Plato, Byzantium and the Italian Renaissance

Plato, Byzantium and the Italian Renaissance

By Jonathan Harris

History Teaching Review Year Book, Vol.19 (2006)

Introduction: The ideas of the Athenian philosopher, Plato (429-347 BC), encapsulated in the form of dialogues, have exerted such an abiding influence on western philosophy and political thought that it is easy to forget that for many centuries, between about 500 and 1400, his works were almost unknown in western Europe. This was partly because very few people in Medieval Europe knew enough Greek to read Plato and even if they had, copies of the Dialogues were almost impossible to obtain, with only the Timaeus available in Latin translation. Scholars were therefore largely dependent on earlier Latin authors such as Cicero and St Augustine for a second-hand knowledge of Plato’s ideas. It was the rediscovery of the Dialogues in the original during the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century that set western thought off on new paths, a rediscovery that was made possible by the preservation and transmission of Plato’s work by scholars in another part of the Christian world, the Byzantine empire or Byzantium.

In Byzantium, the literary language was not Latin but Greek, and therefore classical Greek literature continued to be studied and read throughout the medieval period. In the empire’s capital city of Constantinople, the works of the ancient Greek poets, historians, dramatists and philosophers were taught in a traditional course of higher education that trained laymen for the imperial civil service. Plato was by no means the most popular author on the higher education curriculum, however, for there were several aspects of his thought which were extremely difficult to reconcile with Christian doctrine. In the Dialogue known in English as the Republic, for example, Plato described the transmigration of souls (metempsychosis), the idea that souls of the dead await a new body in which to be reborn, something completely at odds with the Christian teaching that souls await only resurrection and judgment. Plato also advocated the sharing of wives which is hardly compatible with the Christian ideal of marriage. Consequently, in 529 the Emperor Justinian (527-565) had closed the Platonic Academy in Athens and thereafter showing too much enthusiasm for Plato’s writings could incur the disapproval of the Church.

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