are often disillusioned as further evidence emerges. Yet, unless we are going to live our lives in complete isolation from one another, we have no choice but to try and make good guesses about people’s beliefs, real intentions, and real attitudes. In assessing people and their beliefs from the seventeenth century, we have less to go on, since we do not have eyewitness testimony that can be examined. We have documents, we have figures situated in a historical network, and we have a range of possible hypotheses as to how to evaluate the material. One has to examine what was said, to whom it was said, what contemporaries made of it, and what evidence has been uncovered since time passed.

I think the evidence concerning the libertins érudits is more compatible with some form of sincerity and some form of minimal Christian belief. The libertins érudits, who were very involved with the powers that were regulating expression in France at the time, never seemed to be worried, however, about the acceptability of their works. We have no evidence that the ecclesiastical or political powers were worried about their expressions. So I think it is hard to interpret their public statements as duplicitous without further evidence of their real intent. Nonetheless, we know, at least in Gassendi’s case, that the author did no publish some of his works because he knew that some similar ones had been censored or forbidden.
[pp. 88-89]

At this point, Popkin shifts his focus to individual libertinsand also to issues specific to purported atheists in 17th century France. A little later on, he returns to a more general discussion of how to discern the truth in the face of possible dissembling:

The long tradition of assuming that there must have been duplicity in the writings of the libertins érudits depends, it seems to me, on the supposition that no other explanation of their views can be offered. But, as I have tried to indicate, another possibility exists, namely that men like Naude, La Mothe Le Vaye, and Gassendi were sincere Christians (although, perhaps, not particularly fervent ones). In the absence of completely decisive evidence as to the real intentions of these men, why should assume the worst (or the best?), that they were engaged in a conspiracy against Christendom? The overwhelming number of their contemporaries found no signs of insincerity. And one of the basic sources of the suspicion of libertinage in each case has been the friendship with the others; Naude was a friend of La Mothe Le Vayer and Gassendi; Gassendi was a friend of Naude and La Mothe La Vayer; and so on. If we knew definitely (1) that at least one of these men was a genuine libertin trying to undermine Christendom, and (2) that the others accepted his friendship because of (1), then the argument of guilt by association might be significant. But since it is possible that each of the men in question were a sincere fideist, and quite probably that Gassendi was, then nothing is indicated by the fact that these men, all to some extent involved in the affairs of the Church or the Christian state, with similar avowed sceptical views and fideistic theologies, were close friends. (One might mention that they were all, apparently, intimates of Father Mersenne, who has not, to my knowledge, ever been accused libertinage.) If one considers the libertins érudits without any preconceptions as to their intent, can we decide positively either from their views, or their careers, or the circle of religious and irreligious figures within which they moved, whether they were the center of a campaign against Christianity or part of a sincere movement with the Counter-Reformation aimed at undermining Protestantism through the advocay of fideism?
[pp. 95-96]

Popkin has proposed no less than nine different criteria to be applied in cases of persons suspected of secretly holding beliefs at variance with what they have stated publicly. Four of these are very general, and he groups them together neatly (on p. 89) in a single sentence: “One has to examine what was said, to whom it was said, what contemporaries made of it, and what evidence has been uncovered since time passed.

(1) “what was said”
(2) “to whom it was said”
(3) “what contemporaries made of it”
(4) “what evidence has been uncovered since time passed”

The other five criteria ask more specific questions, and these are presented by Popkin less systematically, but in the course of the same argument:

(5) Alternative explanations that are consistent with an individual’s public statements must be given sufficient consideration. Such explanations are to be preferred unless there is strong evidence for dissembling. Such strong evidence would be positive answers to one or (preferably) more of the following questions. [p. 96]
(6) Did those in question “make coded communications, or … disguise their actual views while leaving people of similar attitude ways of finding their true message”? [p. 88]
(7) Do we know “definitely that at least one of these men was a genuine libertin trying to undermine Christendom”? [p. 96]
(8) In the case of such a person who can be clearly identified as a “genuine libertin” were there others who “accepted his friendship because of” this genuine libertinage? [p. 96]
(9) Is there “evidence that the ecclesiastical or political powers were worried about their [les libertins érudits’] expressions”? [p. 89] That is, is there actual evidence that those who are today suspected of dissembling were seriously suspected of it by those who knew them first-hand?

Although Popkin is focusing on a specific group of suspected atheists during the 17th century in France, the approach he describes appears, to me, to be directly applicable to the question of Michael Psellos’ religious identity, and that of suspected crypto-Pagans generally. Three things strike me as especially appealing about applying Popkin’s criteria to suspected Byzantine crypto-Pagans:

(i) Popkin these criteria in the course of arguing against the claim of that the libertins had engaged in dissimulation. If these criteria can be applied to motivate the opposite conclusion with respect to suspected Byzantine crypto-Pagans, the case is that much more convincing. That is to say, these are definitely not faux criteria cooked-up expressly to support the case for dissembling.
(ii) Popkin is addressing a different (but not altogether unrelated) issue of crypto-religiosity, therefore to the extent that it can be shown that these same criteria, originally intended to be applied to 17th century France, are applicable to cases of crypto-Paganism in Byzantium over a period stretching from the 6th to the 15th centuries, then a significant contribution has been made to the general problem of religious dissembling and crypto-religiosity.
(iii) Popkin’s criteria are consciously geared toward not just the question of individuals engaged in dissembling, but of a purported intellectual movement engaged in a collective, conscious and coordinated exercise in dissimulation.

In the (not too distant??) future I hope (!) to systematically apply these nine criteria to the cases of three different (but perhaps not unconnected?) “dissident circles” of putative Byzantine crypto-Pagans:

5th and 6th centuries, including:
John Lydus (490 – c. 570)
Procopius (c. 500 – c. 565)

11th and 12th centuries, including
Michael Psellos (c. 1017 – c. 1080)
John Italos (younger contemporary of Psellos)

14th and 15th centuries, including
George Gemistos Plethon (c. 1355 – c. 1453)
Juvenal (executed c. 1450) and the “Pagan underground” in Mistra

Before ending this post I will, as promised, briefly mention Anthony Kaldellis’ work on anti-Christian (or at least “non-Christian”) “dissident circles” in the first of the three periods listed above. The phrase itself comes from a 2004 paper of Kaldellis’ published in Florilegium: “Identifying dissident circles in sixth-century Byzantium: the friendship of Prokopios and Ioannes Lydos”. (That article can be downloaded in pdf format from here.) Therein, Kaldellis inquires into the identity of the intended “audience” of Prokopios’ “Secret History”, for, as Kalldellis puts it, “obviously someone must have read the work, or at least owned and copied it, between 551 [when it was written] and the tenth century [when it is mentioned in the Souda]. More specifically, Prokopios must have had some readers in mind when he wrote it, men who he knew were as hostile to the regime as he was himself. It would not have been difficult to find them. Justinian was one of the most hated rulers in history ….”

A little later on, Kaldellis posits two likely suspects: the diehard Pagan Platonist philosopher Simplicius and Ioannes Lydos, who publicly professed to be a Christian. The article in question focuses on Lydos, while Kaldellis discusses the case of Simplicius in his subsequently published book-length study Procopius of Caesarea: tyranny, history, and philosophy at the end of antiquity. I hope to return to this fascinating topic of who Prokopios’ possible audience/co-conspirators might have been, but for now I will quote from Kaldellis’ conclusion: “The Secret History offers us the opportunity to link the chief writers of the age, to uncover the loose and fragile web of dissidence that bound historians, lawyers and jurists, professors and bureaucrats, to the last philosophers of antiquity.”

Kaldellis also has another highly relevant paper with the self-explanatory title “The Religion of Ioannes Lydos,” published in 2003 (also available in pdf format at the page linked to above). A quote from that paper provides a fitting conclusion to this post:

In the eastern empire philosophical alternatives to Christianity continued to flourish well into the sixth century. Proklos and his students defined the shape of the Platonic tradition for the next 1300 years, through Psellos, Plethon, Bessarion, and Ficino. In the earlier part of his life, at least, Lydos could have found an extensive circle of men who remained loyal to the older tradition, including Agapios, Zosimos, Damakios and his students, and the prefect Phokas. There were no doubt others unknown to us, the targets of Justinian’s laws against feigned Christianity. The most cultured men of the age, including the jurist Tribonianos and the historian Prokopios, have been suspected of belonging to this group and and should now be classified as non-Christians. So too were the historians Agathias of Myrina and Hesychios of Miletos, born in the 520s and 530s. There was a pagan intelligentsia in the sixth-century empire and much of it originated or carried on in the tradition of the centers of Greek philosophy, Athens and the western coast of Asia Minor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When it comes to magical practices Psellos is wholly engrossed by his material and is eager to turn the slightest hint into a theory with multilple adaptations. Whether in this task he was guided by Proclus we cannot know. What is certain, however, is that the sheer amount of space that he devotes to the magical aspect of the Oracles betrays a considerable bias in this direction.
[p. 246]
Forsaking Christ to Follow Plato (Or, Was Michael Psellos a Christian?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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]

>"the public dances of women, which may do so much harm and mischief"

An excerpt from A History of Byzantium by Timothy E. Gregory, 2 ed., 2010, Wiley:

It is clear that some practices derived from paganism continued to survive into the Byzantine period. Some of these apparently were connected with ancient festivals of the gods Pan (the so-called Bota) and Dionysos (the Brumalia). These festivals were no longer closely associated with religion, but rather were opportunities for dancing, drinking, and general carousing – much, perhaps, like the modern Mardi Gras. The bishops assembled for the Council in Trullo were shocked by such behavior and one of the Canons (decrees) condemned the festivals, but also provides us with important evidence of the kind of behavior that was apparently still going on, well into the Byzantine Empire:

“The so-called Calends, and what are called Bota and Brumalia, and the full assembly which takes place on the first of March, we wish to be abolished from the life of the faithful. And also the public dances of women, which may do so much harm and mischief. Moreover we drive away from the life of Christians the dances given in the names of those falsely called gods by the Greeks whether of men or women, and which are preformed after an ancient and un-Christian fashion; decreeing that no man from this time forth shall be dressed as a woman, nor any woman in the garb suitable to men. Nor shall he assume comic, satyric, or tragic masks; nor may men invoke the name of the execrable Bacchus when they squeeze out the wine in the presses; nor when pouring out wine into jars [to cause a laugh], practicing in ignorance and vanity the things which proceed from the deceit of insanity. Therefore those who in the future attempt any of these things which are written, having obtained knowledge of them, if they be clerics we order them to be deposed, and if laymen to be cut off.”
[p. 174]

Here are two excerpts from The Council of Trullo (691-692): A Study Relating to Paganism, Heresy, and the Invasions by Frank R. Trombley, published in Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1978. The full article is viewable at eScholarship.Org here. Following those two excerpts there is also an overview of some other “Pagan practices” prohibited by the Trullo Canons that Trombley (who is also the author of the magnificent two volume Hellenic Religion and Christianization) discusses in his article:

The survival of pagan cult practices among Christians alarmed imperial and ecclesiastical authorities, it seems, partly because the empire still had a highly visible, but not very large pagan population. Apostasy was an ever present danger. Very little information survives in the sources about the continuation of pagan cults in Anatolia and Greece after the mid-sixth century. It will be recalled that in 542 John of Ephesus [c.507 – c.586], with the assistance of Deuterius, the metropolitan of Caria, undertook the catechization of the pagans of western Anatolia (the regions of Asia, Caria, Lydia, and Phrygia). John himself penetrated the mountainous country near Tralles, and convinced many idol-worshipers to embrace Christianity. He directed these activities from a monastery at D’RYR’, and at one time entered the rough mountain area where a celebrated pagan temple, containing fifteen hundred idols, existed. The conversion of these populous regions was accomplished by the foundation of more than one hundred churches and monasteries. The maintenance of these institutions was necessary to prevent the apostasy of the vast new congregation. The population of the regions evangelized by John practiced the enthusiastic cult of Cybele …. The strength of paganism in these areas, even after John’s missionary work, is attested by the persistence of [the cult of Cybele] in Caria well into the eighth century ….

Pagan groups persisted in Greece as well, although the exact character of their cult is not attested. Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus reports in De Administrando Imperio that the city of Maina in the Peloponnese was inhabited by a non-Slavic population. The people referred to themselves as ‘Hellenes’ and gave out that in ancient times they had been idolators in the fashion of the Greeks of old. They accepted conversion during the reign of Basil I (867-886). [For more on the Hellenes of Maina, see the excerpt from J.B. Bury in section 3 of this post, below.]
[pp. 4-5]

The Sixty-first Canon describes a different type of paganism, one not unique to Graeco-Roman culture, yet referred to with the term hellenika. In times of cataclysm, such as the invasions of the seventh century, fortune tellers and seers do a windfall business. The Canon catalogues several types of diviners and charlatans. Diviners (mantai) of the usual sort, who read palms and dishes, are recorded, including the so-called hecatantarchoi, old men who claimed to be divine, and convinced the simple folk of this by displaying bears and other other animals, and then making them do tricks. Soothsayers went about making pronouncements regarding fate (tyche), destiny (heimarmene), and genealogy (genealogia) (the prediction of the future by analysis of the circumstances of birth, including the position of the heavenly bodies), which this Canon refers to as the ‘nonsense of error.’ Several other types of diviners foretold events after gazing at the shapes of clouds at sunset, and ‘magicians’ (geteutai), who invited themselves into the houses of Christian women by singing psalms, muttering the names of the theotokos and martyrs, and wearing amulets and charms. It is recorded that the purveyors of amulets (phylakterioi) were doing a good business.

The Sixtieth Canon reflects another aspect of the pagan subculture. Certain persons, it is reported, imitated the manners of the possessed. Like the soothsayers and diviners, they probably did this for private gain. Women practiced this, if Balsamon’s conjecture is correct, in oracular fashion resembling that of the priestesses of Delphi. Since the pagan deities were regarded as demons, persons who feigned possession had, by the injunction of this Canon, to undergo the same discipline of exorcism as those actually possessed.
[p. 6]

Other Pagan practices
specifically forbidden by the Canons enacted at the Council of Trullo (in addition to those named above) included (as described by Trombley):

  • Gaming with dice. (50th Canon)
  • Mime shows. (51st Canon)
  • Commemorating the new moon (numeniai) by “erecting a pyre in front of one’s home or workshop and leaping over it.” (65th Canon)
  • Law students were forbidden to practice various Pagan customs (hellinika ethe), and this specifically included attending the theater or horse races, or wearing “unusual or bizarre clothing”. (71st Canon)
  • According to the 71st Canon, law students were also forbidden to study “the sciences” (ta mathemata).
  • Men were forbidden to visit bath houses with women. (77th Canon)
  • Curses and oaths in the names of Pagan Gods (horkoi hellnikoi). (94th Canon)
  • The wearing of seductive hair styles. (96th Canon)
  • “Paintings that bewitch the sense of sight, whether communicated on tablets or in any other way, which are destructive to reason, and move it toward the fueling of shameful passions.” (100th Canon)


An excerpt from History of the Eastern Empire from the Fall of Irene to the Accession of Basil: A.D. 802-867 by J.B. Bury, first published in 1912:

It is interesting to note that on the promontory of Taenaron in Laconia a small Hellenic community survived, little touched by the political and social changes which had transformed the Hellenistic into the Byzantine world. Surrounded by Slavs, these Hellenes lived in the fortress of Maina, and in the days of Theophilus [Emperor from 829-842] and his son [Michael III, ruled from 842-867] still worshipped the old gods of Greece. But the days of this pagan community were numbered; the Olympians were soon to be driven from their last recess. Before the end of the century the Mainotes were baptized [under Basil I].
[p. 381 in the 2008 Cosimo Classics edition]