Byzantium and Platonism
The Christian Byzantines’ attitude towards Plato varies and depends on their knowledge of his thought, on his earlier cautious use by the 4th-5th century Fathers and the intellectual setting of many centuries, as well as on the aim and the intended readers of each text. In this entry we do not refer to the long Neoplatonic commentary tradition that flourished in the early Byzantine period (till the 6th century).
In the main period of Byzantine philosophy (7th-15th c.) we detect (a) the explicit condemnation of Plato or the sharp criticism against him, especially to the extent that some of his theories are contrary to Christian doctrines (e.g. Ideas, world’s creation, reincarnation), (b) his moderate or even enthusiastic use for the formulation of Christian thought or the understanding of certain of its aspects (Ioannes Italos, Michael Psellos) and (c), finally, although more rarely, the adoption of his metaphysical principles or the revival of his philosophy (Pletho). In any case, the term “Byzantine Platonism” as a means to understand the Byzantine philosophy can hardly be used.
Furthermore, occupation with the historic Plato and the firsthand knowledge of his philosophy is established by the rich manuscript tradition of Platonic works, which survived thanks to the Byzantine scholars from the 9th century onwards, and by the commentary practice that takes various forms (from scholia at the margins of codices to continuous commentaries). Knowledge of Plato was also indirect, often influenced by his Neoplatonic interpretation. During the last Byzantine century, in contrast to the hitherto prevailing interpretation about the harmony of the two philosophers, the conflict between Aristotelians and Platonists was intensified and transferred to Italy.
The very concept of philosophy was directly linked to the two fundamental definitions of philosophy as ‘a study of death’ and ‘likeness to God’ derived from Plato (Phaedo and Theaetetus, respectively) and adopted by Christian thinkers, via the Neoplatonic commentary tradition.