Saving the City and Giving It Gods: The Strange Philosophy of Gemistos Plethon

Jonathan Ratcliffe


Georgios Gemistos Plethon

From a fresco by Bennozzo Gozzoli in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence.

“I myself heard [Plethon] 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.”

 – George of Trebizond, Comparison of Plato and Aristotle.[1]

Recently, while speaking with a friend about Renaissance Platonists, I decided to pop the ultimate question of quatropunk pretence: “What do you think of Plethon?” I asked. After a moment or two my friend responded: “Plethon represents the best and worst of the Hellenic tradition.” Now I do not think that my friend, a very erudite little fellow, was hedging his bets here. Plethon, once known, is not someone one can be tepid about. In his rejection of Neoplatonism, Christianity and the Byzantine Empire in favour of reviving a polytheistic pagan civic religion and pleas to rulers to build a Platonic society in the Peloponnese, it is hard not to think of him as either a genius or insane. As obscure as he is, Plethon is an epochal figure, not merely in Renaissance thought, but in the history of philosophy in toto. While for much of the 20th century interest in Plethon was rather small, in the past couple of decades thinkers have increasingly begun to address his importance, even hailing him as the first modern political thinker, the first modern neo-pagan, Spinoza before his time, and “the last of the Hellenes.”[2]

In the essay that follows we will look closely at Plethon, both as Platonic metaphysician and as political thinker. To write it I have been strongly dependant on Niketas Siniossoglou’s 2011 Radical Platonism in Byzantium, perhaps the only book that deals with Plethon in both of these capacities, though, as we shall see later, I certainly have a few criticisms to make on some of its key theories. This essay acts as an accompaniment to the recorded talk that I was to deliver viva voce on March 6 2020 to the Bendigo Philosophical Society, but, due to the current COVID-19 pandemic (galloping bat-pox to its friends), I was unable to. The essay is a lot more technical than the recorded talk, especially the long section on ontology. Sadly, the question of Being, that most empty yet all-important of questions, so Heidegger famously put it, is also an immensely abstract and tortuous business. I have done my best to keep it as comprehensible as possible, but if one is to understand the uniqueness of Plethon’s thought on this subject it is very much necessary to understand the debates of his age and predecessors. Should the reader have any questions, I would advise him or her to please email me at or talk to me in person at the next live-action philosophy meeting.


Georgios Gemistos was born between somewhere 1355 and 1360 into a well-to-do Byzantine Greek family. He was sent to Constantinople for education, and then to Adrianopolis, which although it had fallen to the Ottomans shortly after his birth (1365), still remained an important centre of learning for Greeks. Here Gemistos met Judaeus Elissaeus, who taught him about Zoroastrianism. Elissaeus was burned at the stake for heresy, causing the young Gemistos to realise it was time to move on and travel a little. [3]  Back in Constantinople Gemistos became a prominent teacher of philosophy and a senator. Early in the 15th c. century the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos sent him to the city of Mystra in the Peloponnese to serve the court of his brother, Theodore Palaiologos, the Despot of Morea. He was to remain in Mystra for the rest of his long life, and seems to have passed away around 1452, shortly before Constantinople fell to the Turks. In later life Gemistos came to be known as Plethon, though no one seems to know if this was a self-granted name due to his enthusiasm for the similarly named Plato, or, like Plato’s own name, a nickname granted due to his bulky physique.[4]

During his lifetime Plethon seems to have been held in very high esteem for his learning, both in Morea and in Constantinople. In 1438-9 he was even chosen to be a prominent speaker on behalf of the Byzantine Orthodox Church at the Conference of Florence, a long ongoing attempt to reconcile the Latin West with the Eastern churches. While Plethon was in Florence, so a popular story goes, he so impressed Cosimo de’Medici with his discourse on Plato at the house of Cardinal Cesarini that the Florentine ruler established his new Florentine Academy because of it.[5]

The quattrocento is indubitably the century of Platonic revival. Increasing links between East and West led to access to a massive new wealth of Hermetic and Platonic texts in Greek – but especially the works of Plato himself, who in the Latin West had been reduced to very little but Calchidius’ Latin commentary on the Timaeus for most of the Middle Ages. In Florence there was Marsilio Ficino – the first great modern Latin translator of Plato – and his young friend Pico della Mirandola, who at age twenty-three precociously rocked up to Rome with 900 philosophical theses gathered from the great Pagan, Jewish, Christian and Islamic sages and the belief that deep down that all agreed with one another. In Germany there was Nicholas Cusanus and his mystical docta ignorantia (learned ignorance) and fascination with mathematical proportion. And in Mystra, in a small corner of Greece, there was Plethon and his small circle of followers.

Plethon’s most important work was his Nomoi, or Laws. In this text Plethon not merely criticised the Neoplatonic monastic culture of his day, he also dared to outline a polytheistic pagan civic religion as an alternative to it. For Plethon to take Plato seriously also meant taking ancient Greek religion seriously. Zeus replaces the Christian godhead. It is highly doubtful that Plethon was just playing around with the ancients as a spot of fun. The work was so shocking that following Plethon’s death it was burned, most likely by his enemy and former student Scholarios, who by then had become Gennadius II, Patriarch of Constantinople.[6] All that was left was a syggraphe (draft) of its content preserved by one of Plethon’s students, Bessarion.[7] Much will be said about what we can reassemble of this text and its complex pagan ontology in the next section of this essay.

Another important work of Plethon’s is the treatise On the Differences Between Aristotle and Plato, in which he argues to his Christian audience that the former’s conception of deity was far closer to the Christian God and that the latter’s ideal life of idle theoria (contemplation) was little better than the sort of lazy hedonism one might associate with Epicureans and the worst excesses of monasticism.[8] As well as this Plethon also wrote two Prosphonematia, or Memoranda, to the emperor Manuel and the despot Theodore, in which he laid out radical programs of political reform for the Peloponnesian region.[9] These not only borrow very strongly from Plato’s Republic and Laws in their advice to collectivise land and divide society into a tripartite class system, but may also be the first modern Utopian political project. We will turn to these in the second part of this essay.

  1. Plethon the Pagan

“Somewhere Aristotle himself says that ‘beings abhor a state of disorder’ (Metaphysics 1076a3-4)’, and he quotes: ‘the rule of the many is not a good thing – let there be one ruler… (Iliad 2.204)’. His words are impressive in theory, but in practice it is he himself who introduces the disorderly state of beings by refusing to allow the unity of Being.”

 – Plethon, Differences.[10]

In order to understand Plethon’s Nomoi and the reasons why he attempted to revive ancient Greek paganism as a civic religion it is first necessary to understand the intellectual world that Plethon was born into – its debates and terms, its preoccupations and fears. Key to this is the history of ontology – the branch of philosophy devoted to the subject of Being and existence. Plethon’s “revival” of the pagan Plato is an explicitly Parmenidean revival, one aimed against the Neoplatonic Christian mysticism that at the time held sway both among the Byzantines and in the Latin West. Parmenides, who first lifted up the question of Being in Greek thought, presented it as a great trivial One in which all things existed equally in spite of the “two-headed” human habit to negate the existence of some things and affirm others. To Parmenides everything is. There is no is not.[11]

Plato was strongly indebted to Parmenides, and famously even had the philosopher, in a dialogue named after him, meet with and refute the young Socrates and an early version of his Theory of Forms.[12] However, Plato himself was a very ambitious and adventurous ontologist. In the Timaeus he presented a cosmology in which permanent Being and mutable Becoming are sharply differentiated. In the late Sophist dialogue we even find Plato putting into the mouth of an “Eleatic Stranger/Guest” the need to disobey both the sophists and Parmenides by taking the existence of Non-Being seriously.[13]

Most influential of all, however, in the genesis of what was to become Neoplatonism was the series of puzzling statements that are presented from the mouth of Parmenides in the Parmenides dialogue, especially the argument that forms part of its Second Hypothesis that the One and Being are not the same.[14] That the One is beyond Being was adopted by the Neoplatonists to express the radical transcendental otherness of the One from worldly existence. Plato in the Republic had said that the Form of the Good was beyond Being in his allegory of the sun, so this seemed fitting.[15] Nonetheless, Plotinus’ student Proclus was obliged to differentiate “two” Parmenides because of this – that of the poem who had said that Being is One, and that of the Platonic dialogue who had differentiated the One and Being.[16]

Through the influence of the Neoplatonic mysticism of Pseudo-Dionysius both Greek and Latin Christendom developed strains of thought that emphasised the radical otherness of God from creation. In the Latin West this took the form of the via negativa, or negative path to enlightenment, in which God could only be expressed through negations – God is not this, not that – and pure personal mystical experience.

Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Cloud of Unknowing in which the reader is charged to put a “cloud of forgetting” between themselves and the world in order to pierce the “cloud of unknowing” that separates themselves from the transcendental God.[17] Among the Byzantines, especially after the rise of Palamism a century before Plethon, the emphasis was slightly different – the xene physis (alien nature) of God was beyond both Being and Non-Being. God’s “energies” could be experienced in the world, but not his “essence” – because God is in fact “super-essential.”[18] The problem with this sort of thinking of course is that a great chasm opens between God and His creation and it becomes very difficult to outline how the two might relate or interact at all.

All of this was only further complicated by the growing revival of the works of Aristotle from the 12th century. On the topic of Being, Aristotle described it as equivocal – as a word “said in many ways” with a number of very different meanings. When we say that something “is” we can mean that it exists (X is), that it has certain qualities (X is Y), we can simply be affirming something (X is Y), we can mean the ontological difference between beings and Being-in-itself.[19] The great Scholastic Thomas Aquinas utilised this to outline his theory of the analogia entis (analogy of Being), in which the essence of beings is that they participate in God, who is Being-in-itself.

To Aquinas creation is not radically other from the nature of God. Rather, because there is a mix of univocity and equivocity in Being, creation reflects God analogically and leads back towards God.[20] Against this Duns Scotus declared that the Being of God and his creation was in fact only univocal. They both meant exactly the same thing. God simply differed in degree from his creation, not in kind.[21] In order to argue this Scotus was reliant upon another of Aristotle’s ideas – that of the phylon (phylum, genus). For Aristotle all entities are organised into genera, but every genus has a primum in genere, a foremost, most essential member that epitomises the entire genus. Scotus thus insisted that Being was a genus and that God was its primum – He is simply more existent than every other existent.

It is at this point that Plethon makes his entrance. More than anything what Plethon does is choose Proclus’ first Parmenides of the Oneness of Being over the second Parmenides for whom the One was beyond Being, and who, for more than a thousand years, had been the far more influential. In the Differences, as we see in the quote given at the start of this section,Plethon adamantly argues that the Aristotelian equivocity of Being would mean ontological chaos, a God completely divided from creation. Now, had Plethon stopped here he may well have been simply a rather boring fellow and no one would have likely ever burned his work. At most perhaps he would have been accused of “idolatry” (and he was anyway) for rendering God too close to creation, for this was always a concern of the Palamites worrying that a too-similar deity would lead to the ultimate fear of both Judaeo-Christianity and Platonism: the worship of mere simulacra.

Nonetheless, it was Plethon’s “Hellenism” that seems to have been the far greater offence. The Byzantines had long had a very strange and strained relationship with the pagan ancients. The Church Fathers had been strongly reliant upon them in order to draw sophisticated philosophical arguments to legitimise and systematise Christianity. The Byzantines preserved the Greek wealth of antiquity as a result – its philosophies and histories and poems – which supplied wonderful source of lexis, or models to imitate. But at the same time, they always seemed to feel the need to constantly distance themselves from its pagan uncleanliness. There were recurrent bouts of taking the imitation too far and succumbing to “Hellenism”, just as one might expect. Plethon was certainly not the first to have succumbed to such things. He was however, perhaps the last, and perhaps the greatest.

What Plethon did was to present in the Nomoi an ontology and cosmology through a series of prayers to the pagan Olympian gods as metaphysical principles. Chief among these is Zeus, whom Plethon used as a replacement not merely for the Christian God, but for the Scholastic God of Being-in-itself, Good-in-itself, Truth-in-itself and One-in-itself. To Plethon Non-Being is impossible. There is nothing beyond or outside of Zeus qua Being. From this Zeus there is generated a series of “seven superior gods”, who represent a metaphysical scaffold within Being. First there is Poseidon, who represents nous (mind) and actuality. Then there is Hera who represents matter and potentiality. Thereafter: Apollo (Sameness), Artemis (Difference), Hephaistos (Rest), Dionysus (Self-Movement) and Athene (Movement by External Factor). [22]

This conversion of the pagan Greek gods to cosmic principles is not an original invention on Plethon’s part. In the Chaldean Oracles, on which Plethon wrote a commentary, we find a paternal First Intellect from which proceeds his son, a Second Intellect, and also a female force called Hecate from whom the world-soul proceeds. In the Orphic Sacred Discourse in Twenty-Four Rhapsodies we find another trinity – Cronos, Rhea, Zeus.[23] Also notable is Henry Corbin’s suggestion that during his education in Adrianopolis Plethon may have absorbed the basis for Poseidon’s procession from Zeus from the work of Platonic Sufi Suhrawardi, for whom there is a “Unique Separate Light” than emanates from the “First Being.”[24]

Even should such things be granted, the source for the majority of Pletho’s eight main principles is quite obviously Plato’s Sophist dialogue. There Plato presents an ontology of Five Most Important Things (Pente Megista Gene) – Being, Sameness, Difference, Rest and Motion. However, the entire point of this Five is for Plato to talk about the existence of Non-Being, which, as emphasised, Plethon adamantly rejected. In the Sophist Plato uses Non-Being in many different senses – he discovered the equivocity of Non-Being, but not that of Being, so we might say.[25] But the foremost use is to describe those members of the Five that are absolutely necessary for any cosmology, but are not themselves Being. Instead these Four participate in Being, and by doing so participate in koinonia (commonality, sharing) with one another to produce the diversity of creation. [26]

To the Plato of the Sophist, Non-Being is present all the way down through existence, a key factor of this being the participation of Difference as much as Sameness in things. For instance, Plato says that through negation what we are saying is simply that something is different. Thus, Non-Being opens up infinitely – there are always more negations that can be made.[27] The most important aspect of the Sophist, however, is Plato’s use of existent Non-Being as phantasma or illusion in order to a define the difference between the true philosopher and the false sophist. Plato creates a “fourfold” of a sort – both the gods and men are capable of creating true and false things.[28] And yet, the Eleatic Stranger does not crown this ontology with an onto-theological god of the One from which all beings proceed. Instead it is left an open question as to whether it was simply Nature or some unknown god(s) that brought everything about.[29] If anything, both divine and human creators are secondary products of the Five, in which the Same/One does not dominate any more than the Different/Many.

If there ever was an insertion of chaos into Being then it is to be found in Plato’s Sophist. Yet, like almost everybody in the history of philosophy, Plethon chose not to pick a serious fight with this bizarre late Platonic dialogue. Instead he simply stole its infrastructure and pretended that it did not concern the existence of Non-Being one jot. The other principles that Plethon makes use of – actuality, potentiality and the differentiation of motion into self-caused and initiated by something else – are key parts of Aristotelian metaphysics. Plethon may have railed at Aristotle for the “equivocity of Being”, but like the Italian Renaissance Platonists who came after him, Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, he had been educated as a Scholastic and simply added Plato on top of his schooling. But whereas Pico and Ficino sought to continue the ancient tradition of the quest to prove the symphonia (agreement) between Plato and Aristotle, Plethon openly expressed his disbelief in it for the sake of his Parmenidean Plato.

Plethon does not stop at the replacement of Plato’s Five with an Eight. A second generated group of principles follows in two sections: Astral Nature under Atlas (which includes Tithonus = Planets, Dione = Fixed Stars, Hermes = Daemonic Nature and Pluto = The Human Soul) and Corporeal Nature under Rhea (which includes Leto = Ether and Heat, Hecate = Air and Cold, Tethys = Water and Flow, Hestia = Earth and Solidity). What we see here is quite reminiscent of the creation of eternal entities by the Demiurge and the Four Elements in the Timaeus. And yet, as should be rather obvious to anyone who possesses even a passing acquaintance with the ancient Greek Olympian pantheon, Plethon’s deities/titans and their begetting of one another has almost nothing in common with the genealogies of ancient pagan religion at all.

Plethon’s next set is Temporal Deities under Cronos (Time). Here we arrive at the lower sphere on plant and animal life. Aphrodite is curiously consigned to the lowly task of Reproduction in Plethon’s system, there being no “higher” form of Eros at all. Rather, this key aspect of Platonic thought is instead associated with Dionysus as principle of Self-Motion: “It is you who are the cause of motion produced by the love (eroti) for the Good (esthlou) and aspiration towards the Better (epi loion).”[30] After Aphrodite next Pan, Demeter and Persephone follow as Animal Nature, Plant Nature and Human Mortal Nature respectively. While Aphrodite, Demeter and Persephone were all important members of the Twelve Gods in Olympian tradition, Plethon has chosen to demote them beneath obscure Titans such as Tethys and Dione.

The reasoning would seem to be an implicit assumption about the primordial and “elemental” nature of the titans, as well as a Platonic deprecation of gods of birth and generation. Plethon even calls the Temporal Deities “illegitimate” compared with the higher set. At once Plethon is outlining a theogony of begetting and a generative logic leading away from Zeus as Father and his legitimate offspring down to the illegitimate:

“Let us sing of the creator of mortal nature, king Cronos, son of Jupiter, the eldest of his illegitimate children, who are the Titans, the gods of Tartarus. We will sing of them too, for all of them are good and free from all evil, even though they say that they were created from mortal beings and are subject to evil. Let’s sing also of Aphrodite, the holy wife of Cronos, and Pan who presides over animals, Hestia over plants, and Persephone over our mortal nature, and finally all the others.”[31]

It is very curious that Plethon refuses for these Titans to be “subject or evil”, while at the same time insisting on a mysterious illegitimacy that is never explained. In Neoplatonism the emanations are usually regarded as increasingly partaking of Non-Being and diminution as they drift further and further from the One. For Pletho, to whom there is no Non-Being, all there is instead is the necessary though unexplained invention of impure generative lineage.

Even so, Plethon still has another important section to go, one that seems simply to repeat the higher principles at a lower actualised level.  We have the actual individual sun, moon, planets, fixed stars and demons, followed by actual rational humans, irrational animals, plants and finally, at the very bottom, dead matter that is simply pure potency and no actuality. Once again, in keeping with the language of begetting, the former group is regarded as legitimate and the latter as illegitimate.

Another thing becomes very clear at this point. In order to replace the diminution of Being Plethon needs the Aristotelian principles of actuality and potentiality to do the work instead. The cosmos moves from absolute actualisation to absolute pure receptiveness. Neoplatonism had long since adopted these Aristotelian principles, but had also insisted on referring to matter as a kind of “phantasmic” existent Non-Being, even amusingly as “the flying absurdity”.[32] With Plethon we see for the first time Neo-Platonic emanationism pushed to purely “positive” limits. Hereafter one must wait for Spinoza in order to meet another One in which there is no negation, simply modes of existence, but so too none of the generative “skeleton” that Plethon had taken from the Sophist and rendered wholly positive.


The most burning question is whether Plethon actually believed in any of these gods as gods, and not simply as a convenient symbolic means to represent a logic of cosmic generation. In some cases in Plethon’s prayers we seem to see not merely a simple metaphysical principle at work, but also certain other aspects more closely associated with traditional understandings of these deities. For instance, in the following prayer to Athene (Movement by External Factor), we also see that she is regarded as the patroness to wise and parsimonious thinking, both in the creation of things and in the mind of the philosopher:

“Lady Athene,  you who rules and governs the concrete form not separated from matter, it is you who produces it in accordance with mighty Poseidon, who takes from you all form; you are also the cause of all movement communicated by impulsion; finally it is you who takes back each and every thing that would be useless or superfluous. And every time that our foolishness might carry us towards some fault, it is your inspirations, O Goddess, in accordance with matters of intelligence, who brings back our soul to how it should be.”[33]

Moreover, following these prayers the draft of the Nomoi turns to consideration of their practical application. The prayers are organised into two yearly ones, thirteen monthlies (including one for the occasional intercalendary month), six sacred hymns for various holy days each month, and six daily ones for the second to seventh days of each week. Plethon even goes into great detail in reorganising the calendar into 29-day months and on the sort of melodies to be used for the different hymns– phrygian, hypophrygian, dorian, hypodorian.[34] Plethon appears to have assumed that these would indeed be performed regularly and, to boot, as part of a civic religion in which there were temples given over to these pagan deities/principles.

At very least there seems more at work here than Niketas Siniossoglou’s claim that Plethon’s “religion” was henotheistic – that it principally concerned Zeus qua Being and the other gods/principles were of very little importance.[35] These other gods and titans seem very important to the cycle of the year as a re-enactment of the generation and celebration of the entire cosmos, even if Zeus qua Being is indeed the paramount deity/principle because of his establishment of the entire ontology. If, as Siniossoglou seems to think, Plethon foreshadows Enlightenment Utopian rationalism, then the first thing that might come to mind is the bizarre French Revolutionary Cult of Reason and its renaming of the days of the week and months.

In his 2011 book Radical Platonism in Byzantium Siniossoglou uses the case of Plethon to claim that pagan and Christian ontology are “essentially conflicting modes of existence”.[36] To Siniossoglou the former is rational, Utopian, monist and optimistic about man’s capacity to know the whole of things; the latter is mystical, millenarian and deprecatory of human knowledge of the whole.[37] One wonders what Siniossoglou might make of the eccentric Christian Parmenideanism of Jesuit Emanuele Severino, who claimed that all western nihilism might be put down to Plato’s admission of Non-Being into philosophy.[38]

Siniossoglou’s argument hangs on his insistence that when Plato had said that the Good was epekeina tes ousias (beyond Being) in the Republic, all this had really meant that Good was at the apex of Extreme-Being. This understanding, so a number of scholars have claimed, was taken to be the case down through the Middle Platonists, only to be derailed by Plotinus’ placing of the One beyond Being.[39]  Yet, even if this single famous example in Plato happened to be true, this does not explain away the aporias of Plato’s Parmenides concerning the One and Being, nor, for that matter, the Sophist’s active disobeying of Parmenides in order to take the existence of Non-Being seriously. Just as Plethon systematically ignored the discourse on Non-Being in the Sophist, Siniossoglou does as well. The notion that “pagan” Platonic ontology was a purely Parmenidean ontology of Being=One and that Plotinus seems to expect the “Christian ontology” that would make so much use of him, is not only naïve – it’s a bit silly to say the least. In the end one is compelled instead to realise that the ontological battle between Plethon and the Palamites is an “in-house” Platonic problem more than anything– that of Proclus’ “two Parmenides.”

In comparison, let us have a look at what an anti-Christian self-consciously pagan Platonist had to say about Plethon – Thomas Taylor – a name which I believe quite a few readers may recognise because of his importance as a thinker to the late Roger Sworder. Taylor’s 1812 A Dissertation on the Philosophy of Aristotle is one of the few works aside from Siniossoglou’s ever to take Plethon as a serious pagan thinker. It is then very interesting that what Taylor has to say is positively damning. Taylor begins by inveighing against Plethon that he was not merely “satisfied” to try to prove that there was “great difference” between Plato and Aristotle “but he even proceeded to great invective against Aristotle.”[40]

Following this Taylor adds: “And to those who are adepts in the theology of Plato it will be sufficient to observe as a proof of his ignorance of it that in his epitome of the dogmas of Zoroaster and Plato, he makes Jupiter to be the greatest of the gods, and Neptune to be his most ancient offspring.”[41] As Taylor explains, Jupiter was not the “highest god” to Plato or in the Chaldean Oracles attributed to Zoroaster – but the One. Amusingly, one might note, it was Plethon who was likely responsible for this attribution of this collection of Neoplatonic oracles to the ancient Persian sage.

Siniossoglou mentions Taylor’s condemnation, calling it the accusation of “a straightforward Platonic heresy.”[42] He is very much correct that Taylor condemns Plethon for giving up on the symphonia (agreement) between Plato and Aristotle, and for elevating Zeus to the position of the One. Contrary to Siniossoglou, however, nowhere does Taylor charge Plethon with the Platonic “heresy” of claiming that “the cause of all is knowable.” This seems to be a misunderstanding of Taylor, who simply mentions that to Plato the demiurge of the Timaeus is not “perfectly ineffable” but is still difficult to explain and “impossible to reveal him by words to all men.”[43] This merely seems to be the listing of an interesting factoid as part of his explanation of Plato’s theology and not an accusation of Plethon concerning the limitations of human knowledge. If anything, it would suggest that the teachings of the Timaeus are for pious and educated men alone and not for general consumption. Let us not forget that Socrates was put to death for inventing new gods, let alone that Pletho’s Noimoi were burned.

Nevertheless, Siniossoglou’s theory that Plethon prefigures Enlightenment modernity in his “epistemic optimism” about human beings being able to come to know and express the cause of all things is well worth discussing. The fact is that Plethon never emphasises this “optimism”, even if logically this might seem a consequence of his rejection of the Neoplatonic One beyond Being and the radically alien nature of God. Instead Siniossoglou focuses on Plethon’s commentary on the Chaldean Oracles and the way in which he differentiated his understanding of them from that of the influential 12th c. Byzantine philosopher Michael Psellos before him. The Chaldean Oracles are a rather Gnostic late antique tract in which the world and human body are treated as prisons from which an elect few are capable of transcending to attain unity with the First Intellect qua God through the highest part of their minds.[44]

The ancient Neoplatonists were particularly keen on the theurgic aspects of the Oracles insisted that only through purificatory rituals could the soul make its journey. However, Psellos as consciously Christian reader of the Oracles also saw in them the idea that only through God’s grace was enlightenment possible. Plethon, in an Aristotelian (Averroist?) strain, instead argued that the Demiurge had put images of intelligible things potentially in the soul, but it was up to the individual to actively participate in the pursuit of knowledge through reason for them to be actualised. In short, Plethon put the onus on the individual rather than on waiting upon divine grace from the outside.[45]

Nonetheless, what does seem to be missing from Siniossoglou’s book (and from Plethon himself) is the Hermetic Corpus, which was traditionally attributed to the Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus. In regard to the thesis of “epistemic optimism” and modernity, a great deal has been said over the years about the influence of the Corpus Hermeticum on modernity and its regard for Man as a “kind of god”, to borrow a hermetic-inspired phrase from Renaissance Platonist and first Latin translator of the corpus, Marsilio Ficino.[46] One only need look at Hermetica X, “The Key”:

“For none of the heavenly gods will go down to earth, leaving behind the bounds of heaven, yet the human rises up to heaven and takes its measure and knows what it is in its heights and its depths, and he understands all else exactly and – greater than all of this – he comes to be on high without leaving earth behind, so enormous is his range. Therefore, we must dare to say that the human on earth is a mortal god but that god in heaven is an immortal human. Through these two then, cosmos and human, all things exist, but they all exist by action of the one.”[47]

One of the most oft-cited examples of this hermetic “optimism” is Pico della Mirandola’s “Oration of the Dignity of Man”, or so it has been popularly known since its adoption by 19th century humanists in search of ancestors.[48] Pico’s “Oration” centres around a hermetic understanding of man as a “chameleon” – a creature that partakes in and can comprehend the entire cosmos, from its apex in unity with God to its lowest depths.[49] Siniossoglou does indeed mention Pico several times in his work, especially the “Oratio” as a symbol of Popper’s “the rationalism of the Renaissance”, but it is as though we are supposed to assume that this was only because of a hidden Plethonean undercurrent.[50] Even when Siniossoglou later attempts to show that Pico’s On Being and the One is “a work that has been rightly seen to be a Neoplatonist’s reaction to Plethon’s Differences…Obviously Plethon managed to stir the waters” this is not particularly convincing. [51] On Being and the One was indeed intended as the first part of a work showing the agreement of Plato and Aristotle that Pico never managed to finish, but the topic of symphonia was a very popular one at the time. In fact, it is very difficult to establish if Plethon ever really influenced anyone substantially. Pico never mentions his name once. All that he ever warranted from Ficino was the dubious story that the Medici had built their Platonic Academy because of him, and a passing reference as a notable supporter of the univocity of Being.

At the same time, it has also been very much possible to argue that it was only through a “negative” hermeticism that much of what we think of as modern thought, especially scientific thought, was able to begin to emerge. Key to this is the 15th c. figure of Nicholas Cusanus, who brought together negative theology, hermeticism and the natural sciences in works such as De Beryllo (On the Eyeglass) and De Conjecturis (On Conjectures).[52] Cusanus simultaneously emphasised the hermetic thesis that man was a “second God” on Earth with the need to realise man’s finite limits in relation to the infinite nature of God.[53] To Cusanus, only by developing a docta ignorantia (learned ignorance) of the limits of human reason and rejecting the Platonic Forms in favour of conceptualist “conjectures” that never completely capture the way in which things really work, is man able to begin to learn.

From Ernst Cassirer to Hans Blumenberg, many prominent 20th c. historians of ideas have found in Cusanus the first true modern thinker. Most interestingly, Blumenberg argued against thinkers such as Carl Löwith who claimed that the idea of progress was merely secularised Christian Millenarianism, that Cusanus instead opened up the immanent world and future to a potential infinite progress of human knowledge without perfection.[54] At very least it is quite obvious that without Cusanus, Hegel’s metaphysics of immanent negation and contradiction would not have been possible. Here it is imperative to emphasise that this development was due to Cusanus’ reception through Proclus of a watered-down version of the existence of Non-Being thesis outlined in the Sophist. To Cusa only in God is all Otherness resolved as Same. From the angels down through man and nature any posited thing always contains contradictions, for the “true cannot be partaken of otherwise than with a degree of otherness.”[55]

This genealogical chain is in complete distinction to Siniossoglou’s claim that only through positive “epistemic optimism” and ontological monism and univocity was modern thought possible. If anything, were we to take current philosophical divisions as a measure of things, all that Siniossoglou’s thesis would seem to lead towards is the realisation that Plethon is an ancestor of the anti-Hegelian, univocal Spinozan thought of Gilles Deleuze and its refusal of the existence of negativity in Being. Thus, when Deleuze cheekily claimed that “there has only ever been one ontological position: Being in univocal. There has only been one ontology, that of Duns Scotus…from Parmenides to Heidegger”, [56] the very least he could have done was perhaps mention Plethon too.

  • The Politics of Plethon

“Et omniformis,” Psellos, “omnis

 “Intellectus est.” God’s fire. Gemisto:

“Never with this religion

“Will you make men of the greeks.

 But build a wall across Peloponesus

 And organize, and…

damn these Eyetalian barbarians.”

  • Ezra Pound, Canto XXIII.

Plethon was not limited to merely the consideration of a revived pagan civic religion. In his two Prosphonematia (Memoranda) to the Despot Theodore II and the Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos, estimated to have been written around 1416 and 1418 respectively, Plethon attempts to turn the political philosophy of Plato to the practical matter of saving the Byzantines from the rapid decline and conquest by the Turks under which they had found themselves. Plethon’s aim was to convince these powerful men of the superiority and feasibility of creating a new spoudaiotate politeia (best political order) in the Peloponnese region that would revitalise the military, land cultivation and taxation systems.[57]

 Although the two “memos” differ on certain important matters, the key to both is the very Platonic division of the population into three distinct classes and the collectivisation of all arable land. Both of the memos went unheeded by Manuel and Theodore, though perhaps like Plato with Dionysius of Syracuse, Plethon only wrote them because he had become firmly convinced that such rulers were those rarest of creatures –philosopher kings. Nonetheless, in their insistence that everything must be completely transformed and that no expense should be spared for the sake of the common good, the memoranda do indeed seem to be, so Siniossoglou claims, “…an excellent candidate for the first modern plan of Utopia.”[58] Let us look at all this in detail.

In the Republic Plato famously divides the population of his theoretical Kallipolis (Best City) into three classes based on their inherent aptitudes. There is a Guardian class of philosopher warriors who are dominated by the rational part of the soul (nous); an Auxiliary class of soldiers dominated by the courageous part of the soul (thymos); and a class of workers and artisans dominated by the lowest appetitive part of the soul (epithymia). Plethon makes somewhat similar divisions in his Memoranda.

First there is the archikon phylon (ruling class) tasked with administration, justice and military protection. At the top of this class is a king of the polis, though he is not to be put above the law.[59] Beneath this is a second class, though the memos differ greatly on what it is. In the memo to Manuel this class is simply the military. The most important thing that Plethon has to say about this class is his insistence that they are to be homophylon (homegrown) in opposition to the unreliable mercenary forces that the Byzantines had become increasingly dependent upon. This means that the entire economic system has to be turned over to the reliable production and maintenance of soldiers. More will be said on this in a moment.

 In comparison, in the memo to Theodore the second class is the class of merchants and sellers, whom Plato famously limited to almost non-existence in his Republic because of the corruption of the people through luxuriance that he believed they engendered. Plethon also takes this to be true, riling against malakia (softness) and truphe (luxury), and arguing for the strict regulation of imports and exports and the heavy taxation of commodities not regarded as absolutely necessary to the citizen body. So too does he emphasise the need to ban foreign bronze coinage that was then devaluing the Byzantine currency.[60]

 Like Plato’s “closed society”, to utilise Karl Popper’s useful but problematic term,[61] Plethon’s aim is for as much as possible to be homegrown, self-sufficient and controllable by the rulers. Most important of all, however, is that Plethon was well aware that many of the archons or local rulers in the Byzantine Empire were simply rich merchants acting out of their own greedy self-interests. The archons would have to go. Only the moderately wealthy are to be admitted into the ruling class to avoid both the greed typical of the extremely wealthy and the nepotism that often took place among the Byzantines when members of poorer families were elevated to power.

The final class, termed the anagkaiotaton (most necessary), is indeed the most vital in Plethon’s scheme(s). This is the class of the farmers and herdsmen who supply the economic base for the rest of the society to function. It is here that Plethon’s most revolutionary reforms are focussed. The pronoia system of free land grants to aristocrats had to go, as well as the tax-exempt status in perpetuity that monastic institutions and many aristocratic families (including Plethon’s own) had been granted.[62] Instead the workers would be the ones entirely responsible for paying taxes so that the military class could be maintained tax-free. In the memo to Manuel Plethon even reanimates the dastardly old word “Helot” to describe the workers – the term for the Spartan agricultural underclass who were treated with impunity.[63] More than anything, however, this was likely just to legitimise his proposed political project in the Peloponnese by reaching back to the glories of ancient Sparta, which of course had also strongly informed the social system in Plato’s Republic.

That the “Helots” were to bear the entire tax burden may seem a little harsh. However, when we see how Plethon understood taxation it seems to make quite a bit more sense. Plethon’s taxation system is divided, once again, into three classes – the farmers and herdsmen, those who supply the capital needed for the workers to perform their function such as owners of herds, oxen for ploughing and vineyards, and finally the soldiers who protect the other two. The workers are to save a third of their produce to pay for the needed capital, are to keep a third themselves and the final third is to go in tax to the soldiers and community. This is to hold true even if the workers use their own capital to pay for the use of oxen etc. A third must still go to the community.[64] In fact, so Plethon estimates, each worker should responsible for the maintenance of one soldier.

Most dramatic of all, however, is Plethon’s decision to communalise land in order to encourage the active cultivation of as much of it as possible. Plethon grounds this in the maxim that “all nature is by nature common to all inhabitants and no one may claim any individual right to any part of it.”[65] Where did Plethon get such a radical idea? One suggestion has been that this stems from Stoic conceptions of the original “Golden Age” of mankind before society. Such myths of the “state of nature” had of course a very profound influence later on Enlightenment thought, from Locke to Rousseau, on the question of land ownership. However, as Siniossoglou notes, Plethon may simply have taken the idea from the Natural Law tradition.[66] He certainly does not invoke any myths of “Golden” primitivism, whether pagan or Christian, in order to ground his thesis.

What was most important for Plethon was maximal cultivation, however. By deprivatising land ownership and redistributing land that was being poorly cultivated or left unused, he seems to have thought that good cultivation could be incentivised. To work a piece of land was the right of anyone willing to do the work. The right to work a piece of land could also still be inherited from father to sons for Plethon, but if the sons lost interest or misused it, then they would lose it and it would be given to someone else. As Siniossoglou says, for Plethon: “private property is not inalienable, but labour is.”[67] The whole purpose of Plethon’s economic base is the production of autourgoi – self-regulating workers – in order to pay to militarise the state effectively. As is Plethon’s maxim: “We must become like an eagle, not like a peacock.”

It is difficult not to find Plethon’s proposals radical, even in our own time. Siniossoglou goes as far as to say of them:

“The transferability of this idea to the whole of the Peloponnese implied the collective abandonment of all domestic ties at the social level… in place of family and social ties Plethon introduces a notion of proto-national identity unprecedented in the history of Byzantium. This call for absolute ideological commitment and the subordination of all subjects to the single cause of soteria


. The new morality entails the creation of a Hellenic nation-state in the in the ethnically riven fifteenth-century Peloponnese.”[68]

Plethon does not go any way as far as Plato did in the Republic with his communisation of children and eugenic breeding of the Guardians, the “bastards in a bureau” as C. S. Lewis famously put it. Yet, at the same time perhaps Siniossoglou is correct when he asserts that Plethon’s rejection of the Christian soteria (salvation) that could only be found in Heaven or the coming of the Millennium in favour of the Platonic soteria of the city is a fundamental break in Byzantine thought at very least.[69] Plethon certainly seemed to believe that his radical social engineering project would “not be impossible, nor too difficult” as long as the people were willing to act “with one soul” for their own collective benefit.[70] For dealing those unwilling to change, violence would be necessary, though, in Platonic fashion it must be a violence informed by reason. Perhaps such sentiments do sound a little like those that the Enlightenment was later to bring. Nonetheless, in comparison with the crumbling Byzantine empire the Latin West was already witnessing the genesis of what were to later become modern nation states. Though the French Revolution was to first begin the invention of “civic nationalist” culture as we know it today,[71] one does sense that a little is indeed already prefigured in the obscure Plethon.

For the few who have ever taken much notice of Plethon’s Memoranda, the Platonist Thomas More’s Utopia is an understandably common comparison. Some have even wondered whether More was directly influenced by Plethon, though there is not a great deal of evidence to suggest so. [72]  Moreover, while Plethon might have chosen to communalise land, More’s Utopians are far more “communistic” in their complete rejection of private property and discarding of all money within their “closed society”. More’s impetus to communise was the increasing closure of the commons and transformation of the British peasantry into floating vagabonds for the sake of the wool trade, summarised in his famous dictum that sheep, once placid, had become man-eating animals.[73]

Nevertheless, Siniossoglou may well be correct that More misunderstood Plato’s Republic, in which only the Guardian class share all things in common.[74] Indeed, so I have long thought, the Utopians in their rejection of gold seem far closer to Herodotus’ fantastic stories about the Ethiopians.[75] Ironically, the Utopians’ use of money only for bribing outsiders to fight one another is a strategy that was used extensively by the Byzantines for dealing with Slavic and Inner Asian tribes,[76] though we find no such proposals in Plethon, who instead seems to simply be satisfied to ring his “closed” Peloponnesian city state with high walls and to keep out foreign enemies, currency and luxuriance.

All differences aside, Plethon and More belong to the same strange, small camp of thinkers who have ever taken Plato’s Republic and Laws seriously as guide-books offering alternative suggestions to their own troubled times. While there is an old story that Plotinus tried unsuccessfully to convince a Roman Emperor to undertake a Platonic political experiment, besides Plethon and More perhaps only Averroes (Ibn Rushd of Cordoba) would make the list.[77] Unable to find a copy of Aristotle’s Politics on which to make a commentary to please his patrons, Averroes instead chose Plato’s Republic. In it he found a social model far more perfect than any existing in cities in his own days, and even under the just rulers of recent history.

Averroes even found Plato’s communisation of wealth and children among the Guardians to be fitting, and seemed especially taken by the idea that women should be able to perform the same work as men. Women in his time seemed sadly reduced to little more than mindless “plants” in comparison, impoverishing the life of cities both intellectually and economically.[78] Even so, the greatest problem for Averroes was perhaps the same as that of Plethon – the difference between the Platonic idea of the “closed” city state and the ecumenical world-systems in which they lived, one rapidly declining Orthodox Empire, the other Islamic ummah (community). While Averroes agreed that Plato’s Kallipolis was the best possible city, as Siniossoglou notes, he was obliged to conclude that Aristotle’s philosophy (though he had not read the Politics) was perhaps better suited to the universal ummah of Islam.[79]

At this point we might then return to the quotation with which this whole piece began, George of Trebizond’s disgust with Plethon for claiming that a universal pagan religion would soon arrive. If indeed Plethon did make such a claim, and whether or not he was only being a provocative “edgelord” as the kids would say, this would seem to sit in stark contrast with his “closed” political project for the Peloponnese. In light of this it is very interesting to note that another work of George of Trebizond, On the Truth of the Christian Faith, addressed to the Turkish sultan Mehmet II, had similar universal pretensions. While it is far more likely that by arguing that Christianity and Islam were so similar George was seeking simply to convert the Turks to Christianity and create a single universal ecumene of faith, it has also been argued that the real intention was to create a new super-religion that mixed elements of both.[80] Perhaps against the backdrop of Byzantine collapse Plethon was not the only political and religious eccentric.  

Strangest of all today we might seem to find ourselves facing similar problems that our Platonic writers faced long ago in their opposition between the “closed” Platonic society and larger universal system. The globalised world order we live in today is a secularised outgrowth of the ecumene of Latin Christendom and its system of nation states and international laws, but so too with it the notion of a single (noble?) humanity independent of nation states. Nonetheless, over the past few years it has become increasingly apparent that large proportions of the population, especially in the West, are tired of the species of globalisation (often labelled “neoliberal” among other things) that has held sway in politics for the past forty or so years, and which, in retrospect, seems to have done little more than enrich certain global “world cities” at the expense of increasingly “peripheral” industrial capitals, regional cities and rural populations.[81]

The common cry of reactionaries and populists towards this is that of “globalism,” as though there were some sophisticated, thick One-World cosmopolitan ideology in play. In truth, perhaps this ideology is a lot weaker than one might think, a mere ritual feeling preserved from the days when powerful global communist vanguard parties still existed, there was far greater faith in the need for organisations like the League of Nations/UN to prevent World Wars, and public intellectuals like Bertrand Russell endorsed One-World government as a serious proposition.

What remains of One-World humanism is very thin indeed, and what all this is really about, so it would seem, is a network of world-cities rather than some One-World ecumene that has never materialised and likely never will. The nation-state-based responses to the current pandemic crisis seems to have shown up whatever skerrick was left of such beliefs. The gap now is between a network of successful cities and the populist appeal to the nation-state system. Whichever side one is on (and one might hope that there are rather more than two), things begin to appear as though one belongs to something small trying to close and preserve itself against a large and dangerous outside. In such an atmosphere I would not be surprised at all if one were to see many Plethons in our immediate future, each with his or her own radical proposal for the salvation of a discreet political community.

[1] George of Trebizond, Comparatio Platonis et Aristotelis, fol. v63 ap. Woulter Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012, p. 38.

[2] See esp. François Masai, Pléthon et le Platonisme de Mistra, Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1956; Christopher M. Woodhouse, Gemistos Plethon: The Last of the Hellenes, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986; Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism in Byzantium: Illumination and Utopia in Gemistos Plethon, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011; Vojtech Hladky, The Philosophy of Gemistus Plethon. Routlege, New York, 2017.

[3] For an interesting introductory biography of Plethon see: Bruce Merry, “George Gemistos Plethon (c. 1355-1452),” in Alba Amoia and Betina Knapp eds, Multicultural Writers from Antiquity to 1945, Greenwood Publishing, Westport and London, 2002, pp. 127-30. Some of this information may be subject to debate and somewhat dated. See more recently: Woulter Hanegraaf, Esotericism and the Academy, pp. 30-40 and Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, passim for the most complete (albeit also somewhat controversial) work on the subject of Plethon.

[4] Plethon is Greek for “full”, which is also the meaning of the name Gemistos. Nonetheless, as Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 9 n. 30 notes this name may have also referred to Plethon’s physique. Plethon’s remains were moved to the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, Italy by his admirer Sigismundo Malatesta. In 1756 the sarcophagus was opened and the skull of Plethon was reported to be very broad and large. On this see: Ricci, Il Tempio Malestiano, Bestetti e Tumminelli, Roma- Milano, 1924, pp. 291-2.

[5] This story comes from the introduction to Marsilio Ficino’s Latin translation of Plotinus’ Enneads and has been debated in recent years, largely because the very existence of the Academy has been doubted, Ficino never actually seems to have met Plethon, and what he has to say about him isn’t particularly nice. See: Monfasani, “Marsilio Ficino and the Plato-Aristotle Controversy,” in M. J. B Allen et al eds, Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, His Philosophy, His Legacy, Brill, Leiden, 2002, pp. 185-200.

[6] See Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, pp. 138-41.

[7] There is no English translation of the Syggraphe. There is however a Greek-French parallel text, which I used for the several translations of prayers given later in the essay:Pléthon, Traité des Lois, trans. C. Alexander and A. Pelissier, Libraire de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils etc, Paris, 1858.

[8] There is an English translation of the Differences in Christopher M. Woodhouse, Gemistos Plethon: The Last of the Hellenes.

[9]. The only English translation of the Memoranda is to be found in an Christos P. Baloglou, “George Finlay and Georgios Gemistos Plethon: New Evidence from Finlay’s Records,” Medioevo Greco, 3, 2003, 23-42, but this text is very hard to get hold of. We have been obliged to do our best based on the paraphrases and translations in situ of others. I have found even Greek publications of the Memoranda are very hard to come by with my limited resources.

[10] Plethon, Differences, 324.33 cited with intertextual references to Aristotle and Homer in Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism in Byzantium, p. 234.

[11] Parmenides, fragment 8 lines 1-62 ap. John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, Adam and Charles Black, London, 1958, pp. 174-6. For the sake of brevity classical and mediaeval primary sources will be cited in traditional abbreviated form without reference to specific modern editions unless there is some ambiguity.

[12] Plato, Parmenides, 132a-134e.

[13] Idem, Sophist, 258c-d. 

[14] Idem, Parmenides, 142b-d.

[15] Idem, Republic, 509b. Proclus, Commentary on the Parmenides, 1241.7-8. See Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, pp. 240-2 on Proclus’s “two Parmenides.”

[16] Proclus, On the Parmenides, 1240.29-37.

[17] See: Clifton Walters trans., The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, Penguin Classics, London, 1983.

[18] See: Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, esp. pp. 246-7, 278f.

[19] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1003a33, 1017a23,1045b28-9. See: Joan Kung, “Aristotle on ‘Being Is Said in Many Ways’,” History of Philosophy Quarterly, 3.1, 1986, pp. 3-18.

[20] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.13.5. See also: Idem, Summa Contra Gentiles, 1.33.295, 1.34.148, De Veritate, 2.11.122-4, De Potentia Dei, 7.7. A good overview: Roger M. White, Talking About God: The Concept of Analogy and the Problem of Religious Language, Ashgate, Surrey UK, 2010.

[21] See esp. Duns Scotus, Ordinatio

[22] Pléthon, Traité des Lois, pp. 202-219. For an excellent breakdown of these and a chart see: Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, pp. 281-91.

[23] On these see the introduction in Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992.

[24] Henry Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi, trans. Ralph Manheim, Princeton University Press, Princeton N.J., 1969, p. 20-1.

[25] On the equivocity of Non-Being in the Sophist see: Jonathan Ratcliffe, “Process and the Derailing of Reality, Pt 2: Haunted Ontologies and Different Modes of Existence,” VoegelinView, 5 November 2019,

[26] Plato, Sophist, 254b-d

[27] Ibid, 256e-257a.  One might note that Badiou’s ontology of the Void of the “pure multiple” is strongly indebted to both the hypotheses of the Parmenides and the infinite Non-Being of the Sophist. On the latter see esp. Alain Badiou, Logic of Worlds: Being and Event II, trans. Alberto Toscano, Bloomsbury Academic, London, 2013, p. 302.

[28] Plato, Sophist, 265ab-d, 266b-c.

[29] Ibid, 256c.

[30] Pléthon, Traité des Lois, p. 212-13.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Plotinus, Enneads, III. 6.7.10-15. This is reiterated almost word for word in Porphyry, Launching Points to the Realm of Mind, s. 21.

[33] Pléthon, Traité des Lois, pp. 210-11.

[34] Ibid, pp. 231-241.

[35] Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, pp. 43, 238, 245.

[36] Ibid, p. 19.

[37] Ibid, pp. 21-38.

[38] Emanuele Severino, The Essence of Nihilism, trans. Giacomo Donis, Verso, New York, 2016. Against Siniossoglou’s claim of the inherent “essential” difference between Christian and pagan ontology, yes indeed a Parmenidean Christianity is at least theoretically thinkable.

[39] Ibid, p. 244. See also: Matthias Baltes, “Is the Idea of the Good Plato’s Republic Beyond Being?” in Mark Joyal ed, Studies in Plato and the Platonic Tradition, Routlege, Aldershot and Hampshire, 1997, pp. 3-25.

[40] Thomas Taylor, A Dissertation on the Philosophy of Aristotle, Robert Wilks, London, 1812, Ch IV, pp. 418-9. 

[41] Ibid.

[42] Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 165 n. 8.

[43] Thomas Taylor, A Dissertation, p. 419.

[44] The easiest available collection of the Chaldean Oracles is that at Sacred Texts but it does not include full commentaries: There is a French translation of Plethon’s commentary: Brigitte Tambrun-Krasker, Oracles Chaldaïques. Recension de Georges Gémiste Pléthon, Corpus Philosophorum Medii Aevi 3, Akademy of Athens, Athens, 1995.

[45] Plethon, Oracles, 28a ap. Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 219.  This sounds rather like Averroes’ understanding of the need for studium (training) in order to attain unity with the Agent Intellect. It is worth mentioning here that Pico della Mirandola’s nephew Gianfrancesco in his De Rerum Praenitione (On the Premonition of Things) went to great lengths to denounce Averroes in order to claim that only through divine grace was enlightenment and prophesy possible. See: Guido Giglioni, “Phantasms of Reason and Shadows of Matter,” in Anna Akasoy et al eds, Renaissance Averroism and Its Aftermath, Springer, Dordecht and London, 2013, pp. 183-4. See also: Noel. L. Brann, The Debate Over the Origin of Genius in During the Italian In the Renaissance, Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2002, pp. 177, 183-4.

[46] Marsilio Ficino, “The Soul of Man,” in James Bruce Ross and Mary Martin McLaughlin eds, The Portable Renaissance Reader, Penguin, London, 1986, p. 388.

[47] Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica, X.25 p. 36.

[48] Idem and Charles B. Schmitt, A History of Western Philosophy 3: Renaissance Philosophy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992, pp. 163-6. More recently there has been this wonderful survey of the reception of Pico in the last century: Brian P. Copenhaver, Magic and the Dignity of Man: Pico della Mirandola and his Oration in Modern Memory, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2019, pp. 313-4.  Ernst Cassirer in his early work on Pico famously viewed him as a proto-Kant for his celebration of worldly human dignity, but by the 1940s had realized that Pico was not quite so worldly after all and instead desired above all else erotic unity with God: Ernst Cassirer, “Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: A Study in the History of Renaissance Ideas,” Journal of the History of Ideas 2.2 (1942), pp. 123-44.

[49] Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” trans. Elizabeth Livermore Forbes, in Ernst Cassirer et al eds, The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1971, p. 225-6.

[50] Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, pp. 164-5. Here five things are listed in common with Pico’s Oratio and Plethon’s Nomoi – 1. The importance of Zoroaster and Plato. 2. Plato’s concept of man as methorion capable of ascending or descending to the uppermost and lowest limits of the cosmos. 3. The Platonic and Plotinean image of man as self-sculptor. 4. The importance of natural philosophy. 5. The fact that Pico mentions Plutarch who was “one of Plethon’s favourite sources.” The last of these is especially weak. As to the other four, these were very common Renaissance Platonic preoccupations and it is very hard to specifically find the direct influence of Plethon. As to 2 Hermes Trismegistus, whom Pico mentions many times in the speech, is likely the cause. 

[51] Ibid, pp. 249-50. See:  Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, On Being and the One, trans. Victor M. Hamm, 1943 available from The argument of this work is very loose and difficult to follow. Siniossoglou views it as “follow[ing] the standard Neoplatonic interpretation of the first hypothesis of the Parmenides: the One/god is superior to Being” for its claim that “the essence of Beings is only derivative (esse participatum).” That final term should perhaps give us a clue that more than standard Neoplatonism is at work. As is argued by Victor M. Salas, “Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola on Being and Unity: A Thomistic Solution to an Ancient Quarrel,” The Thomist, 78.3, 2014, pp. 351-77, Pico’s answer is in fact one of Thomist ontological participation.

[52] Nicholas of Cusa, Metaphysical Speculations, trans. Jasper Hopkins, Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, 1998-2000, “De Beryllo (On [Intellectual] Eyeglasses),” Vol. I, pp. 790-838, “De Cojecturis (On Surmises),” Vol II, pp. 161-297.

[53] Idem, “De Beryllo,” section 7.

[54]Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1983, p. 529.

[55] Nicholas Cusa, “De Cojecturis,,” section 110. On the chain of Proclus-Cusa-Hegel see: Andrew Cole, The Birth of Theory, Chicago University Press, Chicago and London, 2014, esp. pp. 46-9.

[56] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, Columbia University Press, New York, 1994, p. 35.

[57] Here once again I am highly dependent upon Siniossoglou’s 2011 Radical Platonism in Byzantium. Just about everything he says here is simply repeated in “Plethon, Scholarios and the Byznatine State of Emergency,” in Anthony Kaldellis and Niketas Siniossoglou eds, The Cambridge Intellectual History of Byzantium, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2017.  But please see also: N. Patrick Peritore, “The Political Thought of Gemistos Plethon: A Renaissance Byzantine Reformer,” Polity, 10.2, 1977, pp. 168-191; François Masai, Pléthon et le Platonisme de Mistra; Christopher M. Woodhouse, Gemistos Plethon: The Last of the Hellenes. I have not been able to get hold of and spend time with this recent book in modern Greek: Yannis Smarnakis, Byzantine Anagennese kai Outopia: O Plethon kai to Despotato tou Moria, Ekdoseis Eurasia, Athens, 2017.

[58] Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 344.

[59] The idea that there is a Plethonean “political theology” in which his political system reflects his ontology with its three main sections of deities/principles and Father Zeus on top is certainly an interesting possibility.

[60] Ibid, p. 340 which cites Men. II. 262.14-17.

[61]  Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies Vol 1: Plato, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1966 sees Plato as the original fascist enemy of the liberal “open society” in comparison to Socrates, whom he views as a cosmopolitan liberal figure.  As Eric Voegelin recognised, to create the “open” and “closed” thesis, Popper made use of Henri Bergson’s two varieties of religion – one dogmatic, the other open to new experience. Yet, because he had no interest in the religious dimensions of either Socrates or Plato, Popper, so Voegelin thought, was abusing Bergon’s and Plato’s work. Voegelin basically calls him a coffeeshop hipster. See: Peter Emberly and Barry Cooper, Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 2004. However, I do think that the “open” and “closed” labels remain useful for describing the difference between s0cieties self-consciously attempting to retract themselves from a world-system they developed in that is now regarded as having become detrimental to the populace. Such phenomena are much bigger than simply 20th century liberalism and fascism. More will be said on this later.

[62] Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 339.  Cf. pp. 341-2 where Siniossoglou notes that Plethon does not suggest that monastic land should be confiscated, likely because Manuel had recently granted back land confiscated from the monasteries. Nonetheless, Siniossoglou seems to imagine that Plethon was happy enough for the monasteries to be “left to die morally as well as economically” in his new system. This is probably taking things a little too far, even if Plethon did refer to monks as “idle” and “dronelike” on a number of occasions in his works, this being an allusion to wastrels described in Book 10 of Plato’s Laws.

[63] Ibid, p. 332, which cites Plethon, Memoranda 1.119.5-28 and II. 255.18 for comparison on the use of Helot and its absence in the two.

[64] Plethon, Mem. I. 123.15-124.5 cited in Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 339.

[65] Plethon, Mem. II. 260.3-12 cited in Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 337.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Ibid, p. 334.

[69] Ibid, p. 345.

[70] Plethon, Mem. I.129.12-130.5 cited in Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 329. 

[71] D. Hopkin, “Folklore Beyond Nationalism: Identity Politics and Scientific Cultures in the New Discipline,” in T. Baycroft. ed, Folklore and Nationalism in Europe During the Long Nineteenth Century, Brill, London, 2012, 371-401.

[72] Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 338.  Cf. Peter Garnsey, “Gemistus Plethon and Platonic Political Philosophy,” in Ph. Rousseau and E. Papoutsakis eds, Transformations of Late Antiquity, Taylor & Francis, New York, 2007, p. 57.

[73] Thomas More, Utopia, Penguin Classics, London, Book 1 p. 46.

[74] Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 338.

[75] Herodotus, Histories, Book III. 21-3.

[76] See my article on Constantine Porphyrogenitus’ use of bribery to deal with barbarians: Jonathan Ratcliffe, “Aesop and the Fall of Moravia, or How to Save the Byzantine Empire,” Melbourne Historical Journal 41, 2013, pp. 20-44.

[77] See: Averroes, On Plato’s Republic, trans. Ralph Lerner, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1974. The well-read reader might also try to suggest Tomaso Campanella’s City of the Sun and even Francis Bancon’s New Atlantis, but there is not much consciously Platonic about these fantastical New World “knowledge societies.”

[78] Ibid, sections 53-54. One might note that Plethon seems to have had no interest in Platonic gender equality whatsoever. He was also particularly harsh on homosexuality, suggesting that it should be treated with burning alive.

[79] Ibid, sections 44-46. See: Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, pp. 415-6.

[80] Michel Balivet, Pour une concorde islamo-chritiénne, démarches byzantines et latines à la fin du Moyen-Age (de Nicolas de Cues à Georges de Trébizonde). Pontificio istituto di studi arabi e d’islamistica, Rome, 1997. Cf. Rustam Shukurov, The Byzantine Turks: 1204-1461, Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2016, p. 386. Coman, “How the Megacities Europe Stole a Nation’s Wealth,” The Guardian, 10 November 2019, 

T.S. Eliot and the Modern Condition

It is now almost one hundred years since T.S. Eliot began work on his most famous poem, The Waste Land. The completed poem was not published until 1922 after earlier revisions to the draft, many of them suggested by Ezra Pound.  Most critics agree that this poem was one of the most important poems of the twentieth century and I know of no poetic production of the last two decades to measure up to it.

Millions of words have been written about the poem and its setting. It has given rise to books, myriad scholarly essays and, no doubt, hundreds, if not thousands, of PhD dissertations.  And yet today, the work is probably known to relatively few people (in comparison to say, 50 years ago).  Eliot is out of fashion, having been declared a misogynist, anti-Semitic, etc.  In fact, let’s be honest and admit that all Western literature is out of fashion.  If you need any proof, just consider the howls of indignation when Sydney University recently proposed a “Western Traditions” course.

Eliot was a modernist in poetic style – that is to say, he believed that it was no longer possible to produce poetry in the accustomed earlier styles because these could not reflect the realities of the present day. Europe had just been torn apart by the First War – a war of mechanised killing which claimed over 10 million lives on the Wester Front alone. Eliot was, by this time, living in London, and what he saw about him in the lives of ordinary citizens was hardly conducive to heroic or romantic poetry.  Indeed, one might say it was not conducive to any poetry. Eliot was a realist who wanted to depict nothing less than the whole of his civilisation as he saw it– its public places and its private lives. And so, most of his early poetry is bleak and forbidding. And yet there is another side to these early poems which redeems them, as it were. And it makes them hugely relevant to our own position today when the outlook is perhaps even bleaker than it was in Eliot’s day.

In the first place, Eliot was a poet of precision and power.  By this I mean that his knowledge and use of the English language was such that each word, each phrase or sentence, is honed to a razor edge. The language is made to carry an almost intolerable load of meaning.  When I read The Waste Land for the first time, it seemed to be just a jumble of words and images, thrown together in a haphazard way.  And yet, I found certain phrases sticking indelibly in the mind. Even the evocations of decay and hopelessness, everywhere evident in the poem, had a sort of stark beauty.  The poem seems to act on the unconscious mind  in a powerful way.  You cannot forget its images and its echoes. This is a mark of great poetry.

We should not suppose that the various images presented to us in The Waste Land “stand for” something other than themselves. His images are real and his meanings are direct.  When, for instance, we read the phrase “Unreal city” – an exclamation called out by the sight of crowds of people streaming across London Bridge and avoiding each other – Eliot means what he says.  London is indeed “unreal’ in that it has lost contact with some higher reality. Some months ago I reviewed a book which had the title “Freedom from Reality”. It concerned the self-destructive potential of the modern notion of freedom – a freedom solely occupied with the senses and, as such, crippling the traditional and proper notion of freedom as a liberation from the restrictions imposed by the senses.  This is precisely the metaphysical sense that Eliot uses.

And yet, it is dangerous to assume that the poem must have some hidden meaning which the reader needs to uncover.  As I have indicated above, the first-time reader is usually perplexed by the work and is moved to ask “What is it about? What is its meaning”? To which, the most appropriate answer might be; “the poem is only problematical if you persist in looking for a meaning. Why not just read it for the sounds and images contained”? And that is a perfectly proper thing to do with a poem. And yet we seem to be drawn irresistibly to the need for some underlying meaning to ‘explain’  the work. I have now watched many video lectures on the work, given by prominent Eliot scholars. Most of them make exactly the point I have made above – don’t look for some overarching explanation.  And then, of course, they spend the next hour or so doing just that!  We cannot help ourselves, and maybe that is part of the genius of the work.

That, then, will be my excuse for what follows below.

The poem may perhaps be explained by an analogy. Let us speculate that the worst had happened and the recent Notre Dame fire had indeed caused the great rose windows to fall into a thousand broken shards, so that the scenes they had depicted now lay broken and scattered.  What story do they present to us now?  Nothing but unconnected fragments laying about the ruins.  This is what Eliot conveys to us in his poem – the unconnected, twisted ruins of what was once called Christendom. And so the other point to make about the poem is simply this.  It might be a bleak and forbidding picture (or series of unconnected images) that is conveyed to us, but it is only made so by reference to some other and higher standard or aspiration.  That is to say, we only see the depth of the decay because we – and Eliot – have some intimation of a better and more proper mode of existence for a human life. In short, the Real.

And indeed, Eliot gives us hints of this higher mode of life right throughout the poem.  Those who know their English literature will pick up references to earlier and famous works in the Western Canon – works by Dante, Homer, St. Augustine, and so on. I am no literature academic, but I might just mention once such reference made by Eliot and show just how he uses it to depict the depth of our decay. 

In the third section of The Waste Land, the famous “Fire Sermon”, we get this opening description of the Thames in London:

The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf

Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind

Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.

Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,

Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends

Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.

And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;

Departed, have left no addresses.

By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept . . .

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,

Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.

But at my back in a cold blast I hear

The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

Here, in the repeated phrase, “Sweet Thames, run softly” Eliot is referencing a famous poem, Prothalamion, by Edmund Spenser (16C).  Spenser wrote the verse in honour of the double marriage of ‘Ladie Elizabeth and Ladie Katherine Somerset’. The setting for the poem is the Thames, and we get this beautiful description:

Along the shore of silver streaming Thames, 

Whose rutty bank, the which his river hems, 

Was painted all with variable flowers, 

And all the meads adorned with dainty gems, 

Fit to deck maidens’ bowers, 

And crown their paramours, 

Against the bridal day, which is not long: 

      Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song. 

Each stanza of the poem ends with the refrain: “Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song.

The contrast with the Thames of Eliot’s time could not be more stark and, of course, Eliot’s borrowing of the phrase “Sweet Thames run softly” is the last twist of the knife. He puts in the rubbish and pollution of the present world and takes it away again, leaving only the waste land of the title. Later in ‘The Fire Sermon’ we get these two lines:

The river sweats

Oil and tar.

Here, in just six words, is a powerful evocation of foul pollution. The word ‘sweats’, in particular, carries enormous weight.

But, for all this negativity, we need to remember that by naming this section of the poem “The Fire Sermon”, Eliot is referencing a sermon from the Pali Canon where the Buddha preaches liberation from suffering through detachment from the senses. There is, then, a spiritual agenda at work in Eliot’s poem, and in later poems from Eliot, it becomes more and more apparent. In fact, in his “Notes” accompanying the poem, he tells us that his reference to the Buddha and a later reference to St Augustine (“To Carthage then I came”) are connected: “The collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident”.

And now we get to the nub of the matter – the underlying drive or motivation which compels Eliot to write as he does.  He might begin as a modernist poet, but he most assuredly does not end as one – not, at least, in the common understanding of the term ‘modernist’.  Eliot did not repudiate the past but, rather, looked for ways in which he might properly live in his own age and attempt to come to terms with it. His was, at bottom, a spiritual quest:  how does one live spiritually in such an age? It is the question facing all of us. To the Bloomsbury crowd and to other secular intellectuals of his age, Eliot came to be seen as almost a traitor to their cause.  He had become, in their eyes, part of the Conservative establishment. But the truth is that Eliot was involved in a great spiritual crisis of his own.

It was not possible for Eliot to simply dismiss the “big questions” concerning life.  He had to face them squarely. He could not accept that life was essentially meaningless – a Darwinian struggle of sophisticated and self-assembled molecules – but neither was it easy for such a brilliant mind to submit blindly to Faith. But indecision was not an option. The consequences of indecision in this matter are starkly laid out for us in his poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Prufrock is a rather pathetic figure who desperately wants to be in the company of ladies but cannot summon the courage to make the first move.  At a deeper level the poem gnaws at all of us:

Do I dare         
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse

Many commentators on the life of Eliot will tell you that he “converted” to Anglo-Catholicism, perhaps implying an earlier atheism or agnosticism. This is not true because he was born into  a rather strict Unitarian family in the USA  and, as far as I am aware, never really abandoned belief in God. But, for him, the Unitarianism of his parents and their circle was too arid, too much of “this world” (too comfortable, perhaps), and seemed to lack a deep spiritual underpinning.  Meaningful ritual, the sacraments, and the general notion of withdrawal from the world of the senses were all of importance to Eliot and this drew him to Anglo-Catholicism – a ‘movement’ within Anglicanism rather than some separate religious entity.

What particularly concerned Eliot was the sense that we are creatures of time and, therefore, cannot escape its restrictions. Time is the necessary precondition for our salvation. And this brings us to the last and perhaps greatest of his poems, the Four Quartets.  Here at last, we see Eliot contemplating what he called “the Dance”, and how we might come to reflect upon it:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Here, at ‘the still point’, is the Holy Spirit, hovering over all things and imparting harmony to the cosmos. What then, as creatures of time, should be our response?

            … You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

The poem ends with an affirmation not just of hope, but of certainty, repeating a phrase from Julian of Norwich in the late 13th century:

Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

In his book Dove Descending, the well-known Eliot scholar, Professor Thomas Howard, says of the Four Quartets: “In my own view, this sequence of four poems represents the pinnacle of Eliot’s whole work. Four Quartets stands as Eliot’s valedictory to the modern world. I would place it, along with Chartres Cathedral, the Divine Comedy, van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” and Mozart’s Requiem, as a major edifice in the history of the Christian West.”

For those readers unfamiliar with Eliot’s poetry, perhaps the best introduction is not by reading, but by listening.  True enough, Eliot arranges his verses for  visual effect as well as other kinds, but the sound of the poem is, perhaps, more important. And for first time readers, getting the sound of the poem can be difficult. My own introduction here was via the reading of Eliot’s major poems by Sir Alec Guinness.  Here, for the first time, the various ‘voices’ in The Waste Land came to life for me. I had earlier listened to part of Eliot’s own reading, but found it rather remote and uninteresting (this was a deliberate ploy by Eliot – he wanted the listener to do all the work here).  Guinness reads with obvious sympathy and an understanding of the underlying themes. He himself converted to Catholicism and, like Eliot, did so without any great “Damascus Road” experience. As he said: “There had been no emotional upheaval, no great insight, certainly no proper grasp of theological issues; just a sense of history and the fittingness of things.”

Just so! All manner of things shall be well.

Lament for the Makaris

The title of this piece is borrowed from a famous poem of the same title written by William Dunbar (1459-1630). The poem, in the Scots dialect, laments the passing of famous poets (makars or makaris) and, more generally, the fact of human mortality. Part of the attractiveness of the poem is the archaic language, but the subject matter, too, is something that is never far from our own experiences and, therefore, of interest to us. Below is an extract, with my rough translation (parts only) into modern English;

I that in heill was and glaidness                       I that was healthy and glad

Am trublit now with great seikness       Am troubled now with great sickness

And feblit with infirmitie:—                    And weakened by infirmity

    Timor Mortis conturbat me.                The fear of death disturbs me


Our plesance heir is all vain glory,                 Our presence here

  This fals world is but transitory,                    This false world

The flesh is brukle, the Feynd is slee:—     The flesh is weak, the Devil is sly

    Timor Mortis conturbat me.                         The fear of death disturbs me


The state of man does change and vary,

Now sound, now sick, now blyth, now sary,     … now happy, now sad

 Now dansand mirry, now like to die:—                       Now dancing merrily …

    Timor Mortis conturbat me.


No state in Erd heir standis sicker;                  No state on earth here stands sicker

As with the wynd wavis the wicker                   As with the wind waving the reed

So wavis this world’s vanitie:—                          So waves this world’s vanity

Timor Mortis conturbat me.


Unto the Deid gois all Estatis,                         Uno death go all classes

Princis, Prelattis, and Potestatis,                     Princes, Prelates, Potentates

Baith rich and poor of all degre:—                  Both …

    Timor Mortis conturbat me

This brings us to a very interesting question: why does sad poetry or sad music attract us? After all, we strive to be happy and Aristotle tells us that happiness is our one true telos or goal. Sad songs or music or poetry seems to be a feature of most cultures, but it is particularly evident in Gaelic cultures. Recall all of those sad songs of Thomas More (written, alas, for a mainly English Music Hall audience).  How often have I seen grown men weep as they listened to these songs! And how right was Chesterton when he said of the Gaels “For the great Gaels of Ireland/Are the men that God made mad/For all their wars are merry/And all their songs are sad”.

It is difficult to find an answer to the question posed above, but there is certainly something in the very process of longing for better things that appeals to us. No-one has put the business better than C.S. Lewis.  In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis recounts certain boyhood experiences where he is stricken by an intense longing and then attempts to explain the feeling:

For those who are still disposed to proceed I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.

In the course of his own Life, Lewis was eventually drawn to what he considered to be the ultimate source of those childhood experiences and they then took on a wholly new character. They were, in some strange way, an expression of joy. As he says himself, at the end of his book:

But what, in conclusion, of Joy? For that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian. I cannot, indeed, complain, like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam has passed away. I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the old stab, the old bitter-sweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries ‘Look!’ The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. ‘We would be at Jerusalem.’ Not, of course, that I don’t often catch myself stopping to stare at roadside objects of even less importance.

Perhaps, then, this is why we listen to sad songs or read sad poetry. In Platonic terms, it is the operation of the intellect, seeking out its true home.

As a poetic form, the lament is very ancient, probably as old as human history, for it is part of the human condition to experience the gulf between human aspiration and human achievement.  One very famous example comes to us from the Old Testament, David’s lament for Saul (2 Samuel). But, let me end with a particularly beautiful lament – one which seeks to implicate not just the writer himself, but the whole world of matter. It is reminiscent of those famous words of St Paul in Romans 8: For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body (KJV).  The writer in the translated extract given below was a student of the ancient poet, Bion of Smyrna (circa 100BC). The lovely word, waly, an exclamation of grief, is now lost to our language.

Cry me waly upon him, you glades of the woods, and waly, sweet Dorian water; you rivers, weep I pray you for the lovely and delightful Bion. Lament you now, good orchards; gentle groves, make you your moan; be your breathing clusters, ye flowers, dishevelled for grief. Pray roses, now be your redness sorrow, and yours sorrow, windflowers; speak now thy writing, dear flower-de-luce, loud let thy blossoms babble ay; the beautiful musician is dead. …