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Psellus, Michael


PSELLUS, MICHAEL (10181078?) was a Byzantine statesman, philosopher, theologian, and historian. Born in Constantinople, Psellus's talents, broad learning, and eloquence soon made him the favorite in the emperor's court, in which he served simultaneously as head of the chair of rhetoric and philosophy (at the University of Constantinople) and as grand chamberlain. He subsequently served as secretary of state, prime minister, and diplomat. As a patriot and philosopher in an often corrupt political setting, he may justly be compared to Francis and Roger Bacon, who had similar political roles and literary careers. His extensive knowledge in philosophy and rhetoric earned him the coveted title "consul of the philosophers." After thirty years, however, Psellus abruptly abandoned the court, frustrated by the incompetence of his favorite student, the emperor Michael VII Ducas. He died a poor and forgotten man. Psellus's most important works are commentaries on the Greek philosophers and theologians. He also wrote poetry, funeral orations, historical treatises, and works on ancient Greek topography, alchemy, and astrology. In addition, five hundred of Psellus's letters are known.

Psellus's task was to interpret the Greek spirit in a conspicuously Christian setting. He soon became controversial and was almost excommunicated from the church. Nevertheless, he insisted in his teaching and writings that philosophy and theology ought not be seen as two different disciplines but as one. The former lays the intellectual foundations upon which the latter builds its spiritual mansionsphilosophy is not a handmaiden of Christian theology, but a collaborator. Psellus was convinced that philosophy and theology, or science and faith, in unison could give humanity the answer to its perennial questions.

By reviving the pursuit of philosophy and learning in Constantinople, Psellus single-handedly renewed the spirit of excellence patterned on that of ancient Athens. This revival of classical study had longstanding effects, for Psellus is considered the forerunner of the Italian Renaissance. Two examples suffice to show the influence he had, not only among his own, but abroad: Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino were two of Psellus's spiritual heirs.


The works of Psellus are available in Patrologia Graeca, edited by J.-P. Migne, vol. 122 (Paris, 1864). Two works on Psellus are Christos Zervos's Un philosophe néoplatonicien de l'onzième siècle: Michael Psellos (Paris, 1920) and my doctoral dissertation "The Philosophical Trilogy of Michael Psellos, God-Cosmos-Man" (University of Heidelberg, 1970), written in English. I also recommend Joan M. Hussey's Church and Learning in the Byzantine Empire, 8671185 (Oxford, 1937) and The Byzantine World, 3d ed. (London, 1967); and Petros Perikles Ioannou's Christliche Metaphysik in Byzanz: Die Illuminationslehre des Michael Psellos und Johannes Italos (Ettal, Germany, 1956).

George Karahalios (1987)

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