Transcript: 308. Dominic O'Meara on Michael Psellos

Dominic O'Meara speaks to Peter about Michael Psellos, focusing especially on his political philosophy.
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: I'm going to start with a quote from Psellos, which is the following: "I alone practice philosophy in unphilosophical times." What did he mean by that, and what he was trying to convey a fair assessment of the context in which he was working?

Dominic O'Meara: Yes, we need to talk a little bit about what he means by doing philosophy or being a philosopher, and also what he means by unphilosophical times. I think by unphilosophical times he means the circumstances in which he lives, which are unfavorable to philosophy. He obviously thinks that he lives in a society which does not leave much room for philosophy, but nevertheless in these circumstances he tries to practice philosophy. But what is this philosophy that he practices, and why are his times unphilosophical? He has a concept of philosophy which we need to think about a little bit, because it's not really ours. Philosophy for Psellos is a very wide-ranging concept, and my good friend John Duffy has identified it with 'polymathia,' knowing many things. As if for Psellos to do philosophy, to be a philosopher, is to know many things. It seems to be the reverse of what Heraclitus says when he denounces somebody who knows many things but doesn't understand anything. But for Psellos, knowing many things seems to be characteristic of philosophy. And if you look at how he articulates philosophy, you see that it comprises a whole series of sciences. There's metaphysics, there's mathematics, there's physics, there's what we might call psychology, ethics, politics, and even goes into things like judicial science, legislation, and rhetoric. Philosophy seems to be almost the same thing as knowing everything. And Psellos wrote for his imperial pupil a little handbook called De Omnifaria Doctrina, which means 'all sorts of knowledge.' And in this little handbook he has little chapters on practically everything you need to know about metaphysical principles, Christian principles, soul, body, the world, earthquakes, hailstones, and free will, and evil, and so on. So he has an extremely comprehensive concept of philosophy, and it seems to be the equivalent almost of being interested in everything and trying as far as possible to know everything. So what this means that for him to philosophize is in fact to master all of the known sciences, all the sciences he could discover in a period which did not at all conform to this ambition of his.

Peter Adamson: Does that mean that the opposition that he detected amongst his contemporaries had the form of being encouraged not to know everything? In other words, there were only certain things you need to know, maybe only religious knowledge, for example?

Dominic O'Meara: Yes, I think at least one element probably is an implicit struggle with certain monastic currents, in particular currents of monasticism, of monastic asceticism and spirituality, which sought to avoid, let's say, pagan knowledge or Greek science, and which felt that spirituality could be developed, should be developed in a kind of renunciation on reason. And so perhaps his emphasis on the richness, the variety of knowledge stands in contrast to the reduction of human reading to almost nothing and reliance on spiritual emotions, shall we say, cultivated by certain monastic movements of his time.

Peter Adamson: So the opponent's idea would be that ascetic practice would be enough, it would get you to heaven, so you don't need all of this learning of rhetoric, science, metaphysics, and so on?

Dominic O'Meara: Yes, there's a kind of a quick road to heaven, and you don't need to go through philosophy.

Peter Adamson: And you need to wall yourself up in a cell and not eat anything for weeks on end, so it's not that easy.

Dominic O'Meara: Okay, maybe it hurts a little. But one very interesting example of this is the way he talks about his mother. He wrote a speech in praise of his mother after her death. It's a funeral oration in praise of his mother. And his mother was very religious, so religious that to all intents and purposes she tried to live like a nun, although she was not a nun, in her house. And one of the results of this - of her action as a spiritual fanatic, I would say almost, was to send her husband out, out of the house, and he had to become a monk in a monastery. Another thing she did was to practically starve herself, so a physical asceticism driven to real extremes. The way Psellos describes it, it sounds really pretty bad, what she did to her body. But in his description of her spirituality, let's say of her mysticism, Psellos has his mother use Plotinian ideas. It's very amusing. So his mother begins to Plotinize when she talks about union with God, as if Psellos had to recuperate this ascetic extremism practiced by his mother by giving it a kind of a philosophical dimension. And that way of presenting his mother shows also his criticism of these extreme anti-intellectual tendencies of asceticism of his time.

Peter Adamson: That mention of Plotinus brings me to another question, though, which is that when he says 'there's all this learning that we could acquire, we should be reading these books, we should be steeping ourselves in the knowledge of the ancients,' you called it the knowledge of the Greeks just now. But of course, when you talk about the Greeks, what you, I suppose, mean is pagans, not people who write in Greek, because that's his contemporaries too. And isn't there a problem there for him to square the paganism of most of the texts he's interested in with his own Christian belief and the Christian belief of his society?

Dominic O'Meara: Yes, this is a very difficult problem. And it's hard to give a simple, quick answer to it. On the one hand, Psellos subscribes to Christian doctrine and to the authority of Christian revelation and subordinates all knowledge to this authority. On the other hand, his evident love of knowledge, of philosophy in this very broad sense, which means he is curious about everything that he can find relating to all branches of knowledge, leads then to the very rich field of pagan philosophy, in particular the pagan philosophy of late antiquity, which can nourish his curiosity and which brings him all sorts of interesting materials. This can get him into trouble because this is of course a pagan material, which is sometimes in contradiction with Christian revelation. And Psellos is walking a kind of tightrope because on the one hand he tries to defend himself against the charge of heresy in fact, or of being interested in unholy, dangerous things by the claim that wisdom involves knowing everything, being interested in everything. And it is his duty to the extent that he wishes to cultivate wisdom to be interested also in non-Christian things, to find out about all of these things. On the other hand, he has to make sure that he points out where in fact this pagan wisdom stands in conflict with Christianity and then he just says 'this is absurd' or 'this is nonsense' or 'this is rubbish and this is in contradiction with Christian authority.' So he gives us all of this knowledge and then he could say at the end, 'no, this is all nonsense.'

Peter Adamson: He comes in at the end, and so it's not that he suppresses it as he's going along, he actually tells you everything it says and then he tells you the bits that you should reject at the end.

Dominic O'Meara: Exactly. And this is a curious exercise but it's a kind of, I think, attempt to compromise between subscribing to the authority of Christian revelation on the one hand and allowing himself to explore the riches of wisdom on the other. He also says, and this is a traditional idea that he picks up from the Church Fathers, that you can sometimes use philosophical arguments and ideas as a weapon against heresy. So not only is it curiosity in itself that motivates him but possibly also the idea that sometimes these things can be useful even to Christian theologians.

Peter Adamson: I think one thing that's striking about Psellos in particular is that we're quite familiar in a way by now at this point in this series with the phenomenon of members of the Abrahamic faiths using pagan material - Aristotle, Platinus for their own even theological purposes. You can think about thinkers in the Islamic world, thinkers in Latin Christendom. But what's unusual about Psellos, I think, is that he actually goes for some of the pagan texts that are most pagan and most strikingly difficult to reconcile with Christianity in particular - I'm thinking of Proclus and the Chaldean Oracles. And although, for example, Proclus was influential in Latin and Arabic, he was influential in this very stripped down form where you don't get lots of references to the pagan gods anymore. Instead, you get references to kind of abstract principles like the One or the limit or soul. Can you try to explain how that could be that Psellos would deliberately go for the material that's most difficult?

Dominic O'Meara: Well, the thing I'm trying to say is that I don't think we have a coherent, consistent, defensible position in Psellos. He is somewhere in between and it's quite dangerous. Because he does, he's very enthusiastic, he actually loves philosophy, I think, seriously. And he's full of admiration for Plato and he thinks philosophy can solve all problems - very, very ambitious. And this love of philosophy extends to and includes especially the philosophy of Proclus, and that includes the Chaldean Oracles. And so he goes into all of this stuff which is dangerous and totally useless, you might say, to Christian theologians. But Psellos persists. And I think that's one of the interesting things about him. He's living in a tension, in a sort of contradiction all the time. And I think this tension is not resolved, really.

Peter Adamson: Another thing that's unusual about Psellos is that he's almost two authors, because there's the deeply philosophical side we've been talking about. And then there's also Psellos the historian, he's the author of the Chronographia, which is a work that's really been of more interest to historians than historians of philosophy, because it details the lives and achievements of a series of Byzantine emperors. So do you think that nonetheless, this is a text that philosophers or historians of philosophy should take seriously? Is there any philosophy in it, so to speak?

Dominic O'Meara: I think the Chronographia is not just history. It's used by historians as a source of historical information. It's information about Psellos' time, about the emperors of his time, and it's a really interesting chronicle of his times. All the more interesting in the sense that he is often at the heart of the events, and he knows often the people he's talking about. So it's an eyewitness account of Byzantine history at the time, imperial history. But historians have also recognized that it's not just history, it's something more than that. And in my view, Psellos, on the one hand, is telling a story about the use of political power, and implicitly criticizing the way political power has been exercised by a series of Byzantine emperors. And this means bringing out, in fact, how political power should be exercised. On the other hand, I think he's also talking about himself, and putting himself into this picture, and showing his role in this series of events, and how he, as a philosopher, is an actor in these political events, defending in a way his ambition to unite philosophy and politics.

Peter Adamson: And is the ideal reader that he's envisioning also a politically engaged person, who's supposed to maybe take a lesson from the way that Psellos acted, or maybe take a negative lesson from the less attractive figures he represents?

Dominic O'Meara: I think that's a good question as to what readers he has in mind. But I think reading that, you would see implicitly that these emperors all exemplify different moral failings, which are also political failings, reasons why they fail, why they bring catastrophe to the Byzantine empire. And they show that Psellos tries to engage in the political machine right at the heart of it, in the court, and the sorts of things that made things go wrong, where his action could no longer be exercised. We were talking at the beginning of the interview about occasions, kairoi, circumstances which were unphilosophical. And circumstances keep changing, and in some circumstances, a philosopher can act, in some circumstances he can't. In fact, it becomes impossible. And this happened to Psellos. He had to retire from the court and go to a monastery, hide in a monastery where he became Michael Psellos, because it was just impossible, too dangerous for him to stay in the court. But he came back later on when he could, out of the monastery, back into the court in Constantinople, to try to act further as a philosopher at the heart of political power in the Byzantine Empire.

Peter Adamson: Maybe he was thinking about Plato's injunction for the philosopher to go back into the cave and try to bring wisdom to the people.

Dominic O'Meara: Certainly, yes. He quotes Plato on this subject, and he says, in antiquity, philosophers did engage themselves in politics, Plato, but also Pythagoras, also Aristotle, but that this link between philosophy and politics has been broken. And he obviously thinks that this is something that should be reinstated, that the philosopher should involve himself in practical life, and in his case, in political life, to the extent possible.

Peter Adamson: So you came on the podcast before, actually, to talk about late ancient political philosophy, and you were just referring now to Plato, Pythagoras, really ancient philosophers. But on the other hand, you've told us that Psellos was very interested in late antique figures like Proclus. What are the themes and ideas of late antique political philosophy that Psellos can and does draw on in order to develop his own political views?

Dominic O'Meara: For some preparatory remarks, Psellos has a Neoplatonic view of human nature. He thinks that human nature is made up essentially of the soul, which can exist independently of the body, and that this soul then comes in contact with the body, in relation with the body, and lives in this relationship. And corresponding to this distinction between the human as soul in itself, or the human as soul in body, he uses the distinction, a old distinction, between the theoretical life and the practical life. So the theoretical life is the life of soul in itself, and practical life is the life of soul with respect to the body. And corresponding to these distinctions, the distinction between theoretical philosophy and practical philosophy. Practical philosophy itself is made up of ethics, politics, and Psellos talks about politics in a way which I think is influenced by people like Proclus, by philosophers of late antiquity, who describe political science in terms of two sciences: legislation and jurisdiction. And these are parts of practical philosophy or political philosophy, which Psellos thinks are largely neglected or have practically disappeared at this time, and that there has to be some work on bringing legislation and jurisdiction on a theoretical level into order. And this is the job of the practical philosopher or the political philosopher.

Peter Adamson: What's the difference between those two parts? Presumably legislation is the making of laws, jurisdiction the enforcing of laws?

Dominic O'Meara: That's right. So there's a kind of subordination. There is on the one hand a formulation of laws and these laws should be developed for the good of the community. And then jurisdiction sees that people are punished when they transgress these laws or let's say jurisdiction guards these laws from a violation. So it's a sort of secondary science subordinated to legislation. And legislation itself is supposed to be an expression of the knowledge required for knowing how humans can live well, that is happily, in their incorporated state as part of a community. I think these ideas that we find in Psellos are already to be found in Proclus. And Psellos was able to use Proclus in order to formulate what it is that the philosopher, to the extent that he is political or practical, should know in order to contribute in terms of knowledge to the political process.

Peter Adamson: And is that really what makes the good politician a good politician? Just knowledge, there's nothing else you need? I mean, it's a very kind of platonic or maybe even Socratic idea of what makes a good ruler a good ruler.

Dominic O'Meara: In Psellos, it's a little tough because he's living in a political system, which is monarchical. It's based on the structure of monarchical power.

Peter Adamson: It's not like you can apply to become the Byzantine emperor - Here's my CV, I've read lots of Plato.

Dominic O'Meara: That's right. It's already determined in terms of who has power by things like blood and things like murder and power and money and so on. Nothing to do with knowledge. So the criteria for the acquiring of power are quite different from those that Plato would specify. In other words, the criterion of knowledge. So given the fact that you're living in this system where knowledge doesn't count at all, but power does, or money or blood, the philosopher can intervene as an advisor. He can advise the emperor in terms of political policy. And this is precisely the role that Psellos gave himself. He was the philosopher with the knowledge who could advise the emperor in his policies and the Chronographia, in fact, has chapters giving advice on how to rule to the emperor. That's how Psellos saw his action as a philosopher in the court.

Peter Adamson: It's interesting, isn't it? Because I think there's a tendency to assume that what philosophers really want to be doing is what they call contemplation, shutting themselves away and thinking about God or metaphysics or the soul. And obviously Psellos did quite a lot of that. He was forced into it, in a way, the life of contemplation. But I think it's interesting that he seems to have chosen a politically engaged life when he could. Does he have a worked out theory about why that's the right choice? I mean, can he give us a philosophical account of why the engaged political life, or maybe the life that involves both political engagement and contemplation, is to be preferred to the life that involves only contemplation?

Dominic O'Meara: Yes. Here again, as I was speaking about the tightrope on which Psellos found himself with respect to the relation between Christian revelation and pagan learning, he's also on a tightrope with respect to the relation between contemplative and practical life. He fully subscribes to the priority, the superior value of the contemplative life, of the life of pure knowledge without any action, praxis. But on the other hand, he insists very much that he'd rather be involved in the practical life. And this has to do with his concept of being in the middle. He's in the middle between soul and body in his life. He's a kind of intermediary. And he thinks his role is to mediate between contemplative and practical life. He's not totally divorced from contemplative life, and he admires it and has practiced it himself to some extent. But he thinks that his place in in this life is to mediate and to to make the junction between theory and practice, between contemplation and political action. He is also very interesting in terms of this insistence on the middle between extremes and in this case, the middle between soul just in itself, and a soul which is completely plunged into bodily concerns. He wants neither, but he thinks a successful life in this life, in this incorporated life, is a life in the middle where soul is not a slave of bodily desires, but controls these desires. But on the other hand, soul does take care of its of its corporeal condition. It does not abandon them and try to live by itself in another world.

Peter Adamson: And he thinks that that would be the right choice for any embodied soul. It's not just a matter of taste that he likes to be engaged in politics. He thinks that every philosopher should, or even maybe would, as a true philosopher, would always get engaged in politics.

Dominic O'Meara: I think he does, yes. He thinks the philosopher will have this concern to to to communicate. Psellos communicates in various ways. He's a teacher. He teaches in the court in Constantinople and he's a very active teacher, very interested in teaching his pupils. And when he talks about his mother's extreme example, he says that he can't meet up to her high standards of spirituality. He is deficient with respect to these high standards and he says it is his lot. It is his duty. In fact, God has told him, the emperor has told him, his students tell him, that he should teach, that he should communicate knowledge. So he sees himself as a philosopher charged with the mission of communicating knowledge to others. And this can be the knowledge that he communicates to his students, philosophical knowledge in general, or perhaps more specifically political knowledge that he can convey to the emperor. He is, as a philosopher, engaged at these various levels in this middle position between being totally enslaved to the body and totally ignorant on the one hand, on the other hand being totally abstracted from the world and wrapped up just in some sort of transcendent existence.

Peter Adamson: Does he give us a more fleshed out picture of what the best ruler will do or what at least what characteristics the best ruler would have to have? For example, does he think that the best ruler would be an image of God and relate to the community the way that God relates to the universe or anything like that?

Dominic O'Meara: I don't think so. It's a little difficult because the Chronographia is not an entirely coherent piece. Most of it is very interesting in the sense that it does not conform to the normal pattern of what is called the 'mirrors for princes' or the Fürstenspiegel. And it's only at the end for the last emperor that Psellos practices this literary genre of the mirror for princes. And this literary genre of the mirror for princes makes the emperor into the image of God - and that as God rules the world so the emperor should rule his people. And therefore the emperor will exercise philanthropy, love of man just as God loves man. So these cliches of rhetoric which come from late antiquity in which the picture of the ruler as an image of God is repeated again and again. This is taken up again by Psellos when he's referring to the emperor who reigned when he was finishing his book or coming to the end of his writing. But the earlier parts and the greater part of the Chronographia is not like that at all because the emperors come across as a pretty terrible crowd. They seem to exemplify almost all of the vices one could think of and some of them are really bad. So we're very far from pandering to emperors here. We're far from the mirror for princes. We have a kind of a critique of the various vices including ignorance, manifested by the different emperors and the catastrophic results of these vices on the population. The impoverishment of the empire, the misery of the population, the danger that this put the empire in with respect to its enemies. The vices you might say of the emperors have brought to catastrophic consequences in terms of material goods for the people in whose name, for whose good these emperors are supposed to be ruling.

Peter Adamson: Does Psellos give us any idea why God saw fit to put this sequence of jerks on the Byzantine throne? I mean that seems like seems rather unkind. Is it a way of punishing? I mean I think a lot of Byzantine intellectuals and theologians read the history of difficulties faced by the empire - you know the Arab invasions, plague, earthquakes, you name it. They would often say 'well this is because of sin. This is because of sin rampaging through the community and we're being justly punished.' That doesn't really sound like it would be Psellos' thought.

Dominic O'Meara: No I don't think that's his thought. For instance when Procopius is denouncing the tyranny of Justinian, he says 'this is God's revenge' and other people blame all the catastrophes that can happen to the empire in terms of God's revenge. The collapse of Hagia Sophia, of the dome, is blamed on the viciousness, the vice of the people of Constantinople, for example. I don't think this is Psellos' line at all. He doesn't like divine intervention in the order of nature and he thinks that nature, this is also quite impressive, he thinks that nature has its own rationality. God is the cause of this rationality but things happen in a certain order and you could describe this if you like as fate or as providence and maybe all the things that we go through and all of the terrible things that we happen that we happen to have to undergo again these 'kairoi,' these occasions, all figure in this larger picture of fate and the fact that there are all sorts of miserable emperors or vicious emperors of various kinds. It's never quite the same situation. Perhaps it's part of a larger pattern of fate in which we can try to intervene to some extent but of course which we cannot control ourselves. I think he sees things more in that way than in terms of some sort of divine interventionism which he wishes to limit as much as possible. 



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