Sunday, September 23, 2018

Byzantine Renaissance

A review of "Constantinople and the West" 

The late Deno John Geanakoplos was a Greek-American scholar of Byzantine and Renaissance studies. This book contains articles on the interaction between Byzantines and Latins during the 15th century in particular. About half of the book deals with Church-related issues, most notably the attempts at union between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. I concentrated on the other half in which the author discusses the influence of Byzantine intellectuals on the Italian Renaissance. Geanakoplos is “pro-Byzantine” and therefore reaches the conclusion that the influence was considerable and has been downplayed by other historians.

The Byzantine men of learning who visited or settled in Italy during the 15th century weren't just passive transmitters of valuable Greek manuscripts translated and interpreted by clever Italian humanists. They often translated and interpreted the manuscripts themselves, acting as teachers of the Italians. This was true of both the philosophical texts and the scientific ones. The author believes that the Byzantines directly shaped the Renaissance on a number of points. Thus, the turn from rhetoric to metaphysics in Florence can be attributed to the activities of John Argyropoulos. (The author doesn't deny that other factors also played a role, such as the despotism of the Medici, which made rhetoric – associated with a democratic form of government – redundant.) I found it interesting that Argyropoulos seemed to have both an “exoteric” and an “esoteric” teaching, the former based on Aristotle, the latter on Plato.

Another important turnaround initiated by the Byzantine scholars concerned Aristotelian studies. Theodore Gaza and Nicolaus Leonicus Tomaeus preferred the late Hellenistic interpretations of Aristotle to those of Averroës and the Scholastics, who had hitherto been dominant in the Latin West. They also translated the scientific works of John Philoponus, a sixth-century thinker who anticipated the impetus theory of projectile motion with almost a millennium. An often overlooked fact, dealt with only in passing in this book, is that better translations of the Greek Church Fathers and alternative ones of the Bible itself became available during the Renaissance. The author believes that this led to a resurgence of Pauline studies and new departures in the exegesis of Paul's epistles, but says nothing further of this. This looks like an intriguing subject, since Luther would base his reformation thought largely on a new reading of Paul.

Naturally, the book also mentions Bessarion and Pletho, but the main point of the work seems to be to discuss a number of figures who are usually mentioned only in passing, or not at all, in general works on the period. Pletho or Plethon seems to have created considerable mischief by attacking Aristotle in favor of Plato, setting the stage for conflicts between "Platonists" and "Aristotelians". The actual Byzantine position was that the two philosophers could be harmonized! One subject touched upon only in passing is occult knowledge. Astrology was widely accepted in Byzantium, perhaps because of its connection to astronomy, but Geanakoplos says nothing about the Hermetic corpus.

I find “Constantinople and the West” to be extremely interesting. While I'm not a great admirer of the Byzantine Empire, especially not the Late Empire, it's undisputable that their scholars did play a positive role in diffusing Greek learning to Italy at the right moment. This knowledge seems to have been of a higher quality than the Greek philosophy which reached Western Europe through Muslim channels, but it was also different from the Latin translations of Greek works made by William of Moerbeke during the 13th century (which had inspired the Scholastics). Some of the astronomical knowledge disseminated by the Byzantines must have been Muslim (Arab or Persian). While the Italian Renaissance had internal causes, some of its concrete forms seem to have been molded by the learned men of Constantinople.

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