Category: Persons

Michael Psellos

Michael Psellos (1018 - c. 1081) is considered one of the most prolific and erudite Byzantine thinkers who contributed significantly to the study, interpetation and transmission of the ancient philosophical texts, in particular Plato’s and Aristotle’s.

The life and works of Psellos

Michael Psellos (baptismal name: Constantine or Constans) was born in Constantinople in 1018. His teacher was the then famous scholar John Mauropous, and his friends during his studies were the future patriarchs John Xiphilinos and Constantine Leichoudes as well as the emperor Constantine Doukas. He took on administrative offices during the reign of Constantine IX Monomachos (1042-1055) and received the title of the «consul of the philosophers», i.e. the person responsible for the philosophical education in the so-called University of Constantinople. In 1054 he had to resign for political reasons and became a monk in a monastery on Mt Olympos in Bithynia. When he returned to Constantinople shortly after, he did not seem to get involved in politics or to enjoy his previous stature. We do not know much about his last years. The date of his death has been suggested to be around 1081.

He wrote historical works, the most important of which is Chronographia; it is a report of the years 976-1078 that gives more emphasis on the portraits of the basic protagonists than on the historical events. He also wrote theological treatises, treatises on law, medicine, geography, music and poems. In all these works as well as in his homilies and letters Psellos exhibited his skills in rhetoric and allegory, but he also made interesting philosophical points. His philosophical works include a large number of mostly short essays (cf. bibliography), in which Psellos discussed philosophical issues raised by his friends and pupils; for instance, the relation between soul and body, the problem of evil, the different virtues, the characterization of substance as self-subsistent, the distinction between homonyms and synonyms.

Psellos taught all basic areas of philosophy (logic, natural philosophy, metaphysics, ethics), as well as mathematics and rhetoric. He encouraged his students to read carefully the ancient philosophers’ writings and produced for teaching purposes detailed commentaries and paraphrases of some of the works in the Aristotelian corpus. Especially helpful must have been his unedited comments on Aristotle’s De interpretatione and Prior Analytics; as to the commentary on the Physics that has recently been attributed to him, its autheniticy is doubted. The fact that Psellos’ commentaries have survived in many manuscripts and have been translated repeatedly into Latin during the Renaissance is a clear testimony to Psellos’ great influence.

Psellos’ Platonism

Although it is the case that Psellos had an interest in Aristotle’s logic, for he considered it necessary for the development of crtitical thinking and thus gave her a propaedeutic role in philosophical studies, there is no doubt that he had a special preference for Plato’s philosophy. More specifically, it becomes clear even from the following titles of his treatises that the topics which particularly drew Psellos’ attention were Plato’s views on the soul and the theory of Ideas:

• Plato’s mathematical interpretation of the existence and generation of the soul in the Timaeus (Ἐξήγησις τῆς ἐν τῷ Τιμαίῳ τοῦ Πλάτωνος μαθηματικῆς περὶ ψυχῆς ὑπάρξεως ἢ γεννήσεως).

Interpretation of another Platonic doctrine from the Timaeus (Ἑτέρας Πλατωνικῆς διανοίας ἐξήγησις ἀπὸ τοῦ Τιμαίου).

An even more perfect interpretation of the interval (Ἐξήγησις τελεωτέρα περὶ τοῦ λείμματος).

Plato’s interpetation of the souls’ chariot-driving and of the gods’ warriors in the Phaedrus (Ἐξήγησις τῆς Πλατωνικῆς ἐν τῷ Φαίδρῳ διφρείας τῶν ψυχῶν καὶ στρατείας τῶν θεῶν).

In which way Plato thinks that the souls inhabit the bodies of the non-rational animals (Τίνα τρόπον ὁ Πλάτων οἴεται εἰσοικίζεσθαι τὰς ψυχὰς τοῖς τῶν ἀλόγων ζώων σώμασι).

For what purpose the Platonists and the Aristotelians claim that the soul has three parts (Τίνος χάριν τριμερῆ τὴν ψυχὴν οἱ περὶ Πλάτωνα καὶ Άριστοτέλην εἰρήκασι).

On Ideas, about which Plato talks (Περὶ τῶν Ἰδεῶν, ἃς ὁ Πλάτων λέγει).

But Psellos was not only a careful reader and interpreter of the Platonic dialogues; he also studied the works of the Platonists, like for instance Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and especially Proclus. Moreover, he studied the works of the Neoplatonic commentators, like for instance Ammonius, Olympiodorus and John Philoponus. Indeed, he was so much influenced by them in his understanding of Plato’s theories that he often attributed to Plato views which we do not find in the dialogues but are obviously later interpretations. For instance, in his essay On Ideas, about which Plato talks Plato’s theory of Ideas is presented in a modified way: the Ideas are not regarded as self-subsistent entities but as the Demiurge’s concepts, and hence it seems that in this central subject Psellos was following Plotinus’ Enneads. In general, Psellos’ references to ancient philosophical texts indicate that he read a lot, and most importantly he read some works that have not survived, like for instance Proclus’ comments on Plotinus and on the Chaldean Oracles. This is another aspect of Psellos’ invaluable contribution.

It could of course be argued that, although Psellos’ role in the preservation and transmission of ancient philosophical texts was very important, his philosophical views are not original or particularly novel. It is evident that he was influenced by the Neoplatonists and his main aim was to bring together the ancient philosophical traditions and Christianity. It cannot be denied, however, that the achievement of such an aim required critical and independent thinking on the part of Psellos, which is expressed either in his use of innovative arguments for the defence of ancient philosophical doctrines or in his addition of interesting comments even on small details of previous interpretations.

On the other hand, there is no unambiguous evidence to prove the recently suggested theory that Psellos’ attitude towards the Christian faith was radical, though he managed to conceal his adherence to the religion of the ancient philosophers. It is true, of course, that he was heavily criticized for teaching ancient philosophy and he was often reprimanded for not being in complete accordance with the Christian dogmas. In such cases he often had to compose detailed responses, like for instance in his letters to Xiphilinos, who accused him of showing an overwhelming zeal for Plato’s and Chrysippus’ doctrines as well as for the systematic use of logic in theological matters. At least he managed to avoid the condemnation which stigmatized, for instance, his pupil John Italos.

In many passages of his writings Psellos stressed the importance of using logical syllogisms and proofs, and in general rational thinking. Indeed, he claimed that this is exactly what characterizes our human nature and what renders our understanding of reality possible. Furthermore, Psellos claimed that the use of logic does not contradict the Christian dogmas; on the contrary, logical syllogisms should constitute for the Christians the necessary tools in their efforts to rebut heresies and in their pursue of truth. Thus, everyone should try, according to Psellos, to acquire an education of a wide range, the so-called polymatheia. And this was his argument in favour of the systematic study of the works of ancient philosophers, even if they were pagans. At the same time, however, Psellos believed that rational thinking is not sufficient for grasping the totality of reality; for, in his view, there is a reality beyond our senses that cannot be comprehended by logical syllogisms, but requires what he called ‘ellampsis’, i.e. the kind of illumination or intuition that one may have at the condition of quietude and calmness which follows after great turbulance and at the end of logical reasoning. Psellos was influenced at this point by the Neoplatonists and, in particular, by Proclus, with the difference that in Proclus the illumination of the soul comes from the Intellect, whereas in Psellos the Intellect of the Neoplatonists is replaced by the Christian God.

Finally, Psellos claimed, and in this he invoked Plato’s authority, that our intellectual curiosity for the ineffable reality beyond the sensible world consitutes the ultimate aim of philosophy. For this reason, we should also study, according to Psellos, even the phenomena which are not in agreement with our rational beliefs, the so-called paradoxa, since we can in this way prepare ourselves for the understanding of the ineffable reality. This, after all, is how he justified his study of the Chaldean Oracles, which include pagan doctrines and practices that may be unacceptable for the Christians but are, in his view, of great help in our attempt to transcend the sensible world. Psellos, therefore, seems to have believed that our human intellect is capable to understand reality both with our reason as well as by illumination. This means that, according to him, there are some things that we can know with logic and others that we can know only intuititively, though it is not always easy to draw this distinction with the required clarity.

Author: Katerina Ierodiakonou
  • Westerink, L.G. ed. Μιχαήλ Ψελλός De omnifaria doctrina. Utrecht, 1948.
  • Drexl, F., Kurtz, E. eds. Μιχαήλ Ψελλός Scripta minora 2 τόμοι. Milano, 1936-1941.
  • Duffy, J. ed. Μιχαήλ Ψελλός, Philosophica minora Ι. Opuscula logica, physica, allegorica, alia. Stuttgart, 1992.
  • Athanassiadi, P. "Byzantine commentators on the Chaldaean Oracles: Psellos and Plethon." Ierodiakonou, K. ed. Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources. Oxford, 2002.
  • Athanassiadi, PJenkins, D., Barber, Ch. eds. , Reading Michael Psellos . Leiden 2006.
  • Duffy, J. "Hellenic philosophy in Byzantium and the lonely mission of Michael Psellos." Ierodiakonou, K. ed. Byzantine Philosophy and Its Ancient Sources. Oxford, 2002.
  • Golitsis, P. Byzantinische Zeitschrift. 2007.
  • Ierodiakonou, K. "Rationality and revelation in eleventh and twelfth century Byzantium." Homann, E., Krüger, A. eds. De usu rationis: Vernunft and Offenbarung im Mittelalter. Würzburg, 2007.
  • Joannou, P .
  • Kaldellis, A. Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformations of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition. Cambridge, 2007.
  • O' Meara, D. "Aspects du travail philosophique de Michel Psellus." Dissertatiunculae criticae: Festschrift für Günter Christian Hansen Würzburg (1998)
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