Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.02.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.02.03

Sergei Mariev (ed.), Byzantine Perspectives on Neoplatonism. Byzantinisches Archiv - Series Philosophica, 1.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2017.  Pp. 289.  ISBN 9781501511677.  $140.00.  


Reviewed by Ken Parry, Macquarie University (ken.parry@mq.edu.au)

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This volume, the first in a new series within the Byzantinisches Archiv, is a welcome addition to the increasing body of texts and studies on Byzantine philosophy. It is only in the last twenty years or so that we have seen growth in this field of Byzantine studies following the pioneering work of Basil Tatakis (1896-1996) and Linos Benakis (b. 1928). More recent work has advanced the subject in defining what is meant by Byzantine philosophy, and the Cambridge Intellectual History of Byzantium edited by Anthony Kaldellis and Niketas Siniossoglou (Cambridge University Press 2017), is a recent survey of the field, but there is still some way to go before the subject becomes better known.1

The volume is the result of two panels on Byzantine Neoplatonism organised at the annual conferences of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies in 2013 and 2014. In his introductory chapter, Sergei Mariev presents an overview of the map showing the territory still waiting to be explored by modern scholarship. Chapter two, ‘The Divine Body of the Heavens,’ by Mariev and Monica Marchetto, studies debates on the nature of the heavenly bodies in late antiquity and their reception in the work of Michael Psellos and John Italos. The chapter surveys the idea of the fifth element in Plotinus, Proclus, Philoponus, and Simplicius and gives an overview of the contribution of the Cappadocian Fathers, especially Gregory of Nazianzus in his Oration 28. The authors then jump to the eleventh century (although they might have noted that John of Damascus discusses the topic in his Expositio fidei). They examine in some detail Michael Psellos’ discussion and rejection of conceiving God as a divine body, as well as John Italos on the differences between Plato and Aristotle on the subject.

Michele Trizio’s chapter, ‘The Waves of Passions and the Stillness of the Sea: Appropriating Neoplatonic Imagery and Concept Formation-Theory in Middle Byzantine Commentaries on Aristotle,’ looks at the reception of Proclus’ works by Michael of Ephesus and Eustratius of Nicaea, concentrating on the latter author. He discusses the metaphor of waves and water in characterising the passions of the embodied soul in contrast to the sea’s stillness for the soul’s impassibility. Eustratius’ terminology relating to the passions and the soul’s desire to overcome them by means of direct and non-discursive knowledge of the divine derives largely from Proclus. Trizio shows the parallels in the Greek texts of both authors to demonstrate this, but also draws attention to Eustratius’ own use of Neoplatonic vocabulary and metaphor in his commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics. This would appear to owe something to the wider revival of Neoplatonic allegorical exegesis in Byzantium in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Graeme Miles, in his chapter ‘Psellos and his Traditions,’ examines the impact of the traditions of Platonism and Christianity on Psellos and his handling of the tensions between them. Given some previous opinions expressed on this subject there should be no doubt now about the truth of his Christianity (pace Kaldellis, 2012).2 Psellos was both a philosopher and a Christian, a Christian philosopher in fact, and the epitome of the intellectual monk. This is one of the most level-headed assessments of Psellos’ modus operandi I have come across, and it should become the go-to paper on the topic in the future. Just one minor observation: Miles draws attention to Psellos’ discussion of three types of exegesis relating to the body, soul, and intellect, but does not mention that this tripartite schema was developed by Origen in his scriptural hermeneutics and outlined in his Peri Archon.

Joshua Robinson writes on ‘Proclus as Heresiarch: Theological Polemic and Philosophical Commentary in Nicholas of Methone’s Refutation (Anaptyxis) of Proclus’ Elements of Theology.’ Nicholas was motived to write this refutation by the interest that his contemporaries showed in Proclus and his fears that they might be led into heresy. It is clear from his approach that his intention was to demonstrate the discrepancies that he perceived between Proclean and Christian teaching. Proclus was not a Christian heretic, of course, but pagan philosophers were held responsible for heresy from an early stage in Christian history. Nicholas’ assimilation of Proclean ideas to the heresies of Arius, Eunomius, and Nestorius was a well-established practice within the genre of heresiology. This was not an attempt to understand Proclus on his own terms. Robinson’s paper is instructive in elucidating Nicholas’ methodology, and the author’s forthcoming English translation of his Refutation is eagerly awaited.

Magda Mtchedlidze entitles her chapter ‘Two Conflicting Positions regarding the Philosophy of Proclus in Eastern Christian Thought of the Twelfth Century.’ The two positions in question are those of Nicholas of Methone and Ioane Petritsi, whose differences show up in the prolegomena to their respective works on Proclus’ Elements of Theology.3 The first is a refutation, aimed at saving Christians from heresy, the second a translation into Georgian with commentary, designed to bring Proclus to the attention of Georgian readers and to demonstrate what is common to Neoplatonic philosophy and Christian theology. The author compares Petritsi’s approach to the attitude of Michael Psellos and John Italos towards pagan wisdom. Her paper offers an exercise in contrast between two contemporary thinkers by shedding light on their respective interests and motivations.

In his chapter ‘The Reception of Proclus: From Byzantium to the West (an Overview),’ Jesús de Garay provides a survey of the reception of Proclus in the Greek and Latin traditions.4 Proclus was made accessible to the West through the thirteenth-century Latin translations of William Moerbeke. It was Nicholas of Cusa and Marsilio Ficino, however, who took on board Proclus’ ideas and wove them into their intellectual worldview. In Byzantium, Michael Psellos and John Italos engaged directly with his works (and the latter was condemned for being inspired by Proclus’ errors). The author demonstrates how Plethon utilised Proclus, but also how he differed from him in his rejection of the mystical side of Neoplatonism, probably owing to his distaste for the promotion of Palamite hesychasm by the Byzantine Church. The similarities and differences in the reception of Proclus in Byzantium and the West are clearly brought out in this handy overview of the material, and he concludes by tabulating the direct and indirect receptions of Proclus in both regions. However, we still need a detailed history of the reception of Proclus throughout the Byzantine era.

Flavia Buzzetta and Varlerio Napoli, provide an extensive chapter entitled ‘Elementi di demonologia neoplatonica nell’opuscolo bizantino Τία περὶ δαιμόνων δοξάζουσιν Ἕλληνες.’ This text on Neoplatonic demonology was attributed to Michael Psellos and known in the West in Latin translation as Graecorum opiniones de daemonibus; it was widely read in Renaissance Europe.5 The Greek text with French translation was published by Paul Gautier in 1988. The authors explore in some detail the nature of Neoplatonic demonology, covering the contributions of Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, and others. They describe the classification of demonic orders with their different types of activity, particularly as they relate to punishment and death, bodily shape and appearance, and finally divination. In conclusion, the authors remark that the work in question is a testimony to the distribution of Neoplatonic ideas in Byzantium, to the translatio studiorum, and to their continuation in the Latin West. This is an important contribution showing the interest in the topic of Neoplatonic demonology in Byzantium. A new collection of studies published this year, based on a panel at the 2014 conference of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies, continues discussion of this fascinating subject.6

In ‘Plethon on the Grades of Virtues: Back to Plato via Neoplatonism,’ Lela Alexidze looks at Porphyry’s scales of virtues in Ioane Peritsi and Gemistos Plethon. She suggests that Plethon’s promotion of political virtues sets him apart from his Neoplatonic predecessors. The four cardinal virtues of Plato, wisdom, justice, courage and temperance, are each subdivided by Plethon into three, making twelve in all. The author compares Porphyry’s Sentences to Plethon’s theory of virtues and concludes that for the latter the civic virtues were more concrete and embodied. She goes on to suggest that his unitive understanding of the body-soul relationship and the active life may own something to the Christian understanding of the human person as a composite being. However, one might note that Proclus in his commentary on the Republic sketches a rather positive picture of the relation of soul to body.7

The final chapter, by Udo Reinhold Jeck, ‘Europa entdeckt die mittelalterliche byzantinisch-georgische Philosophie,’ surveys the European discovery of Byzantine-Georgian philosophy from the middle Byzantine period. He looks at the contribution of four early nineteenth-century scholars, namely the Germans Klaproth and Creuzer, Sjögren from Finland, and the Frenchman Brosset. Perhaps the best known of these is Brosset, who specialised in Georgian and Armenian and who published his Histoire de la Géorgie in 1849. All these authors have something to say about Ioana Petritsi and his translation of Proclus’ Elements of Theology, which brought him to the attention of European scholarship. The author concludes with a comprehensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

The volume lacks a chapter that covers the early Byzantine period. The title leads one to expect there would be such a chapter, and there is a lot that remains to be said about the subject before the eleventh century. Apart from some inconsistencies in presenting the chapter titles, in the Anglicising of Greek names, and some errors in the footnotes, which will be spotted by the keen reader, the volume is generally well presented. An index would have been helpful. For anyone wanting to learn more about philosophy in the middle and late Byzantine periods this work will be required reading.

Table of Contents

Neoplatonic Philosophy in Byzantium, by Sergei Mariev.
The Divine Body of the Heavens, by Sergei Mariev & Monica Marchetto.
The waves of passions and the stillness of the sea: appropriating neoplatonic imagery and concept formation-theory in middle Byzantine commentaries on Aristotle, by Michele Trizio.
Psellos and his Traditions, by Graeme Miles.
Proclus as Heresiarch: Theological Polemic and Philosophical Commentary in Nicholas of Methone’s Refutation (Anaptyxis) of Proclus’ Elements of Theology, by Joshua Robinson.
Two Conflicting Positions Regarding the Philosophy of Proclus in Eastern Christian Thought of the twelfth Century, by Magda Mtchedlidze.
The Reception of Proclus: From Byzantium to the West (an Overview), by Jesús de Garay.
Elementi di demonologia neoplatonica nell’opuscolo bizantino Τίνα περὶ δαιμόνων δοξάζουσιν Ἕλληνες, by Flavia Buzzetta & Valerio Napoli.
Plethon on the Grades of Virtues: Back to Plato via Neoplatonism?, by Lela Alexidze.
Europa entdeckt die mittelalterliche byzantinisch-georgische Philosophie, by Udo Reinhold Jeck.

Notes:


1.   There is now a Facebook page for The International Network for Byzantine Philosophy: https://www.facebook.com/IntlNetworkforByzPhil/.
2.   Anthony Kaldellis, ‘Byzantine Philosophy inside and out: Orthodoxy and Dissidence in Counterpoint,’ in The Many Faces of Byzantine Philosophy, eds. B. Bydén and K. Ierodiakonou (Athens, 2012), 129-151.
3.   For more on Petritsi see the section devoted to him in Georgian Christian Thought and Is Cultural Context: Memorial Volume for the 125th Anniversary of Shalva Nutsubidze (1888-1969), eds. T. Nutsubidze, C. Horn and B. Lourié. Texts and Studies in Eastern Christianity, 2 (Leiden, 2014).
4.   See his earlier contribution, ‘The Work of Proclus and its Reception in Byzantium,’ in Mapping Knowledge. Cross-Pollination in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, eds. C. Burnett and P. Mantas. London, 2014, 25-38, and my own survey, ‘Reading Proclus Diadochus in Byzantium,’ in Reading Plato in Antiquity, eds. H. Tarrant and D. Baltzly (London, 2006), 223-235.
5.   See the study by Darin Hayton, ‘Michael Psellos’ De Daemonibus in the Renaissance’, in Reading Michael Psellos, eds. C. Barber and D. Jenkins. (Leiden, 2006), 193-215.
6.   See Luc Brisson, Seamus O’Neill, and Andrei Timotin, eds. Neoplatonic Demons and Angels. (Leiden, 2018).
7.   See the paper by Dirk Baltzly, ‘Civil Virtues and the Goal of Likeness to God in Proclus’ Republic Commentary’, in Eastern Christianity and Late Antique Philosophy, eds. E. Anagnostou-Laoutides and K. Parry. Texts and Studies in Eastern Christianity. Leiden (forthcoming).

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