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Gemistos Plethon

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Gemistos Plethon

Georgius Gemistus (Greek: Γεώργιος Γεμιστός; ca. 1355–1452/1454) — later called Plethon or Pletho (Greek: Πλήθων) — was a Greek scholar of Neoplatonic philosophy. He was one of the chief pioneers of the revival of Greek learning in Western Europe. In the dying years of the Byzantine Empire, he advocated a return to the Olympian gods of the ancient world.[1]

He re-introduced Plato's thoughts to Western Europe during the 1438 - 1439 Council of Florence, a failed attempt to reconcile the East-West schism. Here Pletho 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 study

George Gemistos was born some time after 1355, probably in Constantinople.[2] As a young man he went to study at Adrianopolis, by now the Ottoman capital following its capture by the Ottoman Sultan Murad I in 1365. Adrianopolis was now a centre of learning modelled by Murat on the caliphates of Cairo and Baghdad.[2] He admired Plato (Greek: Plátōn) so much that late in life he took the similar-meaning name Plethon.[3] In c1407 Gemistos left Adrianopolis and travelled through Cyprus, Palestine and other places,[2] finally settling in Mistra,[4] in the Despotate of Morea.

Teacher and magistrate in Mistra

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.[2]

Plethon was the author of De Differentiis, a detailed comparison between Plato and Aristotles' conceptions of God. Scholarios later defended Aristotle and convinced the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos that Plethon's support for Plato amounted to heresy. Manuel had Plethon confined in Mistra, though he remained something of a celebrity. In 1415 and 1418[4] he wrote pamphlets to Theodore and Manuel describing how the Empire could be reorganized according to Plato's Republic, with political, legal and economic reforms, and gained even greater reputation as a legal thinker, with rumours that he carried entire legal codes in his memory.[2] He also wrote a Summary of the Doctrines of Zoroaster and Plato, which detailed his own eclectic polytheistic beliefs. These works did not help to clear him of the charge of heresy. He also wrote about the condition of the Peloponnesus, compiled several volumes of excerpts from ancient authors, and wrote a number of works on geography, music, and other subjects.

Lecturing in Florence

In 1428 Gemistos 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.[2] 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.[5]

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,[6] 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. 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.[5] Because of this, 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, 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.[2]

While still in Florence, Plethon summarised his lectures in a volume titled On the Differences of Aristotle from Plato, commonly called De Differentiis. George Scholarius responded with a Defence of Aristotle, which elicited Plethon's subsequent Reply. Expatriate Byzantine scholars and later Italian humanists continued the argument.[5]

Mystery school

On his return to the Peloponnese, Gemistos founded a school. He taught polytheism as opposed to monotheism, and some of his students prayed to statues of the pagan deities.[2]

Pletho died in Mistra in 1452, or in 1454, according to J. Monfasani. 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 descendents of the ancient Hellenes, Pletho rejected Justinian's idea of a universal Empire in favour of recreating the Hellenistic civilization, the zenith of Greek influence,[7] 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, as sexual deviants, would be burnt at the stake. In these pamphlets 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.[4]

De Differentiis

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.[5] Plethon derides Aristotle for discussing unimportant matters such as shellfish and embryos while failing to credit God with creating the universe,[5] 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.[2] 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.[5]


After his death, Pletho's Nómon singrafí (Νόμων συγγραφή) or Nómoi (Νόμοι "Book of Laws") was discovered. He had been compiling it throughout most of his adult life, and it became famous as the most heretical of his works, detailing his esoteric beliefs.[2] 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.[5] 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.[2]

Pletho 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.[8] 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.[2]


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.[5]

Other works

Many of Pletho's other works still exist in manuscript form in various European libraries. Most of Pletho's works can be found in J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, collection; for a complete list see Fabricius, Bibliotheca Graeca (ed. Harles), xii.

See also



  • Darien C. DeBolt Paper on De Differentiis
  • Benakis, A. G. - Baloglou, Ch. P., Proceedings of the International Congress of Plethon and His Time, Mystras, 26–29 June 2002, Athens-Mystras, 2003 ISBN 960-87144-1-9
  • Brown, Alison M., 'Platonism in fifteenth century Florence and its contribution to early modern political thought', Journal of Modern History 58 (1986), 383-413.
  • Harris, Jonathan, 'The influence of Plethon's idea of fate on the historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles', in: Proceedings of the International Congress on Plethon and his Time, Mystras, 26–29 June 2002, ed. L.G. Benakis and Ch.P. Baloglou (Athens: Society for Peloponnesian and Byzantine Studies, 2004), pp. 211–17
  • Keller, A., 'Two Byzantine scholars and their reception in Italy',in: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 20 (1957), 363-70
  • Mandilas, Kostas, Georgius Gemistos Plethon (Athens 1997)* ISBN 960-7748-08-5
  • Masai, François, 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 Émigrés, (Aldershot, 1995), no. X
  • Runciman, Steven, The Last Byzantine Renaissance (Cambridge, 1970)
  • Setton, Kenneth M. 'The Byzantine background to the Italian Renaissance', in: Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 100 (1956), 1-76.
  • Tambrun, Brigitte. Pléthon. Le retour de Platon, Paris, Vrin, 2006 ISBN 2-7116-1859-5
  • Tambrun-Krasker, Brigitte, Georges Gémiste Pléthon, Traité des vertus. Édition critique avec introduction, traduction et commentaire, Corpus Philosophorum Medii Aevi, Philosophi Byzantini 3, Athens-The Academy of Athens, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1987.
  • Tambrun-Krasker, Brigitte, Magika logia tôn apo Zoroastrou magôn, Georgiou Gemistou Plêthônos Exêgêsis eis ta auta logia. Oracles chaldaïques. Recension de Georges Gémiste Pléthon. Edition critique avec introduction, traduction et commentaire par Brigitte Tambrun-Krasker. La recension arabe des Magika logia par Michel Tardieu, Corpus Philosophorum Medii Aevi, Philosophi Byzantini 7, Athens-The Academy of Athens, Paris, Librairie J. Vrin, Bruxelles, éditions Ousia, 1995, LXXX+187 p.
  • Tambrun, Brigitte, « Pletho » (article) in: W.J. Hanegraaff, A. Faivre, R. van den Broek, J.-P. Brach ed., Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 2005, 2006.
  • Vassileiou, Fotis & Saribalidou, Barbara, Short Biographical Lexicon of Byzantine Academics Immigrants in Western Europe, 2007.
  • , Vol. 13, No 1, 2012-2013, 1-12
  • Woodhouse, Cristopher Montague, George Gemistos Plethon - The Last of the Hellenes (Oxford, 1986)
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External links

  • Mathematics Genealogy Project
  • WorldCat catalog)
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