Bessarion (circa 1399/1400-1472) was one of the most important scholars in Late Byzantium, a theologian and philosopher that played a decisive role in the transfer of studies from East to the West and the revival of classical studies. Settled in Italy, he had a profound impact on the Platonism of the Italian Renaissance; he presented the main features and some basic doctrines of the Platonic philosophy, as beneficial to Christianity, and claimed its superiority compared to the Aristotelian through an interpretation that combined the Platonic with the Byzantine tradition.

Life and Work

Basil (his baptismal name) was born in Trapezous of Pontus (today Trabzon, circa 1399/1400). He studied in Constantinople and Mistra astronomy, mathematics, rhetoric, philosophy, with teachers like Aristotle’s commentator Ioannes Chortasmenos, the astronomer George Chrysokkokis and Plethon. He became a monk and named Bessarion in 1423 and ordained Bishop of Nicaea in 1437. He participated in the Council of Ferrara-Florence, where he made a great impression and eventually reached a settlement; before the risk of a total destruction of Hellenism he accepted the filioque and contributed to the making of a decision in favor of the union of two Churches. He turned to Roman Catholicism in 1439 and moved to Italy, where he received high office (Cardinal, titular Latin Patriarch of Constantinople), and he was even a candidate for the papal throne (1455). In Italy he intense engaged in diplomatic and conciliatory activity; he tried unsuccessfully to help the homeland by organizing a crusade against the Ottomans. He died in Ravenna on 18/11/1472.

The intellectual work of Bessarion in Italy was very important. A circle of scholars was formed around him, and his house functioned as a center of literary and philosophical activity (the so called Accademia Bessarionea). Beside him worked important scholars of the Greek Diaspora (Theodoros of Gaza, George of Trebizond, Michael Apostolis, Dimitrios Chalkokondyles, Andronicus Kallistos) and Italian scholars (Lorenzo Valla, Poggio Bracciolini, Niccolò Perroto). Of great value was his contribution to the costly gatherin of hundreds of Greek manuscripts from territories under the Turkish or Venetian rule. This large collection formed the nucleus of the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice.

Besides teaching the Greek language, Bessarion took care to translate into Latin many works of Greek literature. He himself translated few: Plato's Phaedrus, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Theophrastus’ Metaphysics, Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Demosthenes’ Olynthian I, Basil of Caesarea’s Homilies.

His major philosophical work is Refutations of the calumnies against Plato, who became known as In calumniatorem Platonis, printed (1469) in Latin translation and edited by Perotti. In the same polemic context belong On nature and art and the short Against Plethon’s against Aristotle, on essence. Many of his letters are preserved; of philosophical interest are letters to Plethon, Andronikos Kallistos, Theodorus Gaza and George of Trebizond. Bessarion’s theological works focus on issues of doctrinal differences between Greeks and Latins (about the procession of the Holy Spirit). He has also written orations and other rhetorical texts.

The exposition and the interpretation of Plato’s philosophy

The most important philosophical work of Bessarion, In calumniatorem Platonis, went through several revisions until it was printed. It was expected for a long time among the intellectual circles of Rome where a “Greek” dispute was taking place. The Aristotelian George of Trebizond (1395-1472) had been released in manuscript and finally printed (1458) a Comparatio Philosophorum Aristotelis et Platonis (Comparison between the philosophers Aristotle and Plato), and he was translating into Latin Platonic dialogues. Through all these George was promoting the image of a dangerous morally and politically Plato, a serious threat for Christianity, and supported a Christianized Aristotelianism.

Bessarion uses mainly a polemic rhetoric against the ‘blasphemous’ George and accuses him of being a bad translator, scholar, orator, philosopher and theologian. However, given the minimum substantial knowledge Latins had for Plato, Bessarion while writing the Refutations took the opportunity to expose what he considered the proper –and useful for the current historical setting–interpretation of Platonic philosophy. Thus he not only methodically rejected the fanciful accusations and misinterpretations of George but he also undermined the Latin, of Scholastic origin, prejudices about Plato.

His interpretation of Plato can be understood by reference to two other parameters:

(1) The political-ideological framework and the interpretation of Byzantine Empire’s fall: Bessarion rebuts George’s accusation that the Fall was due to the fact that the Empire followed the teachings of Plato (an allusion to Pagan Plethon, the teacher of Bessarion) that were an impediment to the union of Churches. Instead, he believes that, besides the natural decline of all human things that was not able to prevent an Empire that lasted –after all– no less than twelve centuries, the fall happened because Byzantium abandoned its divine and sacred as well civil laws that are in accordance also –as he thinks–with the Platonic teaching.

(2) The philosophical context: during the Platonic-Aristotelian controversy in late Byzantium raises again the question about the relations between Christian faith and ancient philosophy. Contrary to George of Trebizond who follows the example of Thomas Aquinas and George Scholarios (Patriarch Gennadius) and proposes the use of Aristotelian philosophy, Bessarion adopts a moderate attitude (and the meticulous scholastic practice of quote arguments for and against a position) and attempts to restore Plato and prove his superiority. He considers that the relation of Plato to Aristotle is a relation of cause and effect: We are in debt to Aristotle who summed up the sciences but this is not a sufficient reason to evaluate him higher than Plato, in the same way that we do not evaluate a scholastic theologian higher than a Church Father.

Bessarion defends not only Plato but historical Aristotle as well, and he compares them both between themselves and with the Christian doctrine. He recognizes how distant they both are from Christian revelation: as for Plato he points out the pre-existence of souls and polytheism but he refuses the older (and George’s) accusation that Plato was the source of all heresies. He considers that Platonic philosophy is closer to Christian thought, because it provides a philosophical basis and can serve to the dialogue with sceptics. Considering Plato in the perspective of evangelical preparation, Bessarion emphasizes his superiority citing early Fathers (such as Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine) and, in parallel, the opinions of Plutarch, Alexander Aphrodisias and the harmonizing tradition of Middle Platonism.He gives particular emphasis to restore the reputation of Plato in the moral field and especially in the issue of love.

He explains why Plato adopted the dialogue form and defends his cryptic and rhetorical style that leads readers to true wisdom. He analyzes and summarizes issues that were not so known in Italy, such as the principle of all beings in the Parmenides, the creation of the world in the Timaeus, the immortality of the soul, the role of precious mathematics for the recollection of divine things, the principles of natural things, and the reduction of cosmic elements to plane and linear forms. He favors the allegorical interpretation of the Platonic texts, speaks positively about the unwritten doctrines, but also emphasizes the need for a contextual interpretation of passages blaming George for such a shortage. Furthermore, he scrutinizes and criticizes the translation of the Laws by George, placing before a summary of Plato's work, to prove that George of Trebizond misunderstood and handled at will the text.

The interpretation of Plato facilitates the discussion of central philosophical-theological problems: the one God, the Trinitarian mystery, the origin and duration of the world, the Providence and predestination, the immortality of the human soul and divinisation. Overall in his work Bessarion recapitulates and relies on the Byzantine interpretive tradition. His synthesis of Neoplatonic and Christian elements refers to Dionysius Areopagite and generally to eastern apophatic theology; this explains his criticism on the use of reasoning in theology: dialectical reason is only suitable for nature and man.

Bessarion through this work did not just make known Plato to Latin scholars of his time; moreover, he proposed a concrete direction for the interpretation of the thought of the two great philosophers. Taking account Proclus’ Platonic Theology and adopting a Neoplatonic stance, he included Plato in the course of an ‘eternal philosophy’ (philosophia perennis), something that will inspire the Renaissance Platonism (Ficino, Della Mirantola). He considered as integral element of Platonism Aristotle (scientific knowledge) complementary to theological-metaphysical thought of Plato (wisdom). However he did not conceal nor reduce their differences by resorting to an eclectic or syncretistic interpretation; he wanted to bring peace between the two philosophical parties. Bessarion, conscious of the actual differences, he practiced this harmonizing attitude in philosophy and religion (for the religious, political and cultural union of Greeks and Latins), bringing to the spotlight the texts; it is on this basis that one can examine misinterpretations that lead to separation inside Christendom.

The impact of his work

Bessarion with his manifold activity, enhanced by the use of the new medium of the printed book, had a remarkable influence on Renaissance Platonism, particularly on Ficino and also in Aristotelianism, e.g. on Pomponazzi and Cajetan. He highlighted the difference between the Alexandrian Platonism and Averroism, Thomism and the historical Aristotle. Refutations inspired Copernicus who read it taking notes, and help him to solidify his conception of the importance of mathematics in natural explanation. Bessarion demonstrated to Italian humanists the need to have access to the original philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle, and certainly not to their inadequate translations.

His major work Refutations was printed three times until 1520 and was for decades a source of knowledge for the Platonic philosophy. It succeeded to offer a Plato 'safe' for Christians, incorporating in his interpretation many elements of Neoplatonic commentary and Byzantine tradition. In that way Bessarion believed that he strengthened his mission to contribute to the cultural interchange and spiritual reconciliation of Greek Orthodox East and the Latin Catholic West. He thought that his work rejoined to the false opinion about a insurmountable difference between the two parts of Christendom; in this project he gave to philosophy, and especially the Platonic philosophy, a supporting role for the solution of the existing differences, which would lead to the salvation of his country.

Bessarion enjoyed the admiration and respect from the scholars of his time, for his erudition and knowledge. His contribution to the revival of classical studies by saving, copying, translating and interpreting works of the Greek antiquity was widely recognized. He was certainly the most emblematic figure of the translatio studii from the Greek East to Italy in the fifteenth century; “the most Latin among the Greeks and the most Greek among the Latins” (Lorenzo Valla).

Author: George Zografidis
  • Monfasani, J, Byzantine Scholars in Renaissance Italy: Cardinal Bessarion and Other Emigrés. Aldershot, 1995.
  • Wilson, N.G. From Byzantium to Italy: Greek Studies in the Italian Renaissance. Baltimore, 1993.
  • Coluccia, G.L, . Basilio Bessarione: Lo spirito greco e l'occidente. Firenze, 2009.
  • Fiaccadori, G, Bessarione e l’Umanesimo . Napoli, 1994.
  • Mohler, L, Kardinal Bessarion als Theologe, Humanist und Staatsmann. Berlin.
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