Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism in Byzantium: Illumination and Utopia in Gemistos Plethon. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xvi, 454. ISBN 9781107013032. $120.00.

Reviewed by Fabio Pagani, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften (

Version at BMCR home site


The Byzantine philosopher Gemistos Pletho has often left scholars of Platonism puzzled as they struggle to understand the project described in his main treatise, the Nomoi, which entailed abandoning Christian Orthodoxy in order to revive pagan religion. The only copy of the work was partly burned by Patriarch Gennadios Scholarios, who kept some excerpts to prove that he was justified in destroying the rest. After the first publication of the surviving fragments of the Nomoi by Charles Alexandre (1858),1 a variety of different interpretations of Pletho's Platonism have been suggested, ranging from the idea that he was the leader of a pagan cell operating in the Peloponnese (Charles Alexandre and François Masai,2 among others) to the idea that the whole story of his apostasy from Christian Orthodoxy could very well be a calumny trumped up by his enemies (Paul O. Kristeller3 and James Hankins,4 among others).

Against the background of this scholarly impasse, Niketas Siniossoglou's book tackles the problem of making sense of Pletho's pagan Platonism from the point of view of the history of ideas, exploring the intellectual history of the fourteenth century as the context in which Pletho's philosophy has to be understood. As a result, what he offers is not a general introduction to Pletho (for this the standard book will remain C. M. Woodhouse,5 at least in the English speaking world) nor a historical survey of this enigmatic figure. Instead, Siniossoglou, who openly sides with those who accept Pletho's philosophical paganism, builds on Masai's book and carries forward his research on Pletho's cultural framework, the content of his philosophical theology and the purpose of his political reforms. The result is a learned and very stimulating book, which will be of interest to all concerned not only with Byzantine philosophy but also with the relationship between philosophy and religion in the history of Greece.

The book is organised into four parts, preceded by a preface and introduction and followed by an extensive bibliography (427-446) and index (447-454). In the preface Siniossoglou announces his general aim of examining, in the context of the fifteenth-century Byzantine Empire, the clash between those who believe that human beings are able to acquire knowledge of the 'ultimate foundation of reality' and those who deny it (ix-x). To do so, he provides in the introduction definitions of some of the key concepts used in this book, e.g., paganism, utopianism, humanism and conceptual idolatry.

In Part I, 'Lost Rings of the Platonist Golden Chain' (47-160), the focus is on the intellectual context within which Siniossoglou believes Pletho's philosophy must be understood: the long-term history of Platonism from late antiquity through the Byzantine centuries (chapter 1); the more recent past, i.e., Byzantine cultural history of the fourteenth century (chapter 2); and Pletho's fifteenth-century contemporaries (chapter 3).

Chapter 1, 'Underground Platonism in Byzantium', provides not only a panoramic view of Platonism from late antiquity to Palaeologan Byzantium, but also a re-formulation of the thesis of Konstantinos Sathas (cf. introduction of: eiusdem, Mesaiōnikē Bibliothēkē, tomos 6, Venice-Paris, 1877) about the secret survival of paganism during the Byzantine era. This entails the introduction of a radical distinction between the social and intellectual identity of many Byzantine scholars, who, according to Siniossoglou, were 'consciously or unconsciously' pagans. , at least on a purely intellectual level.

On a specific point, we need to be careful about associating the famous group of manuscripts known as the 'Collection philosophique' with the existence of an 'occult' Plato in Byzantium. Despite the obvious interest of this collection, the mere copying of texts does not, on its own, prove the existence of an occult philosophical study of Platonism. On a more general level, this chapter helpfully introduces the reader to a world of Byzantine scholars who had mastered Plato´s philosophy in depth and who constituted the tradition in which Pletho inserted himself (Michael Psellos, Theodore Metochites, etc.). It is important to remember, however, that Siniossoglou is speaking about intellectual history (39), that is, about patterns of continuity on a purely philosophical level.

From a methodological perspective, I suspect that in future it will be productive to combine the results of Siniossoglou's work on the history of ideas with a thorough investigation, in terms of the history of the book, of the reception of Plato's dialogues in Byzantium. The fact that books were copied is not enough to demonstrate a philosophical re- evaluation of the texts; but clear cases of philosophical interest in Platonism such as we see in Psellos or Pletho are perhaps better explained as developing out of an interest in reading Plato's texts than by postulating an underground survival of Platonism, as Sathas did. This is also apparent in some of the sources quoted by Siniossoglou: e.g. p. 87 (Anna Comnene), p. 99 (Philotheos Kokkinos on Prochoros Kydones), 141 (Plethon being 'fascinated by his Greek books').

Chapter 2,'The Rise of the Byzantine Illuminati', focuses on the Byzantine dispute between Hesychasts and anti- Hesychasts in the fourteenth century. After giving a historical overview of the Palamite controversy and presenting both Gregorios Palamas and his most dogged opponents (Barlaam of Calabria, Nikephoros Gregoras, Prochoros Kydones), Siniossoglou concentrates on the most interesting phenomenon witnessed by Pletho in his early life: the progressive takeover of the Byzantine state by the Orthodox Church. Carefully establishing the theological distinction between God and the divine energies in Palamas, along with the objections to practising a Hellenic theology raised against him by thinkers such as Gregoras (108-109), Siniossoglou argues that Proclan theology entered into the theological debate of the time. He makes it plain that these fourteenth-century intellectuals obviously did not hold any pagan views; nevertheless, he suggests that their work on philosophical and theological problems 'left open the possibility' of a more radical development (111, 264).

Chapter 3, 'The Plethon Affair', provides a detailed account of all the available evidence which supports the claim of Pletho's apostasy. Siniossoglou re-examines this evidence in light of the distinction, introduced in chapter 1, between social and intellectual identity. Second, he sets out all the interpretations offered so far of the Nomoi. Third, he lists his objections to any attempt to make a Christian of Pletho (156-159), insisting that Pletho should be regarded as a pagan.6

Part II, 'The Elements of pagan Platonism'(161-323), deals with the content of Pletho's philosophy. Siniossoglou first discusses Pletho's theory of knowledge (chapter 4), then moves on to the ontological content of such knowledge (chapter 5) and, finally, he uncovers the symbolic theology under which metaphysics is hidden (chapter 6).

Chapter 4, 'Epistemic Optimism', aims at reconstructing the philosophical core of Pletho's epistemological optimism in order to present it as an alternative to the Palamite notion of illumination (enabling man to grasp God's energies, but not God himself) which he presented in chapter 2. To do this, Siniossoglou investigates Pletho's epistemology in terms of its relationship to Platonic texts (Theaet. 176b and Tim. 90b-d), but also with regard to its social pre-conditions (hairesis biou) and theory of perception. In a nutshell, 'God-Truth' is accessible to human beings through the acquisition of rational knowledge, not through religious illumination.

Chapter 5, 'Pagan Ontology', is concerned with Pletho's ontology. After listing its four principles (223-224), Siniossoglou discusses the philosophical content. In this way, he develops a close comparison with the ontological views of other key-figures in the history of Platonism, such as Ficino and Proclus. Most importantly, Pletho's theology is an answer to contemporary debates; for the whole theological discussion between Palamists and anti-Palamists made abundant use of Plato and Proclus. Anti-Palamists accused Palamas' notion of uncreated energy of being equivalent to Platonic ideas. Regardless of who was right, Hellenic philosophy became a possibility within this theological debate. The comparison between Pletho and the theological discussions of the Hesychast controversy is one of the most original contributions of this book.

Chapter 6, 'Symbolic Theology', explores Pletho's theology. Siniossoglou makes it clear that Pletho's religion was neither polytheistic nor monotheistic, but rather henotheistic, in the sense that 'the first cause presides over lesser causes that proceed from it' (278). He then explains the ultimate meaning of Pletho's theology in the Nomoi, the purpose of which was to provide a rational organization of all the different levels of Being. Extending his discussion to include the treatise De differentiis, Siniossoglou shows that in Pletho ideas were not simply thoughts of God, but intellects, i.e causal principles. Such a radical interpretation of Plato's theory of ideas sets a clear boundary between Pletho and other Byzantine intellectuals such as Photios, John Italos, Eustratios of Nicea, Nikephoros Blemmydes, Nikephoros Choumnos and Georgios Scholarios. As a consequence of this interpretation, Pletho accepted the concept of fate, heimarmene, and conceived of the entire cosmos as organized according to a deterministic structure. At the summit of the pantheon, the first God (Zeus) was identified with Necessity (Ananke).

In Part III, 'Mistra versus Athos' (327-392), which comprises chapter 7, 'Intellectual and Spiritual Utopias', Siniossoglou considers Pletho´s political and social project. This chapter captures in clearest way the relevance of Pletho's philosophical discourse to the political situation of fifteenth-century Byzantium. Firstly, Siniossoglou discusses the political reforms suggested in the Memoranda to the Byzantine emperors. Then, he lists the various possibilities available to Byzantine intellectuals facing the political crisis of the Empire: seeking help from Western countries at the price of giving up Orthodoxy (Demetrios Kydones); surrendering to the Turks in order to protect Orthodoxy (Scholarios); or constructing a new national identity based on the model of Sparta (Pletho). After reading this chapter, one can hardly escape the impression that the victory of Scholarios over Pletho epitomizes Greece's failure to catch the train of modernity.

In Part IV, 'The Path of Ulysses and the Path of Abraham' (393-417), Siniossoglou sums up the results of his analysis and discusses the position of Pletho in the history of Western philosophy. His main point is that Pletho's philosophy should be understood as a reaction to Palamism and, as such, it made sense only within the framework of Byzantine society. The radical outlook of the Nomoi was a consequence of the failure of the political programme of the Memoranda. Pletho's supposed anti-Aristotelianism was, in reality, a reaction against Christianity. On a political level, Pletho and Scholarios had different ideas of salvation, the former using the word for the political survival of the Byzantine Empire, the latter for the afterlife of the soul.

In chapter 9, 'Epilogue', Pletho's philosophy is compared to that of Spinoza, on the grounds that both thinkers regarded human beings as naturally fit to acquire knowledge of God-Truth; and the first book of the Nomoi is described as a 'manifesto of modernity'.

Much remains to be done in order to gain a full understanding of Pletho. We still do not have critical editions of all Pletho's writings or systematic study of his library. Consequently, despite a number of scattered contributions by classical philologists, his philological activity has never been the object of an all-encompassing study. Nonetheless, Siniossoglou´s profound analysis of philosophical problems stretching back to antiquity, his masterful control of the bibliography and his capacity to give Pletho the place he deserves in the history of philosophy (and theology) will help to make this enigmatic philosopher much more comprehensible than he has been in the past. This stimulating book will offer much food for thought, even to those readers who, in the end, will not be prepared to accept all of Siniossoglou's conclusions.7


1.   Ch. Alexandre, ed., Pléthon: Traité des Lois, Paris, 1858 (repr. 1982).
2.   F. Masai, Pléthon et le platonisme de Mistra, Paris, 1956.
3.   P.O. Kristeller, Byzantine and Western Platonism in the Fifteenth Century, in Renaissance Concepts of Man and Other Essays, New-York, 1972, pp. 86-109: 97.
4.   J. Hankins, Plato in the Italian Renaissance, 2 voll., Leiden-New York-København-Köln, 1990, I, 197-208 and id., Humanism and Platonism in the Italian Renaissance, 2 vol., Roma, 2004, II, 417-429.
5.   C.M. Woodhouse, George Gemistos Plethon: The Last of the Hellenes, Oxford,1986.
6.   I should point out that Siniossoglou credits me with arguing that 'Syropoulos may well have credited Plethon and other members of the Greek delegation with views and a role expedient to his own cause' (126, 400); but, in fact, in my 2008 article I simply referred to an interpretation put forward by Vitalien Laurent in the introduction of Les Mémoires du Grand Ecclésiarque de l'église de Constantinople Sylvestre Syorpoulos sur le concile de Florence (1438-39), Paris, 1971. F. Pagani, Filosofia e teologia in Giorgio Gemisto Pletone: la testimonianza dei codici platonici, Rinascimento XLVIII, Seconda serie, 2009, p. 15.
7.   The book has been very carefully proofread; I have found only two typos: 'Christions' instead of 'Christians' on p. 255, and Prochoros written with a Greek omicron instead of the Latin 'o' on p. 273.


  1. "After reading this chapter, one can hardly escape the impression that the victory of Scholarios over Pletho epitomizes Greece's failure to catch the train of modernity."

    This is an inappropriate and hurtful aside, totally out of place in a purportedly academic review.

    1. I wish to clarify that I was talking about the general *impression* Siniossoglou´s chapter 7 conveys, i.e. what the author in his chapter seems to imply (even though he does not say it in this very way). This obviously does not imply it to be my own view on the subject.