Category: Persons

Byzantine Commentaries on Plato

In Byzantium from seventh to fifteenth century Platonic and Neoplatonic texts were read, influenced decisively the shaping of certain philosophical views and to a lesser extend of Christian theological thought, and were discussed although not systematically or extensively.

Knowledge and use of Plato in Byzantium can be attested by the rich manuscript tradition of Plato's writings (Copies of Platonic works in Byzantium), a tradition however significantly poorer than the Aristotelian; by the indirect and implied appropriation or the explicit rejection of some Platonic views; and by the works many Byzantines have written commenting Platonic texts or thoughts. As comments here we should understand more generally texts from the seventh to the fifteenth century (for the earlier: Ancient commentaries in Platonic dialogues) that attempt to explain phrases and concepts of the Platonic tradition and take various forms: comments on codices margins, summaries, and short analyses, but almost never the extensive form of philosophical commentary known from Late Antiquity or Christian biblical explanations or even of the commentary on Areopagite writings (e.g. John Skythopolitis 6th century, Maximus Confessor early 7th century).

Although the presence of the Platonic tradition is estimated to be decisive for shaping both early Christian thought and Byzantine philosophy, the number of Byzantine comments (and lengthy commentaries) on Platonic works is much smaller than that on Aristotle. And it should be noted that a large number of attested Neoplatonic commentaries on dialogues has been lost and was probably unknown to the Byzantines. All that it is probably expected, since after Stefanos of Alexandria who taught Plato in Constantinople (after 610) the Platonic texts with few exceptions (e.g. Ioannes Italos and Plethon) had not been the object of systematic study and teaching that they would be only if they were considered as texts of high authority that needed to be interpreted.

We could distinguish two Byzantine 'returns' to Plato and the Platonic tradition: one begins with the so-called first Byzantine humanism in the ninth century and culminates in the incomplete attempts of Michael Psellus and Ioannes Italos in the eleventh century, and the second covers the last centuries of Byzantium and culminates in the pagan re-appropriation of Plato by Plethon.

The first Byzantine scholar who dealt with the Platonic writings per se is Leo the Mathematician and Philosopher or Wise (circa 790-after 869), who proceeded to a ‘correction’ of the text of the Laws to the fifth book, in the most ancient Platonic manuscript (Parisinus graecus 1807, the manuscript A of the Platonic editions). Patriarch Photios (circa 810-after 893) was ambivalent toward Plato: he criticized the theory of ideas (Amphilochia 77), adopted Porphyrius and Ammonius comments on Aristotle and conveyed the unique information we have for the Neoplatonic Hierocles. To Arethas of Caesarea (circa 850-932 / 944) we owe the great codex of the Platonic writings (Clarkianus 39, the manuscript B), perhaps some comments in the Middle Platonist Alcinous, and the conservation of all the Prolegomena to Plato.

In the eleventh century Michael Psellus (circa 1018-1081) brought to the center of philosophical education the entire Platonic tradition with an emphasis on its Neoplatonic elements. He knew and often used for teaching and interpretation of Platonic theories and passages Neoplatonic texts and commentaries: Plotinus, Proclus’ Elements of Theology and Commentary on Timaeus, and the commentaries of Simplicius and Olympiodorus on Aristotle. He compiled comments on the Chaldean Oracles, a popular text of the Platonic tradition, and many relatively brief notes explaining specific phrases and ideas from the Platonic writings. More interest perhaps presents his essay On the ideas that Plato proclaims, where the Platonic theory is explained with the help of Plotinian and other Neoplatonic passages. Although in his comments Psellus sometimes notes his Christian opposition and, in one of his letters, explicitly denies that Plato ‘is his own’, he was accused by his opponents that through his involvement with Plato he wanted to overthrow the Church and restore paganism. Similar and heavy charges, that he caused controversy in Constantinople, shaking old heresies by using philosophy, were addressed to the pupil and successor of Psellus Ioannes Italos (circa 1025-circa 1082) and led to his conviction; despite his evident Platonism, we cannot find in his writings systematic comments on Plato but references and use of his views.

This connection of Plato to the risk of heresy (known from early Christian anti-heretic literature) perhaps prevented his prevalence in the small world of the Byzantine intellectuals. According to testimonies his work was read even by the hostile to Ioannes Italos Empress Anna Comnena. However philosophical interest was directed to Aristotle and a series of extensive and important commentaries in several Aristotelian works was written by Eustratios from Nicaea and Michael Ephesus. On the contrary, Nicholas of Methone (†1160/66) wrote an extensive treatise that comments on and refutes Proclus’ Elements of Theology and Nicephoros Choumnos (1250-1327) composed a treatise against the theory of ideas.

After the Frankish Occupation, the Byzantine intellectuals seemed to rely the Empire’s renaissance on Platonic philosopher-kings, Platonism used against Latin Aristotelianism in doctrinal disputes over the filioque, while the Platonic texts were read and copied in large numbers. The antiaristotelian Theodoros Metochites (1270-1332) commented a variety of minor Platonic issues in his Miscellanea. The more radical Nicephoros Gregoras (1293-1361) wrote a kind of Platonic (and Lucian) dialogue type, Florentios, where he criticizes the Latinizing theologian Barlaam as a sophist incapable of the true science showed to us by Plato.

Prominent place in this series of thinkers holds George Pachymeres (1242-1307), who in his rich philosophical work –and besides his remarkable paraphrases of Dionysius Areopagite– included the unique Platonic Byzantine relatively extensive commentary, the Commentary to Plato’s Parmenides. He aspired to continue the unfinished commentary of Proclus on the dialogue, adopting the interpretative approach of the Pagan philosopher. An autograph codex of Pachymeres contains Proclus’ comments on Alcibiades (major) and Hermeias’ on Phaedrus.

Plethon (1355/60-1454), a then renowned expert in Plato and Neoplatonism, consciously placed himself in the Platonic tradition and attempted its total recall not only in philosophy but also more widely in the politico-ideological scene. He read carefully the texts and creatively interpreted to build his own political-philosophical system beyond Christianity. Nevertheless, or precisely because of this, this eminently Platonic Byzantine did not undertake the project to comment on the work of Plato, nor in the way of his favorite Neoplatonists nor even by writing short explanatory treatises. He corrected with his own hand Platonic texts and in fact censured them in certain points where he did not agree.

In the late quarrel between Platonists and Aristotelians, Platonists returned more closely to the texts and offer their interpretation to support Plato's superiority over Aristotle. The most moderate Bessarion (1403-1472) in his militant work Refutation of the blasphemies against Plato exposed and commented on central Platonic doctrines, and in another extensive work he makes critical remarks and corrections of the Latin translation of the Laws accomplished by George of Trebizond.

Within the general context of the Byzantines preoccupation with Platonic tradition are commentaries and scholia on Porphyry by Arethas, Ioannes Tzetzes (12th c.), Anonymous (before the 13th cent.), Leo Magentinos (end of 12th-begin. of 13th cent.), Joseph Filagris (end of 14th cent.), Plethon, George Scholarios (1400-1472). However, having as their object the Introduction of Porphyry, they essentially fall in the history of 'Aristotelianism' and logic.

Generally speaking, the Byzantines read and taught Platonic texts, in which they found and appreciated (although not always with explicit reference to the philosopher) a theological tendency and the existence of a transcendental dimension; the participation of the sensible into the intelligible; the immortality of the soul and its liberation from matter; the assimilation to God-creator of the world. Instead, they remained skeptical or/and explicitly rejecting to Platonic views they considered hostile and dangerous to the core of the Christian doctrine, such as the eternity of the world and ideas, the pre-existence of souls and reincarnation etc. Thus reading Platonic texts was almost always selective and ambivalent. The Byzantines’ attitude to Plato, throughout the medieval period, reflected –with variations–the tension between Christianity and the pagan Hellenism.

Author: George Zografidis
  • Westerink, L.G., Umholtz, Gr., Stinger, P.M, Honea, S.M., Gadra, Th.A. eds. Γεωργίου τοῦ Παχυμέρους, Ὑπόμνημα εἰς τὸν Παρμενίδην τοῦ Πλάτωνος [Ἀνωνύμου Συνέχεια τοῦ Ὑπομνήματος τοῦ Πρόκλου] / George Pachymeres, Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides [Anonymous Sequel to Proclus’ Commentary]. Αθήνα, 1989.
  • Μπενάκης, ΛΜπενάκης, Λ. Γ. ed. , «Δαβίδ ο Αρμένιος και η παρουσία του στα έργα των Βυζαντινών σχολιαστών του Αριστοτέλους». Αθήνα, 2002.
  • O' Meara, D. J., Duffy, J. eds. Michaelis Pselli Philosophica minora . Leipzig, 1989.
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