Georgius Gemistos (also Plethon or Pletho; in Greek: Γεώργιος Πλήθων Γεμιστός) (c. 1355 – 1452), a Greek Neoplatonist philosopher, was one of the chief pioneers of the revival of learning in Western Europe. As a student he became so enamored of Plato that he took the similar-sounding name “Plethon” (meaning “full”).
His clarification of the distinction between Platonic and Aristotelian thought helped to determine the philosophic direction of the Italian Renaissance. In 1438 he accompanied the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaeologus to the Council of Ferrara, later known as the Council of Florence, where he presented a treatise De Differentiis (“On the Difference Between Aristotle and Plato”), to Florentine humanists and taught classes that reawakened an interest in Plato and loosened the hold that Aristotle had maintained over Western European thought for eight centuries. Plethon inspired Cosimo de' Medici to found the Florentine Academy, and initiated the enthusiastic study of Plato that characterized the Italian Renaissance. He also introduced the geography of Strabo to the West, initiating the overthrow of Ptolemy's erroneous geographical theories.
Gemistos was born around 1355, a Byzantine who settled at Mistra in the Peloponnesus, near the site of ancient Sparta. As a youth he studied in Constantinople and at the Ottoman Muslim court in nearby Adrianople. He became so enamored with Plato that he took the similar-sounding name “Πλήθων” or “Plethon” ("the full"). Gemistos founded a school of esoteric religious philosophy at Mistra, where he spent much of his life.
He wrote pamphlets to Manuel II Palaeologus (reigned 1391–1425) and John VIII Palaeologus (1425–1448), describing how the empire could be reorganized according to Plato's Republic. He also wrote a Summary of the Doctrines of Zoroaster and Plato, which detailed his own eclectic polytheistic beliefs.
In 1438, Plethon accompanied Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaeologus to the Council of Ferrara, later known as the Council of Florence. There he delivered his treatise, De Differentiis (“On the Difference Between Aristotle and Plato”), a description of the differences between Plato's and Aristotle's conceptions of God, to Florentine humanists, and gave classes about Plato to interested Italian scholars. His work reawakened an interest in Plato and loosened the exclusive hold which Aristotle had exercised over Western European thought for eight centuries. George Scholarios (Gennadius II, Patriarch of Constantinople) later defended Aristotle and convinced the Byzantine emperor that Plethon's support for Plato amounted to heresy. The emperor had Plethon confined in Mistra, though he remained somewhat of a celebrity.
Plethon died in Mistra in 1452, just before the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. In 1466, some of his Italian disciples, headed by Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, stole his remains from Mistra and interred them in the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, “so that the great Teacher may be among free men.”
Thought and Works
Plethon wrote De Differentiis (On the Difference Between Aristotle and Plato), a description of the differences between Plato’s and Aristotles' conceptions of God, several works suggesting social and governmental reforms based on Plato's Republic, and Summary of the Doctrines of Zoroaster and Plato detailing his own eclectic polytheistic beliefs. Code of Laws described a social and political ideal modeled on classic Athenian culture and integrating elements of Platonism, Stoicism, Islamic fatalism and reverence for the emperor.
Plethon also wrote about the condition of the Peloponnesus, compiled several volumes of excerpts from ancient authors, and wrote a number of works on Zoroaster, astronomy, history, geography, music and other subjects. Much of his writing exhibited a passionate regard for Greece. Plethon rejected Aristotle's criticism of Plato, but did not always make a distinction between Platonism and Neoplatonism.
His Summary, considered the most heretical of his works, was later burned by Gennadius II and its contents lost to mankind. Many of his other works still exist in manuscript form in various European libraries. Most of Plethon's works can be found in J. P. Migne’s Patrologia Graeca collection; for a complete list see Fabricius, Bibliotheca Graeca (ed. Gottlieb Christoph Harless), xii.
Influence on the Italian Renaissance
Byzantine scholars had remained in contact with their counterparts in Western Europe since the time of the Roman Empire, and especially since the Byzantine Empire had begun to feel threatened by the Ottomans in the fourteenth century. Western European scholars had limited access to ancient Greek philosophy through the Roman Catholic Church and the commentaries of Islamic and Jewish scholars, but the Byzantine libraries held many documents and interpretations that the Westerners had never seen before.
In 1438, the Council of Ferrara (later known as the Council of Florence) was convened to discuss the possible theological reconciliation of the Orthodox and Catholic churches, who were confronted by the rapid incursions of the Ottoman Empire upon Constantinople. Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaeologus, knowing the Byzantines would be confronted with some of the best Roman Catholic scholars, appointed Plethon, who, though a secular scholar, was known for his moral rectitude and his wisdom; his student Johannes Bessarion; and Patriarch Gennadius II to his delegation.
As a secular scholar, Plethon was often not required for the religious discussions at the Council. Instead, he set up a temporary school to teach interested Florentines about works of Plato which had previously been unknown to them. He delivered his treatise, “On the Difference Between Aristotle and Plato,” essentially reintroducing Plato to the Western world, and shaking the exclusive hold which Aristotle had exercised over Western European thought for eight centuries. Plethon inspired Cosimo de' Medici to found the Platonic Academy of Florence, and established the enthusiastic study of Plato which characterized the Italian Renaissance. Plethon also introduced the geography of Strabo to the West, initiating the overthrow of Ptolemy's erroneous geographical theories. The study of Strabo greatly affected the Renaissance concept of the configuration of the Earth; Christopher Columbus cited Strabo among his principal authorities.
Plethon is considered one of the most important influences on the Italian Renaissance. Marsilio Ficino, the Florentine humanist and the first director of the Accademia Platonica, called Plethon “the second Plato.”
Plethon’s Concept of God
In the first three paragraphs of On the Differences of Aristotle from Plato (De Differentiis), Plethon claims:
...Plato's view is that God, the supreme sovereign, is the creator of every kind of intelligible and separate substance, and hence of our entire universe. Aristotle, on the other hand, never calls God the creator of anything whatever, but only the motive force of the universe.
Plethon continues by noting:
...that Aristotle does make God the end and the final cause; but even this must be regarded as a not very exalted claim and not one worthy of God, if he makes God the end not of the existence or essence of particular things but only of movement and change.
Though Pleth maintained that Plato believed that God was creator of the universe, he did not say that Plato believed that God created the universe ex nihilo (from nothing). Plethon then went on to demonstrate that Aristotle did not consider God creator of the universe, but saw God as part of the universe.
Patriarch Gennadius II (George Scholarios) wrote Defence of Aristotle in about 1443, and in his Reply, Plethon repeatedly emphasized his belief that Plato was more consistent with Christian doctrine than was Aristotle. Summary of the Doctrines of Zoroaster and Plato, however, while consistent with the views set forth in De Differentiis, demonstrated that Plethon’s concept of God did not coincide with Christian concepts. Plethon viewed God as supreme sovereign and creator. He believed that the universe was eternal, but that it had been created at some point beyond time. Plethon’s position was that God is separate from the universe for which God is ultimately responsible.
- Brown, Alison M. “Platonism in fifteenth century Florence and its contribution to early modern political thought.” Journal of Modern History 58 (1986): 383-413.
- Keller, A. “Two Byzantine scholars and their reception in Italy.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 20 (1957): 363-370
- Mandilas, Kostas. Georgius Gemistos Plethon. Athens, 1997.
- Masai, F. Pléthon et le platonisme de Mistra. Paris, 1956.
- Monfasani, John. “Platonic paganism in the fifteenth century,” in John Monfasani, Byzantine Scholars in Renaissance Italy: Cardinal Bessarion and Other Emigrés, no. X. Variorum, 1995. ISBN 978-0860784777
- Runciman, Steven. The Last Byzantine Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970. ISBN 978-0521077873
- Setton, Kenneth M. “The Byzantine background to the Italian Renaissance.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 100 (1956): 1-76.
- Woodhouse, C. M. George Gemistos Plethon - The Last of the Hellenes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. ISBN 978-0198247678
All links retrieved May 24, 2017.
- DeBolt, Darien C. “George Gemistos Plethon on God: Heterodoxy in Defense of Orthodoxy.” University of Oklahoma.
General Philosophy Sources
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Paideia Project Online
- Project Gutenberg
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