Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Plethon's paganism is so blatant that no one truly familiar with his ideas thought to question it -- neither his friends nor his enemies"

The act for which George Gennadios Scholarios has been most negatively portrayed is the burning of George Gemistos Plethon's Book of Laws, a guideline for a new society based upon a revival of pre-Christian Greek religion. When the book finally came into Scholarios' hands, Plethon was dead and Scholarios was, or would soon become, the first Ecumenical Patriarch during the period of Ottoman rule.

Thus begins Christopher Livanos' 2003 essay "The Conflict between Scholarios and Plethon: Religion and Communal Identity in Early Modern Greece" (which comprises chapter 2 of the volume Modern Greek Literature: Critical Essays, edited by Gregory Nagy).

Livanos then proceeds to describe the relationship between these two men, Scholarios and Plethon. As interesting as what Livanos has to say on this matter is, I wish to fast-forward a bit to where Livanos provides a rather detailed account of the burning of Plethon's Book of Laws and also, more generally, of the "reception" of Plethon among his contemporaries. Two things, in particular, are especially notable here. One is Livanos' references to Plethon's followers. While the fact that such followers existed seems impossible to deny, there are nevertheless those who, having been forced to reluctantly concede that Plethon was, in fact, a Pagan, have still attempted to seamlessly transform the failed attempt to deny Plethon's Paganism into an attempt to deny that Plethon's Paganism ever extended beyond Plethon himself -- that he was, as an advocate of Paganism, isolated, unheeded and completely unsuccessful.

The second thing that I find especially noteworthy is Livanos' treatment of the relationship between Plethon and his former student, Cardinal Bessarion. Livanos makes it clear that, at least in his opinion, at least some of Plethon's Christian associates were well aware of his Paganism. In other words, it wasn't just Plethon's "followers" who were aware of his true religious proclivities. This is highly significant when we judge Plethon's "influence", and, in particular, the reception of his Pagan religious sentiments. Evidently it was not only possible for such things as Pagans to exist at the time, but it was even possible for at least some Christians to accept Pagan apostates as friends, and even as people worthy of admiration and praise!
Brilliant and visionary though Plethon was, it is difficult to imagine a world in which his ideas could have been implemented ... none of Plethon's ideas could have been put into effect among the recently conquered Greeks who, in the mid-fifteenth century, were in no position to enact what would have been the most radical social revolution in world history.

Given the political circumstances, Plethon's ideas could hardly have affected Greek society as a whole in the wide-sweeping manner in which he intended, so the social importance of the burning of the Laws must not be exaggerated. This is not to deny the claim of Plethon's admirers that he could have had a tremendous positive influence upon Byzantine society if generations of rulers had taken his advice, but questions of the competence or incompetence of previous despots and emperors were irrelevant at the time Scholarios un-willingly assumed the patriarchate. Most immediately, he was requested by Mehmet II to compose a treatise in defense of the Christian faith against the claims of Islam. The work he produced was one of the greatest successes of his career. At the same time, he was forced to respond to Plethon's Book of Laws, but he dealt with neo-paganism quite a bit less gracefully than he dealt with Islam, but nothing prepared him for the role of statesman in which he suddenly found himslef when he received for the first time a copy of the late Plethon's book.

A more skillful politician could perhaps have found a way to suppress Plethon's book that would not have seemed heavy-handed or tyrannical either to Plethon's followers or to later generations of historians, but any ruler of his age would have agreed with Scholarios' judgement. Everyone who came into contact with the Book of Laws knew that the expected response of the political authorities would be to burn it, but no one wanted to have the book-burning trouble their public image or, perhaps, their conscience. When Scholarios initially received the book from Princess Theodora of the Peloponnese during or shortly after his first patriarchate, he sent it back to her with the advice that she burn it and receive the "wages of her piety". It is unlikely that Scholarios' pious choice of words should be taken at face value, since he knew that the princess' capital was the center of Plethon's support and outright condemnation of him would have political repercussions. The words co uld be either a sarcastic comment or, perhaps, a well-intentioned warning. Theodora's letter to Scholarios does not survive, but circumstances indicate that she was reluctant to burn the book herself and wished to have Scholarios take responsibility. She lived at the center of Plethon's support and must have realized that it would be foolish to earn the animosity of his followers. Had Scholarios been either the intolerant zealot or the jealous rival he is sometimes made out to be, he would have burned the book as soon as he had the chance. It was certainly within his rights.

In 1460 Mistra fell to the Turks [seven years after the fall of Constantinople] and Theodora fled to Constantinople sometime thereafter, bringing the book with her and presenting it to Scholarios, who must have been surprised to find that he had not seen the last of it. Scholarios describes his reaction to the arrive of Theodora and her husband Demetios: "They brought me a double grief, partly on their account ... and partly on account of the book." He as clearly distressed to learn that the book he hoped had been destroyed, or at least make someone else's responsibility, was in his presence once again, this time under circumstances that demanded his immediate action. The unusual situation assured that this time he could take no recourse in those venerable Greek diplomatic ploys of redirecting and losing correspondence. He had no choice but to commit the book to the flames. A more skillful politician might have handled the matter more quietly than Scholarios, but the fact that he did not destroy the book at his first opportunity indicates that he did not act rashly out of personal animosity toward his old rival and did not have a belligerent desire to stamp out liberal thought. In addition, the book was of such an overtly heretical nature that any religious or secular authority anywhere in the Christian world would have condemned it. For several reasons, we cannot agree with Paul Oscar Kristeller when he states:
According to the testimony of several contemporary enemies, which has been accepted by most recent scholars, Plethon ... planned to restore the pagan religion of Greek antiquity. In the preserved fragments of his chief work, the Laws, he speaks at length of the ancient deities and their worship. Yet, the work was destroyed after Plethon's death by his enemy Scholarios, who preserved only those paganizing passages in order to justify his actions, and I suspect that the complete text of the work might have suggested an allegorical and less crude interpretation of the same passages. The part Plethon took in the Council of Florence, his theological opposition to the Union of the Greek and Latin Churches, and, finally, the unqualified admiration shown for Plethon by his pupil Cardinal Bessarion tend to cast some doubt on the supposed paganism of Plethon.
Kristeller deserves the utmost respect, and part of the reason he made the preceding sstatements was the simple fact that the most thorough study of Plethon had not yet been written. No reader of C.M. Woodhouse's George Gemistos Plethon: The Last of the Hellenes can be left unsure that Plethon died a convinced pagan and had possibly been one for decades. A point by point response to Kristeller's arguments against Scholarios' character and in defense of Plethon's Orthodoxy will demonstrate all the more that Woodhouse is correct in his conclusion that Plethon had thoroughly and deliberately renounced Christianity.

First of all, there is no evidence to support the assertion that Scholarios merely kept those paganizing passages which seemed to justify his actions. Plethon's disciples and admirers went about the task of salvaging what they could of the Book of Laws, and what they found is every bit as pagan as what Scholarios had preserved. Furthermore, venomous as Plethon's followers' attacks on Scholarios were, they did no attempt to refute the charge that their mentor was an apostate. The only one who spoke of Plethon's Christian piety was a certain Gregory who delivered one of the eulogies at Plethon's funeral. The most plausible explanation is that Gregory felt the a need to hide his teacher's heterodoxy. Plethon's paganism is so blatant that no one truly familiar with his ideas thought to question it -- neither his friends nor his enemies. One anonymous admirer of Plethon put the following words in the mouth of his late mentor, directed at Schoarios:
Unable to refute or dismantle what was written, if indeed he found anything disagreeable therein, especially concerning Hellenic religion and theology, he acted like those who spoke against Porphyry, Julian, and others. Consumed by envy, and having found an opportunity, he destroyed if by fire as he oozed the venom he had fostered against me.
Here, Plethon is praised in the same terms as Porphyry and Julian, two of antiquitys' most bitter critics of Christianity. The writer uses the ambiguous term "Hellene", which generally means "pagan" in Byzantine Greek Plethon and his followers used the term almost to the exclusion of all others when referring to their own countrymen. Elsewhere in the document quoted above, the author writes of Scholarios that "The best of today's Hellenes hate that man". I will discuss the difficulties which the late Byzantines had in choosing what name to call their own people in more detail when I compare the terminology of Scholarios and Plethon. For now, it will suffice to point out that it is striking that Plethon's anonymous admirer praised him precisely because he shared the religion of Julian and Porphyry. He clearly echoes Plethon's own view that his compatriots ought to share not only the language and intellectual tradition of their ancient ancestors, but their religion as well.

While it is true that Plethon was admired not only by pagans but also by Christians, his paganism was nonetheless apparent when we consider that Bessarion made no mention of faith or specifically Christian virtues in his eulogy. It was not until approximately a hundred years after his death that his admirers began to defend his Orthodoxy. (21) The monk Charitonymous, who spoke at Plethon's funeral, included only one reference to the Bible in a eulogy otherwise filled with incessant references to Pagan antiquity. (22) Woodhouse has argued that, whereas the monk Gregory, another speaker at Plethon's funeral, pereceived the need to hide Plethon's paganism, Charitonymous was probably unaware of it and simply spoke of Plethon as he knew him. (23) The speech Charitonymous penned suggests that he was a rather naive individual. The same could not be said of Cardinal Bessarion, yet Kristeller is correct in asserting that Bessarion greatly respected and praised Plethon. Nevertheless, while Bessarion's praise of Plethon was heartfelt and great, it was by no means complete, as the Cardinal leaves piety out of the list of virtues for which he eulogized his former teacher. He warmly writes to Plethon's sons of their father's erudition and virtue, but he makes no mention of his faith. To do so would have been a farce, as both Bessarion and Plethon's children knew. In eulogizing Plethon, Bessarion was aware that was writing no of a Christian, but of a virtuous pagan:
I have learned that our common father and master has shed every earthly element and departed to heaven, to the place of purity, joining the mystical chorus of Iacchus with the Olympian gods. I too rejoice to have studied with such a man, the wisest that Greece has produced since Plato. So if one were accept the doctrines of the Pythagoreans and Plato about the infinite ascent and descent of souls, I should not hesitate even to add that the soul of Plato, having to obey the irrefragable decrees of Adrasteia and to discharge the obligatory cycle, had come down to earth and assumed the frame and life of Gemistos. So you do not do what is right if you do not rejoice and cheer that you were begotten by him. It would not be right to lament one such as him. That man became a great glory to all of Greece, and he will be a great adornment to her hereafter. His fame will never perish, but his name and his reputation will be passed on to all time with eternal renown.
The passage pushes the language of allegory past its limits. Bessarion knew that he wrote of a man who beleived that pagan language was true not only allegorically, but literally as well. Though the reference to Mount Olympus is not, in itself, unusual coming from a man steeped in the humanism of the Italian Renaissance, we would expect a cardinal to include at least some mention of the Christian afterlife; but there is none. As a Christian humanist, Bessarion studied and admired the virtuous pagans, and in Plethon he had the opportunity to meet one.


Anonymous said...

Someday, I'll read "Radical Platonism in Byzantium".

As you've made us aware many times, various people with agendas like to pretend that nobody was sincerely Pagan (in our 21st century sense) prior to the 1930s.

Plethon's existence (and that of his followers) shatters that untruth, and I sometimes wonder if that's why his name seldom comes up in such discussions.


Apuleius Platonicus said...

Alas, if any such thing as "Pagan Scholarship" actually existed, Pagans would be much better informed about Plethon. Unfortunately, what passes for "Pagan Scholarship" is neither Pagan nor scholarly in any meaningful sense.