Sunday, September 23, 2018

Competent compilers?

“The Last Byzantine Renaissance” is a short introduction to the so-called Palaeologan Renaissance, the unexpected revival of classical and theological scholarship during the last two centuries of the Byzantine Empire, when the “empire” was gradually declining in all other respects. Strictly speaking, the renaissance also covered the breakaway “empire” of Trebizond, ruled by the Comneni. Steven Runciman's book is really a collection of lectures, all of which presuppose a previous working knowledge of Byzantine history and culture. Only the last lecture attempts a synthesis of the material. I don't think this is suitable for beginners. It feels more like a summary for more advanced students, or even scholars, a kind of scholarly “lite lunch”.

Apparently, the Byzantines made a strict distinction between Inner and Outer Learning. Theology based on divine revelation was the Inner Learning, which was sacrosanct and not to be questioned. Philosophy and science belonged to the Outer Learning, “only” preoccupied with the created world. Paradoxically, this made it possible for Byzantine scholars to pursue philosophical and scientific studies with relative freedom, as long as these didn't infringe on the Inner Learning. Somewhat ironically, it also made Aristotle less controversial than Plato, since it was the latter thinker who made encroachments on Inner Learning. The more “secular” Aristotle was safer to study! In the end, of course, the Byzantines did study both.

Unsurprisingly, the Byzantines made their greatest contributions exactly in the field of theology. Runciman is full of admiration for Gregory Palamas and his defense of the Hesychasts. He also recommends “The Life in Christ” by Nicholas Cabasilas. Otherwise, I get the impression that the Byzantine scholars and “scientists” were competent compilers rather than innovators. Thus, while they did publish scientific works on astronomy, these were based on Ptolemy's classical writings complemented by recent Arab and Persian (i.e. Muslim) discoveries. The conservative attitude of the Byzantine intelligentsia explains why it took them several centuries to accept Arabic numerals when doing mathematical calculations. It seems that the sages of the Palaeologan “Renaissance” only made original contributions in two fields outside theology. One was in medicine, but here, they were eventually overtaken by the Jews. The other was the proposed calendar reform of Nicephorus Gregoras, but it was never accepted and, typically, served a Church function (the calculation of Easter).

The biggest contribution of the Late Byzantine learned men to human civilization was their dissemination of Greek, Arab and Persian science and philosophy to the West. Two important figures in this regard were Gemistos Plethon and Bessarion. The former was a covert pagan, while the latter converted to Catholicism and became a cardinal. While the Italian Renaissance had complex socio-economic causes that can be traced all the way back to the “Middle Ages”, the concrete forms taken by the 15th century Renaissance in the Italian city-states were surely influenced by Byzantine intellectuals who came to Italy either as guests or as refugees fleeing the advancing Ottomans. Plato, Aristotle and other classical Greek writers became widely available in the Latin West for the first time, together with Greeks who could exegete them for spell-bound humanistic audiences in Florence, Venice and elsewhere.

In passing, Runciman mentions that the “occult sciences” were popular in the Late Byzantine Empire, but since the Church and the official intellectuals condemned it, he says nothing further about it. This is a pity, since the Hermetic corpus also reached Italy from Byzantine sources…

Overall, I don't think “The Last Byzantine Renaissance” was as helpful as I imagined, but it's not wholly bad either. In the end, I give it three stars, which is the OK rating.

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