20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Medieval Philosophy

George Gemistos Plethon on God:
Heterodoxy in Defense of Orthodoxy

Darien C. DeBolt
University of Oklahoma

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: In this paper I examine George Gemistos Plethon's defense in his De Differentiis of Plato's conception of God as superior to that of Aristotle's. (2) Plethon asserts that the Platonic conception of God is more consistent with Orthodox Christian theology than the Aristotelian conception. This claim is all the more interesting in light of the fact that Plethon is, as it turns out, a pagan. I argue that Plethon takes the position he does because his interpretation of the Platonic God better fits his own neo-pagan theological conceptions. Part of the evidence for this is supplied by the first English translation of Plethon's Summary of the Doctrines of Zoroaster and Plato.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

I. Background (3)

George Gemistos, who called himself Plethon, (1355?-1452) lived during the last years of the Byzantine empire. Constantinople fell to the Turks less than one year after his death. Yet he had a significant, direct influence on the study of Plato in the Latin West. This resulted from his membership in the Byzantine delegation to the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438-39. The purpose of this council was to effect the union of the two churches and thus, hopefully, to preserve the Byzantine Empire with the help of the West.

The Emperor, John VIII Palaeologos, knew they were going to face some of the finest minds in the Roman Church on their own soil; he therefore wanted the best minds available in support of the Byzantine cause to accompany him. Consequently, the Emperor appointed George Gemistos as part of the delegation. Despite the fact that he was a secular philosopher — a rare creature at this time in the West — Gemistos was renowned both for his wisdom and his moral rectitude. Among the clerical lights in the delegation were John Bessarion, Metropolitan of Nicaea, and Mark Eugenikos, Metropolitan of Ephesus. Both had been students of Gemistos in their youth. Another non-clerical member of the delegation was George Scholarios: both a future adversary of Gemistos and a future Patriarch of Constantinople as Gennadios II.

During the Council, Gemistos found that he had free time because much of the counciliar discussion concerned theological minutiae that did not require the presence of a secular sage. Gemistos's fame had preceded him, and he was invited by some Florentine humanists to give a series of lectures on the differences between Plato and Aristotle. It should be remembered that in the Latin West at this time very little of the Platonic corpus was available. For most of the Mediaeval Period, only the Timaeus in the partial translation of Calcidius was available. The Meno and Phaedo were translated in the twelfth century by Henricus Aristippus, but remained little studied.(4) Leonardo Bruni's translations of the Phaedo, Apology, Crito, and Phaedrus were made only shortly before Gemistos's visit. Among the attendees of these lectures was Cosimo d'Medici. Cosimo later founded the Accademia Platonica in Florence. The first director of the Academy was Marsilio Ficino. Ficino recorded the following about the founding of the Academy:

At the time when the Council was in progress between the Greeks and the Latins in Florence under Pope Eugenius, the great Cosimo, whom a decree of the Senate (Signoria) designated Pater patriae, often listened to the Greek philosopher Gemistos (with the cognomen Plethon, as it were a second Plato) while he expounded the mysteries of Platonism. And he was so immediately inspired, so moved by Gemistos' fervent tongue, that as a result he conceived in his noble mind a kind of Academy, which he was to bring to birth at the first opportune moment. Later, when the great Medici brought his great idea into being, he destined me, the son of his favorite doctor, while I was still a boy, for the great task. (5)

While still in Florence, Gemistos summarized the substance of his lectures in a brief work entitled On the Differences of Aristotle from Plato, better known by its shortened Latin title as De Differentiis. This work was the first shot to be fired in an academic battle that continued in Byzantium with George Scholarios's Defence of Aristotle (6) and Plethon's subsequent Reply.(7) The battle was then continued in Italy by expatriate Byzantine scholars and then taken up by Italian humanists once they had gotten their Greek up to speed. Like many academic battles, it eventually wore itself out.

II. God in De Differentiis

Plethon treats of God in the first three substantive paragraphs of De Differentiis. His first claim is that "...Plato's view is that God, the supreme sovereign, is the creator of every kind of intelligible and separate substance, and hence of our entire universe. Aristotle, on the other hand, never calls God the creator of anything whatever, but only the motive force of the universe."(8) In this paragraph, Plethon's support for his position is garnered from allusions to texts in Plato and Aristotle. For example, his interpretation of Aristotle's position is supported by reference to Metaphysics 1072b10 and Physics 258b11. Plethon continues his complaint by noting "...that Aristotle does make God the end and the final cause; but even this must be regarded as a not very exalted claim and not one worthy of God, if he makes God the end not of the existence or essence of particular things but only of movement and change."(9) Plethon's characterization of Aristotle's position, as far as it goes, is accurate. But what about his implied characterization of Plato's position with regard to God? Modern scholars have cited Epistles ii, 312e and Timaeus 27c-30d as sources for Plethon's claim. Now if we take Plethon to be arguing that Plato's God is a creator ex nihilo, then clearly Plethon's interpretation is wrong. More recent scholarship has not shown Grube's claim that "...Plato remains true to the old Greek principle that nothing can be created out of nothing and, within the myth itself, his maker is not a creator in the strict sense" to be false.(10) However, note that Plethon's interpretation does not go beyond the evidence. Plethon's claim is that, as we saw above, "...Plato's view is that God, the supreme sovereign, is the creator of every kind of intelligible and separate substance, and hence of our entire universe." This claim does not entail that Plato's God is a creator ex nihilo.

Plethon then marshals more arguments to show that Aristotle did not believe that God was the creator of the universe. His first is that Aristotle never articulates such a doctrine yet "...he goes on at unecessary length about such things as embryos and shellfish."(11) I shall not deal with this criticism, but turn to his next more philosophically interesting one. This argument deals with causality in time. According to Plethon, Aristotle held that all causal generation must be temporal. He cites as his evidence for this Metaphysics 1091a12-13: "It is absurd, indeed an impossibility, to suppose the generation of eternal entities."(12) From this, Plethon concludes that "Aristotle...assumes that generation in time must be a necessary consequence of causal generation."(13) Against this position, Plethon notes that Plato "...who makes the soul ungenerated in Phaedrus (clearly meaning temporally) and generated in Timaeus (clearly meaning causally) evidently does not hold that generation in time is a necessary consequence of causal generation."(14) Plethon concludes that "...if Aristotle regards our universe as eternal, he clearly could not presuppose its generation; and if not generation, then no creator of it either."(15) Note, however, that Plethon's criticism of Aristotle does not entail a denial that the universe is eternal; it only entails a denial that the universe is ungenerated.(16)

Plethon next turns to Aristotle's metaphysical astronomy. The core of Plethon's criticism is that "...in assigning the spheres and their movements to the separate minds and substances, he assigns a sphere and the movement of it to God himself, thus placing him on a level with the minds dependent on him."(17) Plethon observes that "...such a degree of superiority is insufficient for the dignity of God...."(18) Such an interpretation of Aristotle's God has been an object of modern dispute. For example, Ross maintains against an interpretation such as Plethon's that "Aristotle's genuine view is that the prime mover is not in space."(19) Ross supports his claim with an appeal to De Caelo 279a18. Ross's interpretation certainly coheres with Aristotle's claim that God initiates movement as a final and not an efficient cause. However, Plethon can be forgiven his interpretation because there is textual evidence to support such a view.(20) Whatever the interpretative case may be, Plethon brings other arguments to bear. One of these arguments is based on a principle of Aristotle himself. Plethon states it thus, "Things assigned must be proportionate to those to which they are assigned, if the assignment is to be appropriately made...."(21) If this principle is true, then God would differ from the separate minds only to the extent that the outermost sphere differs from the lesser spheres. Plethon finds such a place for God simply inadequate. As Plethon claims, "...even the Arab Avicenna recognizes the absurdity of this argument."(22)

In the text of De Differentiis itself, it is not clearly evident that Plethon considers the Platonic conception of God closer to that of the Christian conception than that of Aristotle. However, the subsequent dispute between Plethon and Scholarios does. George Scholarios's Defence of Aristotle was written in about 1443. Plethon's Reply was written shortly thereafter. In his Reply, Plethon often stresses his belief that Plato is more consistent with Christian doctrine than is Aristotle.(23) This can best be explained, perhaps, because Scholarios already suspected Plethon of heterodoxy and Plethon's Reply provided an opportunity to deflect such suspicions.(24) Let us now turn to Plethon's actual beliefs.

III. God in Plethon's Summary

During his long lifetime, Plethon had published a fairly large number of works on a wide variety of topics. However, during much of his adult life, Plethon had also been compiling an extensive work on his esoteric doctrines. This work, the Book of Laws, was not discovered until after his death. The work contained that which shocked many and confirmed the suspicions of more than a few.

The only copy came into the possession of Princess Theodora, the wife of Demetrios, Despot of Morea. In the meantime, George Scholarios had been enthroned as Gennadios II, Patriarch of Constantinople, at the insistence of Sultan Mehmet II. Theodora was not certain how to deal with the manuscript and so she sent it to Gennadios and asked for his advice. After he read it, he sent it back to Theodora with the advice to destroy it. Meanwhile Mehmet captured Mistras, the capitol of Morea and Theodora escaped to Constantinople with Demetrios and the manuscript. Theodora, reluctant to destroy the only copy of a work by such a distinguished scholar, turned it over to Gennadios. He burnt the work in 1460. Fortunately, Gennadios wrote a letter to the Exarch Joseph detailing the whole affair. In the letter, he lists all the chapter headings of the Book of Laws and gives a short description of the contents. Thus, at least, we know something of the substance of the work.(25)

However, a large number of Plethon's autograph manuscripts ended up in the hands of his former student Cardinal Bessarion. On Bessarion's death, he willed his personal library to the library of San Marco in Venice. Among these books and manuscripts was the Summary of the Doctrines of Zoroaster and Plato by George Gemistos Plethon. This Summary was a summary of the Book of Laws. Since it is short, I present it here for the first time in English translation.(26)

These are the principal doctrines that ought to be acknowledged by one who will be prudent. [1] The first of these is one about the gods: that they are. One of the gods is Zeus, the supreme sovereign, both the greatest and the best that it is possible to be. He is set over this whole order and singular in highest divinity. He is himself being in its entirety and completely ungenerated; both father and highest creator of all the other gods. His eldest child, also motherless, and second god is Poseidon. Secondary matters have been entrusted by Zeus to him as master of all the things below; and, moreover, Poseidon is the origin and creator of the heavens here. He uses the other gods as coadjutors, as brothers, all motherless supercelestials--these include both the Olympians and the Tartareans. He himself then begot from Hera, a goddess productive of the matter, other gods within the heavens, both the celestial offspring of the stars and then the chthonian offspring of the spirits who are close to us by nature. Who even in Helios, the eldest of his own children, he placed his trust as the master of the heavens here, and, moreover, Helios is the source of the mortal things in it. Nevertheless, he achieves this with Kronos, he who is one of the Tartarean Titans and their leader.

The Tartareans are different from the Olympian gods. The Olympians are the creators and rulers of the immortals in the heavens, but the Tartareans rule the mortals here; so that Kronos of the Tartareans, himself the leader of the Titans, rules over the mortal form altogether. Hera, appointed second after Poseidon among the Olympians, is the creator and ruler of the highest matter, itself indestructible. She did this for the things made with Poseidon himself. Poseidon himself rules the entire form of both the immortal and the mortal. He is the master in the universe. He himself has truly ordained the whole order. Since Zeus, alone in the singularity of his highest divinity, rules apart over the universe.(27) Let this then be the first doctrine that one is to understand and believe.

[2] Next that these gods provide for us. On the one hand, they grasp hold of themselves immediately, on the other, they through themselves grasp those inferior, and all are entirely set right according to the laws of Zeus. [3] Next that they are not responsible for any of the evils, neither to any other in the universe nor to us, however, they themselves are most responsible for the good things. [4] And in addition to these things, that by an unalterable and inexorable destiny proceeding from Zeus, each effects its purpose in accordance with the best. These are the doctrines concerning the gods.

[5] Concerning the universe, first that this universe is eternal. Both the second ranking and the third ranking gods are in it. This universe was begotten by Zeus; it was neither begun in time nor will it come to an end. [6] Next that from the many universes it was joined into a unity. [7] Next that the best out of those possible has been made, precisely because it was made by the particularly best being. Once it had been made, it was such that nothing had been left out and anything added to it would be excessive. [8] In addition to these things, that just as it was set down in this form so it shall always be preserved undisturbed. These then are the doctrines about the universe.

[9] Concerning we ourselves, first that our soul, being of like kind to the gods, is immortal and remains in this universe the whole time and is eternal. [10] Next that the soul is sent down for the purpose of partaking in a mortal body here each time by the gods, at one time in one body, at another in another, on account of the harmony of the universe. That, even though we have a share in mortal things, one thing in us is from the immortals and this is our form. In this way, the universe itself is united to itself. [11] Next that the good is in us, naturally by our ties to the gods, and this is the fit end of life. [12] In addition to all this, that our happiness is in our immortal part, put there by the gods who unite our kind, and that is the substance and most important part of man.

These then, twelve altogether, are the principal doctrines concerning the gods, this universe, and our nature. If one, motivated by prudence about considerations of what is necessary, will also really be prudent, then one ought to acknowledge and be mindful of these things.(28)

As you would expect from a summary, there are no arguments. While this is disappointing philosophically, it is still instructive to compare the arguments in De Differentiis with the positions stated in the Summary. In both works, Plethon designates God as supreme sovereign and creator As we saw above, the crux of one of Plethon's criticisms of Aristotle concerned the generation of the universe. The issue was not its eternality, but, rather, its generation. Certainly, Plethon's position in the Summary is that the universe is eternal. In this respect, his position is the same as Aristotle's. However, both in De Differentiis and in the Summary, Plethon claims that the universe was created. The creation of the universe, however, did not occur in time. His position is, at least, not prima facie illogical. Finally, Plethon's last major criticism of Aristotle was that Aristotle conceived God as part of the universe (Plethon uses both and as terms for the universe).(29) Clearly, Plethon's position is that God is separate from the universe for which he is ultimately responsible.

IV. Conclusion

Plethon's arguments in De Differentiis against Aristotle's conception of God appear to be consistent with an Orthodox Christian conception of the divinity. A closer examination of Plethon's position in De Differentiis when compared to his position in his Summary reveals that those two positions are, in fact, consistent with one another and not with any Christian conception whatever. Plethon may have seen his lectures in Florence as a way to lay a foundation for the spread of his esoteric doctrines. Plethon's defense of orthodoxy was, in fact, a defense of his heterodoxy.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


(1) I would like to thank Richard Beck for his insights concerning my translation of Plethon's Summary. It is much better for his criticisms; I, unfortunately, remain responsible for any inaccuracies or infelicities in the same. I would also like to thank Eva Dadlez and James Mock for reading an earlier draft of this paper and catching me in an embarassing number of now rectified solecisms.

(2) The best Greek text of Plethon's De Differentiis may be found in Bernadette Lagarde, "Le 'De Differentiis' de Pléthon d'près l'autographe de la Marcienne," Byzantion, 43 (1973), 312-43. Lagarde's text is based, as stated, on Plethon's autograph, cod. Marc. gr. 517B ff. 13-28. An older edition is that edited by George Chariander (Basle, 1574). An even older edition of Plethon's text was published by Bernardus Donatus (Venice, 1540). Curiously, Chariander's Latin translation of the Greek text was reprinted in J.-P. Migne, ed., Patrologiae cursus completus, series graeca (Paris, 1866), 160:889-929 (hereafter, the Patrologiae graeca shall be referred to as PG). For some reason, however, Migne reprinted Donatus's Greek text rather than Chariander's. Since Donatus and Chariander relied on different manuscripts, the Latin translation in Migne does not parallel the Greek text. The oldest Latin translation is that of Nicolas Tridentinus Scutellius, but it remains unpublished. The only English translation of De Differentiis is that of Christopher Montague Woodhouse in his George Gemistos Plethon: The Last of the Hellenes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 192-214. I have relied on the Greek text in Migne because it is the most readily available one.

(3) Much of the information in this section was gleaned from Woodhouse's book above. This book is the most comprehensive study of Gemistos Plethon in any language. It contains a wealth of biographical and bibliographical information and is an indispensible starting point for anyone wishing to do work on Plethon.

(4) Julius R. Weinberg, A Short History of Medieval Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), 10. A more detailed account of the Platonic corpus during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance may be found in Brian P. Copenhaver and Charles B. Schmitt, Renaissance Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 132-33.

(5) Marsilio Ficino, Opera Omnia, 2 vols. (Basle, 1576; reprint, Turin: Bottega d'Erasmo 1962), 2:1537. Quoted and translated in Woodhouse, Plethon, 156. Woodhouse inserted the term signoria into his translation. The original has simply senatus. Ficino's claim has been controversial. See, for example, Copenhaver and Schmitt, Renaissance Philosophy, 139.

(6) The critical text of Scholarios's Defense may be found in L. Petit, M. Jugie, and X.A. Sidéridès, eds., Œuvres complètes de Gennade Scholarios, 8 vols. (Paris, 1928-36), 4:1-116. This work has never been translated into English, but Woodhouse provides a useful descriptive summary in his Plethon, 240-66.

(7) The critical text of the Reply is now available in Enrico V. Maltese's Georgii Gemisti Plethonis contra Scholarii pro Aristotele Obiectione (Leipzig: Teubner, 1988). The Reply may also be found in PG, 160:979-1020. This work also has not been translated into English, but again Woodhouse provides a summary in his Plethon, 283-307.

(8) George Gemistos Plethon, De Differentiis, trans. C.M. Woodhouse, in his Plethon, 192,3 (PGI, BLI). Woodhouse divides De Differentiis into fifty-six numbered paragraphs. The second number after the page number refers to Woodhouse's divisions. The first parenthetical designation refers to the edition in PG. The second parenthetical sign refers to the divisions in Lagarde's edition.

(9) Ibid., 192-3,3 (PGI, BLI).

(10) G.M.A. Grube, Plato's Thought (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980), 164.

(11) Plethon, De differentiis, 193,4 (PGI, BLI).

(12) Plethon's quotation in the Greek is exactly the same as that which occurs in current texts. He may have been quoting from memory due to the limited availability of Greek codices at this time in Florence.

(13) Plethon, De Differentiis, 193,4 (PGI, BLI).

(14) Ibid. The references are evidently to Phaedrus 246a, "...that 'that which moves itself' is precisely identifiable with soul, it must follow that soul is not born and does not die [trans. R. Hackforth]," and Timaeus 36d-e, "When the whole fabric of the soul had been finished to its maker's mind, he next began to fashion within the soul all that is bodily, and brought the two together, fitting them center to center. And the soul, being everywhere inwoven from the center to the outermost heaven and enveloping the heaven all round the outside, revolving within its own limit, made a divine beginning of ceaseless and intelligent life for all time [trans. F.M. Cornford]."

(15) Plethon, De Differentiis, 193,4 (PGI, BLI).

(16) Woodhouse claims that Plethon "...shared the very heresy which he had condemned in Aristotle (and of which he had acquitted Plato), namely the belief that the universe was eternal and had no beginning in time." Plethon, 320. Woodhouse appears to miss the distinction that Plethon is very careful to make, i.e., the distinction between temporal generation and atemporal generation. Plethon claims that Aristotle recognizes only temporal generation, whereas Plato recognizes both temporal and atemporal generation. Thus, Aristotle insists on an eternal ungenerated universe, whereas, Plethon thinks, Plato believes that the universe was generated but also eternal. This claim, as we shall see, is consistent with Plethon's position in the Summary.

(17) Plethon, De Differentiis, 193,5 (PGII, BLI).

(18) Ibid.

(19) W.D. Ross, Aristotle, 5th ed. (London: Methuen, 1966), 181.

(20) Physics 267a3-8.

(21) Plethon, De Differentiis, 193,5 (PGII, BLI) apparently referring to Nicomachean Ethics 1131a21-2.

(22) Ibid. This apparently is a reference to Avicennae Metaphysices Compendium, Latin trans. N. Carame (Rome, 1926), i. 4. I.I, 169-71.

(23) See, for example, Plethon, Reply, in PG 160:983.

(24) That being a neo-pagan was dangerous in fifteenth century Byzantium is illustrated by the case of Juvenal. In 1450, a local Peloponnesian governor by the name of Manuel Raoul Oises arrested Juvenal for heresy. Juvenal was subsequently found guilty. His punishment was to have his limbs broken, and he, still living, was then cast into the sea. Curiously, we know of the case because it was reviewed by George Scholarios, then Chief Judge at Constantinople. Scholarios approved of Oises's handling of the case. See, Steven Runciman's Mistra: Byzantine Capital of the Peloponnese (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980), 114 for additional information.

(25) Ibid., 113-14.

(26) The text on which I have based the translation is in PG 160:973-74. The autograph is in Venice and designated Marc. gr. 406Ra. The actual text in on f. 137v and f. 140r. According to Diller, it appears that Plethon himself inserted ff. 138-39 between the folios on which the actual text of the Summary was written. This may have been the result of an effort to secrete the text. Several apographs seemed to have been made while the autograph was still in Cardinal Bessarion's hands. Most of these ended up in other libraries, e.g., Paris. gr. 1739, Vatic. gr. 1759, and Monac. gr.48. See, Aubrey Diller, "The Autographs of Georgius Gemistus Pletho," Scriptorium, 10 (1956), 27-41. So far as I can determine, the Summary was not published until it appeared in Charles Alexandre, ed., Pléthon: Traité des Lois (Paris, 1858; reprint, Amsterdam, 1966), 262-68. This work contains what was left of the Books of Laws as well as any associated material. The Greek texts are translated into Latin by Albert Pellissier. The PG text is not accompanied by a Latin translation. Woodhouse provides a brief summary of the twelve points in his Plethon, 319. I have inserted the bracketed numbers to identify the twelve points referred to by Plethon.

(27) Alexandre makes the following observation concerning this paragraph to this point. Haec et quae sequuntar uncis inclusa, usque ad ?????????, desunt in codibus hoc quidem loco. Sed inventa sunt in Parisiensis bibliothecae codd. 1683, fol. 209vg, et 1739 fol. 266v, Zoroastreis praemissa statim post titulum, exordii cujusdam instar, videnturque olim a Plethone ad marginem libri sui jam transcripti adjecta serius Tuisse. Id certe, testatur apud Morellium, in catalogo bibl. S. Marci, codex Venetus 406, qui Plethonis autographus creditur, in quo istud additamentum, scholii instar, initio Zoroastreorum ad marginem ascriptum est. Clearly, Alexandre was aware of Jacopo Morelli's identification of this manuscript at San Marco as an autograph of Plethon (in Morelli's Bibliotheca Manuscripta Graeca et Latina I (1802). Other indications that the passage is an interpolation into the text are the abrupt change from oratio recta in the foregoing passage to oratio obliqua in this one and the fact that this passage contains none of the twelve doctrines.

(28) Plethon is clearly a Neoplatonic, however, he thought that he was a good Platonist. The distinction between Platonism and Neoplatonism had not yet been made by historians of philosophy.

(29) The reader should note, however, that Plethon does not use these two terms synonymously in every context.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage