George Gemistos Plethon, the Byzantine Empire and the Italian Renaissance

The conditions that led to the Renaissance were in part to do with the wealth and relative political freedom of the Northern Italian City-States of the 14th and 15th centuries and their networks of trading links across Europe and the Near East.

It was specifically the links to the East that brought Greek texts into Western Europe. The texts and, more importantly, the scholars that came with them were the catalyst for the Renaissance.

It was also significant that the Italian city-states were founded on trade. They were run by councils and oligarchies, rather than by feudal lords. They were involved in commerce and were exploring different political and social systems and the merchants that brought wealth to the cities also brought ideas and texts.

Additionally, the development of the Humanism of the Renaissance was linked to the declining fortunes of the Byzantine Empire and the growth of contacts between the empire and the Papacy, driven by the empire’s need for military aid against the Ottomans.

The Byzantine diplomat and scholar Manuel Chrysoloras first arrived in Italy in 1390, as part of a diplomatic mission sent to Venice by the emperor Manuel II Palaiologos to seek aid from the Christian states of the West against the Turks. He was one of the first Greeks to teach in the West and he created translations of Homer and Plato, as well as publishing his own works in Latin. He was followed by others, including George Gemistos Plethon, one of the major Greek influences on the Renaissance.

He was present at the Council of Florence in 1438-9 as an advisor to the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor John VIII Palaiologos and spent some of his time lecturing the scholars of Florence about Plato’s philosophy.

Plato was almost unknown in the West at the time, hardly any of his work having been translated into Latin from the original Greek.

It was Plethon’s influence that led to Cosimo di Medici founding the Florentine Platonic Academy, under the leadership of Marcilio Ficino, who was heavily indebted to Plethon, intellectually speaking, for his exposure to Platonic and Neoplatonic ideas.

Plethon had previously lived in the city of Mistra, in the Morea, where he taught philosophy, astronomy, history and geography, and compiled anthologies of the works of classical writers. His pupils included Basilios Bessarion, who was also present at the Council of Florence and because of his support for Union between the Eastern and Western Churches, was created a Cardinal. Bessarion was another Platonist and his teachings on philosophy and his work to reconcile the differing philosophies of Aristotle and Plato were crucual to the development of theology in the Renaissance.

Plethon’s Platonic teaching was central to the developing Humanism of the New Learning and the shift away from theology derived from Aristotle’s philosophy that had dominated the West in the Middle Ages.

One can look at the revival of interest in classical texts from the 12th century onwards as a kind of precursor to the Renaissance, but this should be more clearly understood as part of a natural development in Western scholasticism.

The rekindling of interest in classical texts in Latin had been a major intellectual step forward, but it was not the Renaissance. As intellectual life had expanded in western Europe from around 1150-1200 onwards, interest had grown in rediscovering the works of the past, from texts that had remained, often neglected, in church hands, in monasteries and in private collections and also from Arabic translations of texts that had survived in the former Byzantine lands, translations that had been made by Christian scholars working under the rule of the Ummayad and Abbasid caliphates.

The works of Aristotle had been used by Avicenna as a way of reconciling philosophical ideas with Islamic philosophy (itself heavily influenced by Neoplatonism) and Avicenna was a huge influence on the scholastics of the 13th century, like Peter Abelard and Albertus Magnus, and thence to Thomas Aquinas, but it is hardly appropriate to describe this as a beginning of the Humanism of the Italian Renaissance, the Scholastics being more concerned with Aristotelian logic and the reconciliation of classical philosophy with mediaeval theology.

The real difference between the earlier Scholastics and the early Renaissance scholars lay in the kind of things that they were studying, their methods and how they used their studies to develop new ideas about the ordering of society, legal systems, the sciences and the development of what we might today call the Humanities.

The Scholastics had been interested in the natural sciences, mathematics and Aristotelian philosophy and were heavily dependent on the previously mentioned Arabic sources where the Latin ones were lacking.

The humanists of the 14th and 15th centuries were excited by the new Greek sources, in history, literature and more human-oriented subjects and used Platonic concepts about the nature of the universe, about religion and about humanity to formulate a new way of looking at the world.

The scholastics had been driven by the mediaeval trivium and quadrivium whereas the New Learning explored more widely and was far more concerned with placing Man at the centre of the universe.

One can also argue that following the devastations of the Black Death and the Guelph and Ghibbeline wars of the 14th and early 15th centuries, people’s ideas about the world and their place in it were changing. Because there was a shortage of skilled workers, their value increased and they were able to command greater rewards for their skills while, at the same time, the republican governments of the cities sought to elevate their city’s standing above its rivals. The New Learning gave an intellectual framework to these ideas and changing attitudes.

It is a combination of all these things that led to the massive outpouring of artworks, books and ideas that began to emerge from places like Florence, Pisa, Venice and elsewhere, spreading outwards and influencing others across Europe.

Without the bringers of new ideas and old knowledge from the East, it seems doubtful that the Renaissance as we know it would have developed in the same way at all.

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One thought on “George Gemistos Plethon, the Byzantine Empire and the Italian Renaissance

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review « Carole's Stuff and Occasional Nonsense

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