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Prologue: the two worlds of Christendom

[From, Byzantine East & Latin West: Two Worlds in Middle Ages and Renaissance, Harper Torch books, New York 1966]


Philosophy and Science

First let us consider the important realm of philosophic and scientific ideas. According to the famous French scholar Etienne Gilson, western medieval and Renaissance intellectual thought underwent two fundamental crises in the course of their development, both under the impact of the re-introduction of Greek philosophy. First in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the reception of Aristotle from Arabic Spain, and, second, in the fifteenth century when an interest in Plato was diffused in the West following the coming to Florence of a Byzantine delegation to negotiate religious union with Rome.(22) Now it cannot of course be said that a knowledge of the Greek language per se was indispensable for advance in culture. After all, classical Latin was also a flexible and highly expressive language. But the point is that reception of the ancient Greek philosophic works brought along with them that greatest gift of ancient Greece to the world -the emphasis on natural reason. In the period of the so-called Dark Ages such an attitude contrasted starkly with the unquestioning, superstitious Weltanchauung of the West regarding nature and the world. Hence it is clear how traumatic it must have been for the more thoughtful western man suddenly to come upon works of Aristotle with his convincing explanation of the cosmos based solely on reason and entirely without reference to the supernatural elements of Christianity.

But as we have elsewhere observed, the Aristotelian philosophy and science that entered the West in the twelfth century did not come directly from Byzantium but via the Arabs of Spain. The point is that this Aristotelian thought was coloured by Muslim theological interpretation which, aside from being non­ Christian (as on the question of the eternity of matter), sometimes had even confused Aristotelianism with aspects or Neo-Platonism.(23) It was not until after the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204 that most of the original Greek texts, of Aristotle and other scientific writers, in more or less unadulterated form, were made available to western scholars. It is a striking commentary on the distrust felt by the West for the Greek 'schismatics', as the Byzantines were referred to, that for a considerable period the westerners actually preferred the second or even third-hand Arabic version of Aristotle to the purer version the Byzantines could provide.

The introduction of the 'Muslim' Aristotle from Spain provoked such a sensation in western intellectual circles that the pope, sensing danger for the church, had to forbid the reading of portions of that author at the University of Paris, then the chief centre of theological study in the West. But as usually happens with this type of censorship, the prohibition proved impossible to implement. Latin scholars, dazzled by the wealth of new material in Aristotle and other Greek authors, simply refused to obey. And ultimately the great Dominican Thomas Aquinas was appointed to minimize the danger by attempting to reconcile Aristotle's cosmology with that of Catholic Christianity -with the results that are well known.

It is worth noting that fully five hundred years before St. Thomas, a conciliation of Christian faith -but this time of Orthodoxy- with Aristotelian reason had already been attempted in the Byzantine East by the theologian John of Damascus.(24) Α copy of John's famous Fountain of Wisdom, which is still perhaps the basic work for the theology of the Orthodox Church, was apparently known to and utilized by Aquinas in the composition of his own great Summa Theologiae. It was also Aquinas who suggested a vast undertaking to William of Moerbeke, the Latin Archbishop of Corinth-a revised, literal translation made directly from the Greek of almost all of Aristotle's works, including the famous political treatise, the Politics.(25)

For the most part, medieval western translations of Greek writings were limited to logical treatises, the sciences, and, to a much lesser extent, to theology. Significantly, they failed to include classic Greek poetry, history, and much of philosophy(26) -that is, the more humanistic writings. And the latter works did not in general come to the West until the period of the Renaissance. We have no time here to discuss specific works of this nature. But we should note that the original texts -say of the Greek tragedies- had in many cases been established in Constantinople by Byzantine scholars at the time of Photius and Arethas and especially in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and then brought westward mainly by Greek refugees or exiled scholars who settled in Venice and other Italian centres. One has only to examine a list of the personnel of the famous Academy of Aldus Manutius in Venice, which, at the end of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, printed many first editions of these influential Greek texts and which counted among its editors many Greeks, including the famous Cretan Marcus Musurus and the Constantinopolitan humanist-diplomat Janus Lascaris.(27)

Of parallel significance to Aristotelianism for the development of western thought and learning, as we have noted, was the introduction in the fifteenth century of Platonic philosophy. This, however, is exclusively to be associated with Byzantium and was not the result of mediation through the Arabs. To be sure certain Neo-Platonic works had earlier been known to the West. Already in the ninth century, during the so-called Carolingian Renaissance, the Irish scholar John Scotus Erigena had secured from the library of Charles the Bald, the King of the Franks (to whose predecessor Louis the Pious it had been sent by the Byzantine Emperor) a copy of the work of the Byzantine Neo-Platonist Maximos the Confessor.(28) Erigena also had at his disposal in the writing of his famous On the Division of Nature, the work of the most highly influential mystic of the entire medieval world, the early Byzantine Dionysius the Areopagite, which Erigena translated into Latin. Dante in his Paradiso drew on material from Dionysius' Celestial Hierarchy and even the fourteenth century German mystic, Meister Eckhart, owed something to the profound mysticism of Dionysius.(29)

In the Byzantine East, where pure Platonism was usually suspect to the church, the last significant revival of genuinely Platonic thought took place in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries at Constantinople and especially at Mistra, near ancient Sparta. There the philosopher and social reformer Gemistos Pletho had founded a virtual cult of Platonic studies.(30) In the West, on the other hand, Plato had been practically unknown since antiquity (despite the good intentions of Boethius in the sixth century and the pervasive Neo-Platonic thought reflected in Augustine). And it was not until the coming to Italy of Pletho and other Greeks to attend the famous Council of Florence in 1438-39 that the original Platonic texts once again were brought into direct contact with the mainstream of the western tradition. To save Constantinople, now completely surrounded by the Turks, the Greek Emperor, in a last desperate measure, had assembled a large number of his prelates and officials (many of whom were also scholars) and gone to Florence in the hope of securing military aid through religious union with the West. The papal price for western help against the Turks of course was the submission of the Greek Church to Rome. The proceedings of this Council, the greatest medieval confrontation between East and West, lasted one and a half years, during which period opportunity was afforded for the westerners to acquire from the Greeks a knowledge and appreciation of Platonic philosophy. Cosimo de' Medici, the ruler of Florence, was in fact so impressed by Pletho that he soon founded his Platonic Academy, whence, ultimately, interest in Plato became diffused throughout the entire West.(31)

On the purely religious side the Florentine Marsilio Ficino achieved a synthesis of Platonic and Christian thought, which had an important impact on the religious outlook of many western humanists.(32) According to some modern scholars the reception of Plato's philosophy did more to widen the intellectual horizon of the West during the Renaissance than any other single factor. Certain other authorities, however, take a narrower view. They believe that the most significant contribution of Platonic philosophy consisted rather in an emphasis on a mathematical type of thinking derived from certain Pythagorean materials incorporated in Plato. It was this mathematical emphasis, in contrast to the medieval western Aristotelian stress on logic that, according to this theory, paved the way for the advent of modern western science, especially acceptance of the Copernican theory.(33)

If the Italian Ficino was responsible for producing the first complete Latin translation of the Platonic dialogues, it was, as is not always realized, a Byzantine or rather a post-Byzantine Marcus Musurus, the Cretan editor of the Venetian Aldine Press -who made the first printed edition of the original Greek text. To this work Musurus prefixed his famous 'Hymn to Plato', a composition which, at least from the philological point of view, some scholars rank as the finest piece of Greek poetry written since antiquity.(34)

Mention must be made, if only briefly, of the most celebrated ancient Greek scientific work that passed to the West -the Mathematike Syntaxis of Ptolemy (known better under its Arabic title of Almagest), a mathematical explanation for the universe, which was to dominate the astronomical thinking of the West up to the time of Copernicus. It is known that in the twelfth century the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Ι Comnenus sent a copy of this work as a diplomatic gift to the Norman king of Sicily Roger II.(35) And it was from this manuscript that the first Latin version was made. William of Moerbeke, mentioned above, also translated a great part of the corpus of Archimedes. And at the very end of the Byzantine period, the fifteenth century philosopher Gemistos Pletho's introduction of the Geography of Strabo to the West influenced Renaissance conceptions of the configuration of the earth and, thus, indirectly, was a contributory factor leading to Columbus' discovery of America.

The Byzantine scientific tradition was essentially unoriginal, being based on ancient Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman achievements. But despite this broad heritage in natural science, the Byzantines, much like their ancient Greek forbears, were unable to develop a technical equipment, technology that is, and thus were usually unable to apply their sometimes not inconsiderable theoretical knowledge to practical use. Nevertheless, we may point out a few instances in which the Byzantines seemed to have anticipated certain modern technological developments. Kallinikos' invention of the famous Greek fire and the Byzantine technique of shooting this fire from copper tubes, constituted, according to several modern authorities, 'the prototype of modern gunpowder..., starting the military technicians not merely of Byzantium but of Islam, China, and the West on the trail of ever more combustible mixtures'. Though the watermill for producing power dates from the ancient world, it is quite possible that the overshot water-wheel (in which water runs over the top of not underneath, the wheel) was an improvement of the early Byzantine period. In the sixth century Anthemius of Tralles (architect of St. Sophia) not only wrote on parabolic mirrors, but, as a joke, harnessed steam pressure to simulate a small earthquake. In the same century John Philoponus rejected the Aristotelian notion of the impossibility of producing a vacuum and even anticipated Galileo's experiment that two weights dropped from the same height reach the ground at approximately the same time. Finally, the famous mechanical automata of the Byzantine court (the rising throne, lions roaring, and birds singing), used to impress foreign visitors such as the tenth century Bishop Liudprand, may indirectly have influenced the development of the western mechanical clocks of the fourteenth century.(36)


22. - See an even stronger statement by Ε. Gilson, in History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (New York,1955) 541: 'Practically every notable event in the history of Western thought in the Middle Ages is tied up with the presence of a man who had studied in Greece, or who knew Greek and had translated some Greek philosophic writings or had access to such translations.'

23. - On Muslim interpretation and the admixture of Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic thought see Τ. Arnold and Α. Guillaume, The Legacy of Islam (Oxford, 1931) 240-41; and Ηitti, History of the Arabs, 307. See now R. Walzer, Greek into Arabic Cambridge, Mass., 1962) 60-113.

24. - John died ca. 750. He was in the employ of the Arab Caliph in Damascus.

25. - On Moerbeke's translation of the Politics see Ε. Barker, Social and Political Thought in Byzantium (Oxford, 1957) 136. From the end of the twelfth to the end of the thirteenth century the proportion of translations made from Greek to those from the Arab, at second hand, gradually increased. It is not usually known that Moerbeke also translated the Poetics of Aristotle (Ρ Kristeller, Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters (Rome, 1956] 340-41 and 23.) The Poetics was thus known to the thirteenth century western world. On Aquinas and John of Damascus see Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy, 92. Thomas himself cites John (see Summa Theologica, pt. Ι, quaestio 36, art. 2 ad tertium). Thomas' knowledge of John of Damascus' work was probably only rudimentary.

26. - Yet see previous note on the Poetics of Aristotle.

27. - Geanakoplos, Greek Scholars in Venice, passim, esp. 284-86.

28. - On Erigena,. Cappuyns, Jean Scot Erigene, sa vie, son oeuvre, sa pensée (Louvain, 1933).

29. - Dionysius had been first brought to the West in the ninth century through Abbot Hilduin of St. Denis. See Μ. Viller and Κ. Rahner, Askese und Mystik in der Vaterzeit (1939). L. Levitlain, Études sur l'abbaye de Saint Denis ... (Paris, 1921) and Études Dionysiennes, I: Hilduin (Paris, 1932).

30. - F. Masai, Plethon et le platonisme de Mistra (Paris, 1956).

31. - See below, Chap. 3. Also Α. della Torre, Storia dell' Academia Platonica di Firenze (Florence, 1902).

32. - Apparently Ficino did not use the works of Pletho.

33. - On this important conflict see esp. Ε. Burtt, Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (London 1925) 40 ff., who emphasizes the importance of the mathematical type of thinking in Plato (via Pythagoras) to be found in Neo-Platonic thought. This, he says, led to the Copernican theory. Burtt is opposed by Ε.W. Strong, Procedures and Metaphysics (Berkeley, 1936) and J. Randall, 'Development of Scientific Method in the School of Padua', Journal of History of Ideas (1940) 176-206, who emphasizes rather the method (Aristotelianism) of Padua University for the rise of modern science. See also J. Randall, The School of Padua and the emergence of Modern Science (Padua, 1961); Ρ. Duhem, La système du monde (Paris 1954), VII-VIII, stresses the continuity of medieval and early modern science.

34. - See below, Chap. 5, note 59.

35. - See Α. Vasiliev, Histοry of the Byzantine Empire (Madison,1952) 491. The Latin version had been translated from the Greek in 1160 in Sicily. In 1175 Gerard of Cremona translated the work from the Arabic at Toledo.

36. - L. White, Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford, 1962) 80, 90, 96 ff., 124 f.; Μ. Anastos, 'The History of Byzantine Science' Dumbarton Oaks Papers, XVI (1962) 411; his 'Pletho, Strabo and Columbus', Αnn. de l'inst. Phil. et d'hist. orient. et slaves, ΧlΙ (1952) 1-18; and G. Brett, 'Byzantine Waterwheel', Αntiquity, ΧIII (1939) 354 ff.

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