Transcript: 201. Stephen Gersh on Medieval Platonism

Stephen Gersh (who was Peter's doctoral advisor!) joins him to discuss the sources and influence of Platonism in the Middle Ages.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: So we're going to be talking about Platonism in the middle ages, something about which I learned a lot from you about 15 years ago. So I'm very excited to do this interview. And it seems like the obvious first question is, what did they know about Plato himself in the middle ages?

Stephen Gersh: Well, it depends which part of the middle ages you talk about. It's a complicated question. In actual fact, for most of the middle ages, they didn't know an enormous amount about Plato. There's one dialogue of Plato that you can assume had been read by most people, and that was the Timaeus. And the Timaeus, of course, is the main cosmological dialogue of Plato. So that tended to make a cosmological interpretation of Plato particularly widespread. Towards the end of the middle ages, things changed slightly. There are some translations of other dialogues of Plato. The Phaedo and the Mino are translated in the 12th century, and they begin to have some circulation. And you find traces of the readings of these texts in some late medieval writers. More significant, however, is the fact that Greek writers who knew Plato's works, like Proclus, tend to become known in the late middle ages. So for example, later medieval writers will sometimes have some knowledge of the Parmenides, because they know the Parmenides through Proclus' commentary, which was translated to Latin by William Moerbeke in the 13th century. So the Parmenides begins to acquire a bit of an indirect tradition. But basically, the study of Plato in the middle ages is through indirect sources. And it's not really until the 15th century when people like Leonardo Bruni and Marsilio Ficino start to translate more of Plato, that the Platonic works really become known for themselves. And in some respects, the knowledge of Plato directly in the west is a product of the Renaissance. Of course, what I said is true of the Latin middle ages. If you switch over to the Byzantine world, things are slightly different. And there, obviously, the works of Plato were available in Greek throughout the tradition. And they were admired as stylistic models. But the question is, again, rather tricky, that there's not as much influence of Plato's works in the Byzantine tradition as you might expect. And I think, although they knew more of Plato, some of it was a bit suspect. And they weren't quite sure how it fitted in with theology. So it's not possible to say that there was a huge amount of reading of Plato among the Byzantines. There are certain periods where it does tend to pick up a bit. People like Theodor Metochites and Nikephoros Gregoras and so on are picking up on the study of Plato. And then, of course, at the end of the middle ages, you've got someone like Gemistos Plethon, who was a great reviver of Plato. So the answer to your question is that it's a complicated question. In the West, it tends to be an indirect tradition, except for the Timaeus. In the Byzantine world, it's a direct tradition, but Plato still remains somewhat subterranean, perhaps for ideological reasons.

Peter Adamson: Right. And I'll actually get on to doing Byzantine philosophy later on after I've finished Latin Christendom. But I guess it's worth just emphasizing that the reason why Plato could be recovered fully in the Latin west is that he survived in Byzantium.

Stephen Gersh: Right. I mean, otherwise, there wouldn't be a link. Of course, the main manuscripts that we have for most Greek philosophical writers are Byzantine, and they don't go back to antiquity.

Peter Adamson: Right. We don't have any handwritten dialogues.

Stephen Gersh: No. So essentially, I mean, we're relying on the Byzantines really for all of it.

Peter Adamson: Yeah. It's a shame. Although it does give all these philologians something to do, editing manuscripts. So sticking then to Plato in the Latin west, and I guess maybe we could focus on the Timaeus in particular, since that was the text that they had for most of the middle ages. What aspects of Plato's thought, especially in the Timaeus, did medieval thinkers most pick up on?

Stephen Gersh: Well, the Timaeus, Eriugena knew the translation of Calcidius of the Timaeus. He quotes Calcidius by name. And in the Periphyseon there is clearly some knowledge of the Timaeus. And interest in the Timaeus picks up - i's most famously associated with the so-called 'School of Chartres' in the early 12th century. There's a group of writers, William of Conches, Thierry of Chartres, and so on. These writers were extremely interested in the Timaeus. And they developed a kind of cosmological Platonism from the Timaeus. And they were interested in questions like how the account of the cosmology in the Timaeus fitted in with the book of Genesis. Generally the assumption was that the Timaeus was a parallel account to the book of Genesis. So that gave them difficulties, because there are obviously differences between the book of Genesis and about whether the world was created in time or whether it was not created, whether it was eternal, and whether there is a Trinity reflected in the opening verses of the Book of Genesis and this kind of thing. So there are a lot of problems in bringing Genesis together with the Timaeus. But that was one of the things that was popular in the early 12th century in France. But interestingly enough, that reading of the Timaeus actually picks up before that. And there are a number of glosses on major authors of late antiquity. For example, there are glosses, particularly interesting sets of glosses on Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. And these start really in the late Carolingian period in the 9th century. And then there are 10th and 11th century glosses on Boethius. And these glosses often pick up on this cosmological Plato. So there's a sort of a tradition of reading the Timaeus reflected in these glosses. And they sometimes quote Plato by name or Calcidius by name. So it's not as though the School of Chartres in the 12th century were totally pioneering the reading of this. But basically the Timaeus gives you a basic account of Platonism. It describes the two world theory, the contrast between the forms and the created world. It's notable for the way in which the Cosmic Soul is a central doctrine. That became a rather difficult doctrine for Christian readers because there are problems about having a Cosmic Soul if you're a Christian because there are questions of whether the Cosmic Soul has some kind of moral dimension. Is it fallen? Does it have moral responsibility? And this is rather difficult to do in the case of a Cosmic Soul.

Peter Adamson: Like the World Soul would need to be redeemed by Christ.

Stephen Gersh: Exactly. So there will be rather difficult problems. And there's also the question 'what is the status of the World Soul?' There are some people in the 12th century who try to suggest it's somewhat like the Holy Spirit. But this raised problems because the Holy Spirit was supposed to be consubstantial with the Father and the Son. The three persons are consubstantial and the World Soul is clearly not consubstantial with the Demiurge.

Peter Adamson: Because the Demiurge actually creates.

Stephen Gersh: So there are problems with that. But it didn't stop a lot of writers of the period trying to build bridges between Christian doctrine and the Timaeus. So the World Soul, I guess, the two world theory, some reflection on the nature of matter - the cosmological issues essentially.

Peter Adamson: Actually, I was just going to ask you that quickly, in the Arabic tradition, when Plato's Timaeus is brought up in cosmological contexts, something you see over and over, in Maimonides for example, is the association of Plato's name with the idea that the cosmos is created from pre-existing matter. Is that something they worry about a lot in this Latin tradition?

Stephen Gersh: Well, they certainly do deal with it. A good example of tackling that question would be William of Conches' glosses on the Timaeus. It's one of the most important sets of glosses on the Timaeus in the 12th century. And he does raise the question of the pre-existence of matter. And basically what he does is try to bring it into line with an Augustinian view. Of course, Augustine's view is that the world was created together with time. So in other words, there wasn't any pre-existing period before time. So time came into existence together with the cosmos. So you couldn't really ask the question, what went on before the cosmos existed? But this does leave you with this question of the substratum, which is a rather chaotic substratum in Plato. What do you do with it? And the solution of William of Conches and some other 12th century Platonists is to say, 'well, it's kind of hypothetical.' In other words, the disorder of matter is something that would have been the case if God hadn't been there to impose order. So what it does is it shows us exactly what God contributed to the cosmos - that the chaos would have existed without God. But it doesn't exist before in any kind of temporal sense.

Peter Adamson: And actually there is material in Timaeus that would support the idea that time only begins with ordered cosmos, because it says that the heavenly motion somehow brings time into existence. So it's actually not that crazy a reading of the text. So Plato's Timaeus then was known, some of his other dialogues were known indirectly or later on. But obviously he's not the only source for Platonism that's available. In an episode I did a long time ago, I covered some of the other sources. For example, Marcianus Capella, Calcidius, who you've already mentioned, Macrobius. So could you, since that was quite a long time ago, remind the listeners what other avenues there were for Platonism into the Latin West?

Stephen Gersh: Yes. Well, you've mentioned some of the key names. I would say there are two classes of writers that transmitted Platonism to the West. They would be the Patristic sources and Augustine is the obvious one because you've had a podcast on him. So the audience has heard a lot about Augustine and Platonism, I'm sure. But he was one of the main transmitters of the Platonic doctrine. And Dionysius the Areopagite is another Christian writer who of course was extremely influential on Eriugena, translated by Eriugena. So both of those writers are transmitting a Platonic doctrine. And writers like Macrobius were extremely influential. There are a lot of glosses on Macrobius. And Macrobius in a way is very striking because he presents probably the fullest account of Plotinus' doctrine that was available before Ficino. He does summarize parts of Plotinus, certainly Ennead 5.2 is very close to the way in which Macrobius summarizes the doctrine of the three first principles. So Macrobius was a source for Platonism. And Marcianus of course, in the two books of allegory there's a great deal of Neoplatonism in that myth of Mercury and Philology. Chalcidius that you've already mentioned, his commentary does include a certain amount of independent work. And Boethius who really was a Platonist despite the fact that he can be thought of as an Aristotelian if you just take account of his translations which survive, which of course are on logical works. But the Consolation of Philosophy is a Platonist work and the theological tractates are essentially Platonist works. So all of these are transmitters of Plato. But it's Platonism transformed by late antiquity. It simply is not the pure Platonism of the dialogues. I don't think you really understand the history of philosophy in the West if you think that the Platonism that's transmitted really is the Platonism of the dialogues. It's the Platonism of late antique writers, middle Platonists or Neoplatonists, Plotinus, Porphyry and the like who worked over Plato. And Augustine says for example in the Contra Academicos that Plato relives in Plotinus and his Plato is essentially through Plotinus. So it's late antique Platonism that's the crucial thing underlying all of these Latin sources.

Peter Adamson: One thing that I think is striking too is the association between the liberal arts and Platonism. So obviously Marcianus Capella, he's one of the main sources for thinking about the liberal arts in the allegory that you mentioned of The Marriage of Mercury and Philology. Because the seven liberal arts are personified as characters in that allegory, and you have a lot of glosses on Marcianus. So this would have been a way for Platonism to kind of creep into the Latin tradition just because their standard texts on the liberal arts happened to be full of Platonism. Or do you think that maybe, is it maybe the reverse also true that they were pulled towards working on the liberal arts because these were some of the most interesting philosophical texts?

Stephen Gersh: I would think the first view is probably more likely to be correct. The study of these works was part of a curriculum clearly. I don't think you can really make a case for there being a very fixed curriculum throughout the early middle ages. In some respects I think it was more of an ideal than something that was realised probably in practice. But I think probably students were interested in Marcianus as a source of astronomy and things like that. And in the course of doing that they tended to pick up Platonism. There is an interesting case of one of Eriugena's opponents, Prudentius of Troyes, who accused him of getting into his Neoplatonic thought because he was getting too much interested in Marcianus Capella. That may be indication of the fact that it was the sort of the liberal arts books that were sort of entrapping people in Platonism rather than they were driven by a Platonist intent to read his liberal arts books.

Peter Adamson: Sort of liberal arts as a gateway drug.

Stephen Gersh: I think it was. Because after all the liberal arts in a way were gateways to Christian thought too. And Augustine in On Christian Teaching explains his own theories of liberal arts and the liberal arts are the way you learn in order to read scripture. So it's not a difficult thing to move from that position that he sketches out there to a position that the liberal arts are a key to pagan Platonism as well because structurally it's parallel.

Peter Adamson: Speaking of paganism, what do they do with the more overtly pagan or generally non-Christian aspects of these texts because they sometimes talk about deities other than the one God. And even in Plato himself in the Timaeus for example there are lesser gods whom the Demiurge addresses when he's creating the universe.

Stephen Gersh: That's a very interesting question. To some extent it's been studied - although there are aspects of the problem that haven't been looked at in detail. The basic approach was probably allegorization. And the gods of mythology can be treated as equivalent to physical forces. And you can identify Jupiter with the fire in the heaven, Juno with the air, Neptune with water, and you can identify them with the four elements. You can also identify them sometimes with metaphysical values rather than with physical ones. And so the general tendency was to find some acceptable physical or metaphysical truth lying behind the narrative. And this was a question that exercised medieval writers quite a lot and there are periods in which there's a lot of interest in this kind of allegorical reading of pagan texts. The 12th century, I mentioned it before, in connection with the school of Chartes, is a great period for this. And you find members of the school - if there was really a school, there's somewhat debate about that - like Bernard Silvestris, who are actually writing commentaries on Virgil. There's a philosopher who writes a commentary on the first six books of the Aeneid. It's rather a tangle but there's a lot of philosophical ideas inside it. And there was a tradition for interpreting the sixth book of Virgil's Aeneid as a metaphysical cosmological text. And this starts out in late antiquity with Servius and you find it in Macrobius. And it fits into the myth of Virgil the great sage, great philosopher - which of course is one of the ideas of Virgil that you find in Dante. So the allegorical technique was used throughout the middle ages but there were periods certainly where scholars thought that this kind of thing was too pagan. And there are periods where this kind of allegorical reading is very common. For example in Thierry of Chartres or William of Conches, you find quite a lot of this. On the other hand, you only have to go back another generation or two to someone like Anselm of Canterbury, who's working in a monastery in Bec. And they're not doing it at all. Anselm doesn't have any of this kind of thing. So it was a matter of taste really and there were fashions that came and went. Now an interesting aspect of it is in the late middle ages when the works of Proclus became available, Proclus' works are full of gods, the "Henads," as he called them. And there was a real problem with what to do with all these Henads. And you find writers like Thomas Aquinas and some of the right German writers of the late middle ages like Dietrich of Freiburg and Berthold of Mosburg working in the 13th to 14th century, who grapple with this problem of what to do with Proclus' Henads. And there are various strategies. One way is to identify them with intellects. Another way is to identify them with divine names of the one God. So Proclus' blatant polytheism is a bit of a challenge at the end of the middle ages. And there are various ways in which they had to address this.

Peter Adamson: It's interesting that they take these texts to be sufficiently authoritative that they bother trying to save them in that way. I mean, why not just say, 'oh, these texts are pagan, so they're full of falsehoods.'

Stephen Gersh: Well, in the case of Proclus, his work was very much prized probably because of the axiomatic form of the Elements of Theology. The 211 propositions to reduce theology to an axiomatic form is an attractive prospect. And in the 12th and 13th centuries, the work began to be popular because of the axiomatic form. So a writer who has succeeded in reducing all theology to 211 axioms is worth looking at. It's just unfortunate that 20 or 30 of the propositions happen to be about pagan gods.

Peter Adamson: So there was enough in there that they wanted to keep, that they wanted to save the rest basically. So that's interesting because up until what you were saying about Proclus, we'd mostly been talking about the relatively earlier period of medieval philosophy up to the 12th century. And I suppose that one thought someone might have is that when the works of Aristotle were fully recovered - which happens in the late 12th, early 13th century - that Platonism would be sort of suppressed or edged out by this resurgent Aristotelianism. Maybe almost the reverse of what happened actually in late antiquity when the Aristotelianism of someone like Alexander of Aphrodisius was supplanted by the Platonism of people like Plotinus. But what you just said about Proclus actually suggests that that's not the case.

Stephen Gersh: Right. Well, you have to be very careful about this. There are a lot of books, textbooks that seem to create the impression that somehow Platonism faded from the scene because of the arrival of the Aristotelian works. That is a massive oversimplification that we need to avoid. For one thing, Aristotle became known through lots of indirect sources that were somewhat Platonistic in terms of their complexion. That's the first thing. The other thing is that it depends what you mean by Platonism. You could, for example, there's a Platonism which emerges through all the indirect sources of late antiquity that I've been mentioning, the patristic ones and also the secular ones. There's also a Platonism which you discover by reading, say, Aristotle's works in which he criticizes Plato. Now in the time of someone like Thomas Aquinas, clearly there are two ways in which Thomas Aquinas is being exposed to Platonism. There's the one way which is that he's seeing the works of Aristotle attacking Plato. So that's a certain form of Platonism which he's on the whole going to criticize. On the other hand, there's all the Platonism which is sort of the underground tradition of Platonism in Augustine, which he's of course still using in a way, and Dionysius the Areopagite, on whom he writes a commentary, as a Platonist - or the Book of Causes, which he uses extensively, which is another Platonist work. So in a way, he's attacking a certain definition of Platonism, yet at the same time, he's absorbing and still transmitting a Platonism, but it's not called Platonism. He calls it something else. A good example of that is Aquinas' Treatise on the Separate Substances, in which he spends a lot of time attacking Platonism. And of course the Platonism he's attacking is the Platonism that's come through Aristotle. But he ends up advocating the doctrine of Pseudo-Dionysius - of course he doesn't call him Pseudo-Dionysius, he calls him Dionysius the Areopagite, because of course he believes in the authenticity of Dionysius. So we then get a completely Neoplatonic Proclean ending to the text. But of course he doesn't think it's Platonism. He thinks that's, you know, revealed doctrine, because Dionysius is a Christian authority. So he's attacking one picture of Platonism, and then he's actually replacing it with another one. So it's a question of what you define by Platonism. So there are writers like Aquinas that you don't think of primarily as Platonists, who actually have this Platonic streak in them. Then there's a tradition which has been studied particularly recently in Germany, which is the Albertus tradition in Germany, which has been the subject of a lot of scholarship in recent years, and includes people like, well, Albert the Great, of course, the founder of it, but people who work in his tradition like Dietrich of Freiburg - which is not the Freiburg in Breisgau, it's the other one further east - and Berthold of Mosburg, and Meister Eckhart. And this German Dominican - they were all Dominicans - is a tradition that preserves quite a radical form of Platonism, and they're particularly fond of Proclus. Berthold of Mosburg, in the 14th century, produced the largest commentary on Proclus that's been produced, a huge work that's been edited recently. And what he does is he uses an interpretation of Proclus' elements of theology as a kind of a framework in which to produce a kind of entire encyclopedia of philosophy. And of course he interprets the Arabs that he knew in Latin translation into that, and also there's Albert and Ulrich of Strasbourg and all these people. And it's all added into a huge encyclopedia based on the Latin version of Proclus. So there's this German tradition which has been very much studied, and that in the end it leads, I suppose, to Nicholas of Cusa at the end of the middle ages, who of course is one of the arch-Platonists of the middle ages. He's a transitional figure to the Renaissance.

Peter Adamson: So actually that sort of tour you just took us on makes me think a couple of things. One is that there isn't just one Platonist tradition, there's streams of Platonism through patristic authors like Augustine, through Latin secular texts like Macrobius and Marcianus, and there's Platonism that's managed to get mistaken for a Christian doctrine, like in Dionysius - who actually was a Christian but is drawing on Proclus, so sort of smuggles Neoplatonism into Christianity. So that's one thing that I'm taking out of all this. But something else is that rather than a kind of Platonist period early in the middle ages, followed by an Aristotelian period, it sounds more like what we have is fairly complicated, and to some extent subject to trends and revivals, but still a more or less continuous tradition of Platonism all the way from late antiquity down to the Renaissance. Do you think that's true?

Stephen Gersh: Right. I mean, I think it depends to some extent whether you look at institutional structures or the history of ideas, because it's quite clear that the medieval universities in terms of their methodology were predominantly Aristotelian. I mean, they had the disputation and all of this stuff. So from the institutional point of view and the pedagogical point of view, there is no doubt that Aristotelianism was dominant in methodology. And this is not totally surprising. After all, the Aristotelian works are very methodological. They clearly look like textbooks. I mean, they were textbooks probably originally, whereas Plato's works are more discursive. They're more literary and rhetorical and so on. So they're harder to use really as college textbooks. So if you look at the institutional side, then I think you have to say that the late middle ages is an era of Aristotelianism. But when you get away from the institutional side and you look at the actual doctrine, then the picture looks rather different. And I would say that in the late middle ages, there's something of a balance between more Aristotelian approaches and less Aristotelian approaches. And I think one could make a case, certainly in terms of doctrine abstracting from certain features of the pedagogical and institutional framework, for saying there is an absolutely continuous tradition of Platonism right through the middle ages that remains very strong. And it's probably a mistake, therefore, to think that when Ficino translated all the works of Plato in the 15th century, this was some kind of massive change. In actual fact, things have been leading up to it for a long time. The real difference, however, is that for the first time, the Greek texts are becoming available. You know, for example, that Petrarch was interested in reading Plato in Greek, but he never mastered the Greek enough to do it. So the lack of Greek in the West was something that held things back for a long time. And it wasn't maybe until the 15th century that Greek became sufficiently common as a language, that people were able to go to the Platonic texts directly. But when Ficino revived Platonism - we talk about it that way - there was still an awful lot of Platonism that had remained within all these separate channels. But it's a very complex issue, and a lot of it depends on defining exactly what you mean by Platonism. 


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