John Italos (c.1025 - c.1082) was one of the most original Byzantine philosophers. A student of Michael Psellos, he occupies a special place in the history of Byzantine thought for having been condemned by the Orthodox Church for his philosophical views and for advocating the systematic use of philosophical analysis in clarifying central theological issues.
John Italos was born in southern Italy in c.1025. In 1049 he came to Constantinople with his father, a Norman mercenary, who had been hired by the emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (1042-1055). There is no reliable information about his education in Italy, but upon his arrival in Constantinople he became a pupil of. In 1055 he succeeded Psellos in the so-called ‘University’ of Constantinople as ‘consul of the philosophers’ and taught all branches of philosophy. The emperor Michael VII (1071–1078) and his brother Andronikos Doukas were among his students as well as Eustratios of Nicaea and possibly Theodore of Smyrna. In 1076/77 Italos was accused of teachings contrary to the Christian dogma, but the emperor Michael VII intervened and he was acquitted. However, in 1082 he was again put on trial and this time he was condemned and anathematized. The precise date of his death is unknown. What mainly survives from his writings is a commentary on the second, third and fourth book of ’s Topics; two small treatises on dialectic and on the Aristotelian syllogisms together with a very brief synopsis of rhetoric; and finally, the Quaestiones quodlibetales, a collection of ninety-three answers to philosophical questions posed to him by his students.
Italos’ writing style was not at all graceful, but his courses attracted crowds of students and he was famous for the clarity of his thinking and the careful construction of his logical arguments. In fact, his contemporaries considered him as better than anyone else in teaching and interpreting Aristotle’s logic. At the same time, the Platonic influence on his thought becomes obvious in his rationalist approach towards many Christian doctrines that the Orthodox Church considered as beyond comprehension and as something that Christians should simply accept on faith. Italos questioned the supremacy of theology and defended the Platonic and Aristotelian conception of philosophy, according to which theology is just a part of philosophy, i.e. the part of philosophy which attempts to understand the first principles and causes of everything. It seems that it was this supposedly arrogant attempt on his part to develop a philosophical theology that led, in conjunction with other political reasons, to Italos’ trial and condemnation.
More specifically, the eleven anathemas against Italos that were added to the Synodikon of Orthodoxy are concerned with: (1) the application of logical arguments to theological issues such as the incarnation of Christ or the relation of Christ’s two natures; (2) the introduction of natural philosophy into the Orthodox Church; (3) the acceptance of the doctrine of the transmigration of the soul and the denial of Christian eschatology; (4) the acceptance of the view that matter and form have no temporal beginning or end; (5) the preference for Greek philosophers to Christian saints; (6) suspiciousness against divine miracles; (7) the study of Greek philosophy not only for the sake of education but as a repository of truths to which all other beliefs should ultimately be reduced; (8) the denial of God’s voluntary creation of the world ex nihilo and the acceptance of Platonic Forms; (9) the denial that our bodies will be the same at resurrection as now; (10) the acceptance of the pre-existence of the soul and the denial of its creation ex nihilo and of eternal punishment; and (11) any ‘Hellenic and heterodox’ doctrines taught by Italos.
Italos’ views on universals (i.e. general notions) are also influenced by the Neoplatonic tradition. Just like many other Byzantine philosophers, Italos defended the Neoplatonic theory that universals exist in three modes; namely, they exist as universals “before the many particulars” in God’s mind, as universals “in the particulars” within perceptible individuals, and finally as universals “after the particulars” in the form of concepts acquired by our mind by abstraction of the common characteristics of perceptible individuals. Joannou has suggested that Italos was a nominalist in adhering to the view that universals are stripped of all reality and exist only in the human mind. Benakis, on the other hand, has labeled Italos’ position “conceptual or moderate realism”, and stressed that it has nothing in common with the nominalist position on universals which we find in Western medieval philosophy; for even the third mode of the universals’ existence should not be confused, on his view, with what Western medieval philosophers thought about universalia post res, since the a posteriori status of such universals does not alter the fact that they do exist.
Indeed, there are passages in the Quaestiones Quodlibetales which clearly imply that all types of universals are beings. For Italos often made use of a distinction (a commonplace distinction in Platonic texts from Plotinus to Simplicius which probably had its origins even earlier) between something subsisting and something depending on mere thought, which on Italos’ view are not beings (anupostata). As for things that subsist, he distinguished between two different kinds of beings, those that subsist per se, which he called ‘subsistences’ (hupostaseis), and those that subsist in something else (enupostata); subsistences are particulars and for the most part bodies, whereas beings that subsist in something else are concepts and predicates shared by many things. Italos distinguished these two kinds of beings from the standard examples of things that do not subsist, i.e. goat-stags and centaurs, for all these are, on his view, nothing but products of our imagination. Hence, Italos claimed that the perceptible individuals and God, as well as God's thoughts, i.e. the universals before the particulars, exist in the strong sense as subsistences per se, while the other two modes of universals are beings in a special sense, since they are not constructions of the human mind devoid of reality but subsist in something else. For this reason, it would perhaps be misleading to label Italos as a “nominalist”, since he does not defend the view that the universals in and after the particulars are mere expressions, but it would also be misleading to label him as a “realist”, since he does not think that these universals are subsistences per se.
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- Joannou, P. ed. Quaestiones Quodlibetales / Ἀπορίαι καὶ λύσεις. Ettal (Studia Patristica et Byzantina 4), 1956.
- Clucas, L. The Trial of John Italos and the Crisis of Intellectual Values in Byzantium in the Eleventh Century. Munich, 1981.
- Gouillard, J. Travaux et Mémoires. 1967.
- Gouillard, J. Travaux et Mémoires 9. 1985.
- Ierodiakonou, K. "John Italos on universals." Documenti e Studi Sulla Tradizione Filosofica Medievale 18 (2007)
- Joannou, P. Christliche Metaphysik in Byzanz. I. Die Illuminationlehre des Michael Psellos und Joannes Italos. Ettal, 1956.
- Podskalsky, G. Theologie und Philosophie in Byzanz. Munich, 1977.