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Philosophical controversies among the Greek exiles in Italy in the fifteenth century The chapter in late Byzantine history with which we shall be here concerned is well known to those who have followed the fortunes of the Greek scholars who sought a new life for themselves in the decades prior to and following the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. There are, however, certain reasons for looking at it again. Since the more general early accounts were written, a number of texts central to our story have been made available in modern critical editions, a reprint of one capital piece has been issued, informative new manuscript material has come to light, and further studies of the personalities and the events in which they were involved have been made. Moreover, researches by Kristeller, Garin, Pertusi, Nardi, Di Napoli, Monfasani and others have considerably increased our knowledge of the concerns and schools of thought of the period, and helped us to see in what kind of theatre some of the Greeks were conscious of playing their roles, and indeed to see certain of their debates as having a more vital and enduring influence than was once thought. With all this a different "figure in the carpet" is now emerging. We are no longer dealing, at least at the more important points, with mainly academic disputes about Plato and Aristotle carried over by the emigres from their Byzantine past, but with something more like a contest, with deep religious implications, for the primacy of influence on the mind of Renaissance Italy, and through Italy on the rest of the Res Publica Christiana, as some of the writers concerned still felt Europe to be. Mixed in with the ideological factors - the systems of ideas and particular philosophic doctrines, and the religious and moral preoccupations, and visions of society lurking behind these - were quite familiar emotions: resentments, jealousies, suspicions, as well as nobler feelings. What complicates the scene is that personal relationships do not always coincide with agreements or disagreements in ideas, though there are sometimes resounding effects when they do. We must be prepared then for a story with a mingled pattern, with personalities at interplay with ideas and events. We begin inevitably with the short sojourn in Italy of the Byzantine sage from Mistra (in the Peloponnesus of Greece), George Gemistos Pletho(n).l This philosopher and scholar, whom his 1 I retain the older Latin form "Pletho" as better preserving the play on "Plato" (also a Latin form) than the Greek spelling "Plethon", which is becoming more popular. The main study is F. Masai, Plethon et le Platonisme de Mistra, Paris, 1956, with ample references to previous work. Since then, we have a chapter (cont.) 176 E.J. Stormon initiates and admirers looked upon practically as Plato come again, whom others simply respected for his evident learning (in some cases perhaps with reservations about his neo-pagan tendencies), had in fact been summoned by the emperor John VIII Palaeologos as counsellor and possible orator for the Greek delegation attending the Church Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-39). Pletho was opposed to the proposed union of the Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) Churches partly for the theological and practical reasons he alleged, but perhaps more for others which he did not make public In fact he took only an inconsiderable part in the conciliar proceedings, had no voting rights, and left nearly a fortnight before the decree of union was signed. Both at Ferrara and Florence he had ample time to meet Italian philosophers and men of letters, and when the Council was not actually in session could have made use of the highly accomplished official interpreter, Nicholas Sekoundinos of Negroponte (Euboia), who was in an excellent position to render his thought. On the whole it seems likely that it was partly to impress the Italian intellectuals that the Greek emperor, who was anxious to make a good showing in Italy, invited the layman Pletho, whom he must have known to be only superficially Orthodox, to join his delegation.2 Curiously enough, when taxed about five years later by the Aristotelian George Scholarios,3 who was at the Council with him...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 175-200
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-03
Open Access
No
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