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Siniossoglou N. Radical Platonism in Byzantium: Illumination and Utopia in Gemistos Plethon

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Siniossoglou N. Radical Platonism in Byzantium: Illumination and Utopia in Gemistos Plethon
Cambridge University Press, 2011. — 454 p. — (Cambridge Classical Studies).
The Byzantine philosopher Gemistos Pletho has often left scholars of Platonism puzzled as they struggle to understand the project described in his main treatise, the Nomoi, which entailed abandoning Christian Orthodoxy in order to revive pagan religion. The only copy of the work was partly burned by Patriarch Gennadios Scholarios, who kept some excerpts to prove that he was justified in destroying the rest. After the first publication of the surviving fragments of the Nomoi by Charles Alexandre (1858),1 a variety of different interpretations of Pletho’s Platonism have been suggested, ranging from the idea that he was the leader of a pagan cell operating in the Peloponnese (Charles Alexandre and François Masai,2 among others) to the idea that the whole story of his apostasy from Christian Orthodoxy could very well be a calumny trumped up by his enemies (Paul O. Kristeller3 and James Hankins,4 among others).
Against the background of this scholarly impasse, Niketas Siniossoglou’s book tackles the problem of making sense of Pletho’s pagan Platonism from the point of view of the history of ideas, exploring the intellectual history of the fourteenth century as the context in which Pletho’s philosophy has to be understood. As a result, what he offers is not a general introduction to Pletho (for this the standard book will remain C. M. Woodhouse,5 at least in the English speaking world) nor a historical survey of this enigmatic figure. Instead, Siniossoglou, who openly sides with those who accept Pletho’s philosophical paganism, builds on Masai’s book and carries forward his research on Pletho’s cultural framework, the content of his philosophical theology and the purpose of his political reforms. The result is a learned and very stimulating book, which will be of interest to all concerned not only with Byzantine philosophy but also with the relationship between philosophy and religion in the history of Greece.
The book is organised into four parts, preceded by a preface and introduction and followed by an extensive bibliography (427-446) and index (447-454). In the preface Siniossoglou announces his general aim of examining, in the context of the fifteenth-century Byzantine Empire, the clash between those who believe that human beings are able to acquire knowledge of the ‘ultimate foundation of reality’ and those who deny it (ix-x). To do so, he provides in the introduction definitions of some of the key concepts used in this book, e.g., paganism, utopianism, humanism and conceptual idolatry.
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