Thursday, June 14, 2012

On "The Platonist golden chain linking Proclos to Plethon." (Niketas Siniossoglou on Plethon, Platonism, Paganism and Mistra)

One important thing to note about the following excerpt from Niketas Siniossoglou's Radical Platonism: Illumination and Utopia in Gemistos Plethon, is that Siniossoglou traces the history of Mistra as an oasis for "renegade philosophers and humanists", including those like Plethon and Kabakes who have consciously and decisively broken with Christianity, all the way back to the period of Manuel Kantakouzenos, who ruled Mistra from 1349-1380 AD. Furthermore, according to Siniossoglou, this milieu of religious dissidents already existed throughout what remained of Byzantium in the 14th century, and it was only because of the victory of the "Palamite" reaction that they were forced to coalesce in the Peloponnese.

I should also point out that Siniossoglou has made a very unfortunate choice of words in casting Plethon as the "last" ring in the Golden Chain of Platonic Paganism, despite the fact that, as Siniossoglou knows very well, scholars continue to debate the extent, and the nature, of Plethon's influence. In fact, this excerpt starts off with Siniossoglou drawing our attention to Scholarios' concern, more than a decade after Plethon's death, about those who continue to persist in following Plethon's Platonic Paganism.

I have resisted most (but not quite all) temptations to insert comments or add emphases. For references please refer to the original.

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The Last Ring of the Platonist Golden Chain: the Platonic fraternity of Mistra

Scholarios' Refutio erroris Judaeorum is dated to around 1464, fourteen years after Plethon's death. This is long after Scholarios confronted Plethon's Paganism and physically destroyed the Nomoi. But most significantly, it is long after the rupture with the past signified by the Turkish occupation and the election of

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Scholarios to the patriarchy. In a note in passing Scholarios recalls his old enemy and considers whether Pagans will still carry on his legacy. There are no Hellenes around, says Scholarios, with the possible exception of any decaying cell credulously following Plethon's nonsense and the deceiving fame of his wisdom. Owing to ignorance, these people may resurrect in their souls the Hellenic error, continues Scholarios, the one extinguished by divine epiphany. This is intriguing. By now more powerful than any other living Greek in the Ottoman Empire, Scholarios is still concerned with the impact that Plethon's personality and fame had on people many years before. Apparently the marginal group of extravagant Pagans that operated in Mistra under the auspices of Plethon was not as yet delivered to the damnatio memoriae normally reserved for religious apostates in Byzantium.

Since the publication of Masai's Pléthon [full title: Pléthon et le platonisme de Mistra (Paris, 1956)] in 1956 the idea of a Pagan ritualistic fraternity operating in the fifteenth century during the last years of Plethon's life has understandably captivated modern researches [although I must insert parenthetically that those who claim to be "Pagan scholars" have gone out of their way to completely ignore Plethon, or to systematically misrepresent him and try in every conceivable way to deny his Paganism and to deny his central importance and influence]. Its influence may be traced beyond the late Byzantine contenxt in the Paganism of the 'soldier of the Renaissance' Marullus Tarcaniota and of Cyriaco d' Ancona. John Monfasani has argued that such a brotherhood may well never have existed. His argument is that the people usually associated with the much-debated fraternity that Scholarios hunted down cannot be conclusively shown to have had any substantial connection to the presumed Plethonean project of reinsituting ancient Gods. For example, the Pagan most famously assocated with Plethon, Raoul Kabakes, 'may have been merely a Christian with some bizarre Paganising ideas. But whatever the extent of his Paganism, it was sui generis, and to a substantial degree independent of Pletho.' Kabakes is credited with collecting the remnants of

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Plethon's Nomoi after Scholarios destroyed the manuscript. He was one of the people closest to Plethon, shared Plethon's protonationalism, and described himself as a 'Hellene Lakedaemonean'. This man, who studied Julian's Hymn to King Helios, making notes in the margins like: 'Julian: Iamblichus: Sallust: divine men?' and who confessed that at the age of seventy-four, when copying Julian, his pothos for the Sun God was even greater than when he first began to revere the sun at the age of seventeen, can hardly be rehabilitated as a Christian with some bizarre paganising ideas. yet I do not intend to defend Masai's thesis at this point, the core of which seems to me to be able to withstand attacks.

Gregory Palamas, Patriarch Neilos, Philotheos Kokkinos and Scholarios, were worred about paganism as a philosophical paradigm rather than about its ritual and sectarian aspects possibly pursued by by marginal intellectuals. Neilos concluded that according to Barlaam 'there was nothing superior to Hellenic wisdom', and we have seen that here 'Hellenic' encompasses both the late antique sense of 'pagan' philosophical notions and the the Byzantine meaning of 'secular' wisdom. The Palamites would have little understanding of modern periodisation, as well as of our heuristic application of such terms as 'pagan', 'secularism' and 'humanism'. They saw Hellenism and Christianity as intellectual camps vying for hegemony. In this they certainly were at one with Plethon. It might well be that the real members of the Pagan fraternity of Mistra were not ritual Pagans like Kabakes, but philosophical Pagans of a quite different order.

Since 1348 Mistra was the heart of a despotate, a semi-autonomous state ruled by younger members of the Palaiologean imperial family. When Plethon appeared in Mistra around 1409 he found it to be an intellectual outpost nourished by philhellenic theological and philosophical concerns. In the words of Donald Nicol, the 'intellectuals of Mistra were without a doubt a tiny minority, living on an island of culture in what they themselves

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described as a sea of barbarism and ignorance'. For the present purposes it is worth delving into the history of this circle. This constitutes the last ring in the Platonist golden chain linking Proclos to Plethon.

The intellectual circle of Mistra was largely formed as a collateral result of the hegemony of Palamism in the main theological and political centers. Mistra provided shelter to intellectuals and literati forced by circumstances to leave Constantinople and Thessaloniki. Unable to cope any longer with the new Palamite establishment in Constantinople and Thessaloniki, renegade philosophers and humanists arrived in the Despotate of Mistra first under the reign of the Despot Manuel Kantakouzenos and after 1383 under the reign of Palaiologues. There they formed a circle of little known intellectuals who escaped the status quo of the Palamite Counter-Reformation. The most prominent intellectuals active in Mistra before Plethon, George Gavrielopoulos, known as George the Philosopher, and Manuel Raoul Metochites, appear to have found refuge in Mistra. The activity of copyists in Morea in the second half of the fourteenth century is witness to the profound influence exercised by the Hesychast controversy. The contemporary authors copied are mainly Prochoros Kydones, Demetrios Kydones, John Kantakouzenos and, later, Nikephorous Gregoras. It appears that during this period the Peloponnese witnessed a revival of ancient themes in visual art. This created the ideal framework for Plethon's project.

George the Philosopher and Manuel Raoul Methochites were confessed Platonists, anti-Palamites and well acquainted with Demetrios Kydones, though favouring Plato over Aquinas. George's extreme enthusiasm for Plato and his eagerness to 'listen to Lycurgus' laws' out of 'an extreme philhellenism (το λίαν είναι φιλελλην), as Kydones said of him, have been perceptively seen

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as anticipating Plethon's Platonism and enthusiasm for Sparta in the next century.

George's criticism of Kydones' fondness of Aquinas highlights the fact that not all anti-Palamites were eventually absorbed by late Byzantine Thomism and that philhellenism presented an alternative even if that meant 'parting from one's friens'. Another good friend of Kydones with philosophical interests who appears to have arrived in Morea in 1381/2 is the adventurer John Laskaris Kalopheros. The monk Agathias also abandoned Constantinople for Mistra under mysterious circumstances and emerges in Kydones' epistles as fully mesmerized by Hellenism. We may surmise that the inclusiveness of the Mistra intellectual circle grew in significance in the aftermath of the final defeat of the mainstream humanist movement. It appears that Kydones maintained contact with this circle of secular intellectuals, functioning as the link between Constantinople and an amalgam of anti-Palamites, philhellenes, and anti-Thomists who opted for a very different path from his. It has been plausibly argued that Plethon may well have known through Kydones about this marginal and remote close-knit group of Hellenising intellectual fugitives who shared a common interest in Greek antiquity, one occasionally bordering on romantic nostalgia. This information might have led Plethon to discover in Mistra the ideal framework for setting up a Hellenic cell beyond the reach of central imperial institutions.

Two factors make this a particularly appealing and plausible theory. First, it has been recently shown that in the fifteenth century the Peloponnese was a site of ongoing political and ideological experimentation. Only faint echoes of the anaemic central authority of Constantinople reached the borderland of the Peloponnese, a country 'under construction', as a modern scholar put it, marred by the mortal conflict between local landowners and the political representatives of Constantinople, that is to say the despots of Mistra and their consellors -- Plethon included. Secondly, we may

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recall that Kydones turned to Thomism long before his death in 1397 and that George the Philosopher, who had been the mentor of Platonist Raoul Metochites as early as 1362/5 would not take up the task of instructing a new generation into the mysteries of Platonism. Plethon was the only intellectual at the time capable of offering an ideological direction to anyone not sharing Palamite mysticism, Kydones' Thomism or Scholarios' millenarianism -- but also to advise the despots on political matters.

It is plausible that around 1409 Plethon was more than happy to leave behind a philosophically and theologically exhausted Constantinople, to discover a safe haven for his private immersion into Platonist philosophy and to pursue the application of radical reformist measures in a newly established court whose viability required extensive socio-economic experimentation. Beyond the reach of central clerical authorities, Plethon was free to take Platonims to its extreme conclusion, transforming the pre-existing philhellenic ambience of Mistra (one that nevertheless lacked proper spiritual guidance) into philosophical Paganism, able to articulate an alternative to both Palamite Orthodoxy and Thomism.