BMCR 2002.10.37

Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources

, Byzantine philosophy and its ancient sources. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 1 online resource (309 pages). ISBN 1280907606 $55.00.

This handsomely jacketed book contains essays on a variety of philosophical topics, ranging from logic and epistemology to ethics, political science and even, surprisingly, theosophy, and covers a time period from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries. The contributing authors include well-known classical and Byzantine scholars as well as up-and-coming researchers. The editor has herself contributed two essays in addition to the introduction. The book has its origins, as the reader is not informed until p. 8, in a series of papers read and discussed at a conference on Byzantine philosophy in Thessaloniki in 1997, which explains some of the weaknesses of the book as a whole. I shall return to this point towards the end of this review.

In her general introduction, Ierodiakonou deals with questions such as “is there philosophical thinking in Byzantium?”, “who are the Byzantine philosophers?” and “how could one study the works of Byzantine philosophers?”. It seems to be chiefly addressed to newcomers to the field, but even so these introductory pages might have benefited from a more systematic exposition, and perhaps more careful revision of the writing style. The important question of when Byzantine philosophy actually begins is left hanging, that is, the editor presents various answers to the question without clearly declaring what view is to be followed in the volume itself. However, the question is answered de facto by what follows both in the introduction and in the essays selected, the implication being that one should include Church Fathers as early as Basil the Great among Byzantine philosophers. This is not the opinion of Linos Benakis as expressed in the concluding chapter, where he would see Byzantine philosophy as extending from Photios and Arethas up to the fall of Constantinople. Earlier than that, he says, “the philosophy was the philosophy of the Church Fathers who belonged to the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire.” A more reasoned analysis of this rather fundamental question would have been a welcome addition to the introduction.

Following the introductory chapter, we have Sten Ebbesen’s essay entitled “Greek-Latin Philosophical Interaction”, a rather surprising beginning for a book dedicated to the ancient sources of Byzantine philosophy. Ebbesen is, as always, interesting and informative, and his essay is a useful, general survey of the topic as seen from the vantage point of modern scholarship. In discussing what he calls “the fourth wave” of Greek-Latin interaction in the 12th century, he remarks that “Latins” came into contact with living Greek intellectuals for the first time in 600 years, a point with which one might want to quibble. It would have been nice to see here a reference to Kenneth Setton’s magisterial essay, “The Byzantine Background to the Italian Renaissance” (Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 100:1 1956, pp. 1-76). Given the general character of Ebbesen’s essay, it also surprised me to see no references to the various books by D. J. Geanakoplos dealing with the cultural interaction of East and West.

After Ebbesen’s general survey, we are invited to examine the details of a passage in Basil of Caesarea on “the semantics of proper names” (adversus Eunomium 2.4.1-26) in an interesting paper by Paul Kalligas. I remain, however, unconvinced as to his conclusion that Basil “extended the ontological theory we find in Porphyry … towards an extreme nominalist conclusion as concerns the semantics of proper names.” First of all, such a passage in a polemical text like this seems to me to be in need of evidence from elsewhere in Basil’s writings in order to warrant basing so sweeping a statement on it; secondly, the case for connecting Basil with Porphyry on this particular point needs a good deal of strengthening. It might also have been instructive to compare the similar terminology in the later tract against Eunomius by Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa. Kalligas’ article is, however, thought-provoking and will no doubt be of interest to students of ancient semantics.

To those interested in the tradition of ancient and medieval logic, this volume offers a paper by Jonathan Barnes, best known for his work on classical philosophy, and two papers by the editor of the book, Katerina Ierodiakonou. Barnes analyzes arguments in the chapter on logic in Heiberg’s anonymous textbook, a work primarily of interest for the history of education, and discusses the range of the syllogistic, proofs of non-concludency and the pons asinorum. As Barnes himself states, this work has little to offer in the way of “rich treasures to the logician”. In fact, I found the most interesting parts of his paper to be his background discussions, especially on Aristotle and Theophrastus and undetermined moods.

The anon Heiberg has at least one thing in common with Michael Psellos’ paraphrase of Aristotle’s De interpretatione, the text chosen for detailed analysis by Ierodiakonou in her first paper, namely that they both have a clear didactic purpose. Like a number of other philosophical tracts by Psellos, this one is also quite schematic and, so to speak, written for undergraduates. Ierodiakonou points out that Psellos “never neglected the study of Aristotle, and in particular of Aristotle’s logical writings,” a point especially worth noting inasmuch as he is normally seen as following in the tradition of so-called neo-Platonism. Ierodiakonou’s second paper deals with the much wider theme of what she calls “the anti-logical movement in the fourteenth century”. Of course, this “movement” is part of a much larger context, involving among many other features a general hostility on the part of Greek monks towards learning and scholarship. Ierodiakonou focusses on the debate regarding the use of Aristotelian logic between Nikephoros Gregoras, Barlaam and Gregory Palamas. Her essay offers us a useful sidelight on the whole controversy between Barlaam and Palamas and his followers.

John Duffy tries to explain the intellectual milieu of the age of Psellos in his paper entitled, “Hellenic Philosophy in Byzantium and the Lonely Mission of Michael Psellos”. His starting point is the definition of philosophy in the Suda as “correct moral practice combined with a doctrine of true knowledge about being”. (I might mention that Isidore of Seville offers us rather similar definitions, e.g. rerum humanarum divinarumque cognitio cum studio bene vivendi coniuncta, Etymologiae II.24.1; of course, the definitions Duffy mentions have a long history going back all the way to Hellenistic times). He uses these stock definitions to underline the fact that nearly all writers of the age immediately preceding Psellos were content to transmit ready-made descriptions of ancient philosophy without having much recourse to the sources. The title of Duffy’s paper was no doubt inspired by Psellos’ own remark: “I am a lone philosopher in an age without philosophy” (Oratoria minora, Leipzig 1985 op. 6,52-3). Duffy sums up Psellos’ philosophical ideal in the word polymatheia. Having myself worked with Byzantine miscellaneous collections, I was particularly intrigued by his argument that the various philosophical writings in cod. Barocci 131, admirably edited by N. Pontikos in 1992, show most of the characteristics of Psellan authorship. Duffy’s paper delineating the personality of Psellos makes a nice companion piece to Ierodiakonou’s detailed account of his Aristotelian paraphrase.

A discussion that dovetails with Ierodiakonou’s account of the so-called antilogical movement of the fourteenth century is George Karamanolis’ long paper on those two enigmatic figures of the fifteenth century, Plethon and Scholarios, and their debate regarding the relative merits of Plato and Aristotle. One cannot help but marvel at these two leading intellectuals slugging it out in abstruse polemics over Aristotelianism while the Byzantine Empire was sinking never more to rise. Karamanolis underlines an interesting aspect of the controversy by pointing that philosophers in both East and West were engaged in and influenced by the debate.

Moral philosophy receives its due in the form of two papers, one by Dominic O’Meara (“The Justinianic Dialogue On Political Science and its Neoplatonic Sources”), the other by Michael Frede (“John of Damascus on Human Action, the Will, and Human Freedom”). O’Meara develops Praechter’s thesis of the neo-Platonic roots of this anonymous dialogue. He holds that the author of the dialogue is arguing for a subordination of the Church to “constitutional law”, in striking contrast to pseudo-Dionysius, whom O’Meara, unlike Praechter, assumes is the earlier of the two writers, all of which seems convincing enough to me. Frede offers a good synopsis of the views of John Damascene on human freedom. His exposition is somewhat too lengthy — the page on the filioque controversy could, for example, have been shortened considerably — but it will no doubt be useful for scholars working in the area.

An essay dealing with yet another philosopher from the Palaeologan period, perhaps the best written, most tightly argued paper in the collection, comes from a relatively unknown Swedish scholar, who has recently defended a doctoral thesis on the same author. Börje Bydén not only discusses the background to Theodore Metochites’ fideistic defence of scepticism (Semeiosis 61) from the viewpoints of both philosophy and source criticism but also appends the entire text in Greek. Bydén concludes that Metochites had not read Sextus Empiricus nor (on less clear grounds) the Life of Pyrrho in Diogenes Laertius. Interestingly, he notes the surprising resemblance between the account of Scepticism in Metochites and various passages in Cicero, although he discounts Ciceronian influence as being highly doubtful. Here Bydén might have made more of the possibility of Metochites’ personal contact with Westerners which he only mentions. In his concluding remarks, Bydén writes that Metochites’ did not have a deep understanding of Scepticism and that his sympathy for it was probably strengthened by his admiration for Plutarch. Bydén’s paper is an excellent discussion of the ancient sources of a specific text of a Byzantine philosopher and is most deservedly included in the collection.

One might, however, question the inclusion of Polymia Athanassiadi’s otherwise quite interesting and very solid paper, “Byzantine Commentators on the Chaldean Oracles: Psellos and Plethon”. Is this really philosophy? Well, it does have some bearing on the complex issue of the relationship of faith in divine revelation and the use of scientific reasoning, a question underlying many of the debates and controversies mentioned above, from sceptical fideism and the “antilogical movement” of the 14th century to the polemics surrounding the merits of scholasticism in the 15th. Moreover, it is part and parcel of the miscellaneous interests of certain leading Byzantine philosophers. Indeed, it is difficult to produce a collection of essays on Byzantine philosophy without giving at least some impression of its being a miscellany. And this brings me to my concluding remarks.

The main problem with this volume is precisely that it is, basically, a collection of conference papers that is at the same time being packaged as a more general treatment of the subject. The introduction as a whole has in view a readership not terribly well acquainted with Byzantine philosophy. In fact, on p. 13 the editor writes: “If these articles persuade the reader that Byzantine philosophy is worth investigating, this volume has achieved its aim.” However, apart from Ebbesen’s essay, and Benakis’ very useful epilogue on “Current Research in Byzantine Philosophy”, it can hardly be said that the papers contained here are addressed to people who are not already persuaded that Byzantine philosophy is worth pursuing. The individual contributions are, rather, intended for other specialists, and the book itself offers very little for any non-specialist seduced by the title into thinking this to be a systematic and general treatment of the transmission and development of ancient Greek philosophy in the Byzantine Middle Ages. Of course, a solid, systematic, well-arranged general introduction, supplying a richer context for the specialized essays, might have provided compensation for such a reader, but that is not to be found in this volume, nor would it have been needed if the book were simply advertised as intended for specialists. Indeed, it surprises me that OUP was persuaded to publish this collection in the first place. It might very well not have, had the book been packaged as what it is: a collection of conference papers — excellent in themselves and written by experts. Like any such collection, however, it provides uneven rewards. For it is of interest primarily to those specialists in the same field who were unable to attend the conference.