Thursday, March 31, 2011

amazing dance moves

what is this?

hat tip to DangerousMinds.Net for this one:

if you've got it, flaunt it:

when you make an entrance like this, you'd better be able to dance like Sridevi:

more Sridevi:

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Belief in reincarnation in Europe by country (Map of EVS 2008 data)

Below are some statistics for belief in reincarnation in Europe are from the 2008 European Values Survey. Also check out this follow-up post: More on belief in reincarnation in Europe.

Here are the numbers:

1/3 or more believe in reincarnation
Latvia 41.9% (2.3M)
Lithuania 37.4% (3.4M)
Ukraine 37.1% (46.3M)
Iceland 36.2% (0.3M)
Russian Federation 33.0% (142.0M)
between 1/4 and 1/3
Portugal 31.4% (10.6M)
Estonia 30.7% (1.3M)
Belarus 30.6% (9.9M)
Ireland 30.5% (4.4M)
Northern Cyprus 30.5% (0.3M) [not indicated on map]
Bulgaria 29.8% (7.6M)

Austria 28.8% (8.3M)
Turkey 28.4% (74.8M)
Switzerland 28.0% (7.6M)
Great Britain 27.8% (62.0M)
Moldova 27.5% (3.6M)
Luxembourg 26.1% (0.5M)
betweem 1/5 and 1/4
Finland 24.7% (5.3M)
Hungary 23.2% (10.0M)
Northern Ireland 23.2% (1.7M)
Spain 23.1% (45.6M)
Serbia 22.6% (7.4M)
France 22.6% (62.3M)
Sweden 22.6% (9.3M)
Bosnia-Herzegovina 22.4% (3.8M)
Romania 21.8% (21.5M)
Armenia 21.5% (3.1M)
between 1/6 and 1/5
Malta 19.5% (0.4M) [not indicated on map]
Slovenia 19.4% (2.0M)
Italy 19.2% (60.2M)
Albania 19.1% (3.1M)
Netherlands 18.8% (16.4M)
Germany 18.4% (82.1M)
Denmark 18.4% (5.5M)
Norway 18.4% (4.8M)
Czech Republic 17.6% (10.7M)
Cyprus 17.5% (0.9M)
Belgium 17.5% (10.7M)
Poland 17.4% (38.1M)
Greece 17.4% (11.3M)
Macedonia 17.4% (2.0M)
less than 1/6
Croatia 16.2% (4.4M)
Slovak Republic 13.0% (5.4M)
Georgia 11.3% (4.4M)

Azerbaijan 7.1% (8.7M)

(These show what percentage of people answered "yes" to Question 31 on the 2008 European Values Study: "Do you believe in reincarnation?" Numbers in parentheses are total population for each country. Here is a handy link so that you can go and look up the data yourself. The numbers shown in this post are more complete than what I have previously posted here and here.)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

On the Non-Ineluctability of Christianization: Notes Toward a Grand Unified Theory of Pagan Resistance, Survival, and Revival

I. Overview: The Five Phases of Christianization
  1. "With increasing harshness and machinery of enforcement": The Christianization of the Roman oikoumene (312-476)
  2. Decline and Fall: The retreat of Christianity in the Dark Ages (476-718)
  3. The Formation of a Persecuting Society: The violent resurgence of Western Christendom (718-1492)
  4. The Whole World In Their Bloody Hands: Conquest, Genocide, Slavery, & the Burning Times (1492-1960)
  5. By Other Means: Post Colonial Christianization (1960-?)

II. Illuminating Case Studies

  1. Crypto-Pagans in Byzantium: Procopios, Lydos, Psellos, Italos, Juvenal, Plethon, Mistra
  2. Pagan resistance among the Longobards
  3. The highly non-monotonic Christianization of Britain
  4. The Cult of Vergil
  5. Profiles in Dissimulation: The Family of Love, Marranos, English Catholics, French Libertins, etc (see especially, Zagorin's Ways of Lying)
  6. Paganism in the Renaissance
  7. The religious dimension of the Early Modern European Witch-Hunts
  8. Did the Yaqui convert?
  9. Catholic Shamans among the Huichol and Nahua
  10. Angelique Kidjo on Vodun & Catholicism
  11. Secrets Gossip & Gods
  12. Rejecting coerced syncretism in Haitian Vodou and Cuban Santeria (Max Beauvoir: "No, contrarily to what even good scholars have stated, I don't believe there is any significant Christian-Vodou syncretism or Christian inclusions in the Vodou religion." Lazaro Cuesta: “It’s an error for the Catholic Church to consider us deviants. We simply have our own religion: the Yoruba religion.”)
  13. Mexican Folk Catholicism among mestizos
  14. The continuous history of Hermeticism, Alchemy, and Astrology (Campion, Maxwell-Stuart, also: Ghibellinism & Traditionalism)
  15. Traditional Religion in Sub-Saharan Africa
  16. Reincarnation as a marker of Pagan survival

III. Key Concepts and Theoretical Projects
  1. "Submerged Animism" a la Alan Richard Tippett
  2. Toward a generalized theory of crypto-religiosity a la Richard Popkin (How to look for Pagans)
  3. Christian Pagan Syncretism = Pagan Survival (and the varieties of religious syncretism in general: Secret Knowledge, Because We Can, "When you enter a village ...", Lady Gaga Prayer Candles, Kidjo on Voodoo, Ficinus. Paganus?, What they mean by "dialogue", Banding together in the Cretan fashion, "Playing the fish", "We had no choice")
  4. The false dichotomy of learned versus popular Paganism ("A different world"?)
  5. Sympathetic Magic: Eros, Pneuma, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Stoicism, Vergil, Ovid, Iamblichus, Proclus, Psellos, Plethon, Ficino, Pico, Agrippa, Bruno, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Erasmus Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Witches, Mages, etc. (Plato and the Threefold Law, Cosmic Sympathy, Eleusis and the Aeneid, Luck on Warburton on Vergil, Philosophy Science Divination & Astrology, Six Degrees of Charles Darwin, Eleusis and Evolution, Vergil and Modern Paganism, Hutton Vergil & Ovid)
  6. Soul Snatchers: Exposing the Christian conception of all-or-nothing conversion (aka, the "one drop rule" of Christian identity; see "Africa became Christian by submission")
  7. Reincarnation as a Pagan belief
  8. Why Harran matters, but not as much as you might think.
  9. The seamless continuity of Late Antique and Ancient Paganism
  10. The Theurgy-Wicca connection
  11. The Evil Twins: Christianity and Islam
  12. Communism: preparing the way for the gospel in India, China and Latin America
  13. Christianization versus liberty, equality, democracy and the rule of law
  14. Christianization is everywhere incomplete.
  15. Christianization is always reversible.
  16. "Paganism is the ancestral religion of the whole of humanity." (Primary versus secondary religions, Pagans don't need no stinking continuous traditions, monotheism vs. polytheism vis-a-vis tolerance, no "different" religions among ancient Pagans ...)

Monday, March 28, 2011

"And a boat to the boatless" (Paganism, Christianity, and Charity)

Here are seven old posts from this blog on the subject of charity:
  1. Pagans, Christians, and "Charity" (June 15, 2009)
  2. On the Emperor Julian's supposed admiration and emulation of Christian "charity" (July 3, 2009)
  3. "An inescapable network of mutuality" (July 8, 2009)
  4. World Vision: Only Christians Need Apply (January 12, 2010)
  5. Comparing World Vision and Hezbollah (January 14, 2010)
  6. US Gov't Funding Cultural Genocide in Haiti (January 21, 2011)
  7. "Travesty In Haiti": The truth about Christian missions, food aid, etc (January 25, 2011)
[Below is the first of these seven old posts, in its entirety, just to whet your appetite. The "boat to the boatless" quote, btw, can be found in the third post in the above list.]

Pagans, Christians, and "Charity"

Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick state in their A History of Pagan Europe that Christians were the first human beings to ever "introduce" the world to "charity, the idea of the spiritual worth of the poor", and, not satisfied to leave it as an implication, they explicitly assert that the idea of charity was one "not shared by the many cults of the Pagan world." Jones and Pennick further assert that "Christianity was from the start a socially revolutionary movement." [p. 60]

It is crucial to understanding where Jones and Pennick are coming from, I think, to see clearly that they are not interested in simply giving Christians whatever credit they might deserve for their charitable works. They feel compelled to claim, falsely, that the idea of helping poor people was not only foreign and strange to ancient Paganism, it was something viewed with hostility and even actively resisted by Pagans because "Pagan society was deeply stratified and snobbish."

However, Geoffrey Rickman points out in his Roman Granaries and Store Buildings, that in distributing food to the needy "in fact, the Church had taken upon itself, although in a smaller way, the distributions and frumentationes of the [Pagan] Roman Empire." [p. 157 - emphasis added] Centralized distribution of food, an absolute pre-requisite for the existence of cities in the first place, had, at least in Rome, always included free distribution of food to the poor and tight regulation of food prices. O.F. Robinson in his Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration goes so far as to state that food, "subsidized or free", along with amusements, were the true "opiate of the masses" in Pagan Rome. This is hardly an obscure bit of information known only to a few specialists, as anyone familiar with the origins of the phrase "bread and circuses" knows perfectly well.

Not only did Pagan Rome already have an extensive and systematic distribution system for providing food to the poor (and price subsidies for everyone else), centuries before Jesus came along, but this was done under the auspices of the Goddess Ceres. Interestingly, in addition to being the Goddess of Grain, Ceres is also sometimes (and not without justification) referred to as the Goddess of the Plebs, that is, the plebian class (which essentially included all Roman citizens who were not patricians). Some scholars have suggested that the frequency with which Ceres appears on coinage during the late Republic is evidence of attempts (by those in charge of issuing the coins) to garner the support of the plebs. The association of Ceres with the plebs probably goes back to the earliest days of the Roman Republic (for more on Ceres and the plebs see Barbette Stanley Spaeth's The Roman Goddess Ceres, especially the third section of the first chapter: The Early Republic, as well as the entire fourth chapter, which is devoted to The Plebs).

Elsewhere in this blog I have already discussed the strange notion of Christianity as a force for "social revolution" (here, here and here). Please see those posts for the gory details (and numerous references). The simple fact is, as everyone knows, that Christianity's "triumph" in the ancient world did not result in the springing up of egalitarian utopian societies - or even in modest, incremental improvements for slaves, the poor, women, or any other social group.

Jones and Pennick cite Robin Lane Fox's Introduction to his 1986 Pagans and Christians to support their statements about Christian charity (and the Pagan lack thereof). My 1987 Alfred Knopf hardback (American) edition of that book has a Preface, but no Introduction, and that Preface does mention Christian charity, but Fox's words do not in any way resemble those of Jones and Pennick. Fox also discusses charity later on, in his chapter on The Spread of Christianity (chapter 6). But as Fox points out in that chapter, where Christians had their "charity", Pagans had "philanthropy". And as far as "social revolution" goes this is what Fox has to say about the supposed idealism of Christianity concerning the less fortunate: "Christians did not always live up to it [surprise!], least of all in their attitude to the slaves whom they continued to own: if Christian women beat their maidservants to death, so an early council in Spain decided, they were to be punished with several years communion. The mild scale of punishment was hardly less revealing than the existence of such sinners." [p. 323] Fox also points out that Christianity inherited the practice of giving alms from "the synagogue communities", as well as inheriting the idealization of "abject poverty" from "its Jewish heritage". [p. 324]

Monday, March 21, 2011

"Forsaking Christ to follow Plato", Part Two

"But he protests too much to be entirely convincing."

As discussed in Part One of this series, many scholars are eager (maybe a little too eager) to assure us that, in the words of John Myendorff, "[Michael] Psellos certainly remained a Christian."

Other scholars are less certain about Psellos' true religious allegiance. In fact, over nine centuries after his death, there is now enough of a controversy on this issue for some scholars to go so far as to boldly declare their neutrality. This is the posture adopted by Dylan Burns who wrote that the question of Psellos' true attitude with regard to Hellenic Paganism versus Christianity "is probably unanswerable" (in his 2006 article The Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster, Hekate's Couch, and Platonic Orientalism in Psellos and Plethon).

A far less probabilistic stance regarding the fate, or at least the proclivities, of Michael Psellos' immortal soul has been voiced by Nigel Guy Wilson, whose Scholars of Byzantium contains an excellent biographical sketch of Michael Psellos, from which the remainder of this post is excerpted.

"Psellos was born in 1018. His baptismal name was Constatntine, but he is usually referred to as Michael, the name he took on entering a monastery c. 1055, departing from the normal Byzantine practice of choosing a monastic name with the same initial has the baptismal one. Although this episode marked a temporary fall from episode, he seems to have had no difficulty in returning to his previous activities after a short interval. Most of his career was spent in the service of the emperors, and if the account given in his Chronographia is to be trusted he as for many years the power behind the throne. His activity and influence were confined to the imperial palace. As professor of philosophy, holding a post established by the government, he was well known as a lecturer and attracted many students, who treated him as a polymath with a rich store of knowledge about every field of human activity. The view that he was a prodigy who knew Homer by heart is probably mistaken, the passage from the encomium of his mother sometimes quoted to show this does not seem to prove more than a very close acquaintance with the poems. Nevertheless he was without any doubt uncommonly versatile, as is attested by the range of his writings. The most important are: the Chronographia, a history beginning in the reign of Basil II, full of gossip and intriguing sketches of important people and events, perhaps better described as memoirs than as a formal history; funeral orations on various friends, relatives and important contemporaries; the collection know as De omnifaria doctrina, a set of brief outlines of various notions in philosophy, science and theology, much of which derives from Plutarch's De philosophorum palicitis. It is probably fair to say that philosophy was his main concern. His enthusiasm for Plato, which he shared with his pupil Italos, was unusual and in the end led to trouble. The Platonic aspect of his thought may have been exaggerated however, and it has recently been maintained that in some important respects his views were firmly Aristotelian [This, it must be noted, appears to assume a dichotomy between Plato and his most famous student that might be completely inappropriate in Psellos' case.]. The date of his death is uncertain; 1078 and 1096 are the dates most often advanced.

"Psellos' literary output was vast. Some items in it have yet to be printed. Of those that have been printed only a few have received the care required to produce a serviceable edition. Much remains obscure, and the difficulty of giving an account of Psellos' thought on any given issue is increased by his discursive manner, which allows him to digress frequently into unexpected topics. My attempt to describe his reaction to the classical heritage is divided into three parts, the first general, the second and third devoted to his critical essays, since these offer a more substantial body of writing than can be found in the work of any other Byzantine scholar.

"His attitude toward the classics and to other non-Christian cultures is difficult to assess. At one moment he seems to say that he is an orthodox Christian who finds answers to all intellectual problems in the teaching of the church. At other times he shows a curiosity about pagan culture and the much more dubious fields of magic and astrology which must have aroused the suspicion of conventionally minded contemporaries. To assume that Psellos wavered in his views is not necessarily the right solution to the puzzle. It is equally likely that he was employing the practice known to theologians as economy, which is exemplified by some fathers of the church. [Among early church fathers, the terms oikonomia in Greek and dispensatio in Latin developed fairly abstuse metaphysical connotations, but in later Byzantine theology, oikonomia came to take on the practical and straightforward sense that in order to facilitate "reconciling dissidents to full communion ... what was strictly not permissible could be tolerated in order to effect a compassionate reconciliation or healing of a defective situation," and this especially in the case of attempts at "reconciling dissidents to full communion." Quotes taken from the entry for "economy" in The Westminster handbook to patristic theology by John Anthony McGuckin.] In other words he presented to his immediate audience the opinions or arguments which he thought would be most effective with them. Since the concept of economy is not rare Psellos must have been acquainted with it from his readings of the patristic literature; he will not have needed any inducement to take a lead from St. Basil and others. It follows that his enemies will have had little difficulty in interpreting correctly the true meaning of his boasts that he had read the literature of other cultures. Psellos did his best to fend them off with assertions of loyalty to the church. In general he succeeded, and although there was a period of his career when he ran into difficulties he never suffered long eclipse. His talents were too outstanding to be suppressed. The fate of the less able [and the less well connected] is shown by what happened to [the foriegner John] Italos [who was, in Psellos' own opinion, the "ablest" of all his students].

"The doubts entertained by his enemies receive tangible expression im the profession of orthodox faith which he was obliged to make during the reign of Constantine Monomarchus. A more spontaneous and balanced statement of principle, which may nevertheless have been affected by the emotional strain of the moment, is to be found in the funeral oration for his mother. Here he asserts that the Chrsitian faith can provide answers to all problems. But having made the assertion at some length he continues: 'Since however the life allotted to me is not meant to be sufficient for itself alone, but is at the service of others, to be drawn on as from an overflowing vessel, for this reason I dabble in pagan culture, not simply its theoretical aspect, but also its history and poetry.' One of his notes on the allegorical interpretation of Homer includes the remark: 'The customs of the Mysians and the Phrygians do not differ as much as the false Hellenic doctrine and our true one; and if someone converts their bitter salt water into the sweetness of our faith, he in my opinion is wide, indeed the noblest of the wise.' The object of the essay is explicitly stated to be that of changing a false pagan story into a Christian truth. The metaphor of salt water recurs in last chapter of the De omnifaria doctrina, where Greek culture is again recommended with reservations. Psellos is here speaking to the emperor, and discretion was in order. His concluding words are: 'You should know that the roses of Christian scripture are quite genuine, but others have a poisonous element in the flower.'

"In a letter to the future patriarch Xiphilinus Psellos affects a tone of unjured innocense when he denies that he is totally under the influence of Plato. But he protests too much to be entirely convincing. In the course of his reply to the charge he says that he is following the example of the great luminaries of the church, St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nazianzus, in accepting certain elements of pagan culture as valuable. The extent of Psellos' acquaintance with pagan literature, especially some unedifying types that had generally and with good reason earned the disapproval of orthodox members of the church, including almost certainly the eminent authorities whom Psellos cites in his own defense, suggests that his assertions should not be taken at their face value.

"The conventional contrast between Christian and pagan does not do justice to the complexity of Psellos' intellectual outlook. He tells us that his curiosity extended to five cultures: Chaldean, Egyptian, Greek, Jewish and Christian. The antiquity of Egyptian civilization had soon been recognized by the Greeks, and from the time of Herodotus onwards never ceased to fascinate them. It was often debated whether Greece was indebted to Egypt. Psellos joined in the discussion. He believes that Pythagoras, apart from being the inventor of musical theory and the first person in Greece to maintain the immortality of the soul, introduced Egyptian culture to Greece . . . .

"Alchemy might well have been included in the account of [Psellos'] debt to Egypt, since Zosimos of Panopolis can ge regarded as its founder. Psellos certainly knew of Zosimos and refers to another Egyptian author, Theophrastus, but he things of it as 'the wisdom of Abdera', owing to the existence of some treatises falsely ascribed to Democritus, the philosopher of that city. His own involvement with the subject went far enough for him to compose a short essay on it .... Psellos gives the impression that he had personally visited practitioners of the art.

"The Chaldean legacy consisted of astrology and magic. As far as the former is concerned, Psellos issued a brief denial of its validity on the ground that it conflicts with divine providence and free will. That was the position adopted but not always successfully maintained by the church. With regard to magic, however, Psellos will have found it much harder to reconcile his professions of orthodoxy with an interest in a topic at best nonsensical and at worst sinister. He is evasive on this question. At one point he remarks: 'I will not tell you how to make charms that ward off illness; you might not imitate me correctly.' What Chaldean wisdom meant to him was the collection, complete in his day, but now surviving only in fragments ... They are concerned with theurgy, including prescriptions for a fire and sun cult and for the magical evocation of Gods. Psellos wrote several long essays about them. His interest in such matters is strange. It must be explained as a consequence of his Platonism. The Neoplatonists had openly admitted their belief in theurgy, and Proclus had written a commentary on the Chaldean oracles, which Psellos evidently used. He expresses elsewhere great admiration for this author (Chronographia 6.38). How he managed to avoid ecclesiastical and indeed general disapproval remains a mystery." [In fact, the final years of Psellos' life are themselves a complete mystery, to the extent that we do not know, even to within a decade, when he died, much less the circumstances of his death. For such a celebrated and outspoken figure to so suddenly disappear from the historical record without a trace is quite remarkable. Therefore it is far from certain that he did manage, in the end, to "avoid disapproval".]

[pp. 156-160]

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 (this is the post you are reading right now)
  • 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"

Friday, March 18, 2011

"and on a very distant star slimy creatures scan the skies."

I come very briefly to this place.
I watch it move. I watch it shake.
Kumowaku yamano. Watashino sakebi. Watashino koewo.
Ushano kokoku. Watashiwa sokoni. Watashiwa asobu.
Mountain with clouds. A cry. My voice. Home of the brave.
I'm here now. And lost.

They say the dead will rise again. And here they come now.
Strange animals out of the Ice Age. And they stare at you. Dumbfounded.
Like big mistakes.
And we say: Keep cool. Maybe if we pretend this never happened, they'll all just go away.

Watashiwa sokoni. Watashiwa asobu. Mewotoji. Mewotoji.
Kikunowa kotori. Watashino sakebi. Watashino koewo.
I am here in this place. Losing. My eyes are closed. Closed.
Birds are there. Hearing something. Shouting. My voice.
(And yet, we could all be wrong. Wouldn't be the first time.)

Kumowaku yamano. Watashiwa sokoni. Watashiwa asobu.
Kumiwaku yamano. Kikunowa kotori. Watashino sakebi.
Mountains with clouds. I am there. Lost.
Mountains with clouds. Birds are there. Hearing something. A shout.

They say the world is smaller now. Small world.
They say that man is taller now. Tall man.
They say the stars are closer now. Thank you, lucky stars.
You come very briefly to this place.
Jikanwa tomaru. Ushano kokoku.
Time is stopped. Home of the brave.

And on a very distant star, slimy creatures scan the skies.
They've got plates for hands. And telescopes for eyes.
And they say: Look! Down there, a haunted planet, spinning around.
They say: Watch it move. Watch it shake. Watch it turn. And shake.
Watashiwa sokoni. Watashiwa asobu. Kumowaku yamano.
Watashino sakebi. Watashino koewo. Mewotoji. Mewotoji.
I am there. Lost. Mountains with clouds.
A cry. A shout. My eyes are shut. Shut.
And we say: Watch us move. Watch us shake. We're so pretty.
We're so pretty.
We say: Watch us move now. Watch us shake.
We're so pretty.
Shake our hands. Shake our heads. We shake our feet.
We're so fine.
The way we move. The way we shake.
We're so nice.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Bessarion & the Other Roman Academy (The Heathen Minded Humanists, Part Five)

[The Heathen-Minded Humanists: 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 (below) looks at the other Roman Academy and its head, Cardinal Bessarion.]

Recall that 1468 was the year that Pope Paul II "discovered" a supposed conspiracy of Heathen-Republican-Sodomite-Assassins right under his nose in Rome. In fact there is good reason to believe that many, perhaps most or even all, of those caught up in the Pope's dragnet were one or more of the first three of those four things, but no evidence was ever found at the time, nor has any come to light since, indicating that there was a really existing conspiracy to assassinate the Pontiff, or anyone else.

A very broad overview of the background of the events of 1468 in Rome was presented, a while back, in Part One of this series, while Part Two focussed more closely on the events of that year leading up to the denunciations of the leaders of the Roman Academy. But there were, in fact, two Academies in Rome in the year 1468, and both were suspected of harboring dangerous Pagan tendencies.

One the one hand there was, of course, the "Pomponian" Academy, whose brightest lights were Pomponio Leto and Platina, both of whom figured prominently in what is often referred to as "the" Roman Academy. But there was also a "Bessarionic" Academy, founded originally by Cardinal Bessarion (1403-1472), in whose home this other Academy was headquartered (while the other Academy met in the home of Leto).

Here is the entry for "Bessarion" in The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity:
Bessarion was born about 1400 in Trebizond [somewhat ironically and confusingly, "George of Trebizond", Bessarion's arch-nemesis, was not from Trebizond] and named John. In 1423 he entered monastic life and was ordained. In 1437 he was appointed archbishop of Nicea and in that capacity worked to promote union with Rome at the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-45). Bessarion formally entered the Roman Catholic Church. He was made cardinal (1439) and twice received significant support as a candidate for the papacy. In 1463 he became Latin patriarch of Constantinople. Bessarion served as a senior papal diplomat, presided over a scholarly academy devoted especially to the translation of Greek classics, collected manuscripts and was a prolific writer. Greeks fleeing Ottoman power found him a generous patron. He left his collection of texts to the Republic of Venice, where it remains the heart of the Marciana Library. He died in 1472.
Bessarion had been one of the star pupils of George Gemistos Plethon, the Hellenic Pagan philosopher/sage of Mistra. Although he was a Catholic Cardinal (and before that an Orthodox Metropolitan), Basilios Bessarion was, in his heart of hearts, a Platonist. And his Platonism came directly from the more or less openly Pagan Platonism of Plethon, under whose spell Bessarion had fallen at the tender age of 20.

James Hankins, in his Plato and the Italian Renaissance (most of the following is based on pp. 210-212, where all of the direct quotes can be found), tells us that Pope Paul II had been the student of George of Trebizond (the arch-anti-Platonist) and that the two had retained a close bond. Prior to 1464 (the year Paul II assumed the Papal throne, with one of his principal rivals being Bessarion), George had been carrying on a somewhat forlorn little propaganda war against what he saw as the mortal threat to Christendom posed by the increasing popularity of Platonism. George felt the need, or so Hankins speculates, to write his anti-Plato screeds only in Greek, and to limit his audience to a few trusted fellow Byzantine exiles, due to the fact that Trebizond had no friends in sufficiently high places, leaving him "in no position to threaten" the most important representative of the menace of creeping Hellenism: Cardinal Bessarion.

"But", Hankins tells us, "in 1464 the situation changed dramatically ... [and] George lost no time in using his new position [as favorite of the new Pope] to pursue his prophetic vendetta against Bessarion." In fact, George now openly, and in Latin, accused Bessarion of heresy.

At first it looked as if George might have underestimated his enemies. Over the protests of the Pope himself, Trebizond was arrested in 1466 and confined to a cell in the dreaded Castel Sant'Angelo, where he had to cool his heels for four months. During the time of Trebizond's imprisonment, an ally of Bessarion, Fernando of Cordoba "published a treatise against Trebizond in which were collected praises of Plato from various Christian and Pagan authorities." The game was now being played at a very high level, and for the highest of stakes.

The Pope, however, was still the Pope. By February of 1467 George was finally released, and Fernando of Cordoba became the subject of an investigation that made plain "the seriousness with which Paul II regarded the charges of heresy against the Platonists in Bessarion's circle." And then the following year Paul II dismissed a number of scholars in the Vatican's employ whose outspoken Humanism made their spiritual purity suspect. One of these scholars, Platina, protested a little too forcefully, and found himself residing at the Castel Sant'Angelo. Upon his release, Platina, "far from being mollified" became a regular at the meetings of the nascent Roman Academy at the home of Pomponio Leto. Here is Hankins' account of how things went down at this point:
"It is difficult to say precisely what activities this group [the Academicians meeting at Leto's home] engaged in -- many of them appear to have been cardinals' secretaries -- and with what degree of seriousness, but there is good evidence that they wrote salacious homosexual poetry, longed (like Cola di Rienzo and Stefano Porcari) for a return to the Roman republic, muttered treasonously against 'papal tyranny', and gave others the impression of holding heretical beliefs. In February of 1468 the Cardinals Fortiguerri and Gonzaga informed [sic] the Pope that the Academicians were conspiring against his life, and named 'Callimachus' (Filippo Buonaccorsi), Platina, 'Petreius' (Pietro Demetrio), and 'Glaucus' (Lucio Condulmer) as the ringleaders. The Roman police acted swiftly, making numerous arrests. Platina was incarcerated once more in the Castel Sant'Angelo, and Pomponio Leto, who was standing trial in Venice for sodomy, was brought back in chains for trial. The conspirators were charged with republicanism, irreligion, heresy, neopaganism, and sodomy. Although Leto and Platina were ultimately acquitted of the charge of heresy and released, the affair kept Rome in turmoil for most of the summer, and that papal legate was still trying to secure Callimachus' extradition from Poland as late as 1470."
Much of what is said above has already been covered in Part One, and Part Two of this series, but that was back in July of last year, and, besides, it's very useful to examine the varying accounts of the same events given by different historians. But Hankins now takes a step back from the action and gives us a broader picture of the Academic scene, so to speak, in Rome at the time:
"There is, to be sure, no direct evidence that Paul suspected either Bessarion's circle or Platonism of having played a role in this [supposed] conspiracy. Insofar as the philosophical views of the [Pomponian] Academicians were known, they seemed to Paul to smack rather of Epicureanism than of Platonism [here Hankins appears to have forgotten that ancient Roman Pagans, upon whom the Pomponians explicitly modeled themselves, right down to their Republicanism, were rather free in mixing not only Platonism and Epicureanism, but also Pythagoreanism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism, and anything else on hand]. Moreover, Bessarion's hostility to republicanism, which we shall discuss presently [but which, at least for now, we shall have to mostly leave for future consideration], must have been well known. Nevertheless, there were still numerous connections between the Academic conspiracy and Bessarion's Platonism, connections which hostile parties such as Trebizond, Palmieri, and Bishop Battista De' Giuduci, O.P., would not have hesitated to bring to the Pope's attention. There was, for instance, a large amount of overlap in the membership of the Pomponian and Bessarionic Academies; Leto and Platina had both been habitues of Bessarion's house; it was Bessarion who (in effect) stood bond for Leto's good behavior after his extradition; Bessarion was afterwards the leader in urging their release from prison. One of George's main charges against Plato was the latter's supposed [notice how Hankins is perfectly capable of inserting the adjective "supposed" when it suits him] advocacy of voluptas and sodomy, charges that had been made against Bessarion's proteges Andreas Contrarius and Nicolo Perotti as well as against the [Pomponian] Academicians. George had also exposed in his Comparatio and Adversus Theodorum Gazam the neopagan rites of Gemistos Pletho, rites whose similarity to those practiced by the Pomponian Academy has even led some historians to assume (wrongly) a direct influence of Pletho upon Leto. Moreover, one of the princelings implicated in the Academic conspiracy had been Sigismondo Malatesta, known to be a great admirer of Pletho; so far, indeed, had he carried his admiration that he arranged [in fact, he carried this out personally] to have Pletho's body brought from the [at the time Turkish controlled] Peloponnesus back to Rimini where he entombed it anew in his 'neopagan' Tempio Malatestiano designed by Leon Battista Alberti. Bessarion was a friend of Malatesta and had written some admiring verses on his sister Cleope. So it would have been an easy matter for some opponent of Bessarion to tar him with the same brush that had besmeared the Academicians."
In a footnote, Hankins also points out yet another fascinating connection: "Bessarion had earlier been responsible for bringing another papal enemy to Rome, who was also a rival of George of Trebizond, namely, Lorenzo Valla."

At this point it is worth our while to recall something written (and cited in a recent post) by the Honorable Sir James Cochran Stevenson Runciman, C.H., who studied history under J.B. Bury, and studied French, with Eric Arthur Blair (aka George Orwell), under Aldous Huxley, and whom the Daily Telegraph eulogized as "the pre-eminent historian of the Byzantine Empire," and who, on top of everything else, was famous for his Tarot card readings (it is said that he once gave a reading to King Fuad of Egypt). Anyway, Runciman was of the opinion that there is a distinct possibility that Plethon converted Bessarion to Paganism at the age of 20, and that for next 50 years Bessarion remained a life-long secret disciple of Plethonic Paganism (for that reference, see "Hanegraaff on Plethon").

To sum up this little sketch: In the mid 15th century there was a significant movement of philosophical/religious dissenters in Rome who drew their primary inspiration from Pagan antiquity. This was a diverse group that seems to have included both sincere Christians and outright Pagan apostates as well as a spectrum of intermediate positions. Some of these dissenters were primarily Latinate and focused on Roman antiquity, whereas others were more Hellenic in their interests and orientation. Many were devoted Platonists, while others may have been more Epicurean, Stoic or Aristotelian, but in truth they were probably all quite eclectic in their philosophical allegiances (as were their ancient Hellenic and Roman exemplars). A significant number of them were early adopters of the republicanism that would in subsequent centuries become such an important current in European politics, while others were more conventional in their political views. Some were Byzantine exiles, others were native Romans, and still others were non-Roman Italians. And at the same time there were similar thriving Academies in Florence and Naples, and before long there would be hundreds of Academies throughout Italy.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"George Gemistos Plethon was a crypto-Pagan." (An Inconvenient Pagan, Part Three)

Church and Society in the Last Centuries of Byzantium, Donald M. Nicol, 1977

"George Gemistos Plethon was surely the least representative of all the Byzantines at Florence. Like Bessarion he was interested in bridging the intellectual and cultural gap between Greeks and Latins. But in him the wind of Hellenism blew so strong that it extinguished his Christian faith. The proceedings of the Council of Florence confirmed his opinion that the only hope for the world was to dispense with Christianity altogether and to evolve a completely new philosophy of life and politics. It was at Mistra in Greece, far away from the beleaguered capital, that Plethon developed his ideas for the regeneration of what he was pleased to call the Hellenic people. This was to be acheived not by breathing new life into the dying body of the Roman Empire but by a reform of society along the lines suggested in Plato's Republic. Early in the fifteenth century Plethon addresed to the Emperor Manuel II and his son Theodore a series of memoranda on the ways in which Hellenism could be recreated on the Hellenic soil of the Peloponnese. They amounted to an elaborate and comprehensive programme for the reform of the administration, the defense of the economy and the structure of society. They contain some of the most original ideas eer expressed by a Byzantine scholar. But far more strikingly - and more dangerously - original were Plethon's ideas on religion, which he committed to writing late in his life in a treatise called On the Laws. Here he concocted a new "Hellenic" religion worthy of credence by his regenerated Hellenes. The myths of Christianity were to be supplanted by an artificial theology and ethical system based on Plato and neoplatonism. God reverted to being Zeus and the rest of the ancient Greek pantheon were suitably accommodated as the new presiding deities. The treatise was never published ; and when the text came into the hands of Plethon's friend, the Patriarch Gennadios, he considered it his duty as a Christian to destroy it."
[pp. 113-114]

Byzantium: Church, Society, and Civilization Seen through Contemporary Eyes, Deno John Geanakoplos, 1984

"In the fifteenth century several Byzantine thinkers attempted to reform the existing calendar by developing one that corresponded more closely to the rotation of the earth and movement of the planets than the Julian calendar. Among these was the famous Neoplatonic philosopher (and rejector of Christianity) Gemistus Pletho .... The greatest of Byzantine philosophers, Pletho, held views remarkable for his time. Deeply disturbed (as were many other intellectuals) over the terrible condition of the empire, he sought to revive the Byzantine state. One means he proposed was the replacement of traditional Christianity with Paganism."
[pp. 435-43]

The Last Centuries of Byzantium, 2 ed., Donald M. Nicol, 1993

"Plethon would have agreed that a change of heart was needed if the Byzantines were to live up to the ideal of Hellenes. But his thoughts led him further and further away from any expectation that this could come about through the medium of the Christian faith. Not until towards the end of his life did he commit these thoughts to writing in a treatise called On the Laws. In this he was to advocate a total rejection of Christianity in favour of a new 'Hellenic' religion, incorporating the pantheon of ancient Greek gods and based on a theological and ethical system derived mainly from Plato but also from Zoroaster. Little is known of this work, for it was consigned to the flames as an atheistical and dangerous tract by Plethon's friend George Scholarios, after he became Patriarch."
[p. 345]

"Gemistus Plethon and Platonic Political Philosophy", Peter Garnsey, in Transformations of Late Antiquity: Essays for Peter Brown, edited by Philip Rousseau and Manolis Papoutsakis, 2009

"Plethon was a crypto-Pagan: he dreamed of introducing a new religion based on wisdom that was older than Christianity and Islam, namely a blend of Zoroastrianism, Pythagoreanism and Platonism. In respect of his religious and philosophical beliefs, Plethon belongs in the tradition of the Neoplatonist philosophers of Late Antiquity."
[p. 328]

A History of Byzantium, Timothy E. Gregory, 2010

"Plethon was not the first of the Byzantines to point out the connection between Byzantine and ancient Greek culture, but he put that point eloquently and clearly. 'We are,' he wrote, 'Greeks [Hellenes], as our language and ancestral culture show.' Thus, to Plethon, as to many Byzantines, Greekness was not a matter of blood or descent, but rather determined by language and culture. Plethon was also willing to call himself a Hellene, the term that had long been used by the Byzantines to refer to Pagans. This did not trouble him and, unlike most of his contemporaries, he was unabashedly in favor of the (certainly impossible) task of restoring classical Paganism as the religion of the empire!"
[pp. 386-387]

Hanegraaff on Plethon: "The Pagan cat was out of the box." (An Inconvenient Pagan, Part Two)

"Nothing less than a revival of Hellenistic Paganism in deliberate opposition to Christianity"
The Center for the History of Hermetic Philosophy recently (2009) celebrated it's 10th Anniversary, which was marked, among other ways, by the publication of the anthology Hermes in the Academy: Ten Years' of Study of Western Esotericism at the University of Amsterdam. In this post I take a look at Wouter Hanegraaff's contribution to that volume, on the subject of "The Pagan Who Came From the East: George Gemistos Plethon and Platonic Orientalism".

Here is an excerpt:
"Back in Mistra [after the Council of Florence], Plethon wrote his major philosophical synthesis, the Nomoi (Laws), which seems to have been made accessible only to the select membership of his intimate circle of pupils. When Plethon's manuscript turned up in possession of Princess Theodora in c. 1460-1465, his enemy Scholarius (now Patriarch [Gennadios] of Constantinople) had most of it burned and ordered the destruction of any surviving copies on pain of excommunication. Scholarius himself, however, preserved those parts he felt he needed to buck up his accusations against his former teacher. In the surviving opening chapters of the work, the Platonic orientalist perspective is developed in some detail, beginning with an introduction of the major ancient 'lawgivers and sages' who came after Zoroaster: Eumolpus (founder of the Eleusinian mysteries), Minos (the Cretan lawgiver), Lycurgus (the Spartan lawgiver), Iphitus (the reviver of the Olympian Games) and Numa (who had instituted religious laws among the Romans). Plethon continues by stating that the Indian Brahmins and the magi are to be preferred among barbarians, and the kouretes among the Greeks; and he finishes with a further list of authorities, including the priests at the oracle of Dodona, 'inspired men' like Polyides, Tiresias, Chiron and the Seven Sages, and finally Pythagoras, Plato and other philosophers belonging to thei school, notably 'Parmenides, Timaeus, Plutarch, Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus.' .... Plethon is explicit in opposing his list of 'lawgivers and philosophers' as a positive category against its negative counterpart, consisting of 'poets and sophists.' This latter turns out to be a code for the founders of revealed religions, and Christianity in particular."
[p. 39]
A little further on, Hanegraaff states bluntly of Plethon's intentions: "the conclusion cannot be avoided: what he had in mind was nothing less than a revival of Hellenistic paganism in deliberate opposition to Christianity." To drive this point home, Hanegraaff quotes from George of Trebizond's recollection of what had transpired in Florence:
"I myself heard him at Florence ... asserting that in a few more years the whole world would accept one and the same religion with one mind, one intelligence, one teaching. And when I asked him 'Christ's or Muhammad's?' he said, 'Neither; but it will not differ much from paganism.' I was so shocked by these words that I hated him ever after and feared him like a poisonous viper, and I could no longer bear to see or hear him. I heard, too, from a number of Greeks who escaped here from the Peloponnese that he openly said before he died ... that not many years after his death Mohammad and Christ would collapse and the truth would shine through every region of the globe."
[p. 40]
Hanegraaff also states that viewing Plethon as unambiguously Pagan is not some peculiar theory of his own:
"There is almost universal agreement among specialists about the fact that Plethon was indeed a 'neo-pagan' opponent of Christianity (although he obviously had to conceal this, since preaching his views openly would have been a capital offense in Byzantium)."
[pp. 40-41]
At this point, however, Hanegraaff is suddenly seized with the urge to reassure his, as he seems to imagine them, religiously anxious readers, and, in particular, to head off any silly notions about a "Pagan Renaissance" (perish the thought!):
"It is importan to emphasize how unique and exceptional it [Plethon's Hellenic apostasy] was. The historiographical cliche of a 'Pagan Renaissance' is certainly misleading in its suggestion that the Platonic and Hermetic revival of the later 15th century involved a conscious rejection of Christianity on the part of its major representatives. On the contrary, the Renaissance Platonism that would emerge from Marsilio Ficino's translations was, and would always remain, a deeply Christian phenomenon. If Plethon was certainly the crucial pioneer of Platonic orientalism in the 15th century, he seems to have remained virtually alone in his radical departure from Christianity."
[p. 41]
Hanegraaff's assertion of the "unique and exceptional" nature of of Plethon's Paganism faces three major problems.

First of all common sense demands that we assume that the most dearly held ideas of one of the most celebrated intellectuals of the day must have been shared, at least partially, by at least some of the great many people who admired, and studied under, Plethon. If we start from this perspective, then the question is not how "unique and exceptional" Plethon's Paganism was, but how widespread it was. Hanegraaff himself told us only a few paragraphs ago that Plethon actively promoted his Pagan religious ideas among his "most intimate friends."

A second problem with Hanegraaff's assertion that Plethon remained "virtually alone in his radical departure from Christianity" is that there is strong evidence for the existence a full-blown Pagan "movement" in and around Mistra, where Plethon spent the last five decades of his life. Steven Runciman in his Lost Capital of Byzantium: The History of Mistra and the Peloponnese writes that "it seems certain that there was a neo-paganist cell at Mistra which he [Plethon] dominated and encouraged." Runciman even goes so far as to suggest the tantalizing possibility that Cardinal Bessarion, who had studied with Plethon in Mistra, "remained faithful in secret to his master's secret [Pagan] teaching," despite the high rank and prestige he attained later in the Catholic Church. [See Chapter IX, and especially p. 102 in the 2009 I.B. Tauris paperback edition]

A third difficulty is that Hanegraaff's characterization in no way excludes (in fact it explicitly accepts) the possibility of a small, determined band of Renaissance Pagans inspired by Plethon. In fact, the stereotypical conception of "Renaissance Pagans" has never been that of a mass movement, but rather of an elite group of philosophers, poets, artists and scientists. So Hanegraaff has not really disproven what he refers to as "the historiographical cliche of a 'Pagan Renaissance'" at all! Rather he has added his voice to all those others who have pointed to Plethon as the logical starting point for assessing the extent to which Paganism was not merely a viable "religious option, at least in theory" (see below) during the Renaissance, but an option that was exercised and put into practice. With the unassailable evidence concerning Plethon in hand, we know that there were more than zero Pagans during the Renaissance, and the evidence is overwhelming that even if the number was relatively small, Plethon was far from being alone. Therefore we can say with complete confidence that both Pagans and Paganism existed during the Renaissance.

But then, having attempted, lamely, to calm our fears for the safety of Renaissance Christendom, Hanegraaff immediately zigs as sharply as he has just zagged:
"Nevertheless, one might say that with Plethon, the pagan cat was out of the box. His case shows that once the textual sources of the Platonic tradition became available to a Christian culture where the need for religious reform was widely felt, paganism became a religious option, at least in theory."
What Hanegraaff says above does far more than completely undermine his previous assurances that there was no Pagan funny-business going on beneath the sheets of the Renaissance. If access to "textual sources" of classical Paganism was sufficient to make Paganism "a religious option" in the 15th century, then Paganism was already an option long before that as well. In fact, it had never not been an option! For Hanegraaff's bizarre implication that such sources only "became available" suddenly, and out of nowhere, in the fifteenth century is complete nonsense, as Hanegraaff himself must be perfectly aware. There was, and obviously so, quite a bit of Pagan religious literature written in Latin, and this Latinate Pagan literature was read and studied continuously during the centuries separating late antiquity from the Renaissance. In fact, Vergil, Ovid, Cicero, Apuleius, and Macrobius were all the equivalent of best-selling authors even during the darkest of the Dark Ages, and their writings provide a thorough course in beginning, intermediate and advanced Paganism.

So here we find yet another case of a scholar protesting overly much, and in precisely the manner that should heighten, rather than allay, suspicion.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Earth's the right place for love" (in memoriam, "dae ja, dae bi")

"There is something gorgeous about destruction, and liberating too.
Unless you're the one being destroyed."
Laurie Anderson, Los Angeles Times, 1994

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust--
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows--
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate willfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return.
Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.

I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

["Birches", by Robert Frost]

Monday, March 14, 2011

"Forsaking Christ to follow Plato" (Or, Was Michael Psellos a Christian?)

Nor earth to me give food, nor heaven light,
Sport and repose lock from me day and night,

To desperation turn my trust and hope,

An anchor's cheer in prison be my scope,
Each opposite, that blanks the face of joy,
Meet what I would have well, and it destroy,
Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife,

If, once a widow, ever I be wife!

[Hamlet, William Shakespeare, Act III, Scene 2]

Almost everyone seems to agree (in fact they doth protest) that Michael Psellos was a Christian. Which is kind of funny, because in 11th Century Byzantium one really didn't have all that much choice in the matter: everyone was a Christian (I mean, they were, right?). But if everyone was a Christian, why is it so important to explicitly declare this in the specific case of Psellos?

An examination of the primary sources indicates a likely explanation: Psellos' own contemporaries questioned his religious orientation to such an extent that one cannot simply pass over his religious identity in silence. Basil Tatakis, in his Byzantine Philosophy, tells us that because of his intense devotion to the philosophy of Plato, Psellos was "accused of 'Hellenizing' -- that is to say, of Pagan tendencies." And in response to these accusations, Psellos "was required to give a profession of faith and justify his admiration for Plato." [p. 135] However, Psellos' accusers were unconvinced, and they continued to be "scandalized by his free use of Hellenic thought and culture." The prevailing negative attitude toward "Hellenic thought and culture" is indicated by the fact that Christian monks at the time "would bless themselves and murmur anathemas against the Hellenic Satan," at the mere mention of the name of Plato! [p. 146] In other words, Psellos, who devoted his life to the revival of Platonic philosophy, was seen by many Byzantine Christians as a prophet of "the Hellenic Satan". Tatakis also provides us with the detail that Psellos' "principle accuser" was the future Patriarch John Xiphilinos.

Here are two typical examples of Tatakis' protesting Psellos' Christianity: "Assuming that supreme perfection is contained within Christian doctrine, Psellos appropriated all manifestations of Greek civilization; i.e., all of those ideas that he claimed anticipated Christianity and directed the mind toward it." [p. 135] "[A]ccording to Psellos ... Greek thought was a preparatory stage, to be perfected by Christianity." [p. 137]

And here are some examples of the same variety of protestation from other scholars:

Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christianity: "The outstanding representative of Christian Hellenism ... was Michael Psellus ... Nevertheless, his Christian Hellenism did not blind him to the 'heresy' inherent in 'ancient Hellenism' or heathenism, which could not be reconciled with the Christian gospel." [pp. 243-244]

Katerina Ierandiokonou, "The Greek Concept of Sympatheia and Its Byzantine Appropriation by Michael Psellos" (in The Occult Sciences in Byzantium): "We should now turn to Psellos' use of the notion of cosmic sympatheia. The challenge for him, as for all Christian thinkers, is how to use this notion in order to understand the world and the relations between its parts without coming into conflict with standard Christian dogma." [p. 106] "That is to say, as a Christian, Psellos cannot accept that the sympatheic relations between th epart of the world are such that human beings may control the powers of daemons for their own benefit" [p. 108]

John Myendorff, Byzantine Theology: "Psellos certainly remained a Christian." [p. 62]

But in addition to the accusations of Hellenizing apostasy made by his Christian contemporaries, Psellos' spiritual allegiance is also called into question by his close association with two other philosophers: John Italos and George Gemistos Plethon. Italos was Psellos' student and his hand-picked successor (as hypatos tõn philosophõn, i.e., Consul of the Philosophers, a title created for Psellos by Emperor Konstantinos IX Monomarchos). Unfortunately for Psellos' reputation as a good Christian, Italos attracted even more negative attention than his teacher had, and he was formally charged with "Hellenizing", put on trial, and convicted on multiple counts of religious deviancy based on his philosophical teachings (which, it must be emphasized, he had learned at the knee of his master, Psellos).

In the case of Plethon we have not a direct student, but rather a philosophical heir born almost three centuries after Psellos' death. Despite the significant separation in time, though, Plethon is inevitably described in terms that tie him closely in spirit to Psellos: "The whole 12th century is replete with dogmatic struggles stimulated by the renaissance of philosophical doctrines. These conflicts allow us to follow the uninterrupted progress of Psellos' work ... until it is finally integrated in the work of Plethon." [Tatakis, p. 171] "[D]uring this entire period Psellos' Neoplatonism wins followers, spreads, develops, and finds its fullest expression with Plethon," [Tatakis, p. 190] "[Plethon] was reviving by implication the heresies of earlier Byzantine Platonists such as Michael Psellos and John Italos .... Like Psellos and Italos, Gemistos gave the primacy to philosophy over theology." [George Gemistos Plethon: Last of the Hellenes, C.M. Woodhouse, p. 167] And Plethon provides an even stronger case of Platonic Paganism, for Italos found it necessary to recant his Hellenizing ideas (not once but twice), while Plethon went to his grave an unrepentant Pagan.

Therefore it is seen as needful to not stop at merely asserting the sincerity of Psellos' profession of Christian belief in itself, but to add additional arguments putting spiritual distance between the ostensibly Christian Psellos and these two wayward Platonists, who are in such dangerously close philosophical proximity to Psellos. For example, Basil Tatakis claims: "Psellos saw pre-Christian thinking as a preparation for Christianity, which in itself constitues absolute truth. Plethon sees Christianity as a decadence of thought and asks of philosophy a starting point from which he can return to the original sources that, according to him contain the the absolute truth." [p. 237] And also: "Plethon's indifference (if not aversion) toward Christianity allows him to use Platonic philosophy freely, without even attempting to reconcile it with the Scriptures. Unlike Psellos, Plethon's aim is not to show that Plato is closer to Christianity than Aristotle, but to show that Plato is closer to the truth." [p. 241]

Similarly, Tatakis is also eager to clear Psellos of any suspicion arising from his closest disciple's Platonic apostasy: "[For Italos], philosophy is neither, as it was for Psellos, merely an exercise of reason nor a preparatory stage for penetrating even further the mysteries of Christian teaching ... Italos risks presenting a system of thought that favors Greek philosophy and reason ... Until the time of Italos we sought philosophical thought within theology." [p. 173]

But the more these scholars protest, the more Psellos' true religious identity is called into question. At least that is what methinks.

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 (this is the post you are reading right now)
  • 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