Transcript: 327. Michele Trizio on Byzantine and Latin Medieval Philosophy

The series on Byzantium concludes as guest Michele Trizio discusses the mutual influence of Byzantium and Latin Christendom.
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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: The first question I have is about the knowledge of Latin in the Byzantine realm. The scholars of Latin Christendom are famous for mostly not knowing Greek with some exceptions like William of Moerbeke and others who translated from Greek into Latin. Is the reverse true in Byzantium so that we can assume that knowledge of Latin was very rare?

Michele Trizio: Yes, it is. Let's say that from late antiquity on, just as in the Latin West, the knowledge of Latin slowly disappears also in the East. There are less and less people knowing Latin. There is one exception in the sense that they needed people knowing Latin because of the Justinian code of law and they needed people to be able to understand and speak Latin. But from the 7th, 8th century also this tiny evidence disappeared.

Peter Adamson: Is that because they just translate all the legal works into Greek?

Michele Trizio: Yes. The interesting thing is that they kept calling the study of law the 'Science of the Italians.' That means the science of the Latins as if it's not something which is the authentically Byzantine.

Peter Adamson: Were they even interested in Latin texts? Did they regret that they couldn't read these things?

Michele Trizio: Very late. There is one episode which is really interesting. In late 14th century, they learned about Thomas Aquinas and they translated Thomas Aquinas in Latin. The first reaction was, 'wow, these people knew Aristotle very well.' In 14th century, they had no idea that there were scholars in the West working on Aristotle and on Greek philosophy.

Peter Adamson: They were actually surprised then.

Michele Trizio: Exactly. You have the idea of two worlds apart.

Peter Adamson: It's amazing because that means that the Latin speaking world knew more about the Arabic speaking world than the Eastern part of the former Roman Empire knew about the Western part. That's really astonishing. What about much earlier Latin writing figures, and in particular, what we might call Latin patristic authors? Just take the most obvious example, Augustine. Weren't Augustine's works to some extent known in Byzantium?

Michele Trizio: Very, very late. Only in the late 13th century. Actually, they knew who Augustine was because they knew he was a hero of the Roman Empire, a theological hero who fought against heresies, but they didn't know his writings. Only in the late 13th century they translated Augustine's De Trinitate, and they didn't translate and know the Confessions, for example. Other works which were known and translated by the same translator who translated actually Augustine's De Trinitate were Boethius, the Consolation of Philosophy and Cicero's De Somnium Scipiones with a commentary by Macrobius.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, that's The Dream of Scipio in English. They know a little bit about Augustine. They know Boethius's Consolation and they know a little bit of Cicero and Macrobius. So they actually knew less about the Latin tradition than the Latin tradition knew about the Greeks, because if you look at an early Latin author like Eriugena, he knows a lot of the Greek patristic authors and he knows Dionysius and so on.

Michele Trizio: Yes, exactly. We have no Eriugena, at least in that same period. Again, as I said, only in late 13th century do we have translators who are capable of producing good quality translations word by word from the Latin into Greek.

Peter Adamson: Can you say something to explain that? I mean, it seems kind of perverse in a way that the Greeks would have so little interest in this large culture which they clearly know about. I mean, for example, they're worried about whether Charles the Great, Charlemagne, should be considered an emperor in the ninth century. It's not like they're unaware that there are major courts in the Latin speaking realm. Is it just because they assume that if you're doing philosophy, then Greek is better than Latin because Plato and Aristotle wrote in Greek?

Michele Trizio: Partly because of that, but you also have to think that the relationship between the Latin West and the Byzantine Empire was very tense at certain moments. First, you have in 1054 the schism - so the church is separate. Then in 1204, you have the Latin invasion of Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire had to move to Nicaea, whereas Constantinople gets occupied for 50 years by the Crusaders. After that, the relationship between these two worlds becomes definitely compromised.

Peter Adamson: And when they did get Latin texts in - as you said, rather late and very partially - how influential were they? For example, would they - take something like On the Trinity by Augustine, once they've got it does it become really influential?

Michele Trizio: There is something which becomes influential with respect to Augustine and his legacy. For example, they take Augustine seriously that the soul is an image of the Trinity. There are three faculties of the soul, mens, notizia, amor, so mind or spirit, knowledge and love. This is something which is absent in the Greek patristic tradition. Once they learn that from Augustine, you see major influential theologians using that theory that the human soul is an image of the Trinity.

Peter Adamson: You mentioned before briefly that he was also known for attacking what he considered to be heretical movements. I assume you mean Pelagianism and Donatism as well. Was that really an issue in Byzantium? Because of course, it's a big deal in Latin tradition.

Michele Trizio: No, they just knew the person. They just knew the name. It's a kind of doxography. They have a list of people whom they should have considered as wise men and theological authorities, but they had no actual knowledge of his work, of Augustine's work.

Peter Adamson: What about Aquinas? You mentioned that they were impressed that he knew Aristotle.

Michele Trizio: Yeah. The case of Aquinas is even more interesting. It all happened around 1354. There was this man called Demetrios Chidones. He was a diplomat working at the Byzantine court. He had to learn Latin because he was supposed to deal with many Western entrepreneurs - traders in particular, who were active in Constantinople, people from Genoa, Pisa, and in general, the Latin West. He met a monk, a Dominican monk, in Constantinople, and he asked him to teach him Latin. This monk gave him, as a book of grammar exercises, Aquinas Summa Contra Gentiles. Once he read it, he was astonished. He said, 'wow, these people know Aristotle much better than us.' From that moment on, there is a full set of Byzantine theologians who support Thomas Aquinas' view, convert to Catholicism, and reject all earlier Byzantine theology as a kind of superstition, mysticism, and something which has nothing to do with the exercise of pure reason. Thomas Aquinas, for them, was the champion of rationalism against fideism.

Peter Adamson: Right. In effect, he becomes a standard bearer for an alternative model of Christianity.

Michele Trizio: Exactly. This is perceived as a dramatic split within the Byzantine intellectual culture because you really have a war between supporters of Aquinas and supporters of the traditional way of doing theology, which rejected syllogisms, for example, or rejected the use of dialectics and so on. It's very interesting because it's not just that they were surprised by Aquinas' knowledge of Aristotle, but they actually thought that Aquinas could be useful for reinventing and rethinking theology.

Peter Adamson: Okay. Now turning to the other direction, you've said that the influence of the Latin West on the Greek East is very minimal. What about the influence of the Greek East on the Latin West? Obviously, we think of the recovery of Aristotle and Plato later on, at the beginning of the Renaissance, as a major impact from the Greek sphere on the Latin sphere. But what about properly Byzantine authors? Were they at all influential in the Latin West?

Michele Trizio: Yes, indeed. With respect, for example, to theologians, we have the tradition of John of Damascus, who was translated in the 12th century. With respect to philosophers, to more philosophical sources, we have the tradition of the Greek Byzantine commentators on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. A very important figure in this respect is the leading scholar and bishop Robert Grossetest. Grossetest collected a wonderful and amazing Greek library. When you look at Grossetest, you have the impression that the Byzantines were not only relevant or important, but essential because of the transmission of the manuscript of Aristotle - also because they provided Western readers with the looking glasses for reading Aristotle, for understanding Aristotle.

Peter Adamson: Yeah. Something I talked about in the episodes on Latin medieval philosophy is that they would have often been reading Aristotle with the commentaries of Averroes, for example. The same thing is true with the Ethics, right? Because they read Grossetest's translation of the ethics along with Latin translations of Byzantine commentaries. By the way, when we say Byzantine commentators here, maybe we should say who we mean because I guess you don't just mean late ancient commentators. We're not talking about Philoponus and Simplicius.

Michele Trizio: No, none of these late ancient commentators commented actually upon the Nicomachean ethics, although we know for sure that it was part of the curriculum of study in late antiquity. What I mean is that Byzantine scholars such as the bishop of Nicaea, Eustratius, and court commentator, Michael of Ephesus, both these scholars were active between the end of 11th and the beginning of the 12th century.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, I've touched on them in the podcast already. One thing I've said about the commentary tradition in Byzantium in general is that there's a lot of continuity between late antiquity and the Byzantine commentary tradition, which means that we find a lot of Neoplatonic ideas in the commentaries written on Aristotle in Byzantium. First of all, would you say that's fair?

Michele Trizio: Yeah, that's true. I mean, the Byzantines were very interested in Aristotle's logic, but also in other works, and especially with respect to these other works, they were looking at and reading Aristotle with the eye of Neoplatonism.

Peter Adamson: Why by the way, why are they so interested in the Ethics? I mean, why do they comment on the Ethics when the late antique authors hadn't?

Michele Trizio: That's a very difficult question to answer. My idea, which is also the idea on which most scholars agree, is that these commentaries were produced at the request of a patron. In this case, a princess, the daughter of the emperor, who was very interested in Aristotelian philosophy and requested the production of these commentaries.

Peter Adamson: She actually said, 'give me a comment on ethics.' Because maybe the royal family would be interested in the application of philosophy to their way of life?

Michele Trizio: We still have no clear idea on this, but that's a very good suggestion because there is no trace, for example, no evidence suggesting, that the Nicomachean Ethics was taught at school. So it's very interesting that the first appearance of this work in Byzantium, witnessed by the writing and composition of these commentaries, actually takes place actually within the imperial court.

Peter Adamson: It's nice, by the way - an example of a woman who is influencing the history of philosophy. I'd like to highlight that. The fact that these commentaries are fairly Neoplatonic in character, do you think that that pushed the Latin readers of the ethics in a more Neoplatonic direction?

Michele Trizio: Yes, I think so, especially for what regards book one of the Nicomachean Ethics. As you know, in book one, Aristotle criticized Plato's theories of forms and the Byzantines actually tried to defend Plato from Aristotle's allegation. And actually this attempt at defending Plato is very successful among Western readers. They all praise Eustratius of Nicaea for having defended successfully Plato, because they were interested in... What Eustratius does is to say that Plato's forms are thoughts in the divine mind, which is something which Latin supporters of, for example, Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great, found very easy to accept.

Peter Adamson: Maybe we should just explain that the reason this is relevant to the context of talking about the Ethics is that there's a chapter in the first book of the ethics where Aristotle attacks the idea of the form of the good in Plato. Both the Byzantines and the Latins who were influenced by them, would they have gone on and said, well, not only are there ideas in the mind of God, which are these Platonic exemplars, but also we can say that God himself is the form of the good?

Michele Trizio: Yes, that's exactly what Eustratius does. He claims that the good exists, the Good with capital G, I would say, and that the Good is God. That's why Bonaventure and Albert the Great, for example, newfound Eustratius readers will support his defense of Plato against Aristotle. Of course, it's an unauthentic Plato. Plato would probably never have said that the forms were contents in the divine mind, but that's the way the Eustratius read Plato through the looking glasses of Neoplatonism.

Peter Adamson: Yeah. In fact, that goes all the way back to the Philo of Alexandria, you find it in Augustine. That's not a novel way of distorting Plato, even if it's a distortion. By the way, do they cite Eustratius by name when they talk about Plato?

Michele Trizio: By name, yes. They cited him as The Commentator, which sometimes modern editors of medieval Latin works mistook for Averroes, because Averroes was "the commentator" par excellence. In many cases, the commentator at stake is Eustratius of Nicaea.

Peter Adamson: Another thing that I associate with Neoplatonic readings of the Ethics is that they tend to put a lot of emphasis on the end of the Ethics - the 10th and final book, where Aristotle says, 'having told you all about virtue and the life of practical engagement and also friendship, I'm now going to tell you that the very best life is the life of theoretical contemplation.' Of course, that fits very well into a Neoplatonic worldview, where you're being encouraged to turn away from the physical world towards the intelligible world. To what extent did the Byzantine commentators embrace that and then pass that on to the Latin ones?

Michele Trizio: They endorse this approach. For example, Michael of Ephesus, the commentator on book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics, understands Aristotle's emphasis on contemplative life as the supreme form of happiness in terms of the Platonic assimilation to God insofar as humanly possible. And Eustratius is very clear in respecting this in his commentary on book six of the Nicomachean Ethics. He says, we have to turn away from passions and the material world, and we have to look at the separate intelligible world, which is a very anti-Aristotelian way of thinking about contemplative life. But again, they were very interested in mixing Aristotle with the Neoplatonists, in particular Proclus.

Peter Adamson: One thing that strikes me about this is that that highly intellectualist approach to philosophy and life as a whole - the idea that what we're trying to do is achieve intellectual perfection, that's also very strong in the Arabic tradition. So I suppose that the Latin readers would have just thought that both the Arabic authors and the Greek authors, both sets of commentators, were reading Aristotle the same way.

Michele Trizio: That's exactly what happens. For example, Albert the Great, who is the first and probably most consequential reader of Eustratius of Nicaea and Michael of Ephesus, he claims in his commentary on Aristotle's On The Soul that the Byzantine commentator on the Nicomachean Ethic shares with the Arabic commentators the very same theory on human intellect as something which has participated, and is a kind of trace of, the supreme separate intellect.

Peter Adamson: What about the philosophers who are seen as the most radical Aristotelians in the late 13th century, namely the so-called Latin Averroists like Boethius of Dacia, CJ of Brabant? The fact that they're called Averroists, whether you think that's right or not, the fact that they're called that suggests that they were above all being influenced by the Arabic tradition. Were they also influenced by the Greek tradition at all?

Michele Trizio: Research shows that actually they were influenced by the Byzantine tradition - in particular by the Byzantine commentators on Nicomachean Ethics. A recent study by Luca Bianchi demonstrated that Boethius of Dacia quotes only once from Averroes and it's probably a third hand quotation. On the other hand, there are many passages in Boethius of Dacia's work which are very close to what Eustratius and Michael of Ephesus say on contemplative life as a kind of conjunction with the intelligible world. So in this way, we can say that even modern scholars are trying to reassess the category of Averroists looking at alternative sources like the Byzantine commentators on the Nicomachean Ethics.

Peter Adamson: It suggests that actually Latin Byzantines would be a more appropriate name for them than Latin Averroists.

Michele Trizio: I don't know. We'll say this is surely also true for Boethius of Dacia. CJ is another kind of...

Peter Adamson: Yeah, right. Okay. What about as we move forward into the 14th century after the supposed high point of scholasticism in the 13th century, but before the Renaissance with the famous infusion of ideas and Platonism from the Byzantine world? Are there authors in the 14th century who draw on the Byzantine textual tradition?

Michele Trizio: No, no, not directly. But they all still depend upon texts and sources which had been translated previously in 13th century. For example, if you look at the commentaries edition again on the Nicomachean Ethics, you can see that everyone cites Eustratius and Michael as if they were the only reliable authority. Of course, there is also Averroes. Averroes' middle commentary in the Nicomachean Ethics was translated into Latin, but it was less influential and consequential than the Byzantine commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics.

Peter Adamson: I see. So there's basically two waves of Byzantine influence on the Latin West - or maybe three actually, because there's the original one with Eriugena when he translates Dionysius and Gregory of Nyssa and so on. Then there's the second wave where they come in along with Aristotle in the 12th and 13th century. Then there's nothing for a while. There's no new texts. And then there's the Renaissance. Is that right? So we're looking even further ahead to the Renaissance. Obviously, now this is a very big topic, the transmission of philosophy from the Byzantine world into the Renaissance. But do you want to just pick out a few things that you think are particularly worth knowing about that?

Michele Trizio: Yes. Once again, the background of this whole movement, translation movement, was an ideological one. It all started with the Council of Florence and Ferrara in the fourth decade of the 15th century. It was about the Filioque, or it was about discussing theological issues mostly. But that was an occasion for Western scholars to meet their Byzantine counterparts. That was the beginning of a very, very interesting phase in the history of philosophy where Byzantine scholars were lecturing in Western universities or in private circles, for example, in Florence or later in Padua. They were actually in touch personally with people like Ficino and the like. We have not only a kind of passive transmission of texts, but it was mutuated and mediated by personal acquaintance between Byzantine and Western scholars. That's the most interesting thing. Sometimes Western scholars were asking their Byzantine colleagues to translate or to support their understanding of Greek classical philosophical works. That is to say we have an example of intellectual collaboration between intellectuals from different worlds.

Peter Adamson: Just like in the 12th century when in Spain you have Christians working together with Jews or Muslims who are native speakers of Arabic, and they collaborate on Arabic-Latin translations. That's interesting because I think a lot of people probably would have thought that what happens in the Renaissance is that a bunch of people who are Latin-speaking Christians in Italy learn Greek. Somehow they get their hands on a bunch of Greek manuscripts and then they're off and running and the Renaissance happens. But you're saying that it's actually at least partially about a movement of people from the Byzantine East to the Latin West.

Michele Trizio: When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, even more Byzantine emigres escaping from Constantinople became refugees in Italy. And I think that the Aristotle edition prepared by Aldus Manutius in Venice, they were all prepared by Greek collaborators of his like Marco Mosurius. So the basic standard edition for centuries of Aristotle was prepared by Greek emigres in Italy. 


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