Pletho or Gemistus, Georgius
Pletho or Gemistus, Georgius a distinguished philosopher, theologian, publicist, historian, geographer, and scholar of the 15th century, is one of the most prominent of the Greeks who contributed to the revival of Greek studies in Western Europe, and the restorer of the Platonic philosophy.
Life. — The dates of the birth and death of Pletho have not been ascertained. He is supposed to have died before the capture of Constantinople by the Turks, and not many years after the Council of Florence. He is vaguely reported to have been nearly a hundred years of age at the period of his demise. If this were true, he must have first seen the light about the middle of the 14th century. His birthplace was probably Constantinople, but much of his life was spent in Peloponnesus, and was passed in official employment. He received the name of Pletho, and perhaps of Gemistus, from the extent multiplicity, and fullness of his erudition, which he displayed in numerous works on a great variety of subjects. "He was admired," says a writer near his time, "by not Greece alone, but by nearly the whole world, for his various and manifold knowledge of things divine and human, so that by the universal consent of both Greeks and Latins, he approached most closely to Plato, the prince of philosophers, and to Aristotle." Yet this great name is one which posterity has willingly let die. He wrote on philosophy, theology, history, geography, oratory, music, etc. He composed orations, occasional essays, polemical tracts, letters, etc., and made collections, in the fashion of declining centuries, from Diodorus, Appian, and Plutarch; from Xenophon and. Dionysius Halicarnassensis, from Aristotle and Theophrastus. He was engaged in numerous controversies, with George Gennadius, who became patriarch of Constantinople after the Ottoman conquest; with Theodore of Gaza, and with George of Trebizond. The number of his works might encourage the belief that a century of years had been accorded to their author; but this longevity is discredited by the incidents of his life. If he died, almost a centenarian, in 1452, as some reporters allege, he must have been about seventy when he held the first public employment recorded as held by him; and he must have been verging on ninety when last commemorated as an imperial officer in the Peloponnesus. The years of
macobians are so readily exaggerated by themselves, and by their more juvenile contemporaries, that no great weight need be attached to the allegation that he was born in 1355. His name of Pletho has been stated to have been bestowed on him in consequence of his learning but it may have been designed as an approximate reproduction of the name of Plato to whose memory and speculations he devoted himself with unrestrained enthusiasm. The surname may, indeed, have been assumed by himself, for it furnished frequent occasions of sarcasm and ridicule to the numerous adversaries whom he provoked. He occupied a high place at court, in the close of the reign of the emperor Manuel II Palheologus (Brucker says Michael, but the last emperor of that name had died almost a century and a half before. Dr. Plate, in Smith's Dict. of Gr. and Rom. Mythol., etc., gives 1426 as the date of this official function, but Manuel died in 1425). Gemistus "the Philosopher," as he was already called, was one of the notables at the conference in Constantinople which recommended conciliation with the Latin Church (Michael Attaliotes, Hist. Polit. c. 4). He attended the emperor John V, as a senator and deputy of the Greek Church, to the Council of Florence in 1439 (Ducas. Hist. Byzant. c. 31). Among his companions were Bessarion, his pupil; Isidore of Russia; George the Scholarius, his future antagonist; and Argyropulus. Pletho distinguished himself by the active part which he took in the conferences, and by his violent opposition to the union of the churches. He yielded ultimately, however, and was one of the signatories of the formulary of compromise. This sacrifice of religious opinion embittered the feelings of his countrymen to him. He did not accompany the emperor on his return to Constantinople. During his stay in Florence he formed an intimacy with Cosmo the Magnificent, and by the fascination of his lectures converted the great Florentine to the Platonism which Gemistus had espoused with the utmost fervor-though it was rather the mystical excesses of the later Neo- Platonists than the genuine doctrine of Plato which he had adopted. Marsilius Ficinus states, in his Dedication of Plotinus, that it was at Pletho's suggestion that Cosmo di Medici instituted the Platonic Academy at Florence, of which Ficinus became the first director. He certainly succeeded in rendering Platonism the rage in Italy, supported as he was by the countenance of his illustrious disciple, cardinal Bessarion, and by the favor of the Medicean house. Most of his labors henceforth were devoted to the illustration and dissemination of the Platonic doctrine. This endeavor, and the success which attended it, provoked the hostility of the Aristotelians, whose opinions had been for centuries in almost unchallenged possession of the domain of philosophy, and involved him in virulent controversy with their leaders. Nor was the hostility mitigated by the suspicion that Pletho desired to supplant not merely Peripateticism, but Christianity also, by his revived Platonism. He was charged by George of Trebizond with being not less dangerous to the faith than Mohammed himself. The suspicion was in some sort justified by the language of Plethq and corroborated subsequently by the tenor of the Commentaries of Ficinus. The quarrels thus excited were further exacerbated by the revolutionary doctrines of Pletho's treatise On Laws, written after the example of Plato, and far transcending the socialistic reveries of the Platonic Republic. The work seems not to have been published, or even completed. It is said to have been burned after his death by the directions of his ancient antagonist, George Scholarius, or Gennadius. Fragments of the work only remain. The imitation of Plato might have tempted him to the composition of the work, have determined its form, and suggested its doctrines. Any such temptation would have been encouraged by the meditated socialistic experiment of Plotinus. But the wretched condition of his countrymen, their destitution, their hopeless oppression by taxes which they could not pay-especially in Peloponnesus, ravaged as it had been for centuries by Sclavonians and Saracens and Franks, and ground into the dust by the Latin barons introduced by the Fourth Crusade-are alleged as the inducements to this wild device of social reorganization. There is every reason to believe that Pletho was as sincere as he was earnest in this dream of political renovation; which was neither more nor less insane in the 15th century than have been the numberless analogous schemes which have deluded the 19th. The project seems to have occupied his declining age. The years of Pletho were as full as was his assumed name.
Writings. — The treatises, abstracts, essays, polemics, letters, and other productions of Pletho were both numerous and varied. They still remain, for the most part, in manuscript, nor has there been any complete enumeration, or sufficient investigation of those that survive. The wish has several times been expressed for their collection, recension, and publication; but the wish is still ungratified, notwithstanding the acknowledgment of the various and valuable services that might be expected from its satisfaction. The editors of the Bonn edition of the Byzantine historians, who proceed so languidly with the continuation of the labors auspiciously and energetically commenced by Niebuhr, may contemplate, or may be induced to contemplate, an edition at some future time of the Opera omnia quoe supersunt of Georgius Gemistus Pletho. The variety of these works has already been indicated. Of those which have been given to the press, the most important, as reported in Smith's Dictionary of Mythology, etc., are:
1. De Gestis Graecorum post pugnam ad Malntineamn, extracted from Diodorus and Plutarch: —
2. De Fato,
3. De Virtutibus:
4. De Platonice atque Aristotelicae Philosophice Differentia: —
5. Oracula Magica Zoroastris. Since this list was prepared, some of the smaller tracts of Pletho, previously unedited, have been published, and M. Alexandre has brought out at Paris,
6. De Legibus, Franmenta.
Philosophy. — There is no distinctive system of philosophy to be ascribed to Pletho. He was a revivalist and restorer only, except in the department of politics; and even here he was a legitimate disciple of Plato. He asserted the exclusive doctrine of Plato against Aristotle and the Aristotelians, and also against the experiment of the Neo-Platonists to conciliate the principles of Aristotle with those of Plato. He did not, however, avoid the transcendental excesses of the Alexandrian school, or refrain from following the example of the later members of that school, in blending Oriental fantasies with the speculations of the First Academy. Still his restitution of Platonism exercised a great and beneficial influence on the intellect of the 15th century, by presenting a new object of regard, by quickening intelligence through the conflict of opinions and through the controversies excited, and by liberating inquiry from the solitary predominance of the one great teacher, whose views had been converted into a tyrannical authority, distorted and cramped in their application, and deflected into the perilous systems of the Alexandrists and Averroists. The institution of tile Florentine Academy was one of the most potent agencies in the emancipation of modern thought; and its establishment may fairly be credited to the labors and to the impulse of Pletho. What is truly distinctive of his philosophical career is his political project for the reformation and amelioration of the Peloponnesus. Though some of its outlines were derived from antiquity, and the route was in some sort indicated by Plato and Plotinus, yet it possesses originality of its own, and was immediately induced by all active desire of' ministering to present needs, and of supplying practical remedies, even if they were impracticable, to the actual miseries of the society around him.
The plan proposed by Pletho was a sweeping agrarianism, resembling in some respects the system of Lycurgus and that of Cleomenes II in the same region of Laconia; resembling in others the socialism of Plato, but resembling still more the extreme projects of land reform which have recently been proposed in England, Ireland, France, and other countries. The evils which he proposed to redress by a complete alteration of the fabric of society were the insecurity of person and property; the squalor occasioned by ravages and multitudinous taxes, ill-imposed and unfairly levied; the uncertain and defective administration of justice; and the varied and degraded currency in circulation. Like Plato, he proposed to divide the people into three classes, but the classes were different from those of Plato: they were to be the agriculturists, the capitalists, and the guardians. The farmers or agriculturists were intended to include the greater part of the industrial body; the capitalists were to embrace the owners of all the appliances for the assistance of labor, and apparently the lessors of the land; the guardians, or defenders, comprehended all who were engaged in the protection of the society and its members, or in the maintenance of right and order: princes, magistrates, lawyers, doctors, and soldiers-priests also, probably. There was to be no private property in land; it was to belong exclusively to the state, and to be leased out, from time to time, to landlords or capitalists. A right of temporary occupancy was all that was admitted. Of the produce of the soil, one third was to be paid to the government for the maintenance of the guardians, and for other public burdens; one third went to the landlords or capitalists; and one third was to be the remuneration of the actual cultivators. Pletho, like the French Economistes, thought that all wealth was the production of land, and that all impositions should be charged upon it. The guardians, whether princes or soldiers or magistrates, were a class entirely apart from the rest of the community. They paid no taxes, but protected the people from external violence and internal disorders, and were supported by the government from the proceeds of the public third. The soldiers were quartered on the farmers to consume the government thirds, so far as required for their support: "fruges consumere nati." No money-taxes were imposed: the funds required for the public service were to be derived exclusively from the export and sale of the surplus which remained out of the government's share of the produce. Such is a brief abstract of Pletho's plethoric state. The plan was never completed; the book was burned; its author died; and tie Turks conquered the Morea before the experiment could be tried.
Literature. — Gass, Gemadii et Plethonis Scripta quaedam edita et inedita (Breslau, 1844); Pellissier, Plethon, Traite des Lois, ou Recueil des Fragmens. en Pastie inedits de cet Ouvrage, par C. Alexandre (Paris, 1851); Leo Allatius, De Georgiis diatriba (ibid. 1651); Boivin, Querelle des Philosophes du XV me Siecle; Hody, De Graecis Illustribus, etc. (Lond. 1742); Bayle, Dict. Hist. et Critique; Brucker, Hist. C(rit. Phil. per. 3, ps. 1, lib. 1, c. 2, § 1; c. 3, § 4, 5; Tiraboschi, Storia della Letteratura Italiana; Ginguden, Hist. de la Litterature Italienne; Smith, Dict. Anc. Mythol. and Biog.; Hallam, Hist. of the Lit. of Europe, ch. 2, § 2, p. 13, 14; Finlay, Hist. of the Byzantine Empire, bk. 4, ch. 2, § 5, vol. 2, p. 608; id. Hist. of Med. Greece, etc., ch. 9:§ 2, p. 282; Ueberweg, Hist. of Philosophy, § 109. (G. F. H.)