Late Byzantine Philosophy

Late Byzantine philosophers continued and expanded the time-honored tradition of commenting on the texts of Plato, Aristotle and other great Ancient thinkers. However, they generally had fewer resources to work with than did the empire before the Latin occupation (1204-61), owing to the destruction or theft of innumerable works by the Crusaders.

Nevertheless, the secular University of Constantinople, established in the 4th century, continued ot operate until the 14th century, and  provided a solid education across the Classical curriculum. Imperial and aristocratic patronage, as well as that of the Orthodox Church, also enabled thinkers to work.

Manuscript page from Nikiphoros Blemmydes’ Epitome Physica, Florence

The prime example of the inherited tradition was the great 9th-century Patriarch Photios (c. 810-893), who compiled numerous texts by ancient authors; modern paleographers consider as probably the last Byzantine scholar to have copied certain ancient works now lost because of the Latin pillaging in 1204. Photios studied Aristotelian logic, while his student Arethas (c. 860- c. 939) commentated on Plato and Aristotle as well.

Like Photios and Arethas, Byzantine philosophers also tended to write on a variety of other subjects. Michael Psellos (1017- c. 1078), for example, is most remembered for his historiography (the Chronographia or Fourteen Byzantine Rulers), but he also commented on ancient philosophers, as did contemporaries like Eustratius of Nicaea (c. 1050- c. 1120), and fellow 12th-century philosopher Michael of Ephesus, who also wrote commentaries on Aristotle.

The Late Byzantine philosophical period properly begins post-1204 with 13th-century thinkers like Nikiphoros Blemmydes (1197-1272), Georgios Pachymeres (1242- c. 1310) and Nikiphoros Choumnos (c. 1250-1327). Following the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204, Blemmydes’ family moved to Anatolia and one of three Byzantine successor states, the Empire of Nicaea. He was educated at Prusa (modern Bursa), Nicaea (modern Iznik) and Smyrna (modern Izmir), eventually become a priest and teacher to nobles of the Nicaean dynasty like Theodoros II Laskaris. Blemmydes established his own school, continued the tradition of compiling and copying ancient manuscripts, and wrote several works of his own on philosophy and theology, including on logic and physics. Blemmydes’ students included the historiographer George Akropolites (1217-1282). Blemmydes’ own works on Aristotelian physics and logic attracted the attention of Byzantine and even Western thinkers of his time, proving influential.

The learned Georgios Pachymeres was respected as both a philosopher and historian in late Byzantium.

As for Georgios Pachymeres, this slightly later thinker was born in Nicaea during the Latin occupation but after 1261, returned to Constantinople where he became the Orthodox Church’s chief legal advisor. Although known mostly for his lengthy history (which continued on Akropolites’ narrative), he also wrote numerous philosophical texts including comments on Aristotle and the letters of Pseudo-Dyonsius the Areopagite, as well as a very important educational compendium, the Quadrivium (covering arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy). For his part, Choumnos was also a politically-involved figure, an early advisor to Andronikos II, and author of texts ranging from panegyrics for the emperor to polemics against rival scholars, like Theodoros Metochites.

In philosophical matters, Choumnos was most known for a rigid support of Aristotle as a rational basis for Christianity, and for his opposition to Platonism and Neo-Platonism. Choumnos did this in texts criticizing Platonic theories of substance and forms. In his Refutation of Plotinus’ theories on the soul, Choumnos attempted to prove Christian theological teaching. Like many other scholars, Choumnos could sacrifice his beliefs for political expedience, thus his own renunciation of pro-Unionist positions after coming into the service of the piously Orthodox Andronikos II. The countervailing pressures of the Union question and reconciliation of Classical Greek philosophy with Orthodox theology in general generated the requisite tension for all such thinkers when reacting to metaphysical questions. The tendency to support Aristotle – already well-attested by the Palaiologan period – over Plato thus owed considerably to the influence of the West post-1204, but was not held by all, as notable late figures such as Gemistos Plethon will indicate.

The 14th-century, which saw long periods of turbulence and civil strife despite the recovered status of much formerly Byzantine lands, saw continued notable philosophical activity. Joseph Rhakendytes or ‘Joseph the Philosopher’ (1280-1330) was a Thessaloniki monk who moved to Constantinople in 1307. Apparently enjoying the patronage of Andronikos II with other court intellectuals, he had wide philosophical interests and is best for know compiling an Encyclopedia of various categories of knowledge, with his views on rhetoric forming a substantial partm. In 1324, he returned to Thessaloniki.

Thomas Magistros (c. 1275-1347) was another important figure from Thessaloniki, which begsan to rival Constantinople as the Byzantine intellectual capital during the Palaiologan period. Little is known of his life, except that he was a student of the famous anthologist-monk Maximos Planoudes (c. 1260-1305) and himself became a monk named Theodoulos. Yet here the peculiarly Byzantine connection with Antiquity meant that, despite his clerical duties, Magistros was a lover of Antique secular literature to the extent that he penned a large lexicon on proper Attic Greek prose usage, citing numerous leading ancient writers like Thucydides and Aristides.

The most famous figure in the 14th century, however, was philosopher-courtier Theodoros Metochites (1270-1332). Son of the fervently pro-Church union figure George Methochites, he grew up in Anatolian exile but made a personal impression on Emperor Andronikos II, who brought him from a young age to the imperial court in Constantinople. Serving as a senatior, imperial advisor and ambassador, Theodoros Metochites would become one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Constantinople. He used this wealth to patronize the arts (such as the frescoes of the Chora Monastery, one of which famously still captures his likeness), and compiling manuscript collections. Metochites simply followed in the footsteps of most of his forebears, being heavily involved in the high affairs of church and state. However, after Andronikos II was overthrown by his grandson, Andronkis III in 1328, Metochites was stripped of his possessions and died as a monk five years later.

His most important surviving works, aside from orations and poetry, include philosophical treatises on Aristotle, works on natural philosophy, a study of Ptolemy’s astronomy and assorted essays on various subjects.

Another compendium on Ancient Greek logic was authored by Ioannis Chortasmenos (c. 1370–1437), a monk employed as a notary of the patriarchal chancery. Although his primary contributions came in mathematics and astronomy, he also had an indirect but vital role as teacher to some of 15th-century Byzantium’s most notable figures in theology and philosophy, such as Mark of Ephesus (1392-1444), Bessarion (1403-1472) and Georgios Scholarios (c. 1400- c. 1473).

The last, who would become the first Orthodox Patriarch after the Ottoman invasion (under the name Gennadios), is chiefly remembered for his polemical engagement and defense of Aristotle against Georgios Gemistos Plethon (c. 1355- 1452),  a larger-than-life figure who emigrate from Constantinople to the Principality of the Morea (Peloponnese) under Byzantine control, enjoying the support of local authorities and penning a free-thinking oeuvre incomparable to anything that had existed for centuries. Plethon’s work involved defenses of Platonism (chiefly in his polemics with Scholarios), treatises on Zoroastrianism, fate, and numerous other topics. Although we cannot be sure of much of his actual conclusions – because archrival Scholarios had his monumental Nomoi (Book of Laws) burned after Plethon’s death – history records that he was a supporter of restoring paganism.

The most unique and possibly most controversial Byzantium ever produced, Georgios Gemistos Plethon was an ardent Neo-Platonist with wide knowledge of classical Greek and non-Greek philosophies.

While Scholarios may have actually been correct in his contentions that he himself understood Aristotle better than Plethon, he was certainly not as popular among the Renaissance Italians. Asked to accompany the imperial delegation that set off for the 1438-39 Council of Ferrara-Florence (meant to get Italian military support against the Turks in exchange for a church union), the white-bearded Plethon drew the rapt attention of the Medici court, giving side lectures on Platonism- a much more interesting distraction to the clerical argumentation going on officially. For the Italians, eager to absorb this ancient knowledge, Plethon’s performance was something akin to a Socratic visit.

The ground had been prepared already by numerous Greek scholars who fled to Italy, either directly or through the Italian-held islands of Cyprus and Crete, as the Turks consolidated their control leading up to the 1453 conquest of Constantinople. In this way too, many invaluable manuscripts were saved and disseminated in Western Europe. One of the first and most important Byzantine émigrés in Italy was Manuel Chrysoloras (c. 1355-1415). After himself having been sent on an imperial mission to Italy in 1390, this scholar and teacher developed contacts with leading Italians of the day and returned in 1397, becoming a teacher to famous Italian humanists like Leonardo Bruni (c. 1370-1444) and Ambrogio Traversari (1386–1439). Chrysoloras wrote many texts on different subjects, but his Greek grammar, the Eromata, became famous as the first standard-issue such grammar used in the Renaissance West, affecting thinkers from Italy to England and Germany.

Additional Reading on this topic:

Katerina Ierodiakonou, Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources

N.G. Wilson, Scholars of Byzantium

N.G. Wilson, From Byzantium to Italy: Greek Studies in the Italian Renaissance

John Monfasani, Byzantine Scholars in Renaissance Italy: Cardinal Bessarion and Other Emigres : Selected Essay

C.M. Woodhouse, George Gemistos Plethon: The Last of the Hellenes

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

Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism in Byzantium: Illumination and Utopia in Gemistos Plethon


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