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Demetrios Constantelos

A Conflict between Ancient Greek Philosophy and Christian Orthodoxy in the Late Greek Middle Ages

From his book: Christian Hellenism. Essays and Studies in Continuity and Change Publishing by Aristide D. Caratzas, New Rochelle, New York & Athens ISBN: 0-89241-588-6

The revival of the Greek classics and of scholarly and artistic interests after the eighth century reached its apogee in the fifteenth century.

No doubt, George Plethon Gemistos (1353-1452) was the most challenging representative of Greek learning. He openly attempted to upset the balance between Greek thought and Christian dogma. Plethon was not only an advocate for "the Greek nation and the rise of Greek nationalism"(1) but in his later years he championed a revival of ancient Greek religion in the place of traditional Christianity. Plethon might have been the first serious challenger to the claims of Christianity after Celsus and Julian. Plethon's controversy with the contemporary theologian Gennadios Scholarios (ca. 1400-1472) in particular deserves our attention. Ιn it we see the last important phase of the conflict between Greek thought and Christian orthodoxy at least for the early and middle centuries of the Byzantine era.

The controversy between the two men is illuminated by a letter(2) that Gennadios wrote concerning one of Plethon's disciples named Iouvenalios, "one of Gemistos' protagonists."

Gennadios' letter was addressed to a feudal lord in the Peloponnesus named Manuel Oisses, who seems to have been in charge of religious affairs during the rule of Theodore Ι Palaiologos. He is described as Archon, and in that capacity he was charged with the punishment of Ιouvenalios.

Who was Iouvenalios? We do not know much about him. From Gennadios' letter we deduce that Iouvenalios was one of Plethon's most devout disciples. He had been baptized a Christian and assumed the monastic habit, but later renounced both. He became an apostate from Christianity and an advocate of Greek thought. He might have been a scholar, as a modern author describes him.(3) Gennadios acknowledges Plethon's learning, yet uses utterly contemptuous terms for the monk's training. Gennadios writes that Iouvenalios was simply an "ordinary" man -an "idiotes," for he had no special training either in theology or philosophy and his knowledge and use of language were mediocre. Because of his limitations he had been refused ordination.(4) But Gennadios exaggerates, consciously belittling Iouvenalios' training. Iouvenalios was not a scholar but he was literate as well as an articulate and influential speaker.

Except for certain letters which had fallen into Gennadios' hands and were either destroyed or lost, Iouvenalios wrote nothing, but he traveled extensively and became, through his speeches, an oral propagator of Plethon's views. Since Gennadios wrote his letter to Oisses around 1450 and Iouvenalios had been put to death before the writing of the letter, we presume that the zealous monk was active in propagating Plethon's beliefs between 1443 and 1450.

But what did he preach? Τo whom did he preach? Ιn his Nomoi, Plethon expounded what had been characterized as a new religious creed, foreign to the principles of traditional Christian Orthodoxy. Τo what degree Plethon expounded a new religion is still controversial. From his essays, "The Views of George Scholarios and His Defense of Aristotle" and "Concerning the Book Favoring the Latin Dogma," and from the impression Gennadios gives in his letter to Manuel Oisses, Plethon appears to have had pantheistic and polytheistic sympathies. Ιn Gennadios' letter to Oisses we read that Plethon believed in the Heimarmene or fate which is identified with divine providence. Plethon's constant reference to Heimarmene reveals Stoic and Epicurean influences upon his thought.(5) Plethon spent some time in the Sultan's Court at Adrianople. Nevertheless, the view that attributes to Islamic thought decisive influence upon Plethon has little ground for support. Gennadios' writings show that Islam exerted little, if any, influence on him. Gennadios' essay Kata Hellenon as well as his lengthy letter to Oisses reveal that it was Greek religious and philosophical thought rather than Islam that contributed to Plethon's religious development. Milton V. Anastos has rightly emphasized that the whole theory of Plethon's philosophy and encyclopedic knowledge depended upon Greek literature, ancient and mediæval.(6)

Upon his return from the Council of Florence, Plethon steadily abandoned traditional Christianity and came to formulate his own religious philosophy -a system of neo-Platonic mysticism, Stoic fatalism, Christian theism, and Greek polytheism. Of course there are contradictions in these characterizations, but that is natural -inconsistency was the major weakness in Plethon's thought. His was a system resulting from a persona1 intellectual and religious odyssey, a system which included belief in monotheism, polytheism, and pantheism. Plethon was a searching person.

When Gennadios accuses Iouvenalios of polytheism and pantheism,(7) he reminds us of Plethon's "Laws" in which he writes of both monotheism and polytheism. Polytheism develops into pantheism since all things partake of the first principle.

Iouvenalios visited monasteries, xenones (hospices) and other centers. This upset Gennadios, who felt that in speaking to the masses the monk was leading them astray and scandalizing those he did not win over. For example, Iouvenalios would visit monasteries to attack monasticism as an institution, and speak against virginity and celibacy. We must note here that Plethon's social and political system, which called for military power and a repopulation of the state, justified promiscuity and even called for polygamy.

Gennadios had admonished Iouvenalios in three personal meetings to mend his ways, inviting him to theological dialogues in order to solve any personal questions that might have disturbed him. Gennadios reassured him of respect of his personal convictions.

But Iouvenalios avoided intellectual confrontations with Gennadios and continued to visit monasteries and xenones, and to attend religious festivals where he disseminated his dissident beliefs. Following his expulsion from Constantinople, Iouvenalios visited the Peloponnesus for a second time. The Morea, according to Gennadios, was a province where freedom of thought was tolerated more than elsewhere.(8) Ιn his zeal for Hellenism, Iouvenalios outdid even his teacher, for which he was put to death-an occasion for Gennadios' rejoicing.

Gennadios writes that even in Constantinople there were many Hellenists like Iouvenalios. Ιn Constantinople, political as well as ecclesiastical confusion reigned. Gennadios speaks of the crisis in faith as follows: "There is contempt for the faith; strong infidelity everywhere; for some it is called Hellenism; for others mere fatalism and atheism. Others are indifferent and weak about the faith. Thus they abandon the doctrines of the fathers and frenzy in impieties taking advantage of the present ecclesiastical confusion."(9) Gennadios indicates that the ecclesiastical confusion and religious crisis stemmed from the council of Florence. Some turned to ancient Greek myth and religious thought; others became atheists; still others believed in the eimarmene (or Fate) and many more became totally indifferent to religious faith. Such ecclesiastical confusion gave an opportunity to the people to seek their own way to religious experience. Thus, apostasy became the most serious problem for the church.

The ecclesiastical drift also undermined the morals of the clergy. Simony, the selling of religious articles from the churches by clerics, among the lower and higher clergy, and other sacrilegious practices, scandalized the few faithful that remained. The religious conditions made Gennadios speak in dire terms of death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Only remnants of the total population were still true Orthodox Christians. He attributed the pitiable ecclesiastical conditions to the errors that the Orthodox delegation had made at Florence and their consequences. He exclaimed: "We no longer have a church."(10) Thus, it was under severe psychological pressure that Gennadios was led to the extreme of praising Oisses for Iouvenalios' execution. Not only did Gennadios justify Iouvenalios' grisly death (he was dismembered and thrown into the sea) but he theologized in an unorthodox manner, stating that God was pleased because of Iouvenalios' extermination.(11) One of the recent editors of Gennadios' Opera, Martin Jugie, describes Gennadios' notions as "the theology of the Inquisition."(12) But the observation does not reflect the totality of Gennadios' theology, nor does it fit the Roman Catholic theology of the Inquisition. Gennadios was concerned with Christian revival and the protection of ordinary believers. There is no evidence that the future patriarch was interested in developing a set of coercive rules against heretics and apostates.

Gennadios adds that Iouvenalios was morally responsible for the death of several monks of the Archistrategos monastery on Mt. Athos but, as Masai has rightly observed, Iouvenalios may have had nothing to do with the deaths of the monks.(13) It is clear that Gennadios was overwhelmed with hatred against the Hellenism of Mistra where Plethon had established his school. As the archenemy of Plethon, Gennadios assailed Plethon's disciple, who had proven more zealous and "scatterbrained" than his master.(14 )Even though Iouvenalios talked about Hellenism, he did not attack the person and the words of Christ, the Church or whatever pertained to Christian ceremonies.(15)

Τo accept that Plethon and his disciples had established in the Peloponnesus a secret religious sect is to read too much into the sources.(16) When Gennadios writes to Oisses of a phatria, he does not necessarily mean a mystery religion. He accused Iouvenalios of teaching that there is monarchy rather than polyarchy and polytheism in Hellenic religion. Ιn speaking of Plethon's phatria he means his followers, who were to be found both in the Peloponnesus and in Thrace.(17) Ιn Gennadios' letter I find no echo of the existence of a mystery sect.

Iouvenalios was constantly accused as an impious, arrogant apostate who denied Christianity in order to join the impious "Hellenists." This of course, was not an innovation. Others before Plethon and Iouvenalios, such as Kyros Panopolites in the fifth or Adamantios Koraes in the ninteenth century, who had an attachment to Greek thought were branded as impious Hellenes, persons who had been fully committed to Greek thought and Christianity.(18)

Plethon was a theist rather than a polytheist. We discern in his philosophical and theological ideas his belief in a transcendent and personal God who not only created the world but who also preserves and governs it; he believed in Divine Providence. Plethon's God is complete and perfect. He deserves to be worshipped in a doxological and eucharistic manner. His ways and predetermined activity cannot be influenced by supplications, rituals, and donations.(19) Plethon's system did not exclude the possibility of revelation.

Because Plethon did not develop a concrete theological and philosophical system, it is difficult to conclude whether he had rejected the totality of Christian doctrine and to what degree he attempted to introduce a new religion. Plethon may be seen as a theist whose system, though not free from pantheistic or polytheistic tendencies, was closely related to Christianity. Ιn fact, in some of his writings we discern a totally committed Christian.(20)

Ιn a funeral oration of Kleope, the wife of Theodore Palaiologos(21) Plethon defined piety (eusebeia) as the worship of God in prayers and frequent fasting, in celebrating holidays, and in partaking of the sacraments of the Lord, the Eucharist in particular.

Plethon had expressed these theological ideas and beliefs before his experiences in Florence. But his experiences there among quarrelsome, self-righteous, and despotic theologians, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, popes, patriarchs, and emperors disillusioned him. After Florence he made visible changes and could not remain in the ecclesiastical organization. But his voluntary departure from within the establishment does not necessarily mean his denial of Christ and His teachings. The time comes when one is so disenchanted with the organization, with ecclesiastical hypocrisy and craftiness that one decides to grab his God and run away, either to the life of an anchorite or to the so-called secular world. Plethon decided to leave quarrelsome and hypocritical clerical Constantinople and seek his freedom in the more liberal and independent-minded Peloponnesus.

Plethon lived at the end of the Middle Ages, the dawn of the modern era. That he was a devoted member of the Orchodox Church before his departure for Florence there is sufficient evidence. Whether he formally rejected Christianity after his return from Florence is not certain. Iouvenalios was put to death not as a member of a secret sect but as an apostate who brought disorder and scandal to the religious life of the masses. State law was harsher against apostates than against members of non-Christian creeds, members of sects and heretics.(22)

The conflict between Iouvenalios and Gennadios was actually a conflict between a liberal and flexible Christian Hellenism and conservative or monastic Christianity. Gennadios admits that neither Plethon nor Iouvenalios or any other of Plethon's disciples preached or wrote against the words of Christ or against the dogma and the work of the Christian Church. The fifteenth century was a critical period in the history of the Greeks; people became confused by inconsistencies, quarrels, theological disputes, and intellectual trends. The problems and the pressures of that era affected both Gennadios and Plethon. The weight of the Greek and Christian traditions which they had inherited was very heavy in the minds of both. Both were among the best thinkers of fifteenth century Constantinople and both sought solutions to the grave issues that affected Church and State. While Plethon turned to Greek thought for inspiration and guidance, Gennadios found solace and faith in Evangelical Christianity -a theme that recurs in times of crisis among Greek Orthodox intellectuals down to the present day. When two powerful traditions blend into a single harmonious and balanced one and continue in harmony over the course of centuries, it is hardly possible to disengage them and overthrow the balance without grave consequences. Ιn the controversy between Plethon and Gennadios, Plethon no doubt erred in his overemphasis on Greek philosophy and in his attempt to place it above Christianity. Τo be sure, Plethon was a patriot and a mere theorist, but he pursued a utopia. Gennadios; in his evangelical zeal, erred by lapsing into intolerance. Both men violated the prevalent patristic principle of diakrisis and metron in everything, which had previously contributed to the balance between Greek thought and Christian faith. The lesson of history is that conflicts between Greek thought and Christian Orthodoxy are avoidable and the balance between the two should be maintained. It is evident that it is hard to go through the byways of history without coming face to face with modern history and with ourselves.


1. A Ε. Vacalopoulos, Orιgins of the Greek Nation 1204-1461, tr. Ilan Moles (New Brunswick, V.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1970), 26-35.

2. S.Ρ.Lambros, Πaλaιoλόγειa κaι Πελoπovvnσιaκά vol. ΙΙ (Athens 1912-1924), 247-65; Gennadios, Oeuvres Complètes de Gennade Scholarios, Louis Petit, Χ. A. Sideridès, Martin Jugie, ed. by Scholarios, vol. IV (Paris, 1935), 476-89. Henceforth Epistle.

3. Francis Masai, Plethon et la Platonisme de Mistra (Paris 1956), 300.

4. Epistle, 255.

5. Cf. Ε. Stephanou, "Η Ειμαρμένn εν τω φιλoσoφικώ συστήματι τoυ Πλήθωvos," in Eis Μnemen Spyridonos Lambrou (Athens, 1935), 315-20, and Ioannis Mamalakis, `"H Επίδρασιs των συγχρόνωv γεγovότωv στιs ιδέεs τoυ Γεμιστoύ," Thessalonica, 1953, Proceedings, the IXth International Congress of Byzantine Studies, vol. ΙΙ (Athens, 1955-1958), 498-532; Idem, "Γεώργιoς Γεμιστόs Πλήθωv" (Athens, 1939), 85-87.

6. Milton V. Anastos, "Pletho's Calendar and Liturgy," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 4 (Cambridge, Mass., 1948), 190-92, 268-9, 270-72, 299-303.

7. Epistle, 250.

8. Epistle, 251: "έγvω γαρ τηv νήσov αυτήv πρoσφυεστάτnv oύσαν τoις πoνnρoίς αυτoύ σπέρμασιν."

9. Epistle, 252: "η πίστις καταπεφρόvnται απιστία πάντα δειvή τoις μεν ελλnvισμόs, τoις δε αυτoματισμός τε και αθεΐα, τoις δε αδιαφoρία και αμαυρία περί τηv πίστιv και των πατρικώv όρωv απoστασίa και όλως δυσσέβεια ενεβάκχευσε, πρόφασιν ευρηκυΐα τηv εκκλnσιαστικήv ταύτnv σύγχυσιν."

10. Epistle, 254: "oυκ έχoμεv εκκλnσίαν."

11. Epistle, 259.

12. Epistles, vol. 1, p. ΧΧVIΙI.

13. Masai, Plethon, 302.

14. Epistle, 251: "αφρoνέστερoς των διδαξάντωv γενόμενoς."

15. Epistle, 251-52.

16. Masai, Plethon, 306.

17. Gennadios, Epistle, 248.

18. See for example D.J. Constantelos, "Kyros Panopolites, Rebuilder of Constantinople," Greek-Roman and Byzantine Studies, vol. 12.3 (Fall, 1971), 454-55; George A.Galites, Aι περί κλήρoυ ιδέaι τoυ Κoρaή (Athens, 1960), 3-35.

19. Mamalakis, Γεώργιoς Γεμιστόs-Πλήθωv, 84.

20. Ibid. 84-98.

21. Ibid. 110-17.

22. Epistle, 261-63.

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