the last byzantine renaissance

A couple of weeks ago, I read Runciman’s brief The Last Byzantine Renaissance, which serves as a great introduction to the intellectual life of the Palaiologon empire. One thing I’ve always appreciated about Runciman against his contemporaries is his recognition and focus on the Aristotelian nature of Byzantine theology and philosophy. The modern myth still persists that Byzantine theology (especially Palamism) is somehow fundamentally neo–Platonic versus the more obvious Aristotelianism of Aquinas and Western theology. If anything, the story of Byzantium’s intellectual life is the underground survival of Platonism (probably generally crypto–pagan, which became more evident in the late case of George Plethon) and the eventual transmission of that life to (largely non–philosophers, as C.M. Woodhouse points out, but eventually to philosophy as well) the West through Plethon himself and his admirers.

I find the thesis of The Theological Origins of Modernity—that nominalism is the source of “modernity” or, at least, Protestantism—because the explicitly Platonic/idealist stream seems far more prominent. Luther’s introspective manner was an exaggeration of the Augustine his order was named for, an idealist picture of the human intellect. I’m not even sure much of which Gillespie identifies as “nominalist” even should be considered related to the actual term, as the idealist view of substances has a superficial relation to nominalism when the Aristotelian–Christian realist view is assumed.

Anyhow, here’s a passage from the Runciman book I enjoyed:

“The greatest of these Palamites was Nicholas Cabasilas, who was born in Thessalonica in about 1320. His father’s surname was Chametus, but he took the surname of his maternal uncle, Nilus Cabasilas, later Metropolitan of the city, who was his teacher. He grew up in the tradition of Joseph the Philosopher, combining a taste for mystical contemplation with a love of secular learning. Nicholas Cabasilas’s letters show his affection for Classical literature and science, though he wrote little himself on such subjects… he was a pioneer in the new use of the term ‘Hellene’. After some hestiation he became convinced of the rightness of Palamite theology; but his views on mysticism were not those of Palamas. He might be called a mystical humanist. He believed that mystical experience could best be reached by concentration on the Sacrament, and there was no reason why a mystic should not be a man of the world, and that secular learning would help rather than hinder him.”

(Yes, that resolution lasted all of one day.)


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