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Byzantine Philosophy


The age of the Byzantine Empire stretches from the end of late antiquity to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. During Byzantine times scholars who copied and studied or even lectured on the texts of ancient philosophers are known and praised chiefly for their efforts to transmit and to keep alive the philosophical traditions of antiquity. To take the obvious case of Plato's and Aristotle's works, there are more than 260 Byzantine manuscripts of dialogues by Plato and at least 1,000 Aristotelian texts. This does not mean, however, that all Byzantine scholars should be regarded as mere copyists. There were among them important figures who, being philosophers themselves, not only carefully studied and commented on ancient philosophical works but also wrote their own treatises on central philosophical problems.

How did the Byzantines conceive of philosophy and of themselves as philosophers? John of Damascus (Dialectica 1:56), for instance, gives six complementary definitions of philosophy:

(1) the knowledge of beings as beings;

(2) the knowledge of things divine and human;

(3) a preparation for death;

(4) the assimilation of man to God as far as humanly possible;

(5) the art of arts and the science of sciences;

(6) the love of wisdom.

These six definitions, which were often cited by other Byzantine philosophers too, can also be found in the works of the Neoplatonists of the Alexandrian school (for example, David, Prolegomena 20.2731). They are clearly derived from Aristotelian (1, 5), Stoic (2), and Platonic (3, 4) conceptions of philosophy, attesting thus to the Byzantines' solid knowledge and eclectic use of the different traditions in ancient philosophy.

However, the Byzantines were by no means unanimous about the importance of ancient philosophy, or of "the wisdom from without," as they called pagan philosophy in contrast to Christian theology, which they called "the wisdom from within." Some, under the influence of St. Paul and authors like Tatian, considered ancient philosophy useless and dangerous because it corrupts the Christian view of things and leads to heresies. Others, under the influence of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, claimed that ancient philosophy, if used in a cautious way, could be a preparation for the true faith, help in its elucidation, and serve as a dialectical weapon against heresies. Moreover, Byzantine philosophers like John Italos and Barlaam of Calabria undertook the task, in some cases at high personal risk, of defending ancient philosophy in its own right, but also as a means for a better understanding of Christian dogma.

The term philosophy could also be used in Byzantium in a much wider sense to include encyclopedic knowledge, including mathematical sciences such as astronomy. Sometimes, following some of the Church Fathers, the term could be used to refer to a life of contemplation as exemplified by Christian monasticism. But that philosophy was partly understood as the Christian way of contemplative life does not necessarily mean that philosophy collapsed into theology. On the contrary, the borders between philosophy and theology were reasonably clearly defined in Byzantium.

The view expressed by some Church Fathers, for instance by Clement and by Origen, that philosophy is the handmaiden of theology (philosophia theologiae ancilla ), was not the dominant position in the Byzantine East. Byzantine philosophy seems to have managed to preserve its autonomy. Even though many of the problems with which Byzantine philosophers were concerned, like that of divine providence, did indeed arise in the context of a Christian theological tradition, these problems nonetheless constitute genuine philosophical issues that would be of interest to any philosopher, even one who did not believe in Christian dogma. For example, the following are some of the issues that profoundly and systematically occupied many Byzantines philosophers: the creation or origin of the world, the existence of God, the ontological status of universals, the character of the perceptible world, the problem of evil and human free will, the relation between soul and body, the necessary requirements for a good life, the possibility of a just state, the connection between faith and reason, the skeptical challenge to knowledge.

But did the Byzantine philosophers express original views in discussing these issues? There is no doubt, of course, that Byzantine philosophical writings are quarries of information about earlier philosophical doctrines, which would have been otherwise completely lost or only meagerly documented. Besides, whatever attitude the Byzantines took towards ancient philosophy, it was impossible for them to escape altogether from its influence. It was ancient philosophy that clearly provided them with a well-articulated theoretical framework and with the philosophical language that served as the basis for their own philosophical discourse. At the same time, however, the Byzantine philosophers offered in their commentaries and treatises numerous clarifications, developments, criticisms, and modifications of ancient doctrines, some of which are philosophically interesting and remarkably subtle.

Even when they simply paraphrased or briefly commented on ancient philosophical texts, the Byzantines presented different degrees of independent thinking; sometimes they gave a slightly different argument to support an established position, sometimes they made a small but interesting addition to an ancient doctrine, and sometimes they considerably diverged from the view generally accepted in antiquity. But this should not be understood as suggesting that the Byzantine philosophers were interested in being original; like most of their late ancient predecessors they would have firmly rejected such a suggestion.

Nevertheless, Byzantine philosophy as a whole exhibits a distinctive character that differentiates it from the previous period in the history of philosophy. For it is clear that many of the views and doctrines presented by the Byzantines originated in their aim to reconcile their Christian tradition with ancient philosophy. For instance, they taught Aristotle's logic as generally useful, but mainly as a preparation for more theoretical studies; they disagreed, however, with his doctrine of the eternity of the world and his understanding of God as the first unmoved mover who moves the heavens but exerts no providence on the details of the sublunary world, including individual human beings. Instead, Byzantine philosophers considered Plato's metaphysics to be closer to the Christian worldview, especially on issues like the immortality of the soul and the creation of the world; still, for doctrinal reasons they could not accept the Platonic theory of metempsychosis and the separate existence of eternal ideas or forms.

Hence, Byzantine philosophers seem to have followed the eclectic tradition of late antiquity and combined aspects of Plato's and Aristotle's theories, although always strongly influenced by Neoplatonic philosophers like Proclus. The Byzantines also engaged in a limited dialogue with the other schools of ancient philosophy; for instance, they were interested in criticizing elements of Epicurean or Stoic doctrine, and they critically examined the implications of the Skeptics' views on the possibility of human knowledge. This is the picture at least up to the fifteenth century, when the leading intellectuals of the time, George Gemistos Pletho and George Scholarios Gennadios, started emphasizing the contrast between ancient philosophers and believed that they should take sides, presenting themselves either as Platonists or as Aristotelians.

Byzantine Philosophers

In Byzantium there were no institutions of higher education in which philosophers could be trained as philosophers. The main purpose of institutional higher studies was to train civil servants. The figure of the Byzantine philosopher, therefore, emerges as somewhat of a polymath and an erudite scholar, who, moreover, might make use of his knowledge and rhetorical skill to play an active role in the political life of his times. Philosophical instruction was mainly private, but it sometimes received support from the Emperor and the Church, as in the case of the so-called University of Constantinople, which was founded in 1045 by Constantine Monomachos. Such support, however, also meant occasional intervention by the secular or ecclesiastical authorities, as when John Italos was put on trial and condemned for advocating the systematic use of philosophical analysis in clarifying theological issues.

In general, the philosophical curriculum would start with Aristotle's logic, considered as the instrument of all sciences (Porphyry's Isagoge, Aristotle's Categories, De interpretatione, and Prior Analytics 1.17); then ethics, teaching a rationally ordered moral life of the soul as joined to the body; and finally, through physics and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmonics), to Platonic or, more precisely, to Neoplatonic metaphysics, which is the highest philosophical science because it has to do with knowledge of first principles and brings the soul nearer to assimilation to the divine.

The genres of philosophical writing in Byzantium are quite diverse. For teaching purposes the Byzantine scholars produced marginal notes and explanatory paraphrases on ancient philosophical works, but also extended commentaries, sometimes in question-and-answer form, small handbooks, or large surveys of philosophy. They also wrote small treatises on specific topics or longer works, occasionally in dialogue form, with the aim of rebutting the views of their opponents and to explain and defend their own theories. To all these we should further add their letters and orations, which frequently made reference to philosophy.

The real starting point of Byzantine philosophy is usually placed in the ninth and tenth century, when the so-called Byzantine humanists, men like the Patriarch Photios, Arethas, or Leo the Mathematician, started again studiously to read, edit, and comment on the works of ancient philosophers. Having said that, however, the distinctive character of Byzantine philosophy undoubtedly owes a lot to the influence of the previous period, which was dominated by the thought of the Church Fathers such as Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, and John of Damascus.

Photios (820891), who is famous mainly for his Bibliotheke, a vast compilation of ancient Greek literature, also taught Aristotelian logic and wrote, for this purpose, comments on Aristotle's Categories. In addition, he composed a number of small treatises in which he criticized both Plato's and Aristotle's views, especially their theories on universals; he himself claimed that universals have no independent existence but are conceived by God and are instruments of God's will. Arethas (c. 850944) also commented on Aristotle's Categories and Porphyry's Isagoge, but he is better known for having been instrumental in the transmission of ancient texts, in particular the Platonic corpus. He commissioned the transcription of a complete copy of Plato's works, to which he added marginal notes; the first part of his Plato text is extant as the famous Clarkianus 39 manuscript in the Bodleian Library of Oxford. Unfortunately, we know little about Leo the Mathematician (c.790869), who seems to have taught philosophy at the so-called Magnaura School in Constantinople.

There is a significant development from the humanistic Photios and Arethas interests to the way the Byzantines in the eleventh and twelfth century, the period of the Comneni, viewed the philosopher as someone with a hard-earned and unsurpassed knowledge in all branches of learning, and especially as someone who formed his own views on the philosophical topics discussed by the ancients. Michael Psellos (10181078) was one of the most erudite and intriguing figures of the Byzantine Middle Ages. He was given the honorific title "first among the philosophers" and taught all branches of philosophy. He commented on Aristotle's logic (Categories, De interpretatione, Prior Analytics ) and his physics, and he wrote a large number of short treatises discussing particular problems raised by his pupils; he also compiled a short encyclopaedia with the title De omnifaria doctrina. He was greatly influenced by Proclus, whom he considered as an authority among ancient authors. In his attempts to advance philosophical learning he was often attacked concerning his theological orthodoxy, so that he often had to be careful to distance himself from heretical doctrines, as in his writings on the Chaldaean Oracles.

John Italos (c.10251082), a pupil of Psellos, who was condemned by the Church of Constantinople for his extensive use of logical reasoning in theological matters, wrote treatises discussing the Aristotelian categories and commented on Aristotle's logic (De interpretatione, Topics ). Eustratios of Nicaea (c.10501120) and Michael of Ephesus (c.10501129) belonged to the intellectual circle around Anna Comnena and took part in her project to produce commentaries on Aristotle's works.

Eustratius wrote commentaries on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics and Nicomachean Ethics, whereas Michael of Ephesus commented on Aristotle's metaphysics, logic (Sophistici elenchi ), ethics, and natural philosophy (Parva naturalia, De partibus animalium, De generatione animalium, De motu animalium, and De incessu animalium ). Their work, in which they followed ancient commentaries (some of which are now lost) but also added their own insightful remarks, was instrumental in the transmission and revolutionary rediscovery of Aristotelian thought in the Latin West. Finally, Nicholas of Methone (d. 1165) wrote at the same time a detailed refutation of Proclus's Elements of Theology. During the short period after the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204, when the center of Byzantine intellectual life moved to Nicaea in Asia Minor, the main intellectual figure was Nikephoros Blemmydes (11971272), who wrote a much-used handbook of physics and logic that also was translated in Latin.

Lastly, the final centuries of the Byzantine empire, which are known as the Palaeologan period, saw a renewal of interest in the sciences, particularly in mathematics and astronomy. George Pachymeres (12421310) composed a summary of Aristotelian philosophy and wrote Neoplatonic commentaries, supplementing Proclus's commentary on Plato's Parmenides. Theodore Metochites (12701332) criticized Aristotelian physics and metaphysics in debate with Nikephoros Choumnos (c. 12501327), who in turn attacked the orthodoxy of Neoplatonic psychology. Sophonias and Leo Magentinos paraphrased works of Aristotle; Sophonias paraphrased Aristotle's Categories, Sophistici elenchi, and De anima, while Leo Magentinos paraphrased Aristotle's De interpretatione, Prior Analytics, and Sophistici elenchi.

Moreover, three important intellectuals of the fourteenth century, namely Nikephoros Gregoras (1290/31358/61), Barlaam of Calabria (c. 12901348), and Gregory Palamas (c.12961359), got involved in a fierce dispute over the use of logical reasoning in theology. Gregoras claimed that logical studies should be regarded as completely useless and should be therefore altogether dismissed, whereas Barlaam and Palamas adopted a more complex attitude toward logic. They both stressed that logic is indeed useful in defending Christian dogma against pagans and heretics, but they disagreed about the limits of the use of logical reasoning in clarifying or establishing the truth of Christian belief; whereas Barlaam argued that logical methods can be used to prove the Christian beliefs, Palamas insisted that logical arguments are of no help in our attempt to acquire knowledge of God and of his attributes. The controversy between Gregoras, Barlaam, and Palamas extended to a second stage, known as the Hesychast debate, which centered on the method of prayer and contemplation of the Byzantine monks, who claimed to be able to achieve communion with God through inner quietude and silence.

In the fifteenth century, around the time of the fall of Constantinople, a main focus of Byzantine philosophers was, as mentioned above, stressing the differences between Plato and Aristotle and determining the superiority of the one over the other. George Gemistos Plethon (c. 1360c. 1453) is famous for his renewal of Proclus's Neoplatonism as a theological and political alternative to Christianity. In his treatise De Platonis et Aristotelis philosophiae differentia he argued for the superiority of Plato over Aristotle; in his Laws he presented an utopia based primarily upon Plato and the Neoplatonists. George Scholarios Gennadios (c. 1400-1424) thought that Pletho's utopia was heretical and should be consigned to the flames. He defended Aristotle's works and was more favourable to Latin scholasticism. He commented on Aristotle's logic (Categories, De interpretatione ), natural philosophy (Physics 13, Parva naturalia ), and Aristotle's De anima. He also translated part of Petrus Hispanus's Summulae logicales and works by Thomas Acquinas, for instance the De fallaciis and his commentary on the Posterior Analytics. Bessarion (14031472), who had studied under Pletho, tried to mediate the dispute between Pletho and Scholarios, and gave a sympathetic summary of Plato's philosophy, which he thought reconcilable with Aristotelianism. He, like Pletho, greatly helped to bring works of Plato and Aristotle to the attention of Italian humanists.

From the second half of the thirteenth century onward, there were translations into Greek of Western Latin texts, especially logical texts: Manuel Holobolos (fl. 1267) translated Boethius's De topicis differentiis and De hypotheticis syllogismis ; Maximos Planudes (c. 1255c. 1305) translated Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae and Augustine's De trinitate ; Demetrios Kydones (c. 132497/8) and his brother Prochoros Kydones (c. 133369/70) translated Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas. But it was only in the fifteenth century that Byzantine and Western philosophers actually began to talk to one another, to read one another's books, and to be influenced by others' traditions and views. Still, although the Byzantine scholars like John Argyropouloswho went to Italy and worked there as teachers of Greek, editors of Greek texts and translators, and as teachers of philosophyexerted a fertile influence on the West, Byzantium itself in general remained closed to Western scholasticism.

The Study of Byzantine Philosophy

Byzantine philosophy remains a little-explored field. Most of the writings of Byzantine philosophers are yet unpublished or are available only in old and often quite inadequate editions. The nineteenth-century Berlin series Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca, which was supposed to include all commentaries on Aristotle's works, actually includes a very small selection of Byzantine commentaries. Translations of and commentaries on Byzantine philosophical works are hardly ever available. In addition, there are important unresolved issues about the authorship of many Byzantine philosophical texts, and we often have no reliable information concerning their sources. But even when we do have careful editions of the philosophical works of Byzantine thinkers, their philosophical contribution for the most part still needs to be critically assessed. Being regarded either as mere scholars or as religious thinkers, Byzantine philosophers have not been studied on their own merit, and their works have hardly been scrutinized as works of philosophy.

The interest of the scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, who worked with great care on some Byzantine philosophical texts, was not primarily philosophical. Philosophers, on the other hand, understandably were discouraged both by the rhetorical style of the Byzantine writings and by the theological interests displayed in much of Byzantine philosophy. Therefore, although distinguished historians have in the past tried to reconstruct the intellectual life of the Byzantine period, we still lack even the beginnings of a systematic understanding of the philosophical works produced in Byzantium. It is particularly telling that there is no adequate recent monograph even on the most prominent Byzantine philosopher, Michael Psellos.

After World War II, however, we see significant changes in the study of Byzantine philosophy. These changes clearly are connected with the rediscovery and philosophical reappraisal of the Western medieval philosophical tradition and of certain areas in ancient philosophy, such as the works of the Neoplatonists and of the ancient commentators. Critical editions of texts are appearing regularly, in particular in the series Corpus Philosophorum Medii AeviPhilosophi Byzantini (The Academy of Athens) and in the Bibliotheca Teubneriana. Moreover, books and articles are now being published that investigate the teaching of philosophy in Byzantium and the original philosophical contributions of Byzantine philosophers in a philosophically more adequate and serious way. Nevertheless, much more work is required to achieve a reliable overview of Byzantine thought. Following the rising interest of the last decades of the twentieth century, it now seems important to encourage further the systematic study and critical assessment of the individual works of Byzantine thinkers. Most importantly, we need to take their works seriously as philosophical writings; putting aside our prejudices and misconceptions, we need to make a renewed effort to reconstruct and to do justice to Byzantine philosophy.

See also Analysis, Philosophical; Anselm, St.; Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Augustine, St.; Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus; Clement of Alexandria; Determinism and Freedom; Evil, The Problem of; Gregory of Nyssa; John of Damascus; Medieval Philosophy; Neoplatonism; Origen; Patristic Philosophy; Plato; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Pletho, Giorgius Gemistus; Proclus; Pseudo-Dionysius; Stoicism; Thomas Aquinas, St.


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suggested reading

Benakis, Linos. "Commentaries and Commentators on the Logical Works of Aristotle in Byzantium." In Gedankenzeichen. Festschrift Klaus Oehler. Edited by R. Clausen and R. Daube-Schackat. Tübingen, Germany: Stauffenburg, 1988: 312.

Benakis, Linos. "Bibliographie internationale sur la philosophie byzantine (19491990)." In Bibliographie byzantine publiée à l'occasion du XVIIIe Congrès international d'Etudes byzantines. Athens: Assoc. intern. D. Etud. Byz., 1991.

Benakis, Linos. "Commentaries and Commentators on the Works of Aristotle (Except the Logical Ones) in Byzantium." In Historia philosophiae Medii Aevi. Festschrift Kurt Flasch. Edited by B. Mojsisch and O. Pluta. Amsterdam: B. R. Grüner, 1991. Vol. I: 4554.

Bydén, Börje. Theodore Metochites' Stoicheiosis Astronomike and the Study of Natural Philosophy and Mathematics in Early Palaiologan Byzantium. Göteborg, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 2003.

Hunger, Herbert. Die hochsprachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1978. Vol. 1:362.

Ierodiakonou, Katerina, ed. Byzantine Philosophy and Its Ancient Sources. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Kapriev, Georgi. Philosophie in Byzanz. Wurzburg, Germany: Konigshausen & Neumann, 2005.

Lemerle, Paul. Le premier humanisme byzantin. Paris: Presses Univeritaires de France, 1971.

Oehler, Klaus. Antike Philosophie und byzantinische Mittelalter. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1969.

Podskalsky, Gerhard. Theologie und Philosophie in Byzanz. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1969.

Ševčenko, Ihor. Études sur la polémique entre Théodore Métochite et Nicéphore Choumnos. Brussels: Byzantion, 1962.

Tatakis, Basil. La philosophie byzantine. Paris: Presses Univeritaires de France, 1949. (Modern Greek translation with bibliography for 19491976 by L. Benakis, Athens: Etaireia Spoudon, 1977; English translation by N. J. Moutafakis, Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2003.)

Wilson, Nigel. Scholars of Byzantium. London: Duckworth, 1983.

Katerina Ierodiakonou (2005)

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