Category: Persons

Georgius Gemistus (Plethon)

Byzantine philosopher (circa 1360-1454), perhaps the most important of the late Byzantine period. Counselor of rulers and political thinker himself he attempted a revival of Platonism, influenced mainly by its Neoplatonic interpretation. A leading figure in the Platonic-Aristotelian controversy, he claimed the superiority of Plato and influenced the Italian Renaissance.

Life and Work

George Gemistos was born in Constantinople between 1355-1360, in a wealthy family, and received a good theological and philosophical education. He taught in Byzantium’s capital (late fourteenth century - 1409) to prominent students as Mark of Ephesos, and he became familiar with the Latin culture and possibly with Judaism and Islamic thought.

In a very critical historical moment for the dying Byzantine Empire, he was probably sent by the Emperor Manuel II and settled in Mistra in 1409, to support the Despot (ruler) of Morea, Theodore II. In Mistra Plethon took a political and educational role –in the circle of his disciples Bessarion was the most distinguished. He wrote advisory letters to the emperor Manuel II and the Despot of Morea Theodore, suggesting radical changes in the administration, the army and the economy, and encouraging them to engage in social and political reform.

He participated in the imperial mission at the Council of Ferrara-Florence for the Union of the Churches holding an anti-unionist stance. During his stay at Florence he wrote the brief but well known treatise On the issues that Aristotle diverges from Plato (De Differentiis, 1439) in which he supported the superiority of Plato. This claim sparked a long controversy in late Byzantium and Italy among Aristotelians and Platonists. His main opponent proved to be George Scholarios (the later Patriarch Gennadios II), who wrote an extensive refuting treatise Against Plethon’s Objections to Aristotle. Plethon replied extensively in 1448/1449 in Against Scholarios’ opinions if favor of Aristotle.

For many years he was writing his opus magnum The Book of Laws, where he seeks to found a new state in metaphysic and moral premises with Platonic and Neoplatonic ingredients. Though its main argument is clear we cannot have its details because only a small part of the work is preserved: its few copies were burned as Pagan, at the urging of his great rival Gennadios. This accusation for paganism accompanied Plethon for long and presented him as an opponent of Christianity, thus contributing to his substantial oblivion during the Turkish occupation.

He died probably in 1454, although according to the traditional date (1452) he had not lived the Fall of Constantinople. He was known, at least for a period of his life, by the nickname of Plethon; a deliberate choice that refers to his favorite philosopher, Plato. His admirer Sigismondo Malatesta in 1464 transferred his remains and buried them in a special monument in Rimini, and engraved an inscription about “the prince of the philosophers of his time.” The theological and philosophical work of Plethon is important as well as his scientific and historical. Its impact on the Greek scholars who fled to Italy and the Italians humanists is not negligible.

Thanks to Plethon The circle of Marsilio Ficino got acquainted with the Chaldean Oracles, although his (controversial) paganism was too advanced for the Renaissance humanists who remained Christians. 

Plethon’s Platonic philosophical system

Plethon had a great knowledge of the Platonic work and his interpretation was influenced by the work of subsequent Platonists as Plutarch, Numenius, Plotinus and probably Proclus. He situates Plato in the great chain of the ancient sages, including Zoroaster, the Pythagoreans and the Persian Magicians with Chaldean Oracles .Plato is considered as a unique and great ring of this chain and his work a philosophical recording of the primordial and revealed ancient truth. The treatise On the issues that Aristotle diverges from Plato, written in Florence during the conflict of Italian intellectuals into which Plethon aimed to intervene, did not achieved its purpose directly, since the local audience could not follow its analysis, which presupposed knowledge of the Greek language and the Platonic work. However, the impressive presence of Plethon and his offer of the famous Codex Laurentianus 85,9 with the complete works of Plato, and the involvement of Cosimo de Medici and Marsilio Ficino encouraged the subsequent translation of Plato's work.

Plethon in his treatise chose to confront the dominant perception of the superiority of Aristotle (see Text Source 1), a concept that in Byzantium was supported by his opponent George Scholariοs (probably influenced by Thomas Aquinas’ project). Moreover, by showing that the Western scholastic and Aristotelian thought leads to impious thoughts about the divine (which is examined under the cause-effect scheme), Plethon suggests that Platonic thought is a more coherent and more ‘divine’ philosophy, thus more suited for Christianity –because it emphasizes the transcendent character of God creator. Thus Plethon undertakes to briefly expose the points of difference between the two philosophers in order to show how Aristotle fall short of Plato; and he proceeds to refute the nine arguments of Aristotle (Metaphysics I, 9) against the Platonic theory of Forms.

The platonic influence is evident in Plethon’s Book of Laws, which has a philosophical aim similar to Plato's Republic, namely a concrete political objective: the reconstitution of the Greek nation’s ‘excellent state’. In its hundred chapters he presents a theology (‘according to Zoroaster and Plato’), an ethics (according the above mentioned and the Stoics), a physics (according to Aristotle), a logic and some public worship issues. The state proposed is clearly and admittedly inspired by the Platonic state: the structure of society is tripartite (imperial court-merchants-workers, farmers, etc.) and the constitution preferred is a kind of an enlightened monarchy, in which the Sovereign chooses good counselors and enacts good laws.

Plethon follows the Platonic sensible-intelligible distinction in a strictly hierarchical universe, at the top of which lies Zeus: the One that is beyond essence, the idea of the Good, the eternal and ultimate cause of everything. This God creates in his image a second intelligible deity who creates the world of ideas, the causes of the sensible things. In the ontological and cosmological scheme of Plethon (influenced by the Neoplatonic hierarchies) the ideas are identified with deities, and each one is the cause of another, lower, until we reach the creation of the lowest deities and the mortals. This universe operates in a strictly deterministic way via a chain of causes and effects that are ultimately reduced to the supreme immutable principle, Zeus. Despite this determinism (which, however, is considered necessary to prevent atheism), man is a frontier and thereby free as to his rational part because he has an immortal soul. Plethon defends the Platonic thesis on soul’s immortality by negating the Aristotelian criticism. The divine and ‘most powerful’ criterion of all is Reason by which we reach truth and happiness. It is through the common concepts that the divine intellect sows into the human souls that Reason understands the reasons of the beings. Thus the ultimate goal, namely the achievement of happiness, requires knowledge of the nature of the universe and of man, and the cultivation of both the political virtues (and mainly of the four cardinal: temperance, courage, justice, prudence; see On virtues) and the intellectual virtues (the contemplation of the beings; see Epinomis). Man has the ability, as a synthesis of mortal and immortal elements, to assimilate to God (a reference to Plato’s Theaetetus 176b and to the Christian narrative of Genesis).

The question about the reasons Plethon had to publicly support the Orthodox Church and theology remains open and impedes the understanding of his idiosyncratic paganism. However, his anti-Christian polemic is clear (at least in the Book of Laws), especially since he poses as the basis of his ideal state a rational religion that combines his peculiar (Neo)platonism with ancient Greek mythology and religion, disguising as metaphysical concepts the polytheistic pantheon and a henotheistc hierarchy. Moreover, the philosophical restoration of Plato and Platonism attempted by Plethon, the ‘new Plato’, could not be but particularly suspect in Byzantium (after the older attempts of Michael Psellus and Ioannes Italos), just because their metaphysical orientation could lead to the undermining or even the denial of the core of the Christian doctrine.

Author: George Zografidis
  • Masai, F. Pléthon et le platonisme de Mystra. Paris, 1956.
  • Tambrun, B. Pléthon: Le Retour de Platon. Paris, 2006.
  • Woodhouse, C. M. Gemistos Plethon: The last of Hellenes. Oxford, 1986.
  • Hladký, V. The Philosophy of Gemistos Plethon: Platonism in Late Byzantium, between Hellenism and Orthodoxy. Farnham, 2013.
  • Μπενάκης, Λ., Μπαλόγλου, ΧΜπαλόγλου, Χ., Μπενάκης, Λ. Γ. eds. . Πρακτικά Διεθνούς Συνεδρίου αφιερωμένου στον Πλήθωνα και την εποχή του. Αθήνα, 2003.
  • Plethon, GemistosAlexandre, C. ed. . The Book of Laws. Paris, 1858.
  • Plethon, GemistosLagarde, B. ed. . On the issues that Aristotle diverges from Plato. 1973.
German Idealism, Hegelian dialectic and Plato

German Idealism, Hegelian dialectic and Plato

German Idealism discovers anew Plato’s philosophy and...

Pythagoreans (and Plato)

Pythagoreans (and Plato)

The Pythagorean world-view was at the onset shaped as a...

Portraits of Socrates

Portraits of Socrates

The image of Socrates as preserved in copies of sculpted...

Neoplatonism and politics: the case of Emperor Julian

Neoplatonism and politics: the case of Emperor Julian

The final attempt to revive pagan polytheism in the 4th c....