Michael Constantine Psellus

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Michael Constantine Psellus

1018-c. 1078

Byzantine Scholar and Statesman

Michael Constantine Psellus is known both for his role in Byzantine politics and for his wide-ranging scholarship, which influenced the later Italian Renaissance. Not only did he write the Chronographia, a history of the years 976-1078, but he commented on most known areas of science and mathematics, and is regarded as the last great Greek scholar of astronomy.

Psellus served in a number of key positions in the court at Constantinople, beginning as imperial secretary to Michael V in 1041. Upon the accession of Constantine IX in 1042, he became secretary of state, a position he maintained until the end of Constantine's reign in 1054. He also served as professor of philosophy at Constantinople for nine years beginning in 1045.

The year 1054 was an important one both in Byzantine history and in Psellus's life. It was then that the breach between the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches became permanent, and Psellus—who favored the split with Rome—was deeply affected by this upheaval. He left the university, adopting the name Michael in addition to his given name of Constantine Psellus.

Perhaps he intended to embark on a life of spiritual contemplation, but by 1055 Psellus was back in the midst of the Byzantine political maelstrom, having been recalled to service by the empress Theodora. He served as her prime minister, and later took up that role during the reign of Michael VII Ducas (1071-1078), who had been his student during his days at the university. As prime minister, he urged Michael to avoid any attempt at rapprochement with the Roman church.

Both before and during his years as a statesman, Psellus wrote widely. He reorganized the university system with a curriculum that placed a greater emphasis on classical antiquity, in particular Homeric myth and the philosophy of Plato (427-347 b.c.). He also wrote on philosophy, theology, grammar, and law.

Psellus also wrote commentaries on the natural sciences, medicine, and mathematics. His writings on the latter have provided scholars with valuable information concerning his ancient countrymen Pythagoras (c. 580-c. 500 b.c.) and Diophantus of Alexandria (c. 200-c. 284). He is also remembered for his work on astronomy, in which his role was primarily one of a recorder and historian rather than a theoretician.

Perhaps Psellus's greatest contribution to thought was his emphasis on Platonic idealism as opposed to the more firmly scientific worldview of Aristotle (384-322 b.c.). In the long run, this emphasis may have had a negative impact on scientific thinking, but in the short run at least he helped to refresh the pools of inquiry, which, in turn, influenced Italian thinkers of the Renaissance. These thinkers resurrected Platonic ideas after a long period of dormancy.

In 1078, a shift in dynastic politics, with the rise of the Macedonian line, spelled an end to Psellus's days in the Byzantine court. He died soon afterward.


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