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The mighty George Gemistos Plethon

Wednesday, 2 Nov 2016

The mighty George Gemistos Plethon on Dr John Dunn. The Council of Florence 1438–1439 famously set the stage for the mighty George Gemistos Plethon.

Plethon's fame had preceded him and he was invited by Council attendees to lecture on the differences between Plato and Aristotle. Cosimo d'Medici was in the audience and was so enthused by Plethon’s radical platonism that he founded the Accademia Platonica in Florence, under the directorship of Marsilio Ficino.

With Plethon’s oratory, what had been a covert preservation of Hellenistic thought in the West emerged into open opposition to the Jehovian Settlement.

Plethon summarised the substance of his lectures in On the Differences of Aristotle from Plato, better known by its shortened Latin title as De Differentiis. Often thought of merely as the first shot in an academic battle that continued in Byzantium with George Scholarios's Defence of Aristotle1 and Plethon's subsequent Reply2,this work sparked the Renaissance uprising against the Guelph nobility,Jewish merchants and money lenders and Venetian financiers who had benefitted for so long from the preservation of the Diocletian Order, Jehovian Settlement and the suppression of Hellenistic thought.

By using Aristotle as the comparator to Plato in De Differentiis, Plethon was also targeting his arguments against the prevailing scholasticism of the Roman Church, which was heavily influenced by Aquinas’ Aristotelianism.

Plethon struck at the heart of the Jehovian Settlement by comparing the limitations of its God with the supreme sovereign and creator as posited by Plato.

The first three substantive paragraphs of De Differentiis were about God. His first claim was that

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... assigning the spheres and their movements to the separate minds and substances, he assigns a sphere and the movement of it to God himself, thus placing him on a level with the minds dependent on him. (Plethon observes that) ...such a degree of superiority is insufficient for the dignity of God...3
Specifically he suggested that Aristotle's concept of the Prime Mover was located inone celestial sphere among others, which would contradict a divinity that transcends all finite beings.4

Plethon concluded his pamphlet De Differentiis with an extended critique of Aristotle's refutation of the Platonic theory of Forms/Ideas, which all came down to the fact that Aristotle denied the creation of eternal substances and the wellspring of all things in one source of being. On the other side were Plato and the Platonists, who understood God as ‘the universal sovereign over all existing things, and assume him to be the originator of originators, the creator of creators, and refer everything without exception to him’.5

Behind Plethon’s captivating address to the Council attendees stood an agenda of restoring ancient pagan wisdom - not to enhance the Messianic Christianity of the Jehovian Settlement, but to supplant it.

He cut the ties with the Judaism from which Constantine had drawn the newly constructed Christianity of the Nicene Creed.

Plethon offered an alternative creed which was wholly Hellenic in origin.

In his Book of Laws (Nomon Syggraphe), which drew upon the Nomoi (Laws) of Plato, Plethon invoked a pageant of pagan sages that connected Zoroaster with Plato, Plutarch, Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus. In doing this he established a consistent and continuous genealogy of wisdom, or prisca theologia.

Secure in the legitimacy of a succession of divine men, Plethon sought to distinguish his new state religion from the Messianic Christianity that had been artificially constructed by Constantine

Plethon invoked the gods of learning...
...whoever and however many ye be; ye who are guardians of scientific knowledge and true belief; ye who distribute them to whomsoever you wish, in accordance with the dictates of the great father of all things, Zeus the King. For without you we should not be able to complete so great a task.6
The general dogmas were presented:
  • The Gods are more blessed than men.
  • They provide (pronoein) for any good and no evil.
  • There is a plurality of Gods that admits for degrees.
  • Zeus is the highest and mightiest of the Gods.
  • He is unbegotten (agenetos) and self-engendered (autopatros).
  • Poseidon is his first son and head of all other Gods.
  • There is a hierarchy among the lower gods, manifest in the importance of their actions.
  • There is even bisection among the Gods, those who stem from Zeus, and illegitimate ones; the former living on Olympus, the latter dwelling as Titans in Tartarus.
  • The Gods of Olympus and of Tartarus form a grand and holy One.
  • On the lowest level there are demons that operate on earth.
  • Nevertheless all of the Gods are outside of time and space.
  • They are begotten (genetoi) from the one cause of all, and in duration without beginning and end.
  • In Zeus, essence and existence (ousia, praxis) are identical.7
To recall the analogy with earthly geometry made earlier 8, Zeus in Plethon’s cosmology occupied a region of maximal convergence at the pole, a place of infinite and no longer puzzling perfection, which we need no longer conceive as a mere supreme instance of incompatible values, but as the living principle of all those values themselves. Thus Zeus, at the apex of all the worlds, represented the convergence into the One, the Godhead itself.

Plethon's Book of Laws was in part destroyed posthumously by his friend and former student, Georgios Gennadios Scholarios, then the Patriarch of Byzantium, who believed the whole theology to be a reinstating of ancient polytheism. But Scholarios was also one of the Byzantine scholars who introduced scholastic philosophy into the Greek world: in 1435/36 he had translated Petrus Hispanus' Logic.9 A scholar so imbued with Aristotelianism as Scholarius could not, or would not, see that Plethon was in fact clothing with new metaphors the Platonic cosmology found in the Timaeus. Plethon was following in the footsteps of Plato and the rest of the Conspiricy of Intelligence.

Plethon’s Book of Laws has been described as a bid to save Greek identity by restoring the ancient, unique Greek culture.

However, Plethon's theogony, in drawing upon Greek gods, was only remotely in accord with ancient mythology as known from Homer and the other sources.

It was presented as a work of instruction, as an outline of social, political, and moral order, as Laws. These were dogmas for the masses to which all must adhere.

Clearly, he wanted a break with the Judaism of the Jehovian Settlement and a return to Plato’s cosmology.

This break with the Jehovian Settlement in religion, was wholly in accord with Plethon’s political opposition to ultra-feudalism.

Whilst prompted originally by the Ottoman threat to Byzantium, his political theories when aired to proto-humanist ears in the West would have been received as a direct challenge to Guelph supremacy.

His principle political ideas had been presented to the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II Palaiologos as Advice to the Despot Theodore Concerning the Affairs of the Peloponnese (1416) and Georgios Gemistos to Manuel Palaeologus Concerning the Affairs of the Peloponnese (1418). These were blueprints for a monarchical nation state, very much in the tradition of Dante’s De Monarchia.

Plethon had an early and visionary appreciation of the preconditions of nationalism and national mobilisation.

A national mythos was to bring about a social mobilisation, ostensibly to meet the threat of Turkish invasion, but also to withstand mercenary threats and economic warfare from Guelphic interests.

Plethon's proposals for economic autarky were founded on his mythos of Hellenic nationality, which comprised a race united by language, traditional culture, and occupation of a discrete territory, the Peloponnese.

His Book of Laws underpinned the revolution necessary to mobilise rationally all the socioeconomic and political factors needed to create a centralised, autarchic, and defendable territory.

Like Plato and Dante, Plethon chose monarchy in preference to oligarchical democracy, the latter being much too open to manipulation in the interests of the merchant class.

To break the stranglehold of the Guelph money economy over the productive economy, Plethon proposed the royal confiscation and redistribution of land to the working peasantry.

As a philosophical royalist, Plethon was hostile to the landed aristocracy and recommended confiscation of their estates. The landlords of the early post-Diocletian Order had, by the late Middle Ages, literally sold out to the money economy that was dominated by Jewish merchants, money lenders and Venetian financiers. Plethon’s proposals for the emancipation of the serfs and expropriation of the nobility was intended to break the cycle of usurious exploitation.

Plethon recommended to Manuel a massive confiscation and redistribution of land which extinguished all title but that gained through work. Plethon ultimately desired to mobilise the cultivators who had fled the oppressive exactions of ultra-feudalism, and to wrest idle land from the hands of speculators for the production of social, economic, and military self-sufficiency.

Like Plato, Plethon believed in a natural division of classes.

The first and most necessary part of the state was the productive class. Here was long-overdue recognition for the class that had, in ignorance, born the multi-tiered exploitation, via their landlords, of merchants and usurers for over a thousand years.

The second class was composed of craftsmen, merchants and tradesmen who created, transported,and sold the goods necessary to life.

The third or ruling class was composed of the emperor, the hierarchy of military commanders, and local leaders.

Because he believed the safety of the state to rest on the allegiance of this soldier/producer class, Plethon advised the elimination of the merchant class, from ruling positions, their financial interests being incompatible with fair governance. Plethon’s observations on the distorting impact of money lending and financial speculation upon government were hugely significant.

If the merchant class was to be prohibited from mixing its interests in rulership, then the ruling class, including the army, was to engage itself neither in commercial enterprise nor production and was to be paid in provender, wages and honours.

Sumptuary laws would curtail the nobility’s penchant for foreign luxury goods, thus reducing the multi-layered exploitative impact of usurers upon the producer class.

In order to eliminate debased Venetian coinage as the domestic exchange medium, Plethon advocated a quasi-barter economy, utilising payments in kind in lieu of coin-taxes, restraining the use of coinage in domestic trade, and limiting imports to those exchangeable for cotton.

Further, the Monarchy should control imports and exports through selective duties.

This protectionist policy demonstrated insight, radical for its time, into the economic preconditions of national autarky.

In the end, Plethon's proposals for the generation of economic autarky, though highly prescient given the state of medieval economic knowledge, were beyond the powers of the Emperor.

Venice controlled the major ports and thus the trade of the peninsula (Coron, Modon, Corinth, Argos, Patros, Nauplia) and also engaged in smuggling, counterfeiting, piracy, and confiscation of tariffs and duties.

Plethon's advocacy of a barter economy was also designed to halt circulation of debased and counterfeit Ducats, Florins, and Tournois. However, Venice and the other European powers had introduced these debased media of exchange by prohibiting import of the raw precious metals which would have allowed the Greeks to coin Hyperpyra (once the standard gold coin of the Byzantines). This base foreign coinage bled the area of domestic treasure reserves. In return for native labor, raw material, and gold outflow, the Venetians dumped their surplus and luxury production in the Peloponnese, effectively undercutting native industries.

Further, through balance of power politics, Guelphic ultra-feudalist objectives rendered Byzantine control of the unruly feudal lords virtually impossible, thus wrecking the plans for land reform and reduced luxury consumption.10

Venetian economic warfare brought down the Peloponnese and the rest of the Empire before the Ottoman Turks set foot on Byzantine land. Despite this, Gemistos Plethon deserves a place in the history of political theory for opposing Guelph ultra-feudalism with nationalism and associated socio-economic and political reform.

His nationalism, which denominated the Hellenesas a genos united by language, ancestral culture, and common territory,was a political mythos designed to unify the court elites with the military, commercial and producer classes.

Through The Book of Laws, Plethon sought to neutralise the Messianic ideology of the Jehovian settlement and with it the ultra-feudalism of the nobility. Plethon recognised in these landlords an oligarchy that would never hold allegiance to a nation state, having once shared in the spoils of the money economy with Jews and the financial speculators of Venice.

His policy of distributing land to the producers was the counterpart to his action against the landlords. It was aimed too at breaking the grip of ultra-feudalism by lifting the burden of Guelphic exploitation from the backs of the producer class.

By consolidating the requisite amount of surplus value from the producer class into a single tax, one-third of the annual produce in kind, and by yoking the soldiers and farmers in a relation of interdependence, Plethon sought both to support a professional national army and to provide for continuous agriculture.

Through sumptuary laws, control of imports and exports, and domestic barter, he aimed to control the Peloponnesian economy and create the conditions for the accumulation of native capital and autarchic economic development. Disengagement from the world system of usury and financial speculation would be the goal.

His theoretical achievement should not be minimised, or from taking its rightful place beside More's Utopia (1516) and Campanella's City of the Sun (1602).

In Plethon’s case, a political theory that opposed ultra-feudalism and a new state religion that cut the ties with Judaism were inseparable.

Plethon discussed his ideas freely in the politically charged atmosphere of the Council of Florence.

The practical outcome of his programme for a nation state, built upon those of Plato, Dante and Nicholas of Cusa, was that it triggered the political, religious and cultural uprising against Guelphic power, known to us as the Renaissance.

1 The critical text of Scholarios's Defense may be found in L. Petit, M. Jugie, and X.A. Sidéridès, eds., Œuvres complètes de Gennade Scholarios,8 vols. (Paris, 1928-36), 4:1-116. This work has never been translated into English, but Woodhouse provides a useful descriptive summary in his Plethon, 240-66.

2 The critical text of the Reply is now available in Enrico V. Maltese's Georgii Gemisti Plethonis contra Scholarii pro Aristotele Obiectione (Leipzig: Teubner, 1988). The Reply may also be found in PG, 160:979-1020. This work also has not been translated into English, but again Woodhouse provides a summary in his Plethon, 283-307.

3 C. M.Woodhouse, George Gemistos Plethon: The Last of the Hellenes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986) pp.193

4 Woodhouse, p.193

5 Woodhouse, p.213

6 Woodhouse, p.328

7 Pléthon: Traité des lois, ed. C. Alexandre (Paris, 1858; reprint Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1966), pp.44-59

8 See thought piece, Convergence into the One.

9 G. Karamanolis: ‘Plethon and Scholarios on Aristotle’, in K. Ierodiakonou (ed.), Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources (Oxford: Clarendon, 2002), pp. 253-282.

10 D.A. Zakythinos, Le Despotate Grec de Moree, vol 2. (Paris: Societe d'edition 'Les Belles Lettres,' 1932 and 1952), pp.253-269

© John Dunn.

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