Category: Historical subjects

Aristotelianism and Platonism in late Byzantium

The issue of oppositional relationship Plato and Aristotle and the primacy of a set again by the Byzantines in the 14th century thinkers, interrupting a long tradition of acceptance Neoplatonist concept of agreement between the two philosophers.

The problem of interpretation

The relationship of Plato and Aristotle, as the two leading philosophers of antiquity, it was an internal matter of the Byzantine philosophy only in the last centuries of. The use of two philosophers of the (Christian) the Byzantines were not necessarily exclusive: influences, echoes, references to the work of both or otherwise in Platonic metaphysical tradition and to Aristotelian logic and physics we encounter the same thinker or the same project. So every thinker or per periods may theological, philosophical or scientific interests them can them to go to Plato (in the metaphysical, mystical, philosophical psychology, ethics) and Aristotle (for logic, natural philosophy and science). Of course, the adoption of (neo) Platonic metaphysics was the one that created the most problems for philosophers (e.g.  John Italos, crowds), the person or whose work was condemned because Platonism to undermine the core of Christian doctrine.

Regardless of the depth of the understanding of the two Greek philosophers, the degree of their actual impact, the external or polemic use of their ideas, methods and motifs, the Byzantines did not line up to what we today call Platonism and Aristotelianism as if they were successors or followers of a particular philosophical current. Instead, being mostly eclectic they felt free to choose elements of one or other current, without caring for their actual context or for composing a consistent interpretation –even when they comments them (Byzantine commentaries on Plato, Copies of Platonic works in Byzantium).

Moreover, for the Byzantines the two Greek philosophers express the same ancient world –something that means a lot, depending on the ideological climate, for the traditionalists or even classicists Byzantines. The first encounter of Christianity with philosophy was decisive for the future attitude of the Byzantines: Platonism was almost identified with the philosophy herself, and in its Neoplatonic continuation it had already included the elements of the Aristotelian philosophy that were considered as compatible. The Byzantines inherited the Neoplatonic assessment of Plato about the agreement of Plato and Aristotle. As they had access to the work of both (and some of their commentaries) they never felt the surprise of the first contact with an unknown philosophy (but perhaps also the creativity this surprise often brings off), as did the Latins when they discovered Aristotle.

In this context the reference to Byzantine Platonists, in contrast to Aristotelians, could be misleading, as such may be the interpretation of the Byzantine philosophy through the scheme "Platonism-Aristotelianism."

Platonic thought in the Palaiologan period

During the Palaeologan period (1260-1453), the scientific and philosophical movement is flourishin in a declining Byzantine Empire.

Theodore Metochites (1270-1332) comments on many parts of the Platonic work and devotes to Plato certain chapters of his work Miscellanea philosophica et historica. While he criticizes the deliberate obscurity of Aristotle, he shows his preference to Plato and platonic mathematics. In his conflict on astronomical issues with Nicephoros Choumnos (who criticizes both Greek philosophers) Theodore turns to Plato.

Nicephoros Gregoras (circa 1295-1360) launches a sharp criticism in many parts of the Aristotelian work; he particularly contrasts the Platonic undermining of sensory experience to Aristotle’s empiricism. Perhaps Gregoras’ motive is his anti-occidentalism and, consequently, the subversion of Westerns’ and Barlaam of Calabria’s preference to Aristotle. Besides, his preference to the intuitive epistemology of Plato is evident. In agreement with the main trend of the cosmology of that period Gregoras replaces the Aristotelian empirical paradigm with the Platonic-mathematical paradigm that makes possible to interpret the physical world as a copy of the archetype; access to the latter can provide mathematical sciences and the study of the order of the world. It is in the field of cosmology that emerges more profoundly the controversy between Aristotelianism and Platonism.

Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), one of the most important theologian of the Orthodox East and the leading figure of the Hesychastic Controversy in the fourteenth century, knows and uses Aristotle, although his mystical tendency directs him substantially closer to the (often considered as platonizing) tradition of Dionysios Areopagite. His intention is theological and he is not interested in a historical evaluation of philosophy, but rather to exploit it as a useful tool (as far it goes) to his intellectual war against anti-hesychasts.

The controversy between Platonists and Aristotelians (Byzantium, Italy)

In the last century of Byzantium, the Byzantines turn even more closely to the ancient texts themselves and while commenting them (influenced this time by the Latin thought) they highlight as a central philosophical question the relation of Plato to Aristotle and they argue about primacy of one or the other. Byzantine scholars settled in Italy (Greek scholars in Italy) as guests (from the time of the Council of Ferrara-Florence) or émigrés after the Fall of Constantinople enrich the humanist movement with translations, teaching and explaining ancient philosophical and other texts (Italian Renaissance and Platonism), and bring and continue this controversy on the Italian territory.

George Gemistos (known as Plethon, circa 1360-1454) in his work On the issues that Aristotle diverges from Plato undertakes a general attack on Aristotle by showing the points at which he diverges from the teaching of Plato; and wherever he distances himself, he is mistaken. In an interpretation influenced by Neoplatonism, Pletho presents Plato as closer to Christianity thus commencing an animated and sometimes hostile dispute with his friend Scholarios; it was a conflict on a philosophical issue but with theological implications and what was at stake was the intellectual sovereignty of the two opponents.

George Scholarios (later Patriarch Gennadios II, circa 1400 –circa 1472), an anti-Western orthodox theologian and commentator of Aristotle somewhat influenced by Scholasticism, opposes vigorously the eminently Platonic Byzantine philosopher, Plethon –to the degree to accept, reluctantly, to throw into the fire the Book of Laws of his opponent. He considers Aristotelian thought to be the most appropriate vehicle for Christian theology. To prove this he writes, among other philosophical works, treatises against Plethon to argue that Platonic thought subverts the proper understanding of the divine. Scholarios’ antiplatonism is partly the result of his Scholastic Aristotelianism.

George of Trebizond (1395-1472/3) installed very young in Italy and became known as a translator of Aristotle. His work A Comparison of Philosophers Plato and Aristotle is the epitome of an offensive anti-platonism and informed the Latinophone scholars about the current Greek debate. As much popular among a few Greek scholars of the time the book provoked a strong reaction from the part of Greek Platonists.

The moderate Bessarion (1403-1472) offers critical comments on the Latin translation of the Platonic Laws from George of Trebizond. In his antirrhetical Refutations of calumnies against Plato, besides his criticism, he takes the opportunity to expound the central doctrines of Platonic philosophy. He does not underestimate the value of Aristotle and he finds him compatible with Plato. Most Greek scholars of the diaspora supported his view and went against George (for reasons not only philosophical); Theodore of Gaza, Andronicus Kallistos (†1478) and Michael Apostoles (1422-1478) wrote defenses or replies.

The humanist Theodore of Gaza (1398/1400-1475) from Thessaloniki, had been settled since 1430 in Italy. He translated into Latin works of Aristotle, and he attacked Plethon and defended philosophically Aristotle in his work On Fate. Regarding the problem of necessity he stressed that there is no contradiction between voluntary and involuntary, because according to Aristotle nature (such as art) always does things with a purpose, though without understanding; that is why nature strictly speaking does not act.

Author: George Zografidis
  • Monfasani, J. George of Trebizond: A Biography and a Study of his Rhetoric and Logic. .
  • Hunger, H. Die hochsprachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner. .
  • Tatakis, B. Byzantine Philosophy. Indianapolis, 2003.
  • Wilson, N.G. From Byzantium to Italy: Greek Studies in the Italian Renaissance. Baltimore, 1993.
  • Monfasani, J, Byzantine Scholars in Renaissance Italy: Cardinal Bessarion and Other Emigrés. Aldershot, 1995.
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