Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.08.23 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.08.23

Response: Hladký on Siniossoglou on Hladký, The Philosophy of Gemistos Plethon: Platonism in Late Byzantium, between Hellenism and Orthodoxy​.   Response to 2015.06.30

Response by Vojtěch Hladký​, Charles University, Prague (

The wish of any author is to find a reviewer whose account is perceptive, non-selective, and does not push his or her own issues. As I noted in my book recently reviewed by Niketas Siniossoglou (p. 6), the overall perspective, goals, and methodological approach of his Radical Platonism in Byzantium: Illumination and Utopia in Gemistos Plethon (Cambridge: CUP 2011) are irreconcilably divergent from mine and much the same could be said of his review. This is not the place to review Siniossoglou’s book, nor am I going to reply to its arguments elsewhere as he asks me,1 since the likely result of such a discussion would be just another tiresome scholarly dialogue of the deaf. Moreover, Siniossoglou’s work has already received critical attention and I have little to add to that discussion.2 What I would like to clarify here, though, are a few points in Siniossoglou’s review which I consider misleading, incorrect, or unfair. First of all, however, it may be useful to restate the main goal of my book (as explained in its Introduction, pp. 4–7) among other things because Siniossoglou fails to discuss it in his review.

The impressive personality of George Gemistos, also known as Plethon, a leading Byzantine philosopher of the fifteenth century, became, already during his lifetime, a projection screen for the hopes, dreams, and animosity of both his admirers and enemies. Modern scholarship, too, did not escape the charm of this sage, and scholarly speculations around his person have been growing and multiplying.

A good example could be the discussion, both ancient and modern, regarding Gemistos’ mysterious teacher Elissaeus, whom various scholars identify as a Jewish heretic, Hellenist or pagan in the ancient Greek sense, Zoroastrian, partisan of the Islamic philosophy of illumination promoted by Persian philosopher Suhrawardī, or a Kabbalist.3 All we know about him, however, comes from approximately one page of text by Gemistos’ arch-enemy Scholarios, who was writing some time after his death and many decades after Elissaeus and whose account is biased and unreliable (pp. 191–204). Even though all the various theories which link Gemistos to some esoteric or Oriental currents of thought were proposed in order to clarify some aspects of his philosophy, they are actually not of much help when it comes to better understanding the texts he left to us. Their only result has been the creation of even more layers of obscurity around Gemistos.

Although I admit that such speculations could be of some interest, my study consciously aims at their deconstruction. I believe that by a meticulous analysis of primary texts we can arrive at a perhaps less spectacular but more realistic and equally interesting picture of a Platonist philosopher who was an outstanding representative of a long tradition to which he contributed some original points. I also believe that such approach helps us to place his (in)famous pagan inclinations in a more tangible perspective.

In his criticism of my reconstruction of Plethon’s version of Platonism, which I undertook in part II of my book, Siniossoglou proposes a positive and ‘monistic’ explanation of the first principle (or Zeus in Plethon’s Laws) and its relation to the rest of the created things. In his interpretation, the first principle is not transcendent, that is, fundamentally ontologically different, with respect to them. But this claim does not survive a straightforward confrontation with what Plethon himself says. In the key passages in his Laws (54 [I,5]) as well as in his Differences (IV 326.31–327.4, X 337.7–26), Plethon’s concept of the structure of reality is hierarchical in the traditional (Neo-)Platonic sense. In particular, the first principle is said to be ‘supremely one’, that is, not allowing for any distinction between its essence, activity–actuality, and potentiality which, so to say, collapse within it into one. These distinctions gradually appear only at the lower levels of reality and this is what makes the first principle fundamentally different from everything generated by it (pp. 66–72). In Platonic thought, beginning with the discussion of the one in the first hypothesis of Plato’s Parmenides, it is exactly this absolute oneness and unity of the first principle that opens the way for negative theology.4 Moreover, the first principle is often described by Plethon as ‘super-essential (hyper-ousios)’, ‘being itself (auto-ōn)’, ‘transcendent (exairetos)’, or ‘eminent (exochos)’, which suggests that it is indeed ‘beyond being’. I concluded rather cautiously that these and other expressions ‘bring Plethon close to the Platonic tradition of negative theology’ (pp. 74–76), which should be understood in all its complexity. Certainly, Plethon does not follow in the footsteps of Christian thinkers such as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite who strongly emphasise that God is not accessible to human reason at all. That, however, does not mean that the first principle could be approached in a straightforward rational way as Siniossoglou claims, radicalising Brigitte Tambrun’s interpretation of Plethon as a positive theologian. Rather, Plethon draws on the Neoplatonic notion of the ‘flower of the intellect’, i.e., the most unified part of our intellect, which provides us with a particular kind of knowledge, surpassing anything we can learn through our senses, reasoning, or intellectual insight (Chaldaean Oracles, XXVIIIa, in Plethon’s edition accompanied with his commentary, cf. pp. 76–78). The whole issue thus seems rather a question of emphasising different aspects of the standard (Neo-)Platonic conception of the first principle which is transcendent with respect to the things produced by it.

As for the question of Gemistos’ alleged paganism, Siniossoglou reads my discussion backwards. Part III of my book presents a critical analysis of the textual evidence we have at our disposal, its aim being to give each its share of attention (and not to neglect or downplay any available text), since it is clear that some testimonies have been influenced by contemporary polemics or antagonism. As with all historical documents, some contextualisation was necessary, which is why I divided the authors of the testimonies into pupils and friends, admirers, and adversaries – the latter two did not have firsthand information. For example, scrutiny of the famous testimony by George of Trebizond revealed it to be largely a response to his personal disputes with Cardinal Bessarion, Gemistos’ most important pupil, which was written a long time after Trebizond and Gemistos had met (226–230). Various scholars today are rightly suspicious of Masai’s elaborate thesis about a secret pagan society around Gemistos in Mistra with branches reaching as far as Italy. There is little straightforward evidence to support Masai’s bold vision which was adopted also by Siniossoglou, unfortunately without any major re-examination.

According to my analysis of the evidence at our disposal, the question of Gemistos’ alleged polytheism is an issue more complex than usually claimed. It thus seems that had he indeed been a pagan, it would have been one of a largely intellectual kind, whose non-standard religious activities centred mainly on writing his Laws. The structure of this text, however, is less coherent than often supposed, which allows for interpretations other than it being a holy book of a secret society or a pagan manifesto. The evidence from Gemistos’ writings and regarding his life is so ambivalent that it seems to allow both for him to have been an unorthodox Christian with a vivid interest in ancient pagan religion, and for him to have been a secret polytheist outwardly supporting the Orthodox case. It is only in the last chapter of my book (pp. 272–285) where I suggest some conclusions. In less than fifteen pages (from which Siniossoglou takes almost all his references), I state rather tentatively that Gemistos should perhaps be seen as a Christian after all. I am, however, well aware that we can never be certain of it because we cannot look into Gemistos’ head.

As for Siniossoglou’s distinction between a social and an intellectual identity, it could be also taken the other way round. It is not only the case that one does not always act in accordance with one’s beliefs, but one can also change one’s views during life, plunge into fantastic speculations, or live in some intellectual sphere while behaving more or less consistently in one’s daily life. As a matter of fact, some of Gemistos’ actions, most notably his long-term position towards the Council of Ferrara-Florence suggest that he was personally involved in discussing the Christian faith and was even willing to take the risk of not complying with the Emperor’s wishes. All this should be taken seriously and considered almost equivalent to Gemistos’ public statement regarding his faith.

In general, while discussing Plethon’s paganism Siniossoglou seems to me a victim of his narrow preconceived definition of Christianity as irrational fideism and pagan Hellenism as utopian rationality (p. 6), which is motivated more by today’s issues and discussions than by the religious reality of fifteenth-century Europe. From my native Southern Bohemia all the way to Byzantium and Italy, it was indeed an age of religious transformations, a time when unorthodox and surprising ideas were emerging. To fully reconsider Plethon’s philosophical legacy in all its startling complexity is thus not a question of assuming some post-modern perspective but a task for a critical and unprejudiced scholar.


1.   In n. 4 of his review. The reference to a ‘blog post’ Siniossoglou makes is in fact my private correspondence about Plethon with Tatiana (Kassia) Senina, which she subsequently put online and commented upon with her friends without informing me of it. This is why it clearly should not be seen as my public statement.
2.   Ch.P. Baloglou in Βυζαντινά σύμμεικτα 22 (2012) 413–429; B. Bydén in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 37, pp. 151–152; A. Cameron, Byzantine Matters, Princeton, NU: Princeton University Press 2014, pp. 56, 60–64; Ch.W. Kappes in Archiv für Mittelaterliche Philosophie und Kultur 19 (2013) 210–243; G. Kapriev, in Gnomon 87.1 (2015) 68–71; S. Mariev in Byzantinische Zeitschrift 107.1 (2014) 273–278; M. Mavroudi, ‘Pletho as Subsersive and His Reception in the Islamic World’, in D. Angelov and M. Saxby, eds., Power and Subversion in Byzatium, Farnham, Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 179–180; F. Pagani in BMCR, 2013.07.12, [accessed July 5, 2015]; J. Sellars in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2012.09.15, plethon [accessed July 5, 2015]; G. Zografidis in Journal of Hellenic Studies 133 (2013) 306–307. Cf. also K. Ierodiakonou, ‘Byzantine Philosophy Revisited (a Decade after)’, in B. Bydén and K. Ierodiakonou, eds., The Many Faces of Byzantine Philosophy, Athens: The Norwegian Institute at Athens, 2012, 6–7.
3.   See recently N. Siniossoglou, ‘Sect and Utopia in Shifting Empires: Plethon, Elissaios, Bedreddin’, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 36.1 (2012) 38–55, Siniossoglou presents here an overview of different theories about Elissaeus proposed by various scholars, adding to them the utopian ideas of Sheikh Bedreddin.
4.   Cf. D. Carabine, The Unknown God: Negative Theology in Platonic Tradition: Plato to Eriugena, Louvain: Eerdmans 1995, 22–24, 111–119, 150–151. ​

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