Monday, January 21, 2008


You can always tell when gemista are about to be served or prepared at my place, for the fortuitous culinary circumstance is invariably preceded by me walking around the house, intoning my own particular adaptation of the popular Hellenocynic song: «Γκρέμισ’ τα, γκρέμισ’ τα, όλα πια,» to wit: «Γέμισ’ τα, γέμισ’ τα, όλα πια, γέμισ’ την, γέμισ’ την πιπεριά.» While not as poetic as Burn’s Ode to the Haggis, it is just as compact and what is more, one can gyrate oneself to its rhythm, in honour and emulation of the vine leaf that turns upon itself in order to enclose and stuff within its wet embrace, succulent morsels of pure paradise. Sometimes the longing is so exquisitely painful, the wanting so wistful, especially with regard to κρεμμύδια γεμιστά, that satiation is tantamount to an anabaptism in its name.
One denizen of the forgotten realms of Greek history who was similarly full of himself was a certain Georgios Gemistos, neo-platonist philosopher, pagan pundit and polymath extraordinaire. He was one of the chief pioneers of the revival of learning in Western Europe and an utterly absorbing personality in his own right.
As if to drive the culinary motif further, he re-named himself Πλήθων/Plethon, this also being an archaic translation of the modern Greek γεμιστός/gemistos (“full, stuffed”). However, unlike the coeleodoulic diatribist, Plethon’s anabaptism is due to his enamourment and close spiritual connection with the philosopher Plato. From the moment he put pen to paper, he sparked off a Manichaean barrage of criticism as well as support, that can only be likened to the contemporary reaction in the Hellenic pages of this august broadsheet, to the similar musings of our own contemporary, much maligned, but ultimately benign Philosopher. Thus, while his enemies retorted that: “he called himself Plethon as if insinuating a link with the soul of Plato,” his supporters adulantly described as “a second Plato.”
Plethon was definitely a man of controversial views and wide ranging intellectual pursuits. He authored De Differentiis, a description of the differences between Plato and Aristotle’s conceptions of God. George Scholarios, who later became Gennadius II , first patriarch of the fallen Constantinople, came to defend Aristotelian views and convinced the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos that Plethon's support for Plato amounted to heresy. Manuel had Plethon confined in Mistra, near Sparta, where he became something of a celebrity. More than any of his contemporaries, he embodied the notion that Greek scholars embodied ancient Greek wisdom, which could serve practical purposes. Thus, while in Mistra, where he was appointed as a judge by the local despots, he suggested radical administrative reforms that looked back to ancient Sparta and forward to Karl Marx: “all the land should be the common property of all its inhabitants.. the produce of the labour of all… should be divided in three parts.” The military would be exempt from taxes and were to be maintained by the State and by a a tax-paying labourer, which he called a “helot.”
The indefatigable Plethon also wrote pamphlets to Manuel II describing how the Empire could be reorganized according to the principles of Plato’s Republic. At a time when Byzantium was about to be swallowed whole by the final Turkish onslaught, Plethon felt that only a revival of ancient Greek social values and religion could arrest the terminal decline of Hellenism, a conviction that is keenly felt by our own parochial Philosopher and many more besides in the present day. Thus, in his Book of Laws, devoted to his thoughts on theology, ethics, politics, ceremonies and science, Plethon composed a whole liturgy for the worship of Zeus, which contained also, this fascinating prayer to the gods of learning:
“Come to us o gods of learning, whoever and however may ye be; ye who are guardians of scientific knowledge and true belief; ye who distribute them to whomsoever you wish, in accordance with the dictates of the great father of all things, Zeus the King…”
In Plethon’s conception, Zeus was the absolute good; ungenerated, everlasting, the father of himself and pre-eminent creator of all things. The Olympian gods were few, existing outside space. Despite his eclectic polytheistic beliefs and his invocation of the powers of the gods and the doctrines taught by Pythagoras, Plato, Kouretes and Zoroaster, as superior to any other, he was somewhat of a psychopathic prude. Interspersed among his writings are suggestions that adulterous women should have their heads shaved and be forced to live as prostitutes. In contrast, rapists, homosexuals and those indulging in bestial acts would be punished by immolation. He also dismissed the Christian doctrine of happiness through future immortality as misleading, his doctrine of continued and repeated reincarnation of the soul offering the soul an absolute eternity – past and future.
It truly is one of the wonderful paradoxes of the Byzantine psyche that saw the essentially pagan Plethon enlisted in the delegation of 1438, when Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaeologus attended the Council of Ferrara-Florence, to discuss a union of the Orthodox Church with the West, along with his former student Basilios Bessarion, a great humanist and later Roman Cardinal.
As a secular scholar, Plethon was often not needed at the Council, though he could be called upon to settle disputes with devastating effect, thus scoring goals for the Orthodox. He proved for example that a Latin document, supposedly issued by the Seventh Oecumenical Council, was a forgery. Instead, he set up a temporary school to teach interested Florentines about previously unknown (to them) works of Plato. In doing so, he essentially reintroduced Plato to the Western world, and shook the exclusive domination which Aristotle had exercised over Western European thought for eight centuries. Cosimo de’ Medici attended these lectures and later founded the Accademia Platonica in Florence, where Italian students of Plethon continued to teach the works of Plato after the conclusion of the Council. Because of this, Plethon is considered one of the most important influences on the Italian Renaissance. Marsilio Ficino, the Florentine humanist and the first director of the Accademia Platonica, who translated Plato’s Symposium under Plethon’s guidance, was the first to pay him the ultimate honour of calling him ‘the second Plato.’ Plethon’s mystical interest in the Corpus Hermeticum also came to be reflected in such ideas as the Muses, the Liberal Arts, the Cardinal Virtues, and the Heavenly Spheres, depicted from the Renaissance to the present day, on Tarot Cards. Some of these ideas are enshrined in the symbolism of the works of such great Renaissance masters as Botticelli.
Plethon’s interest in problems of geography and his discussion of Strabo’s Geographika also inspired debate among Renaissance scholars and would-be explorers. One of his students, Paolo Toscanelli, would, based upon Plethon’s commentary on Strabo, write in 1474, a decade and a half before Columbus, that the quickest way to reach the Far East from Europe, was to sail west.
Plethon’s impassioned defence of Platonism and that of his beloved students Michael Apostoles, Ioannis Argyropoulos and Bessarion, who continued his research against the criticism of the Aristotelianism of George Trapezountios and the future Patriarch Gennadios continued until his death in 1452, a year before his native city finally fell to the hordes of Mehmet II the Conqueror. Prior to his death, Plethon championed the building of the Hexamilion, a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth in order to secure the country from invasion. Such was his stature among the Byzantines, that his wall was built, though it failed to prove the impregnable defensive fortification that he envisaged and was subsequently pulled down by the Turks.
Patriarch Gennadios Scholarios only read Plethon’s Book of Laws after it was sent to him by Turks, after the fall of Constantinople. In the capacity of Patriarch, he condemned Plethon’s fervent enthusiasm for Hellenic religion and ordered all copies of the book to be burned. In this way, the remarkeable writings of an erudite and brilliant scholar were largely lost, his name plunged into obscurity.
In contrast, our own parochial Philosopher has ensured his immortality by his widely acclaimed and popular editions of his collected works, printed on imperishable, acid-free paper. All that remains is to pray that some righteous future editor of the Novus Orbis, fuelled with the zeal and fervour of correct belief, does not consign that section of the archives to the conflagration of oblivion.
A few years after the destruction of Plethon’s works, one of his Italian disciples, Sigismondo Malatesta led a campaign against the Turks, who had forced the Despot Demetrios of Mistras to flee to Constantinople after their capture of the city in 1460. In 1464, Malatesta regained the lower town, where he found Plethon’s grave. Years before, he had tried to persuade Plethon to head his school at Rimini, to no avail. Now, however, he could ensure a more appropriate burial for his hero, He removed Plethon’s bones from Mistras, “so that the great Teacher may be among free men,” and interred them with reverence in the wall of his Tempio Malatestiano, where the dedication inscription may still be read: “The remains of Gemistos the Byzantine, Prince of Philosophers in his time.”
Along with our Marbles, we ought to claim back the bones of our last, internationally acclaimed philosopher. His love for the ancient world, his espousal of its accomplishments and his hunger to grant them a contemporary application, just as the jaws of destruction yawned upon his civilisation were as futile as they were endearingly Hellenic. Yet all was not lost. Half a millenium on, Plethon is reincarnated as the Philosopher, raising the ancient ideals from the quagmire of self-interest, ignorance and modern values. Today, as our identity is threatened by assimilation and capitulation to the ways of anhellenism, Plethon’s inspiration shines as a beacon from the pages of Novus Orbis Graecus. And in the solitude of its Saxon margins, the hesychast, lovingly completes his meal of dolmades and thus fully stuffed, rubs his hands together and waits….


First published in NKEE on 21 January 2008