Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.01.60 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.01.60

Börje Bydén, Katerina Ierodiakonou (ed.), The Many Faces of Byzantine Philosophy. Papers and monographs from the Norwegian Institute at Athens, series 4, 1.   Athens:  Norwegian Institute at Athens, 2012.  Pp. ix, 243.  ISBN 9788299912815.  €15.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Divna Manolova, Central European University (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The volume under review is a sequel to Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources.1 It comprises nine essays. The first, by Katerina Ierodiakonou, serves also as the editors’ introduction. Ten years after the publication of the 2002 volume, Ierodiakonou reassesses the state of research in the field of Byzantine philosophy and relates the purpose of the present volume to the premises of the previous one. Her analysis is partially motivated by the need to answer a number of criticisms raised by reviewers, especially with respect to the introduction of the 2002 book.2 According to Ierodiakonou (at 1-2), three issues in particular remain controversial within, as well as central to, the study of Byzantine philosophy, namely: (1) “Is there philosophical thinking in Byzantium?” and how does it differ from theological thinking; (2) “When does Byzantine philosophy actually begin?”; and (3) “Who counts as a philosopher in Byzantium?” Ierodiakonou is chiefly concerned with the first question. She states that philosophy in Byzantium was not considered subordinate to theology and that, even when philosophers pursued inquiries similar to those of the theologians, they employed methods particular to the subject.

Dimiter Angelov discusses political and social thought in Byzantium focusing on the period from the eleventh century onwards. The starting point for his investigation are the Byzantine divisions of philosophy and the taxonomical order they grant to political philosophy. In order to investigate their relevance when read against contemporary political preoccupations, Angelov discusses the preface to a twelfth-century commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics by Eustratios of Nicaea and Eustratios’ view of the role of the statesman. The good governance of a city or cities, according to this philosopher, consisted in the just and proportionate distribution of shares among its citizens. Angelov points out an underlying criticism of contemporary imperial practices relating to the distribution of offices and dignities, as well as to tax privileges, that one finds in Eustratios’ discussion of distributive justice. Angelov also summarizes briefly Theodore Metochites’ views on the essence and social functions of political philosophy. According to Metochites, political philosophy is in fact “the greatest and best part of philosophy” (33) and owes its position as such to the fact that it addresses real life issues of importance both to the governors and the governed. Finally, Angelov explores the Platonic concept of a ‘royal science’ and its reintroduction in Byzantine court literature after the eleventh century, a case in point being the descriptions of royal science by Michael Italikos, Nikephoros Blemmydes, and Theodore II Laskaris. Importantly, Angelov demonstrates that philosophical ideas were expressed in rhetorical texts: that is, Byzantine philosophy was practiced and was relevant beyond the philosophical commentaries on ancient authors or the schoolroom.

George Arabatzis focuses on the twelfth-century Aristotelian commentator Michael of Ephesus and his interpretation of Aristotle’s philosophy of biology. According to Arabatzis, in contrast to Aristotle, Michael of Ephesus granted animals the ability to form beliefs. Arabatzis interprets this difference as an indication of the originality of Michael’s approach to Aristotle’s text. The argument concerning Michael’s attribution of beliefs to animals is based on a passage in his commentary that employs the literary device of personification, that is, animals and plants are given a voice to ask mankind to inquire rationally about them and not to despise them, although they cannot truly be compared to the divine and noble nature of the heavenly bodies. The same passage is used to support another central claim of Arabatzis’ essay, namely that “[t]here is in the epistemology of Michael of Ephesus, in his commentary on Parts of Animals I (1.3-2.10), a theory or proto-theory of intentionality” (74).

Bydén’s contribution focuses on strategies in defense of the creationist position elaborated by fifth- and sixth-century Christian authors approaching the problem of whether the belief that the God-created world had a beginning can be proven by a philosophical argument. In particular, Bydén examines John Philoponos’ refutation of Proklos’ eternalist position and argues that Philoponos’ Christian conviction had a lot to do with the reasons behind his rationalistic defense of creationism. Bydén explores creationist approaches predating Philoponos, such as those in the fifth- and early sixth-century scholars Aeneas of Gaza, Procopius of Gaza, and Zacharias, and focuses on the latter’s dialogue Ammonius, which discusses thoroughly the issue of the world’s eternity. This dialogue lists altogether four arguments supporting a creationist position and six arguments against it. Bydén examines in detail those arguments involving the thesis that the world and its creator are coeternal. He discusses a number of similarities and differences between Zacharias’ procreationist arguments involving the coeternity thesis, Basil’s first homily on the Hexaemeron, and Philoponos’ arguments against Proklos. Thus, Bydén suggests that Basil’s first homily is a likely source for Zacharias’ Ammonius with respect to the coeternity thesis. In addition, Bydén argues for some degree of dependence of Philoponos’ work on that of Zacharias.

The main purpose of Golitsis’ article is to answer the question why the thirteenth-century scholar George Pachymeres was so engaged in practicing philosophy. Golitsis strives to provide a response through a close reading of the poem Pachymeres attached to his commentary on Aristotle’s Physics and some parallel texts. The first part of the essay demonstrates how Pachymeres reworked Aristotle’s Physics through a Christian perspective. For instance, Pachymeres stressed the affinity between Aristotle’s prime unmoved mover and the Christian God. He also portrayed Aristotle as a precursor of Christian truth and suggested that, among other things, Aristotle acknowledged the impossibility of knowing God’s essence, thus rendering Aristotle’s teaching compatible with Christian doctrine. Golitsis outlines Pachymeres’ ideal for a philosophical life as contemplative and detached from worldly preoccupations, aware of God’s immutability and of man’s instability, and professing devoutness to God, albeit expressed through philosophy. Golitsis claims that Pachymeres was the first Byzantine to attempt to demonstrate that philosophy is compatible with Christian dogma through the complete exegesis of an ancient philosophical text. Moreover, the increased use of exegesis in the early Palaiologan period, as opposed to epitome, should be viewed as an indication of autonomous philosophical study.

Due to its inherent ambiguity and the tensions between philosophy, ‘Hellenism’, and Orthodoxy, the position of the philosopher in Byzantium was unique. Kaldellis challenges the portrayal of Byzantine philosophers as uniformly compliant with the tenets of Orthodox doctrine. In particular, his paper explores the Byzantine view that philosophy is essentially incompatible with, and even hostile to, the Christian faith, a position attested in the fact that a number of self-defined Byzantine philosophers who worked closely with ancient philosophical texts were accused of heterodoxy precisely because of their philosophical pursuits. Kaldellis’ chief contribution is his appeal to the reader to question existing preconceptions about Byzantine society and thought. He portrays Byzantine philosophers as idiosyncratic and eclectic, functioning in a contested cultural environment characterized by the “dynamic of Orthodoxy and dissidence” (133). In concordance with Angelov’s piece, although motivated by different concerns, Kaldellis also makes the point that the study of philosophical thought should not be based solely on commentaries on ancient philosophical treatises or technical philosophical works.

O’Meara’s essay examines the well-known Chronographia of the eleventh-century polymath Michael Psellos in the context of his philosophical work in order to, first, reconstruct the author’s views on political philosophy and, second, assess how he positioned them with respect to the tradition of political philosophy in antiquity. The starting point of O’Meara’s inquiry is Psellos’ distinction between two conditions of the soul, namely its life by itself and its life together with the body. The latter entails two possible lots for the soul, that is, a life dedicated to pleasure and a moderate life, a prerogative of the so-called ‘political’ man. This option, in turn, presupposes an ethical disposition one finds scrutinized by Psellos in the context of his discussion of the hierarchy of virtues. Importantly, Psellos views the hierarchy of virtues as a scale of perfection facilitating the soul’s ascent to God. Correspondingly, political virtue is qualified as the highest degree of assimilation to God pertaining to a soul living with the body. O’Meara suggests that Psellos’ biographies of Byzantine rulers in his Chronographia often represent conceptions of different virtues and vices and not mere rhetorical topoi associated with the ideal ruler. In particular, Psellos emphasizes that the ruler is essentially human and as (s)he rules over other such men and women, what is most needed is that (s)he possesses and employs his or her political virtue, a manifestation of which is the readiness to adapt to circumstances, as well as the will to accept advice and collaborate.

Papaioannou explores Byzantine conceptions of the relationship between philosophy and rhetoric, that is, between discursive content and discursive form, through the prism of the self-representation of philosophers with respect to rhetoric. Papaioannou focuses in particular on Psellos’ insistence on mixing philosophy with rhetoric, points to Synesios of Kyrene as Psellos’ model, and follows up with the reception of Psellos’ views and their appropriation by several twelfth-century writers, such as Michael Italikos and Euthymios Tornikes. Papaioannou’s central thesis is that, in Psellos’ case, “[f]or the first time in the history of the philosophico-rhetorical debate, the combination of philosophy with rhetoric is imagined as the ideal philosopher’s unified and single discursive practice” (183). Psellos’ self-representation as a rhetor-philosopher, himself the embodiment of the ideal intellectual figure, establishes rhetoric as an essential and central, rather than secondary and auxiliary, component of the philosopher’s persona.

Trizio deals with the late Byzantine reception of Books I and VI of Eustratios of Nicaea’s commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics. With the help of three case studies, Trizio establishes the textual dependence of several late Byzantine scholars on Eustratios. The first case is George Pachymeres’ paraphrase of the Nicomachean Ethics in his Philosophia, as well as of his fragmented commentary on that work (from book I to the beginning of book VI) preserved in Marcianus gr. 212 (1r-44r), Vaticanus gr. 1429 (1r-79v), and Escorialensis T.I.18 (1r-74v). Secondly, Trizio discusses a paraphrase of the Nicomachean Ethics by Heliodoros of Prusa which incorporated an argument from Eustratios’ commentary, thus establishing Heliodoros’ dependence on Eustratios. The third case is Nikephoros Gregoras’ Solutiones quaestionum I, as well as his Antilogia. Trizio demonstrates Gregoras’ dependence on Eustratios’ treatment of the fall of mankind and the loss of human perfection. Trizio points out that while the Palaiologan scholar liked Eustratios’ emphasis on the epistemological character of the fall, he nevertheless, unlike Eustratios, argued for complete humility of the human condition and was radically pessimistic with regard to the possibility of the restoration, even if partial, of the lost Adamic state.

In sum, the individual essays in the present volume open new and valuable perspectives for the study of Byzantine philosophical thought, providing in addition useful, though specialized, bibliographies. The authors bring forth important issues such as the relation between philosophy and Orthodoxy, rhetoric, and contemporary politics, thus addressing not only the problems explored by Byzantine thinkers but also their often contested status and role in Byzantine society. Undoubtedly, this is a volume addressed to a specialized audience. One of its goals, however, is to “persuad[e] its readership that Byzantine philosophy is worth investigating” (19). Thus, in my opinion, the reader could have been helped by several additions to the editors’ introduction, such as: (1) a concise discussion about how the papers included in the volume relate to the three questions, central to the study of Byzantine philosophical thought, listed by Ierodiakonou at the beginning; (2) an outline of the new issues raised by the contributors; and (3) greater emphasis on the implicit dialogues between the contributions.

Table of Contents

Editors’ Preface. ix.
1. Byzantine philosophy revisited (a decade after), Katerina Ierodiakonou. 1.
2. Classifications of political philosophy and the concept of royal science in Byzantium, Dimiter G. Angelov. 23.
3. Michael of Ephesus and the philosophy of living things (In De partibus animalium 22.25 – 23.9), George Arabatzis. 51.
4. A case for creationism: Christian cosmology in the 5th and 6th centuries, Börje Bydén. 79.
5. A Byzantine philosopher’s devoutness toward God: George Pachymeres’ poetic epilogue to his commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, Pantelis Golitsis. 109.
6. Byzantine philosophy inside and out: Orthodoxy and dissidence in counterpoint, Anthony Kaldellis. 129.
7. Political philosophy in Michael Psellos: the Chronographia read in relation to his philosophical work, Dominic J. O’Meara. 153.
8. Rhetoric and the philosopher in Byzantium, Stratis Papaioannou. 171.
9. On the Byzantine fortune of Eustratios of Nicaea’s commentary on Books I and VI of the Nicomachean Ethics, Michele Trizio. 199.
Index of Passages. 225.
Index of Names. 237.


1.   Ierodiakonou, Katerina, Byzantine Philosophy and Its Ancient Sources, Oxford, New York: Clarendon Press, 2002.
2.   See for instance BMCR 2002.10.37.

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