Monday 1 December 2014

Mystras and Gemistos - Plethon

George Gemistos: Mystras’ Gift to the Italian Renaissance

Famous among a small elite in his own time, Georgos Gemistos, The Peloponnese’s  greatest Byzantine philosopher, was known in his lifetime by the soubriquet “Plethon”  a pun on his own name as well as a compliment to his hero Plato. (1)

A likeness of Plethon in a fresco in Florence

His greatest claim to fame is having introduced the works of Plato at a seminal moment of the Italian Renaissance during a series of lectures at the palace of Cosimo de’ Medici in 1438-9 when he had accompanied the Byzantine emperor as a lay adviser to the council of Ferrera-Florence.  At that time, Plato was virtually unknown in the west (2) so Plethon had a golden opportunity to introduce his favourite and expound upon his greatness. His words did not fall on deaf ears although the conclusions ultimately drawn by his listeners and those they influenced may have surprised him had he lived to see them.

Known for his rectitude and wide ranging knowledge, George Gemistos was born circa 1360 and was a private tutor by profession. He lived the last years of his long life in the relative safety of Mystras, and died in 1452, one year before the fall of Constantinople. Private tutors of his calibre were important in this turbulent era because the Byzantine universities were in decay or defunct and wealthy families had to resort to tutors for their children’s education. Even manuscripts were in short supply. Libraries everywhere had been decimated because of war and, especially after 1260, a chronic lack of money made it impossible or difficult to replace them.

A good number of intellectuals had come to Mystras because the small but cosmopolitan royal court there had a reputation for free thinking and was more secure than either Thessaloniki or Constantinople. Some may even have remained hopeful as the empire waned but I am not sure how.  Imagine:  their environment being inexorably overtaken by the Ottoman Juggernaut and them having to cling to the ever shrinking cultural entity that was the Byzantine way of life. Any thinking person would be inclined to reassessment under these circumstances, an Orthodox Christian in particular, because God was clearly abandoning the empire either as a result of out and out sin or some failure to understand and obey His message.

                                   The empire in 1000 -1100 AD                                            

The empire (in purple) in 1450

The situation affected people in many ways: some turned to the west and fled there; some contemplated the previously unthinkable – the reunion of the Orthodox and Roman church in order to secure aid. Others retreated into conservatism believing that if the empire fell the Great Church might be enslaved but could still endure and so save souls.  Others had, or came to have, more complicated views. Bad times are good times for ideas. George Gemistos opted to stay put in Mystras where he served the despot as a sometime adviser and president of the high court and tried through his study of Plato to make some sense of it all. He was a true Renaissance man in the sense that he went back to the past in order to find ideas and a framework of thought for the future.


Like all men in his time, his own work (above) and those of others were handwritten manuscripts. Gutenberg’s press was not in operation until 1450.


To understand Plethon (or attempt to) I had to clarify something to myself about the term ‘Renaissance Humanism’ because Plethon is said to have been so instrumental in its development. I thought I knew what it meant but I was not as clear about it as I thought. My own moment of insight came when I described someone as a secular humanist and a colleague scoffed “Why not just say humanist and be done with it?” and I realized that, although I had used the popular buzz word I, like her, had the idea that humanism from the get-go somehow either excluded God, or put him aside in one fashion or another. Although that may have been the ultimate outcome of Renaissance humanism for some as the study of humanities (especially after the ages of Voltaire and Darwin) became the norm, it was not an issue at the time. 

Thinkers in Plethon’s time were attempting to use human reason and logic to comprehend Christianity better, not to obliterate it. Plethon’s  admiration of Plato was in part because he believed that the conceptual framework of Plato’s thinking and his methods could illuminate Christianity more clearly and accurately than Aristotle’s, the current favourite of Orthodox thinkers such as his contemporary George Scolarios.

 In short, at the beginning at least, he championed Plato over Aristotle as the truer forerunner of Christianity.
This idea that Plato or Socrates among others were forerunners of Christianity became a popular idea after Plethon’s time (his own writings may have helped popularize it) and icons of ancient Greek philosophers like Plato above began appearing in the narthexes of Orthodox Churches in Greece –without halos but the implication was that they would be first in line for them at the Second Coming!

Plethon’s Problematic Premise

 Whatever his contribution to the future, Plethon was a man rooted in his own time too; he considered himself a good Orthodox Christian. His basic premises were in keeping with the times he lived in even if his preferred source was ancient.  Take for example the following from his funeral oration of Helen, the dowager empress:

Everyone who is not completely perverse must recognize that there is a God over all things, “a creator” and provider who is absolutely good.

The rather breathtaking assumption was agreed upon in pretty much the same way by Plato and the Orthodox Plethon. For both, this was a given.

And this  premise was the ‘rock’ upon which Plethon built his philosophy.  He goes on:

According to the above doctrine from Plato that the soul is immortal, it follows as Plato also said that “no one willingly renounces life and therefore the soul, which is the essential part of man, must continue to live even when the body is dead. If this were not so, then God would be responsible for something evil.  But, in fact, God is “not in reality the cause of all things but only of good things”

And from this perceived truth, his vision of reality was both logical and internally consistent. It allowed him to speak confidently of the universe: 

The universe remains permanently and immutably in its original form.

And so on. Such confident premises would not be taken seriously today in lay and scientific circles. I am reminded of the famous remark of the physicist Wolfgang Pauli who would dismiss theories he didn't like or were in effect unprovable by saying "It isn't even wrong." But that is not to denigrate Plethon who was doing the best he could with the resources at hand.

Scholarly Debate

Scholarship in this era could get nasty. Although Gemistos appears to have remained friendly with former students like Bessarion and Mark Eugenitos  (both bishops although on different sides of the fence over union with Rome) and many other fellow thinkers, he could hurl insults with the best of them,-insults that would make even a Republican ad man blush and would, I hope, be frowned upon in academia today.
Here are some comments to his rival and Aristotelian defender George Scolarios:

for along with your other faults, lying comes naturally to you. Even the text which reached me by clandestine means was incomplete but it was enough to display your ignorance.
It is superfluous to demonstrate everything, including what is self-evident to all philosophers – though not to you incapable as you are of achieving even the brains of a sophist.

It would be contemptible to take any notice of a man who has no shame in boasting of the influence of a wretched woman- and a little tart at that!

Well! And this from a man who was apparently popular and affable in his own social and family circle.    

Gemistos’ relationship with his rival Scolarios deteriorated over time – and this would have dramatic repercussions because Scolarios became the first Patriarch under the Ottoman occupation and as such his role became more conservative by definition: his task was to preserve Orthodoxy not to innovate. (After becoming Patriarch he appears to even have had second thoughts about his hero Aristotle because he had not been granted the ‘Divine revelation’).  Conversely, towards the end of his life, Gemistos became even more radical – or more willing to make his radical ideas public, especially in the area of politics.

He reveals himself as a nascent nationalist, contemplating the possible survival of a trimmed down Byzantine enclave in the Peloponnese with Mystras as its capital, based on ancient  Hellenistic ideals that might just be viable if the despot were as wise as a philosopher king and Christianity could be tweaked to fit.  In this he was a true revolutionary, especially given the Byzantine distaste for anything that smacked of Hellenism, a contemporary term for ‘paganism’. That he had the ear of the emperor and despot may have made him believe that his Laconian Utopia had a chance to succeed.(4)

His religious ideas were bound to get him into even more trouble with the Orthodox Church (or the Roman one for that matter). He had always believed that Christianity could be melded into Plato’s metaphysics and remain not just unscathed but stronger.

 But when he began calling God Zeus and the Sun a god (albeit a lesser one), Scolarios, and others, believed that Gemistos had gone through the Platonic looking glass and become an out and out heretic.(5)

The Book of Laws, very influenced by Plato’s Republic, was completed late in his life, and there he laid out in detail the rules for his brave new Byzantium.  Among other things he envisioned a rigid three class system with ‘helots’ (his word) the farmers and shepherds, a merchant class, and a ruling class which would include an army of citizens rather than mercenaries. Plethon knew only too well how mercenary armies had contributed to the destruction of the empire. Peasants would be allowed to own their own land, an improvement over the virtual serfdom in place at the time, the new state would aim at self sufficiency, and there would be no more monks – a class that he considered ‘drones’ and a drag on the economy. The ruling class would still be rich but not be allowed to live in excessive luxury and civil and religious administration would be intertwined for the greater good.  There would be public prayers three times a day. Punishments for evil doers (and in the case of sexual offenders for the victims too!!) might include death but were not to be ‘barbaric”. Interestingly there was an out for politicians. (How modern is that? In Greece there always seems to be one.)  If they committed a capital crime, their punishment could be mitigated because of their service to the state. 

Freedom? Well, according to the Book of Laws to be free was to always be subordinate to the necessity of Zeus- God.  Somehow all of these Utopian visions, no matter how sincere and well meant, end up sounding very scary….

The Upshot

Events took over. Constantinople fell and Gemistos died at 90 something leaving his unpublished Book of Laws in the hands of the despot’s wife. Sadly for Gemistos, she sent it to Scolarios who read it in horror and after labeling it as “the corrupt nonsense of Hellenes”, burned it so, he wrote,  to ‘preserve the good name’ of his rival thinker. All we have are a few chapters Gemistos had sent to others and the chapter headings which Scolarios himself preserved.

After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 and Mystras in 1460, there were no more Byzantine thinkers and the Great Church in captivity, not to mention the Greek people under the Ottomans, remained in medieval suspension – entirely missing the Renaissance that thinkers like Gemistos had helped to create.

Plethon’s Legacy

Well that is a tough one. In fact Plethon may be more famous for being famous than understood because no gloss on Mystras is considered complete without at least mentioning him, so every guide writer does just that – mentions him.

He was a complicated thinker and perhaps his mind was too complex for the thinking frameworks he had to work with. Some would call him inconsistent; I see an agile mind trying to break out of the straightjacket of contemporary thinking, choosing Plato as his method, and perhaps getting trapped in his hero’s logical framework as well.

He was a nationalist and a reformer in an age when most Greek thinkers were neither. He could certainly think outside of the box. Woodhouse called him both the last of the  Hellenes and the first of the modern Greeks, a complicated compliment but it fits. (6)

His ideas are more of a curiosity today than taken seriously. If some of them were a little crazy, many were not. And simply  because there is a written record of sorts, his life and the body of his extant work gives us a little insight into the thinking of a Byzantine intellectual at a pivotal point  in history – the death of Byzantium in the east  and the beginning of Renaissance humanism in the west.

Cosimo de Medici who had heard his lectures on the differences  between Plato and Aristotle, was apparently impressed, and he

created the  first Platonic Academy in Italy in 1460 (a dinner club -Socrates would have loved that!) with Marsilio Ficino as director of studies. This academy began almost immediately to spread the writings of Plato to a wider audience. Plato’s influence ultimately affected literature and art (Platonic love and myths for example), not to mention philosophy, more than religion or politics, but Plethon was not the first and certainly would not be the last thinker who would be surprised to know where his ideas had led. 

 He was revered by many. The Italian  Sigismondo Malatesta, when he was in Mystras in 1460  during a short  war against the Sultan, found Plethon’s grave, dug up his bones so they would not remain in Ottoman territory, and reburied them in the tomb below in Rimini with the following epitaph:

The remains of Gemistos the Byzantine, Prince of philosophers in his time, brought here and placed within by Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, son of Pandolfo, commander in the Peloponnesian war against the king of the Turks, on account of the great love of learned men which burned in him”

Nice, but I prefer the words written by his former pupil Basilios Bessarion, then a Roman Catholic Cardinal:

Georgos holds fast the earth with his body, the stars with his soul, most venerable temple of all kinds of wisdom”

Not such a bad legacy at all.


(1) Plethon (Πλήθων in Greek) had the advantage of both echoing the name Plato and also being a pun on Gemistos because both words mean “full”. He appears to have used this pseudonym later in life but not necessarily to disguise his work. Those who knew him seemed happy to use either name.

(2)  Plato’s works were not well known to westerners. His entire opus was not available at all until 1423 and then only to an elite few. Only in 1484 was a Latin edition of Plato’s complete works created.  It was 1578 before Plato’s works were published with the Greek and Latin side-by-side. 

(3) Whether Christianity was a form of neo Platonism or Plato a proto Christian is one of those chicken and egg things that make for a lot of scholarly dissertations.

(4)  It is hard to get a handle on Plethon because according to his writings he seems to have still been a determinist in the last years of his life as well as a radical reformer. This seems to be a contradiction he never quite resolved.

(5)  Just when Gemistos’ passion for the ‘Glory that was Greece” was ignited to the extent that he went beyond the Christian pale entirely is disputed. Some scholars think that he was sent to Mystras in the first place by the emperor Maunuel II in order to prevent him from being labeled a heretic earlier in his career. I suppose from the get go, Gemistos was skating on theological thin ice. In any case, the Laconian outpost would have suited his temperament and admiration of ancient Greece very well…

(6) My source here is C.M. Woodhouse’s Gemistos Plethon, The Last of the Hellenes (Oxford, Clarendon Press c 1986), a terrific book if you are up for it but not for the faint-hearted.












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