others may philosophize about that; it was spontaneous with me."
This ongoing series, "Forsaking Christ To Follow Plato", is dedicated to addressing the many questions surrounding the religious identity of the 11th century Byzantine philosopher, Imperial advisor, esotericist, antiquarian, and all-around world-class polymath Michael Psellos. (Links to the first four installments of this series can be found at the bottom of this post.) The view from thirty thousand feet can be summarized by the following bullet points:
- 1. Psellos himself insisted repeatedly that he was a Christian.
- 2. Many (probably most) modern-day Byzantists concur that Psellos was a Christian.
- 3. A great many of Psellos' contemporaries, however, repeatedly questioned the sincerity and orthodoxy of Psellos' Christianity and even accused him of being a "Hellene", that is, a Pagan apostate.
- 4. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Psellos' own writings provide ample justification for the suspicions voiced by his contemporaries.
- 5. Despite any "scholarly consensus" that may or may not exist to the contrary, respected voices among modern-day Byzantinists have seriously questioned Psellos' Christianity, and some have gone so far as to declare unambiguously that he was not a Christian. Three Byzantinists who have raised the most serious doubts about Psellos' Christianity are Nigel Guy Wilson, Anthony Kaldellis, and Niketas Siniossoglou.
Two English translations of Psellos' "Encomium" have recently been published, and this is especially noteworthy considering the paucity of English translations of Psellos' work. One translation is by Anthony Kaldellis (who has already figured prominently in previous posts in this series) as part of his book Mothers and Sons, Fathers and Daughters: The Byzantine Family of Michael Psellos, and the other is by Jeffrey Walker, Professor and Chair of the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas (link). This latter translation is used here since it is readily available in full online (see link below).
First I excerpt a large part of Walker's Introduction, and this is followed by Walker's English translation of the closing five sections (27-31) of Psellos' "Encomium". The notes [in square brackets] are taken from both Walker and Kaldellis, while the numbers (in parentheses) found in Walker's Introduction refer (usually) to sections of the Encomium itself. The interested reader is strongly encouraged to directly consult both Walker's and Kaldellis' editions.
Michael Psellos: the Encomium of His Mother, translation with introduction and notes by Jeffrey Walker, University of Texas (This is an online version of the translation published in Advances in the History of Rhetoric vol. 8 , 239-313.)
From the Introduction by Jeffrey Walker:
The extraordinary eleventh-century scholar, teacher, rhetor, and courtier Michael Psellos is one of the most important intellectual figures in the 1,000-year history of Byzantium, but he is scarcely known to students and scholars of rhetoric today. The chief reason is that almost none of his many surviving works have been translated into English (or any other modern language). The only important work by Psellos available in English is the Chronographia — an acknowledged masterpiece of Byzantine historiography, and in itself a rhetorical and literary masterpiece as well — in which he portrays fourteen Byzantine emperors from Basil II to Michael VII Doukas (976-1078), a series of (after Basil) mostly inept fools who brought the empire to disaster, and most of whom he had personally known or served. In the course of that work he also sketches and implicitly justifies his own intellectual and pedagogical project, which was to reunite rhetoric and philosophy, and to revive the whole spectrum of secular (pagan Greek) learning, as a basis for wise political deliberation and the better guidance of the state. Famously, he claims to have singlehandedly revived the study of Plato and Aristotle — a statement that, while surely an exaggeration, probably also bears an element of truth . . . .
This speech is also important — in the second place — because in it Psellos makes a case for his own life and career as a “Byzantine sophist.” I have argued this point at length elsewhere, and will not belabor it here, except to note that a key to understanding this speech is the concept of the “figured problem,” as discussed in “Hermogenes” On Invention (4.13), a text with which any well-educated Byzantine would have been familiar, and which Psellos himself summarized in a verse synopsis for the young Michael Doukas. The “figured problem,” in essence, is a discourse (or, for “Hermogenes,” a declamation exercise) in which the ostensible subject-matter of the speech serves as a foil for something else, primarily by way of irony (saying the opposite of what one means), indirection (making arguments that lead to different conclusions than the point supposedly being proved), or allusion (tacitly referring to things that cannot be openly mentioned, or that one lacks the freedom of speech to mention). All these methods of “figured” argument are at work in Psellos’ Encomium of His Mother. While praising her character and deeds — her striking personal beauty and her spiritual and intellectual excellence, her supervision of the education that enabled him to rise from obscurity to the imperial circle, and her “saintly” later life and swerve into monasticism — Psellos implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) defends his inability to approve the Christian asceticism that in his view destroyed her, and which he characterizes as “apostasy,” while also defending his unswerving devotion to secular learning (and the secular, civic life it informs) as a staying-true to his mother’s original gift to him, and even as a truer form of devotion to God. Most of the lengthy peroration is a “confession” of this continuing devotion, from which, as he says, “I will never be torn away” (27). As a defense of his life and career, Psellos’ Encomium of His Mother can be placed in a series of such defenses — or defenses of rhetoric — beginning at least with Isocrates’ Antidosis and continuing through such late-antique discourses as Aelius Aristides’ Defense of Rhetoric against Plato.
The speech is valuable in other ways as well. It provides some glimpses into what the experience of the late-classical paideia was like, at least for a precocious Byzantine schoolboy like the young Michael Psellos. It also provides some glimpses into Byzantine family life, and, perhaps most importantly, it gives us a rare portrait of the life of a highly intelligent, intellectually ambitious Byzantine woman from outside the imperial family, or for that matter below the upper ranks of the Constantinopolitan aristocracy. As Psellos tells us, his mother — her name was Theodota — came from a respectable but completely undistinguished family (2), while his father’s family “had once been raised to senatorial rank, but had not prospered after that” (4). In a letter Psellos says “I cannot put on airs, and must treat silversmiths as equals.” Apparently the family had fallen from its former patrician rank to the social level of guild craftsmen, or what might be called the Constantinopolitan bourgeoisie. The story of Theodota, then, is at least in part the story of what happens to an intellectually gifted Byzantine woman in such circumstances: she is not permitted to go to school, but she educates herself; and the only kind of learning that a woman in her position may pursue without attracting blame is religious learning. This, abetted by an emotional crisis at the death of her daughter, leads her into an extreme asceticism — derived, most probably, from Symeon the New Theologian, who had at that time become the object of a cult — and that asceticism, eventually, brings her to what looks like death by anorexia. (It is this Symeonesque asceticism in particular that Psellos wishes to portray as an “apostasy.”) Theodota may look to us like a “Shakespeare’s Sister” kind of figure, though she is hardly as passive a victim as that. Notably, Psellos says that she taught him the intellectual equality of women with men (25) . . . .
The secular paideia inherited from late antiquity, with its pagan roots and (mostly) pagan literary canon, was conventionally referred to in Byzantium as the “external learning” (ho thurathen logos, literally “the learning from outside the door”), or the “external wisdom,” which was conventionally placed in opposition to “our doctrine” or “the better philosophy,” meaning Christian doctrine. Since for centuries the secular paideia had remained essential to training functionaries for the imperial bureaucracy, it had survived in a more or less cooperative symbiosis with Christian thought, and this arrangement worked well as long as the “external wisdom” was clearly the subordinate member of the pair (and was indulged in only as much as was necessary, i.e. for useful technical skills). But the secular humanist revival over which Psellos was presiding increased the possibilities for tension. Psellos was compelled repeatedly to defend himself on charges of paganism, or of being more devoted to Plato than to Christ. His successor as “Consul of the Philosophers,” the less circumspect (and less rhetorically skilled) John Italos, would be tried and anathematized by Alexios I for the crime of submitting the Christian mysteries to Aristotelian analysis. This climate of increasing tension, then, is an essential part of the rhetorical situation in which Psellos composes the Encomium of His Mother, and defends his way of life and his devotion to philosophy and rhetoric . . . .
From Walker's Translation of Psellos' "Encomium":
So I am persuaded, O mother, that even in death you have taken careful thought for your son, and I have grasped this fact by many sure signs. But as for me, since I oppose your way of righteousness and resist its rule, I do not at all practice the philosophy dear to you. Rather, some destiny I do not know has seized me from the beginning and has fastened me to my books, and I will never be torn away from them.
For the art of discourse holds me in its spell, and I have been exceedingly in love with its management of cases and its flowering beauty, and like the bees I fly to the meadows of reasoned eloquence: and some of the flowers I cut, and from others I drink the nectar of a phrase, and in my beehive I make honey. The turning of the globe does not permit me to be still, but compels me to inquire what is its motion, whence it originates, what is its nature, what are its cycles, how is it ordered, how is it divided, how large are the segments of its lines, what are their angles, their joint ascensions, equivalencies and obliquities, what are their magnitudes and of what nature, how are their movements produced and how many of them there are, and whether all things are made from fire or have some other nature. I am moved as well by the science of bodies at rest, and I cannot fail to reflect upon the extension of magnitude, or to observe the exactness of the proof, how the starting axioms derive directly from the mind but the premises derive directly from the axioms without intermediate terms, how everything is established and how specified, what is the proportional, what is the incommensurate, what is the rational magnitude, what is the disproportional, what is the commensurate, what sorts of lengths and powers there are, and the rotation of the solid. Nor does the first and immaterial domain permit me to be idle. I have marveled at its relation to all things, and of all things to it, its finiteness and infinitude, and how from these two all other things derive, and how the idea, the soul, and nature are reducible to numbers, one according to innate conception, one according to what coincides with reason, and one according to what corresponds to the natural order. And whence comes natural reason and what is perfect in it, and what is the symmetrical, the ordered, the beautiful, the self-sufficient, the equal, the identical, the pure, the simple, the paradigm, the origin? What is the generation of living beings, what is the spiritual, what are the natural properties of numbers up to ten, how is a triad produced, what is the procession, and how does it extend through all of the divine becoming?
Music too attracts me with its ineffable charms, and in a certain way I have grown up with it and made it my own. I have no superficial understanding of this art: I have studied not only its types of diction, measures, and playing techniques, but I have inquired as well into its values, its effects, its occasions, and the essence of its rhythms, and which of them are correct and which are not, and what is the source of their beauty, and which is connate with the life of the soul.
I do not only inquire into the various types of knowledge, but ask as well whether some rushing streams may flow from them. And the transcendent wisdom — which governs the others, gives their basic principles, interprets their axioms, is purely immaterial, and is placed after physics — I do not merely investigate, but also honor and worship with awe, whether one wishes to call this art that oversees the logical process dialectic, or wisdom simply, since the more recent sages have reassigned the name of dialectic to a branch of logic.
I admire syllogistic demonstrations also, not only those that deduce a conclusion from what is inherent in the starting premises, but also those that produce inductive inferences. I study sophisms, just enough not to be taken in by them, and not to draw the conclusion that knowledge and wisdom are the same, or that wise men are knowledgeable by virtue of their knowledge while knowledgeable men are wise by virtue of their wisdom, or that man alone is an animal if man alone laughs and all that laugh are animals. These things attract me, and still more the comprehension of occult matters: what is providence and destiny and whether the hereafter already is extant, what is unmoved, what moves itself, and whether the soul receives into itself anything from its birth, or nothing at all.
I wonder also about the common living being, whether it retains the knowledges of the soul forever, and whether immortality is an essential property of the soul, or comes over it in some other way. Mostly I have philosophized that it is indeed immortal, from its similarity to the Deity, from its non-admission of contraries, from its return, and from its movement and illumination in dreams. And I ask as well whether a bond exists between the soul and the body (which the first has entered as a secondary form of life), what is its mixture with the irrational, what is its ultimate end in the resurrection, what is its judgment, what is its fate, whence does it come to be, what is it, what can it do, how many functions does it perform, what is its mixture with the mind, what is its return, and in sum (lest I enumerate each point about it), I have been entirely preoccupied by these questions.
But I do not limit my curiosity to that either. Rather, when I hear the astrologers speak as if doing violence to some of the stars and all but offering sacrifices to others, I wonder where this difference in treatment has arisen, or how one’s birth is governed and determined according to the stars’ configuration. I have rejected, then, these ideas as neither evident nor true, and I have profited enough from dabbling in this art to bring a case against it on the basis of my own knowledge. I have denied that anyone’s life is molded and remolded by the stars, and I have discredited the character-types and the fixed signs, and the entrances and lodgings of the heavenly bodies. I grant the power of truly predicting the future neither to constellations nor conjunctions of the stars, nor to the voices of birds, nor to their flights, cries, or movements, nor to meaningless echoes, nor to alien doctrines, nor to anything that Hellenic thought [Ho Ellênikos Logos, "that is, the pagan Greek thought of antiquity" (from Walker's note #261)] was led astray by. But if I should study the precision of the canons of the astronomical sphere, this rather is the love of beauty and the love of wisdom combined; and if I should inquire about the origins and fountainheads of things, this too is desirable to contemplative souls.
I know the sacred art and what it is, and I have crowned it in wool and sent it away. I have carefully studied the secret powers attributed to stones and herbs, and have utterly rejected their superstitious use. Amulets I detest, both diamond and coral, and I laugh at sacred stone objects dropped from heaven. I consider it monstrous to proclaim an alteration in the order of the universe, of all that has been beautifully arranged by the providence of God. I vehemently denounce propitiations, purifications, mystic symbols, naming-formulas, movements said to be god-inspired, the ethereal maintainer [Tôi aitheriôi sunochei,. See, for example, sunocheô, “travel together in a chariot,” and the charioteer in Plato’s myth of the soul in Phaedrus.], the empyrean, the leonine fountain [a reference to Aklepios, the "lion-holder"], the first father [the "first father" is found in the Chaldean Oracles], the second, the iunxes [another reference to the Chaldean Oracles], the guides of the universe [Tois kosmagois: a type of Chaldean divinity], Hecate [the central Deity of the Chaldean Oracles], the Hecatesians, the undergirding [Tôi hupezôkoti, “undergirding, belt, membrane” (according to Walker's note #269): the boundary separating the Celestial from the terrestrial in Chaldean theology], and things that are ridiculous even to name. But if I would inquire about eternity and time, nature, contemplation, and the One, and perception and memory and the mixing and blending of opposites, and whether the objects of thought are established in the mind or are external to it, it seems to me that I am necessarily engaged in a philosophical activity.
I should, then, devote myself to God alone, especially now that I have renounced the world, but my vocation, the soul’s uncontrollable love for all knowledge, and the constraint imposed upon me by my students have persuaded me to dwell upon these things as well. And you would know, O mother, just what I wish to say, as you are pure soul. But my speech is addressed to others: I speak not only to men, but also to God and the angels. I am acquainted with all Hellenic books, and (I might add) the barbarian ones as well, all those that Orpheus, Zoroaster, or Ammon the Egyptian wrote, and all that the Parmenideses and Empedocleses composed in verse — for I pass by the Platos and the Aristotles and all their contemporaries and successors who labored at philosophical discourses — and they have written on subjects both effable and ineffable, and I have read all of their theology and their treatises on nature, and have admired the depth of their thought, and wondered at the exceedingly careful development of their argumentation. But if I have observed anything contrary to our doctrine, even if explained with an exacting demonstration, and even if covered with every wisdom and grace, I have rejected it as utter nonsense and absurdity. I pay no mind to their better doctrines, but my soul’s ambition is moved at least to know what their doctrines were.
For there are indeed unfailing treasuries of wisdom with us, depths of doctrine and beauties of thought, should anyone want them, and a spontaneous blossoming of style without excessive artifice. And one might ask, what is divine revelation, and what is intelligible and what is conceivable? What is the stream that flows from the wellspring of the universe, and what is the true substance drawn from the One? What is the name of God and what is signified by it, and what is the whole and what a part, and which should be attributed to God, or neither? What things are intelligible and which are conceivable, and which are theological symbols, and what is each one? What is the wheel, what is electrum, what is pure gold, the vapor, the mounting of the cloud, the throne, the river? What is the flying scythe, the axe, the tree, the stump, the cedar, the oak? What are the angels’ names? What are the rituals for us? What is communion, anointment, the lamp, the stairway, the pillars, the uplifting love and essence of the good and beautiful from which all things arise and toward which they ascend? What is the perfumed bride, the door, the net, the heat, the sun, the vineyard, the vigil, and what is apostasy from these things?
And if someone dismisses these things as overly lofty and celestial and goes to our shoemakers or tentmakers, or the weavers of nets, and wishes to take careful note of everything they say, then he will know that other things strike the many like what is projected on the senses by the sun — but with these things the light is dim and obscure, like faint starlight, which only the mind can see and sensation cannot not bring near, for each of them brims with mystery and secret initiation [This is a reference to Socrates' "metaphor of the Sun" found in Book VI of Plato's Republic, 507b-509c. Also see Plotinus' Fourth Ennead, tractate three, paragraph eleven].
For not one of them is inaccessible to contemplation, not even the humblest thing, not the upper room furnished for a supper, not the jug of water, not the closing of doors and the apparition of the Word. Even the disciple Didymus is subject to contemplation, as he is doubtful, and so too are the pair that run together, and those that run ahead. Neither is the fish-hook without interpretation, nor the fish drawn up from the sea, nor the gold stater, nor the number of the fish. But neither are the names of the apostles without significance, nor the Forerunner’s girdle and garment of camel-hair — but, to sum it all up in brief, I would say that the whole evangelical discourse has been endowed with esoteric meaning that the many can scarcely perceive. With these things, then, I shall anoint my head and wash my soul, and I shall have no need of Hellenic purifications.
But since I have been allotted the sort of life that does not suffice for itself alone, but is placed at others’ disposal and permits them to draw for themselves from something like a winebowl overflowing with many streams, for that reason I have also taken up secular learning,[Walker's note #287: "Sophias tês thurathen: literally 'wisdom from outside the door,' secular or pagan wisdom/philosophy."] not only the parts that are theoretical, but also those that descend to history and poetry. And in fact I speak to some of my students about poems, and about Homer and Menander and Archilochus, and Orpheus and Musaeus, and as many female poets as there were, Sibyls and Sappho the songstress, Theano, and the wise Egyptian woman. [Kaldellis states matter of factly that "the wise Egyptian woman" is none other than "the Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia", while Walker concedes only that it is "possibly Hypatia". ]
Many also press me earnestly about the words in these poets, asking what is akratisma, what is ariston, what is hesperisma, what is dorpis and hê en tois deipnois isaia, which ones composed in verse and which employed the style of prose, what is dancing according to Homer, and generally what is the heroic life according to that poet? And then again what is opsophagia, what is poluteleia, what is the use of fruit from the upper branches of fruit-trees, what is the earliest event of the Trojan War, what are nectar, ambrosia, and propoma, what is the “underground geranium,” and what is genesis that takes place in the earth? I won’t mention how many topics they propose to me — who is Alexis, and Menander, and Krobylos the parasite, and Klesaphos, and whether there is anyone else said to be good at poetry.
Many compel me also to discuss the care of bodies, and they demand that I supply them with a treatment and a diagnosis. On account of these concerns I have given the whole art a philosophical examination, so that I need not approach each case individually. And not only with words but with their hands they bring me back to the Italian wisdom — I do not mean the Pythagorean philosophy, but simply that public-spirited and materialistic art, that has something to say about private and public lawsuits, laborious procedural demonstrations, slavery and freedom, legal and illegal marriages and the gifts and benefits involved, the gradations of family-relations and contracts both military and civil, what a pledge is, what force a guarantee has in a legal proceeding, when a horse kicks or a cow butts or a dog bites what responsibility the master bears for the harm they have done, what the legally binding rule is, why an alias is invented, the distribution of an inheritance, the ancestor and the descendant, the legitimate child and the illegitimate, what statute applies in each case, what an assault is and how many parts it has, and how much time is set aside for the trying of each action. Then having brought me up against these matters, just as in philosophy, they exact accounts of what has been legislated.
Nor do they omit inquiring about the measurement of the world, how large the uninhabited parts are, and how large the inhabited fifth part is. So I must describe for them the geography of the whole earth, correct or fill in the deficiencies in their geographic table, and discuss whatever Apelles, Bion, and Eratosthenes accurately wrote about these matters in their treatises. I have not stopped interpreting the myths of the Hellenes allegorically for them, and in this way too they pull me about and tear me apart, being in love with my tongue and my soul, as if it possesses a knowledge more uncommonly rich than that of others.
O mother, this life of mine has been purified, and the other life waits in store, that life toward which I have long been hastening. Although I am still caught with many hooks, with the emperor holding me tight, contending with my superiors about me, and prevailing through his extraordinary dignity, his splendor, and his preeminence among and above all others, how many both now and earlier have partaken of the same learning, or attained communion with it! For if both the monastic habit and cloak seem incompatible in some way to both the emperor and those around him, this has not been only my innovation, and it seems most sweet somehow not only to those in public life, but also to most of those who live apart from it. And if my ethos has fitted itself to differing occasions, others may philosophize about that; it was spontaneous with me. Be gracious from on high to these wanderings of mine, and moreover divert and restore me to the ascent to God, and grant me a pure delight in the evangelical life, the life concealed in God. And then, when you have permitted me to drink from the stream of virtue as much of that river as is available to me and as much as I can hold, and after I have been transformed, accept me and fill me, with your freedom of speech before God and your prayers, from the first and divine fountain of thought.
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: Anthony Kaldellis' The Argument of Psellos' Chronographia
- Part Four: Michael Psellos and the Chaldean Oracles
- Part Five: Michael Psellos and "Ho Ellênikos Logos" (this is the post you are reading right now)