Monday, June 11, 2012

Christopher Livanos on the 15th century resurgence of Paganism in Mistra

Christopher Livanos is an associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin. His paper, excerpted below, “Monotheists, Dualists and Pagans” appeared in The Byzantine World edited by Paul Stephenson (Routledge, 2010).

Livanos joins with many other contemporary scholars in identifying George Gemistos Plethon as a Pagan, and in identifying Mistra, where Plethon spent the last five decades of his life, as an important center of a "genuine but small resurgence of Paganism". See the bottom of this post for a selection of other contemporary sources supporting these same conclusions.

In my opinion, Livanos' analysis is not without serious defects, especially when it comes to the uses and abuses to which he subjects the terms "monotheist" and "polytheist", and, most specifically, his insistence on finding "monotheistic" tendencies not only in Plethon but also Plotinus and in Pagan Greek philosophers generally. Nevertheless, Livanos' discussion of contemporary sources is quite useful (if far from complete), as is his overview of the dispute between Plethon and his arch-enemy Scholarios.

The following excerpt is presented not as an endorsement of Livanos' views, but only to provide yet another example of contemporary scholarship supporting the contention that underground Paganism is an established fact of European history.

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The very final years of the Byzantine empire witnessed a genuine but small resurgence of Paganism in the circle of George Gemisthos Plethon of Mistra. The Peloponnese during the late Palaiologan period was also the site of a renewed interest in classical themes in visual art, so Plethon's turn to Paganism did not take place in a cultural vacuum. (30) It is not clear from his surviving work when Plethon abandoned the Christian faith and became a Pagan, but it seems likely that his conversion coincided roughly with the Council of Florence in 1438-9, which Plethon attended. Perhaps the failed attempt at union left him disillusioned with Christianity and in search of another belief system to guide the Greek people.

Plethon attempted to reconstruct the ancient religion of the Hellenes and incorporate into it the best features of other ancient belief systems, especially those of Persia. In addition to the philosophy of Plato, one of his major influences is the book of the Chaldean Oracles, which he believed were written by Zoroaster. (31) Kristeller has argued that what survives of Plethon's philosophy is a hatchet job, made to seem particularly offensive by the editing of Plethon's rival George Scholarios. (32) Kristeller's reading of Plethon is probably colored, however, by his expertise in western Renaissance philosophy. Renaissance humanists in the West commonly used deeply Pagan imagery, although in most cases it would be wrong to question the sincerity of their Christian beliefs. There was likewise a tradition of allegorical, Christianizing reading of seemingly secular, even Pagan, literature in Byzantium, so Kristeller is not without basis. The case that Plethon was indeed a Pagan who sought a revival of the ancient religion was put forward convincingly by C.M. Woodhouse. (33)

One of the most important studies of Plethon undertaken in the two decades since the publication of Woodhouse's book is Polymnia Athanassiadi's examination of Plethon's use of the Chaldean Oracles, which he attributed to Zoroaster. (34) Woodhouse concentrated on Plethon's antiquarianism. Athanassiadi builds upon the work that has been done on Plethon's debt to antiquity, the focus of her article is Plethon's formulation of 'a new spiritual way.' (35)

Although Plethon's Paganism, as Woodhouse demonstrates, was not allegorical, he was an important influence on the tradition of Christian humanist Platonism that flourished in Renaissance Italy, particularly in Florence. The 'Plato versus Aristotle' controversy that bitterly divided Renaissance humanists began in late Byzantium with the divide between followers of Plethon and Scholarios. George of Trebizond, a member of the Aristotelian camp, went so far as to declare Plato and Plethon two of the three most wicked men who ever lived, joining the ranks with none other than Muhammad. (36)

In part, what led Kristeller to suspect that Scholarios creatively edited Plethon to make the philosopher of Mistra's views seem less crude and more allegorical was probably a subtle monotheism underlying the complex belief system that Plethon devised. it is not, as I have attempted to show in this chapter, accurate to equate "Pagan" and "polytheist." However one may choose to define "Pagan," it must surely include Plotinus, whose philosophy was more monist than polytheist in any practical sense. What offended Scholarios so deeply was that Plethon rejected Jesus

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Christ. Compared to that, the number of Gods Plethon substituted in his place was probably less important in the patriarch's eyes.

True polytheism had since pre-Christian times been exceedingly rare or non-existent in complex learned theology of the sort that interested Plethon. It has been stated that Scholarios distorted Plethon's views in order to enhance the polytheistic aspects of Plethon's beliefs and obscure an allegorical and ore orthodox meaning. There is no reason to suppose that Scholarios misunderstood Plethon's monotheism or that he deliberately hid it. What would have mattered to Scholarios in formulating the opinion that Plethon had lapsed into Hellenism was not the question of whether or not he believed ultimately in one God or in many but the fact that Plethon's God was the One of Porphyry and Plotinus rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

One point in common between Scholarios and Plethon is that both men turned to late antiquity in their search for religious inspiration to guide the Greek people. (37) The two men lived at a time when Greeks and Latins alike were becoming increasingly drawn to the study of the first 500 years of the Christian era. We can look to Byzantium in the mid-fifteenth century to find important influences on several Renaissance humanist traditions, including Protestantism. In one of his letters to a churchman named Joseph, Scholarios wrote that the situation of the Greeks after the Turkish conquest had some similarities to that of the early Church before Constantine. He urged a relaxation of canonical rigor, arguing that the canons did not exist before the Church won the empire and did not need to be enforced in quite the same way now that the Christian empire was no more. Though Plethon did not live to see the conquest of Constantinople, having died in 1450, it was clear to him (as it was to everyone) that the empire was in danger. Like Scholarios, he looked to the time before Constantine for guidance, though he turned to Paganism rather than to primitive Christianity.

Scholarios' religious beliefs were entirely Orthodox, and there is in his work no sense of the reformist zeal that would shake the foundations of western Europe some forty-five years after his death, but it is still significant to the ecclesiastical historian that Scholarios drew a clear distinction between pre- and post-Constantinian Christianity and recognized that church practice was dynamic, evolving and able to change to meet the needs of a changing world. For purposes of this chapter, he is perhaps the villain who prevents us from seeing the Pagan ideas of Plethon in their fullest form, yet, for someone whose motivation was supposedly to censor the apostate and preserve only enough to tell us how horribly Plethon had allowed the devil to delude him, he preserved a tremendous amount of Plethon's Book of the Laws.

One of the most significant contributions of scholarship on Plethon over the past ten years has been to show the diversity of his philosophical influences and his apparent desire to establish a syncretistic, universal religion. Woodhouse was concerned with Plethon's intellectual debt to Greek antiquity. The debt cannot be overstated, but Athanassiadi is right to emphasize what she calls Plethon's "cosmopolitanism." (38) Stausberg (see footnote ) discusses the significance of Zarathustra in Plethon's religious writings in great depth, and Athanassiadi traces possible patterns of influence from the Iranian scholar Sohrawardi through the Jewish esoteric teacher Elissaeus to Plethon. If late Byzantine Paganism was a very minor religion in terms of the number of adherents, it was nonetheless vibrant and internationally focussed, and the influence it had on the Italian Renaissance through Florentine Platonism and the

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works of humanist scholars such as Marsilio Ficino marks it as a spiritual and intellectual tradition worthy of our attention and respect.

30. Mouriki 1983, "Revival Themes with Elements of Daily Life in Two Palaeologan Frescoes Depicting the Baptism", Harvard Ukrainian Studies Vol. 7, pp. 458-488
31. Stausberg 1998, Faszination Zarathustra: pp.35-923
32. Kristeller 1979, Renaissance Thought And Its Sources: p. 156
33. Woodhouse 1986, George Gemistos Plethon: the last of the Hellenes
34. Athanassiadi 2002, "Byzantine Commentators on the Chaldean Oracles: Psellos and Plethon," in Byzantine Philosophy and Its Ancient Sources, ed. Katerina Ierodiakonou
35. Athanassiadi 2002, p. 251
36. quoted in Woodhouse 1986, 367-8
37. Livanos 2006, Greek Tradition and Latin Influence in the Work of George Scholarios: 89-94
38. Athanassiadi 2002: 251
39. Woodhouse 1986: 357-79

Related posts from this blog:

The Heathen-Minded Humanists: On The Revolutionary Pagan Conspiracy of 1468
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 looks at the other Roman Academy and its head, Cardinal Bessarion.

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)


Anonymous said...



Katy Anders said...

I always end up finding so many books I'll never be able to get around to reading when I'm on your site!

I'm going to this time, though, if only to balance out the other stuff.

I need to.

It's always amazed me that there has never been a widescale reaction AGAINST linear, guilt-ridden monotheism. You would think that a more organic paganism would really flourish at some point, but the biggest reaction against the Western monotheisms appears to be a sort of tepid non-belief.

Anyway, a book on the Byzantine world sounds cool. It always seemed to get left out of the history courses I took in school. Besides, I like the cover, and if it's a series of articles, I can read them in short bursts.

Discursive rambling comment complete...

Apuleius Platonicus said...

It's a very pricy book. I would actually recommend reading John Julius Norwich's history of Byzantium instead. It is one of the most engrossing histories I've ever read, and it is full of great battle scenes. Either that or Steven Runciman's wonderful little book "The Fall of Constantinople".

Katy Anders said...

Cool. I shall have a look to see which is easiest to find.

I need the variety right now.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

You might like the Runciman book better. He was a world-class Character with a capital "C". In addition to being one of the leading historians of the 20th century, he was also a avid student of the Occult who once did a Tarot card reading for the King of Egypt. He was also a musician and once performed a piano duet with the last emperor of China. And he claimed to have helped Queen Victoria to find and destroy documentary evidence of her secret marriage to the Scottish commoner John Brown.

Anonymous said...

I've always had somewhat of an obsession with all things Byzantine, and I can second the recommendation for Runciman's "The Fall Of Constantinople". Constantine XI, the last real ruler of the Roman Empire, at least did not disgrace his title with cowardice.

Lord Norwich's trilogy is also great. It's like "Gladiator" meets "All My Children"...and it all really happened!

The history of 'Byzantium' (the Eastern Roman Empire, really) gets short shrift in Western history education. It has all sorts of uncomfortable lessons for the modern Right and the modern Left. Perhaps that's why they'd rather ignore it.


Siegfried Goodfellow said...

I think the role of leadership here as an organizing center around which masses can rally is important here, lest some try to reduce the significance of this "small group" of (~Neo)Pagans. Why was the Church so worried about such corpuscles? Because it would threaten their tenuous monopoly on being able to speak to the masses. They had only been able to implant so much of their mentality, the rest of which still fit much better with paganism. In the "folk melange" if you will, there were still so many elements that were pagan, that if there emerged a strong intelligentsia to articulate that ethos and practice into a stronger, more attractive affirmation, it could have caused real trouble.

So with a folklore largely immersed in paganism, and an emergent pagan intelligentsia, there was a real danger to spiritual hegemony which the Church sensed.

This, of course, to a lesser but not less significant degree, was what was behind persecution of many of the witches, because as indigenous practitioners, and vernacular intellects, they were able to articulate some of the ethos behind the folk festivity and other customs.

This is what ties it all together in a way that can't be reduced to small numbers.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Hi Siegfied, You have hit upon a matter of the greatest importance. Those who follow the Old Ways (regardless of what we call it) are faced with the constant effort to divide us in order to better conquer us. Modern scholars often employ the term "elites" to this end, with the intention of implying that anyone who can read or write, or who appeals to any form of logic or reason, is one of the "elites" and, therefore, completely disconnected from the broad masses of "the people".

And, just as you say, the Church has been employing this strategy all along. Christians first target political leaders and the intelligentsia when they are first trying to "convert" a population. Then once those have been bribed and conned, the Christians establish an absolutely monopoly over politics and education, so that all those with ambition and talent must genuflect to the cross or languish on the sidelines. But it turns out that there is a third choice: to find ever more ingenious ways to subvert from within.