Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ronald Hutton, Tertullian, John Italos, Anna Comnena & the Transmigration of Souls (Hutton & Reincarnation, Part Two)

Tertullian Contra Pythagoras
Tertullian, in his De Anima, criticized the Pagan philosophical notion of "transmigration of souls" (for this is how the Greek metempsychosis is often rendered in English, while sometimes it is translated more prosaically as "reincarnation"). From Chapter XVIII of that work, "The Pythagorean Doctrine of Transmigration Sketched and Censured", through Chapter XXXV, "The Opinions of Carpocrates, Another Offset from the Pythagorean Dogmas, Stated and Confuted", Tertullian rails (Chapter XXXIII is even titled "The Judicial Retribution of These Migrations Refuted with Raillery"!) against the "inextricable embarrassment" of the "plainly false" notion "that Living Men are Formed from the Dead".

Along the way, Tertullian names, as advocates of "transmigration", in addition to Pythagoras: Plato, Albinus, Pherecydes, Empedocles, Hermes Trismegistus, Simon Magus, and Carpocrates. We could also add many more, such as Ovid, Vergil, Macrobius, Cicero, Plutarch, Salustius, Plotinus, Apuleius (or whoever was the author/translator of the Latin Aesclepius), and so forth.

But perhaps I've gotten ahead of myself. Since there are so many people who actually take Ronald Hutton seriously as an authority on Pagan history, I cannot necessarily assume that such people even know who Tertullian is. I suppose it is likely that they have heard the name "Tertullian" (just as Hutton has certainly heard the names Pythagoras, Plato, Ovid, etc), but it is unlikely (almost inconceivable) that they could have any idea of the man's place in history.

Tertullian has been referred to as "the father of Latin Christianity" (as he is called by Andrew J. Ekonomou in his Byzantine Rome and the Greek Popes on p. 22), and also as "the founder of Western theology" (as he is called by Justo L. González in his The Story of Christianity Volume I: The early church to the dawn of the Reformation on p. 77). His writings provide the first known use of the Latin theological term trinitas, and in addition he provides the oldest known attempt to "explain" trinitarianism. He also wrote of "original sin", although he died well over a century before Augustine was born. And it was Tertullian who first posed the rhetorical questions: "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Or the Academy with the Church?"

For more on Tertullian see the two works just cited by Ekonomou and Gonzales; the online collection of his writings at The Tertullian Project; the 2005 biography, Tertullian by Geoffrey D. Dunn; the 2003 biography, Tertullian: The First Theologian of the West by Eric Osborn; and Tertullian and the Church by David Ivan Rankin.

Anna Comnena Contra John Italos
The above, on Tertullian, is all given, at risk of beating a dead horse, to re-emphasize what was already shown in the first post in this series (Dion Fortune, Ronald Hutton, Wicca, & Reincarnation): namely, that reincarnation has been well established as a "western" idea for as long as there has been such a thing as western civilization.

Before turning to the Renaissance (which is where Part Three of this series will take up), I will now pause briefly in the 11th century to examine the fascinating case of John Italos, who was Michael Psellos' handpicked successor as Scholarch of the Platonic school of philosophy in Constantinople. (This was a "school" in the old, Pagan, sense of haeresis, and it was newly founded by Psellos, who asserted that the study of philosophy had fallen into utter neglect, and that it was up to him, singlehandedly, to revive it).

Italos was a foreigner in Byzantium, for his name simply means "John the Italian". Anna Comnena ( Άννα Κομνηνή, 1083–1153) states, in her celebrated Alexiad, that "His accent was what one would expect from a Latin youth who had come to our country and studied Greek thoroughly but without mastering our idiom; sometimes he mutilated syllables. Neither his defective pronunciation nor the clipping of sounds escaped the notice of most people and the better educated accused him of vulgarity." [The Alexiad, 2003 Penguin edition, translation by E.R.A. Sewter, p. 177]

The princess also informs us that Italos "occupied the Chair of General Philosophy [the Chair created by his mentor, Psellos] and it was to his lectures that the young men flocked. He elucidated the works of Proclus and Plato, the teachings of the philosophers Porphyry and Iamblichus, and above all the technical treatises of Aristotle."

But Anna Comnena approved of the philosophy taught by Italos even less than his attempts at speaking the Hellenic language, and she says of his students, "they acquired no accurate systematic knowledge of any kind: they played the role of dialectician with chaotic changes and frenzied metaphors, but they had no sound understanding. They propounded their theories, even at that time putting forward their ideas on metempsychosis in rather veiled terms and on certain other matters of a similar nature and almost as monstrous." [p. 178]

How could it come to pass that such "monstrous" ideas were being circulated in the city of Constantine, the seat of power of the ruling Christian Emperor, Anna Comnena's own father, Alexios I Komnenos (Ἀλέξιος Α' Κομνηνός, 1056-118)? The princess informs us, since we ask, "These events, you see, all took place before my father was raised to supreme power." And Comnena wastes no time in reassuring us that His Daddiness promptly set about putting things in order, just as soon as he had the "Supreme Power" to do so: "Noting that Italos was everywhere causing trouble and leading many astray, he referred the man for preliminary examination to the Sebastocrator Isaac, who was himself a great savant with high ideals. Isaac, satisfied that Italos was indeed a trouble-maker, publicly refuted him at this inquiry and later, on instructions from his brother (the emperor), committed him to appear before an ecclesiastical tribunal." [p. 179]

While awaiting trial, Italos was held as prisoner under the personal supervision of Eustratios Garidas, then Patriarch of Constantinople, during which time Italos, according to Comnena, "almost made Garidas his own dedicated disciple"! Fortunately for Garidas' soul, a mob was raised to storm the church where Italos was being held prisoner (for what good is a Christian church that does not have a dungeon in the basement?). And fortunately for Italos' bodily safety, he was able to find his way to the church roof and hide himself "in some hole" before the mob got it's hands on him.

Having just barely escaped the Christian lynch mob, Italos (after being coaxed down from the roof) was told that all would be forgiven if he would only shave his head, crawl on his knees begging forgiveness, and recite, before the congregation of the great church, the anathema pronounced upon him. Which he agreed to do.

After performing this public penance, however, Italos seems to have continued, at least in private, to philosophize in the same old Pagan manner as before. Once this was discovered he was formally excommunicated and sentenced to life imprisonment. His life was spared (and his excommunication lifted) only because he once again recanted, and this time, apparently, with feeling. Anna Comnena herself, good Christian that she was, softens her heart at the end of this narrative, and approvingly tells us that on his second try at a second chance, Italos "did indeed change his ideas about dogma and repented of his former errors." There were eleven specific "errors" charged to Italos, but Comnena only mentions three, and the first of these is (1) "transmigration of souls", with the other two being (2) "ridicule of sacred images of the saints", and (3) views on Plato's "theory of ideas" that were not sufficiently orthodox.

John Italos' trial for heresy took place in 1082. Nothing is heard from of of him again. But the Platonic school founded by his mentor, Michael Psellos, continued on for almost another five centuries. The last head of the school was George Gemistos Plethon.

In closing, two things must be forcefully emphasized:

(1) The reliability, or, more precisely, the objectivity, of the accounts given by Tertullian and Anna Comnena regarding metempsychosis and those who advocated it is of no concern here. Rather it is the subjective aspect of what they have to say that matters. They are both witnesses to the fact that reincarnation was well known to them, and also to the fact that the connection of metempsychosis to classical Greek philosophy, and to Plato and Pythagoras in particular, was accepted as being as obvious as the observation that Greeks speak Greek.

(2) Neither Tertullian nor Comnena rejected metempsychosis due to any consideration of its "foreignness" or its "easternness". Indeed, neither showed any indication that they thought of metempsychosis as, in any sense, foreign or eastern or Asiatic or insufficiently European or anything of the sort. Rather, they both condemned the "monstrous" theory of reincarnation for only one reason: it is a Pagan idea.

[That rather fetching portrait of Anna Comnena is from the cover art of the book Anna of Byzantium, a novel by Tracy Barrett.]

Ronald Hutton & Reincarnation:

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

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