Georgius Gemistus (Greek: Γεώργιος Γεμιστός; c. 1355/1360 – 1452/1454), later called Plethon ( Πλήθων), was one of the most renowned philosophers of the late Byzantine era. He was a chief pioneer of the revival of Greek scholarship in Western Europe. As revealed in his last literary work, the Nomoi or Book of Laws, which he only circulated among close friends, he rejected Christianity in favour of a return to the worship of ancient Hellenic Gods as well as ancient wisdom based on Zoroaster and the Magi.
He re-introduced Plato's ideas to Western Europe during the 1438–1439 Council of Florence, a failed attempt to reconcile the East-West schism. Here, it was believed until recently, Plethon met and influenced Cosimo de' Medici to found a new Platonic Academy, which, under Marsilio Ficino, would proceed to translate into Latin all Plato's works, the Enneads of Plotinus, and various other Neoplatonist works.
Early life and career
Plethon was born in Constantinople in 1355/1360. Raised in a family of well-educated Christians, he studied in Constantinople and Adrianople, before returning to Constantinople and establishing himself as a teacher of philosophy. Adrianople, the Ottoman capital following its capture by the Ottoman Sultan Murad I in 1365, was a centre of learning modelled by Murat on the caliphates of Cairo and Baghdad. Plethon admired Plato (Greek: Plátōn) so much that late in life he took the similar-meaning name Plethon. Some time before 1410, Emperor Manuel II Paleologus sent him to Mistra, a free-spirited Hellenistic town in the Despotate of Morea in the southern Pelepponese, which remained his home for the rest of his life. In Constantinople, he had been a senator, and he continued to fulfil various public functions, such as being a judge, and was regularly consulted by rulers of Morea. Despite suspicions of heresy from the Church, he was held in high Imperial favour.
In Mistra he taught and wrote philosophy, astronomy, history and geography, and compiled digests of many classical writers. His pupils included Basilios Bessarion and George Scholarius (later to become Patriarch of Constantinople and Plethon's enemy). He was made chief magistrate by Theodore II. He produced his major writings during his time in Italy and after his return.
Council of Florence
In 1428 Plethon was consulted by Emperor John VIII on the issue of unifying the Greek and Latin churches, and advised that both delegations should have equal voting power. Byzantine scholars had been in contact with their counterparts in Western Europe since the time of the Latin Empire, and especially since the Byzantine Empire had begun to ask for Western European help against the Ottomans in the 14th century. Western Europe had some access to ancient Greek philosophy through the Roman Catholic Church and the Muslims, but the Byzantines had many documents and interpretations that the Westerners had never seen before. Byzantine scholarship became more fully available to the West after 1438, when Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaeologus attended the Council of Ferrara, later known as the Council of Florence, to discuss a union of the Orthodox and Catholic churches. Despite being a secular philosopher, Plethon was chosen to accompany John VIII on the basis of his renowned wisdom and morality. Other delegates included Plethon's former students Bessarion, Mark Eugenikos and Scholarios.
As a secular scholar, Plethon was often not needed at the council. Instead, at the invitation of some Florentine humanists he set up a temporary school to lecture on the difference between Plato and Aristotle. Few of Plato's writings were studied in the Latin West at that time, and he essentially reintroduced much of Plato to the Western world, shaking the domination which Aristotle had come to exercise over Western European thought in the high and later middle ages. According to Marsilio Ficino, in his introduction to the translation of Plotinus, Cosimo de' Medici attended these lectures and was inspired to found the Accademia Platonica in Florence, where Italian students of Plethon continued to teach after the conclusion of the council. (According to James Hanking, however, Marsilio Ficino was misunderstood. ) As a result, Plethon came to be considered one of the most important influences on the Italian Renaissance. Marsilio Ficino, the Florentine humanist and the first director of the Accademia Platonica, paid Plethon the ultimate honour, calling him 'the second Plato', while Cardinal Bessarion speculated as to whether Plato's soul occupied his body. Plethon may also have been the source for Ficino's Orphic system of natural magic.
While still in Florence, Plethon wrote a volume titled Wherein Aristotle disagrees with Plato, commonly called De Differentiis, to correct the misunderstandings he had encountered. He claimed he had written it "without serious intent" while incapacitated through illness, "to comfort myself and to please those who are dedicated to Plato." George Scholarius responded with a Defence of Aristotle, which elicited Plethon's subsequent Reply. Expatriate Byzantine scholars and later Italian humanists continued the argument.
Plethon died in Mistra in 1452, or in 1454, according to J. Monfasani (the difference between the two dates being significant as to whether or not Plethon still lived to know of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453). 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".
Reform of the Peloponnese
Believing that the Peloponnesians were direct descendants of the ancient Hellenes, Plethon rejected Justinian's idea of a universal Empire in favour of recreating the Hellenistic civilization, the zenith of Greek influence, In his 1415 and 1418 pamphlets urged Manuel II and his son Theodore to turn the peninsula into a cultural island with a new constitution of strongly centralised monarchy advised by a small body of middle-class educated men. The army must be composed only of professional native Greek soldiers, who would be supported by the taxpayers, or "Helots" who would be exempt from military service. Land was to be publicly owned, and a third of all produce given to the state fund; incentives would be given for cultivating virgin land. Trade would be regulated and the use of coinage limited, barter instead being encouraged; locally available products would be supported over imports. Mutilation as a punishment would be abolished, and chain gangs introduced. Homosexuals and sexual deviants would be burnt at the stake. The social and political ideas in these pamphlets were largely derived from Plato's Republic. Plethon touched little on religion, although he expressed disdain for monks, who "render no service to the common good". He vaguely prescribed three religious principles: belief in a supreme being; that this being has concern for mankind; and that it is uninfluenced by gifts or flattery. Manuel and Theodore did not act on any of these reforms.
In De Differentiis Plethon compares Aristotle's and Plato's conceptions of God, arguing that Plato credits God with more exalted powers as "creator of every kind of intelligible and separate substance, and hence of our entire universe", while Aristotle has Him as only the motive force of the universe; Plato's God is also the end and final cause of existence, while Aristotle's God is only the end of movement and change. Plethon derides Aristotle for discussing unimportant matters such as shellfish and embryos while failing to credit God with creating the universe, for believing the heavens are composed of a fifth element, and for his view that contemplation was the greatest pleasure; the latter aligned him with Epicurus, Plethon argued, and he attributed this same pleasure-seeking to monks, whom he accused of laziness. Later, in response to Gennadius' Defence of Aristotle, Plethon argued in his Reply that Plato's God was more consistent with Christian doctrine than Aristotle's, and this, according to Darien DeBolt, was probably in part an attempt to escape suspicion of heterodoxy.
I myself heard him at Florence ... asserting that in a few more years the whole world would accept one and the same religion with one mind, one intelligence, one teaching. And when I asked him “Christ’s or Muhammad’s?,” he said, “Neither; but it will not differ much from paganism.” I was so shocked by these words that I hated him ever after and feared him like a poisonous viper, and I could no longer bear to see or hear him. I heard, too, from a number of Greeks who escaped here from the Peloponnese that he openly said before he died ... that not many years after his death Muhammad and Christ would collapse and the true truth would shine through every region of the globe.— George of Trebizond, Comparatio Platonis et Aristotelis, fol. v63
After his death, Plethon's Nómōn syngraphē (Νόμων συγγραφή) or Nómoi (Νόμοι "Book of Laws") was discovered. It came into the possession of Princess Theodora, wife of Demetrios, despot of Morea. Theodora sent the manuscript to Scholarius, now Gennadius II, Patriarch of Constantinople, asking for his advice on what to do with it; he returned it, advising her to destroy it. Morea was under invasion from Sultan Mehmet II, and Theodora escaped with Demetrios to Constantinople where she gave the manuscript back to Gennadius, reluctant to destroy the only copy of such a distinguished scholar's work herself. Gennadius burnt it in 1460, however in a letter to the Exarch Joseph (which still survives) he details the book, providing chapter headings and brief summaries of the contents. It seemed to represent a merging of Stoic philosophy and Zoroastrian mysticism, and discussed astrology, daemons and the migration of the soul. He recommended religious rites and hymns to petition the classical gods, such as Zeus, whom he saw as universal principles and planetary powers. Man, as relative of the gods, should strive towards good. Plethon believed the universe has no beginning or end in time, and being created perfect, nothing may be added to it. He rejected the concept of a brief reign of evil followed by perpetual happiness, and held that the human soul is reincarnated, directed by the gods into successive bodies to fulfill divine order. This same divine order, he believed, governed the organisation of bees, the foresight of ants and the dexterity of spiders, as well as the growth of plants, magnetic attraction, and the amalgamation of mercury and gold.
Plethon drew up plans in his Nómoi to radically change the structure and philosophy of the Byzantine Empire in line with his interpretation of Platonism. The new state religion was to be founded on a hierarchical pantheon of Pagan Gods, based largely upon the ideas of Humanism prevalent at the time, incorporating themes such as rationalism and logic. As an ad-hoc measure he also supported the reconciliation of the two churches in order to secure Western Europe support against the Ottomans. He also proposed more practical, immediate measures, such as rebuilding the Hexamilion, the ancient defensive wall across the Isthmus of Corinth, which had been breached by the Ottomans in 1423.
The political and social elements of his theories covered the creation of communities, government (he promoted benevolent monarchy as the most stable form), land ownership (land should be shared, rather than individually owned), social organisation, families, and divisions of sex and class. He believed that labourers should keep a third of their produce, and that soldiers should be professional. He held that love should be private not because it is shameful, but because it is sacred.
Plethon's own summary of the Nómoi also survived, amongst manuscripts held by his former student Bessarion. This summary, titled Summary of the Doctrines of Zoroaster and Plato, affirms the existence of a pantheon of gods, with Zeus as supreme sovereign, containing within himself all being in an undivided state; his eldest child, motherless, is Poseidon, who created the heavens and rules all below, ordaining order in the universe. Zeus' other children include an array of "supercelestial" gods, the Olympians and Tartareans, all motherless. Of these Hera is third in command after Poseidon, creatress and ruler of indestructible matter, and the mother by Zeus of the heavenly gods, demi-gods and spirits. The Olympians rule immortal life in the heavens, the Tartareans mortal life below, their leader Kronos ruling over mortality altogether. The eldest of the heavenly gods is Helios, master of the heavens here and source of all mortal life on earth. The gods are responsible for much good and no evil, and guide all life towards divine order. Plethon describes the creation of the universe as being perfect and outside of time, so that the universe remains eternal, without beginning or end. The soul of man, like the gods is immortal and essentially good, and is reincarnated in successive mortal bodies for eternity at the direction of the gods.
Many of Plethon's other works still exist in manuscript form in various European libraries. Most of Plethon's works can be found in J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, collection; for a complete list see Fabricius, Bibliotheca Graeca (ed. Harles), xii.
In modern literature
Early in his writing career, E. M. Forster attempted a historical novel about Plethon and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, but was not satisfied with the result and never published it — though he kept the manuscript and later showed it to Naomi Mitchison.
Ezra Pound included Plethon in his poem The Cantos. References to Plethon and Sigismondo Malatesta can be found in canto 8. Plethon is also mentioned in canto 23 and 26. Pound was fascinated by the role that Plethon's conversation must have had on Cosimo de Medici and his decision to acquire Greek manuscripts of Plato and Neoplatonic philosophers. By having manuscripts brought from Greece and becoming the patron of "the young boy, Ficino," Cosimo facilitated the preservation and transmission of Greek cultural patrimony into the modern world after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Plethon thus played a key but hidden role in the Italian Renaissance.