BMCR 2015.06.30

The Philosophy of Gemistos Plethon: Platonism in Late Byzantium, between Hellenism and Orthodoxy

, The Philosophy of Gemistos Plethon: Platonism in Late Byzantium, between Hellenism and Orthodoxy. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. xii, 390. ISBN 9781409452942. $144.95.

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When it comes to philosophy, Byzantium can hardly claim a prize for distinction. The enigmatic Gemistos Plethon is one glaring exception and interest in his work has never been greater.1 Hladký’s book is a valuable contribution to the study of Plethon that also daringly proposes a re-evaluation of what is commonly seen as Plethon’s trademark: his paganism. Hladký believes that Plethon was “an unorthodox Christian with a strong inclination to ancient thought” (blurb), rather than a pagan.

In Part 1, Hladký summarizes Plethon’s social and political reformism as contained in the Address to Theodore (ca. 1415) and Address to Manuel (1418). He notes that there is no reference to the role of the Christian religion here but only to a vague theion that is never qualified. Yet he is quick to downplay the significance of this oddity on the grounds that Plethon was not “a professional theologian” (29). Even if there was such a thing in Byzantium, it should be noted that the established convention for Byzantine “mirrors for princes” was to include explicit references to emperors as proponents of the Christian faith.

Part 2 presents a detailed discussion of the core ideas of Plethon’s Platonism based on his work on the Chaldean Oracles, the Differences between Plato and Aristotle, the notorious Laws and smaller treatises. It is the most extensive, well-organized and useful part of the book, and it will remain a standard point of reference to anyone interested in Plethon. One disagreement here concerns Hladký’s objections to Brigitte Tambrun’s reconstruction of Plethon’s positive theology.2 Hladký believes that the super-essentiality of Plethon’s first principle (“Zeus”/Being qua Being) in relation to lower ontological strata implies some sort of “insurmountable difference” (74) that makes concessions to negative theology. However,, apophaticism commonly implies the god’s radical ontological alterity, whereas the difference between Zeus (the One) and the gods/Forms (the Many) in Plethon concerns Zeus’s causal priority and superiority in purity, strength and splendor. Exairetos does not mean “transcendent”, but “excellent”: it’s not as if Zeus was imparticipable, some single-malt whisky that is forever out of reach, while other gods are habitual pub ales, but rather as if only Zeus was an absolutely top class ale. Hierarchies of gods/forms variously exemplify and communicate gradations of Being in a process that Plethon calls ἀνάπτυξις, i.e., unfolding (aptly described by Fritz Schultze, a pioneer scholar of Plethon, as “Selbstbesonderung”: “self-specification,” or, according to Dimitrios Dedes’ reverse translation into Greek, “αὐτοκαθεκάστωσις, αὐτειδίκευσις,” or “αὐτεπιμερίκευσις τοῦ Εἶναι”).3 This monistic reading is fully consistent with Plethon’s insistence on the biological kinship between Zeus and all divinities directly or indirectly emanating from Being/One, i.e., himself: the ontological system (σύστημα) is also a unified organism in a perpetual state of creation and evolution. Zeus is not really beyond Being.

In Part 3, Hladký questions the communis opinio regarding Plethon’s paganism. After approximately 150 pages containing an almost exhaustive presentation of Plethon’s Zeus, gods, Titans, daemons and their philosophical correspondences, Hladký has stacked the deck against the conclusion he wants to draw at the end. The reader can hardly now conclude that Plethon was anything but pagan.

Hladký invokes Plethon’s support of orthodoxy at the Synod of Ferrara-Florence (1438/9) and his other “public” writings. Specifically, unwilling to accept Plethon as an agent provocateur in the Reply to Scholarios, or concede the limitations of genre in his monody On Helen, Hladký concludes that Plethon “was a firm Christian” (280). As for the magnum opus, the Laws, he awkwardly sweeps it under the rug on the grounds that it “must have been created for some personal purposes only” (271), and that its arguments “are developed in a special kind of discourse of a self-stylization as the second Plato, in which the author does not respect scholarly distance from someone else’s philosophy, but, on the contrary, attempts to develop it further in a creative way” (279). Hladký believes that this is “a special kind of discourse, in which Gemistos identified with his more classical alter ego, Plethon, a second Plato or his reincarnation” (278). Oddly, this presumed identification does not extend to the actual ideas of pagan Platonism. On the contrary, Hladký’s excursion into the literary paranormal is meant to preclude Plethon’s genuine and sincere commitment to the ideas contained in the Laws, so that he makes the latter into “a kind of exercise book,” “workbook” (263), or “game” (278). Eventually Plethon is reduced to a literary straw man, yet another Byzantine conformist who meant no offense.

I would like to comment on a few aspects of Hladký’s contention that Plethon was either Christian in some generic and unqualified sense of the word, or even “firmly” Christian.4

Sooner or later any discussion of Plethon’s religious affiliations will boil down to how one evaluates his purported support for Greek Orthodoxy at the Synod of Ferrara-Florence. Hladký closes the book with a reminder that “[w]hen he [Plethon] was forced to choose, he declared himself publicly an Orthodox Christian, and we should accept and respect this as the most plausible statement about his faith” (285). But people “publicly” say and do all sort of things to support their community, keep others happy, pursue their own projects through the best means available, or save themselves from trouble, and Plethon was hard pressed by circumstance. In opposing union between the Latin and Byzantine Churches, he was not only siding with Mark Eugenikos of Ephesos; he was siding with the majority of the Byzantines back home who felt severely threatened by the religious inflexibility of the Catholics, and were inclining toward the more religiously tolerant Ottomans. Opposition to union is hardly proof of sincere or rigid Orthodoxy – Byzantines had resented the Catholics for a long time and for many reasons, a tradition that from time to time is still observable throughout the Orthodox world. The Laws were obviously addressed to a Greek-speaking audience, and Plethon could imagine that his radical project would not fare well under Latin rule.

A helpful way to advance the discussion is to distinguish between social identity and intellectual identity. This distinction would help us better to interpret Plethon’s support for the majority of Greeks against Latin religious and cultural imperialism, while maintaining the philosophical integrity of the Laws. Hladký assumes that Plethon’s social and intellectual identities overlapped always and in all cases, so that any appearance of pagan sentiment or allegiance that could not have been actualized socially should not be taken seriously on the intellectual level, either. He also repeatedly stresses the “personal” nature of the Laws project. But personal does not equal insincere; quite the contrary, given the understandable risks involved in secretly writing about pagan divinities in Byzantium.

Hladký’s project, in a nutshell, is to show that Plethon was “heterodox” without exiting “the limits of Christianity” (270). These limits, however, must have been more loose and flexible than any Christian authority had ever been willing to allow: the Laws advocate positions that directly contradict the Christian worldview, including determinism and the eternity of the world. If neither pagan hymnography and symbolism, nor their corresponding conceptual apparatus suffice to conclusively make Plethon a non-Christian Platonist, it is hard to see what would. Was Byzantine Orthodoxy so fluid, relative and all-inclusive, or is this a convenient misconception? Can all Byzantines be defined a priori as Christians in some unqualified sense of the word?

From the viewpoint of Palamite Orthodoxy (that is, in Plethon’s context, Orthodoxy par excellence), Hladký’s idea that the author of the Laws is “rather an unorthodox Christian with a strong inclination to ancient thought” seems to be both a euphemism and a contradiction in terms: for it was impossible to be Christian in an unorthodox way. This is not a question of assuming a “rigid and conservative Christian perspective” (285); it is in fact the robust existential self-definition upheld by the Byzantines against both Latin theology and pagan Platonism. Plethon is not “pagan” according to modern criteria subject to revision and rebuttal – he is pagan according to firm theological criteria upheld by Scholarios, Matthew Kamariotes, and their contemporaries. To elide these is an anachronism.

Perhaps Hladký’s Plethon is better suited to our post-modern, de-sacralised world. Formerly religious linguistic signs now flood our everyday lives without our necessarily committing ourselves to their potentially deeper meaning and significance. Hladký treats paganism as a mere literary game and, to make Plethon a Christian, he allows for any intellectual activity to be Christian, provided appearances are kept up in public. There can ultimately be no commitment, existential or authorial.

But does it matter whether Plethon was pagan or Christian? Some would argue that it is enough to comment on what he wrote about this argument of Plato or that line by Aristotle, without going into issues as ambiguous and sensitive as personal religious affiliation. The issue, however, matters immensely to anyone who wants to go past the level of Schulphilosophie. First, because the relation of Hellenism to Christianity mattered to Plethon’s contemporaries and influenced their self-definition; and second, because Hladký’s approach disregards the specific characteristics of Byzantine Orthodoxy as a worldview and way of being, thus construing the hegemony of a presumably undifferentiated and malleable Christian discourse in Byzantium – a move that would be offensive to the actual Byzantine defenders of Orthodox identity who were at odds with Latin theology and Greek philosophy. To adapt the terminology of Slavoj Zizek, we are now being presented with a de-caffeinated Byzantium. As with alcohol-free beer and decaffeinated coffee, the problem is ontological: the final product conveniently smoothes out the rough edges of Byzantine intellectual history, while retaining the illustrious brand name Byzantium.5

Hladký also downplays testimonies to Plethon’s paganism (e.g., by George of Trebizond, pp. 227-9) while overstating the evidence for his social identity as an Orthodox layman. The reader is struck by the disproportionate significance of that evidence: Plethon’s paganism is attested by both Christians acquainted with the man or his works and fellow Hellenists in Mistra (Kabakes, Apostoles). Hladký discredits the former as “enemies” who “exaggerated, if not created” Plethon’s paganism and the latter as “eccentric admirers” who “zealously accepted” an exaggerated story (270). Discrediting their testimonies is part of a circular argument that relies on the premise that Plethon was not adhering to a pagan worldview. What we have from the Laws reads more like a treatise than a scrap-book or literary game; and there is evidence that the pagan philosophical doctrines in that treatise correspond to Plethon’s understanding of Platonism in some of his “public” works, most significantly in On the Differences Between Plato and Aristotle. Hence, Gennadios Scholarios and Matthew Kamariotes, who diagnosed the essential incompatibility between Plethon’s ideas and their own, deserve serious attention. There is a danger that we might project into the past a form of cultural and religious relativism unknown to either Plethon or Scholarios.

Hladký’s English prose is generally clear. The bibliography is extensive – one conspicuous absence is the important book on Plethon and Byzantine humanism by I. Medvedev, which incidentally documents the need for contextualizing Plethon’s intellectual endeavor.6 In sum: anyone interested in Plethon and the history of Platonism will profit from this book. 7

[For a response to this review by Vojtěch Hladký​, please see BMCR 2015.08.23.] ​


1. The proceedings of the latest conference on Plethon were recently published; cf. J. Matula and P. R. Blum (eds.) Georgios Gemistos Plethon: The Byzantine and the Latin Renaissance, Olomouc: Palacky University Press 2014.

2. B. Tambrun, Pléthon. Le retour de Platon, Paris: Vrin 2006, 67-93.

3. Δ. Δέδες, Ο βίος και το έργο του Γεωργίου Πλήθωνος Γεμιστού: Φιλόσοφος και Μυσταγωγός, Athens 2011, unpublished monograph, 38.

4. I would have expected Hladký to offer replies to the arguments against Plethon as a Christian that I have presented elsewhere and which, I believe, make his thesis untenable: see N. Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism in Byzantium: Illumination and Utopia in Gemistos Plethon, Cambridge: CUP 2011, 155-9). In a recent blog post on his book Hladký says that he could not “make many changes” to his text, as the book was “already sent to the publisher” ( mon_kassia переписка с Хладки); so I am not going to repeat these arguments here, in the expectation that Hladký will address them in the future.

5. For a recent example see A. Cameron, Byzantine Matters, Princeton University Press, 2014.

6. I. Medvedev, Vizantijskij gumanism XIV-XV vv., Leningrad 1976.

7. Those interested in the deeper significance of intellectual and religious affinities in the history of ideas should consult François Masai’s still masterful study: Fr. Masai, Plιthon et Le Platonisme de Mistra, Paris 1956. ​