In contrast to philosophy in the ancient Greek world, or to philosophy as studied and practiced in the medieval West, it is commonly thought that there was very little philosophy of any significant value being done in the Byzantine period from roughly 700 AD to 1453. But this is false, and to help set the record straight I will discuss over the next few months some of the major philosophical figures of the Byzantine era, thereby showing that philosophy in Byzantium was much more creative and insightful than is often supposed.
In this article, however, I will only provide a brief background to philosophy in the Byzantine Empire. The Greeks of the Middles Ages saw themselves as the heirs of ancient Greece. Although elements of ancient Greek culture fell into oblivion during the Byzantine period (such as pagan religious practices and some philosophical traditions), much of ancient Greece retained some presence in Byzantium.
For example, Homer’s Illiad remained on the ‘reading lists’ of secondary schools throughout the Byzantine period, and the Byzantines (unlike their Arab and Latin contemporaries) never had to discover or rediscover the writings of Plato and Aristotle, since these were always at hand. Higher education in Byzantium was never structured along the lines of the Western university system, but was only aimed at a kind of vocational training for officials of the state and church. Nevertheless, philosophy continued to be taught and studied in private tutorials and tertiary institutions, the most important of which was the University of Constantinople.
The university was established in 11th century during the reign of Constantine IX. It was responsible for training high functionaries, lawyers and notaries, and its curriculum included Greek and Latin grammar, law, rhetoric, and philosophy. The university also came to include a School of Philosophy which produced many distinguished thinkers and was headed by what was called the hypatos ton philosophon, the “chief of the philosophers”. The first philosopher to receive this title was the great polymath Michael Psellos, and the same honour was bestowed upon his pupil and successor, John Italos.
Psellos and Italos, like many scholars in Byzantium, struggled to reconcile the Christian faith of Byzantium with their Greek philosophical heritage. Some were more successful in this respect than others. John Italos, for example, was condemned at a trial in 1082, accused of heresy and paganism. But the majority agreed that there need not be any opposition between the ancient classics and Christian theology.
Another common misconception about Byzantium is that its intellectuals were beholden to Plato and the Neoplatonist view of the world. Although Plato’s ideas were often seen as more favourable to the Christian faith than the writings of Aristotle, the Byzantines were by no means unfamiliar with Aristotle. The standard philosophical curriculum, for example, included elementary Aristotelian logic (together with some ‘natural philosophy’ and basic mathematics), and most Byzantine philosophical texts consist of commentaries on Aristotle, not Plato.
In my next article, I will continue my series on Byzantine philosophy by looking at one of its great founders: John of Damascus.
Dr Nick Trakakis is a Research Fellow in Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University. He recently edited ‘Southern Sun, Aegean Light: Poetry of Second-Generation Greek-Australians’.