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Maximus, Al-Farabi and the Extended Philosophical Canon

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Maximus’ philosophy challenges our understanding of what European philosophy is. The examination of numerous aspects of Maximus’ philosophy stresses the interdisciplinary character of Maximian studies. Apart from Maximus’ relevance and importance for philosophy in general, a second question arises: should towering figures of Byzantine philosophy like Maximus the Confessor be included in an overview of the history of European philosophy, or rather excluded from it—as is the case today with most histories of European philosophy?

Al-Farabi followed in the footsteps of the late antique Alexandrine school of philosophy, which blended Platonism and Aristotelianism. Al-Farabi’s philosophy has been studied extensively and we have a good idea about his possible sources. There are several indications that Al-Farabi and Maximus the Confessor share common insights, for they resort to the same ancient Greek tradition.’

Τhe philosophy of Proclus was of seminal importance for Pico della Mirandola. Pico was not mainly preoccupied with defending the Christian religion in general or key theological doctrines, but was preoccupied in his early period with the attempt to appropriate the philosophy of the Neoplatonists – predominantly Proclus – so as to present his holistic philosophical program.’

In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, there was a profound interest in Greek Antiquity. Machiavelli, however, undermined ancient Greece while he praised Rome. In his eyes, there could be no question that Rome was the ultimate model of human civilization.

Georgios Steiris is Interested in political philosophy, metaphysics, medieval and Renaissance philosophy, history, archaeology, history of philosophy, Byzantine studies, Byzantine philosophy, Plato and Platonism, Medieval philosophy, Aristotle, Renaissance Studies, Plotinus, Neoplatonism, Ancient philosophy, ancient Greek philosophy, Renaissance, Humanism, Neoplatonism and late antique philosophy. Here he discuses Maximus the Confessor, whether he’s European, whether he’s a philosopher, his relationship with Aristotle, Stoicism and Alexandrian Neoplatonism, his relationship with Muhammed Al-Farabi,  Al-Farabi’s philosophy, Maximus and philosophy of language, archaism, proto-nationalism and Hellenism, the relationship between Byzantine and Renaissance and Arabic thinking, the ontology of animals and their moral worth in both early Christian and Arabic sources (briefly), Pico della Mirandola, emanation, Proclus, Georgios Trapezuntios, and Machiavelli’s preference Sparta to Athens.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Georgios Steiris: Originally I was obsessed with history. My youth hero was Indiana Jones. During my studies I realized that I didn’t like material history and I shifted towards the history of ideas. I despised common sense and uneducated views and  philosophy gave me the chance to realize that the unexamined life is not worth living.

3:AM: You’ve made the study of Byzantine philosophy an area of focus. So let’s start with Maximus the Confessor. Can you sketch for us when he lived and his philosophical and historical context?

GS: Maximus the Confessor (580-662) was a theologian and scholar, who was persecuted severely for his theological positions. After his death the Sixth Ecumenical Synod upheld his views and was venerated as a saint. He was involved in the Monothelite controversy. We don’t know much about his studies, but he was erudite in theology and philosophy. He knew very well the works of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Neoplatonists. His major source was the Corpus Dionysiacum. We could say that his philosophy is comments on the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Maximus contributed in the elaboration of Christian philosophy by incorporating views of ancient philosophers.

3:AM:Why does his philosophy challenge what European philosophy is, providing alternatives to basic tenets of his Western contemporaries as well as later developments in European philosophy? Is he European, and is he really a philosopher?

GS: Maximus’ philosophy challenges our understanding of what European philosophy is. The examination of numerous aspects of Maximus’ philosophy stresses the interdisciplinary character of Maximian studies. Apart from Maximus’ relevance and importance for philosophy in general, a second question arises: should towering figures of Byzantine philosophy like Maximus the Confessor be included in an overview of the history of European philosophy, or rather excluded from it—as is the case today with most histories of European philosophy? Latin Church Fathers such as Augustine or Thomas Aquinas are self-evidently included in the long history of the foundations of European philosophy. However, the equally self-evident omission of Byzantine Fathers like Maximus the Confessor from such historical overviews of philosophy does not seem to be justified by any lack of philosophical efflorescence.

3:AM: Do we know his specific philosophical sources and predilections – is he relying on Aristotle, Stoicism and Alexandrian Neoplatonism? If he was, can you sketch for us what these were to him and would we expect these to be his sources?

GS: It has been repeatedly stated that Maximus the Confessor’s (c. 580–662) thought is of eminently philosophical interest, and his work has been approached from a philosophical point of view in a number of monographs. Although Maximus’ treatises reflect a strong philosophical background, prior research has failed to determine with clarity his specific philosophical sources and predilections. Recently, Marius Portaru has systematically attempted to shed light on Maximus’ philosophical influences, focusing predominantly on Aristotle and Platonism. Nevertheless, we still cannot fully integrate Maximus in a coherent history of late antique or Byzantine philosophy. Maximus primarily used philosophical insights in order to further elaborate and strengthen his theological views. Besides apologetic purposes, he referred occasionally to purely philosophical topics, which are more adequate to reveal Maximus’ philosophical education and knowledge. Maximus’ epistemology proves his dependence on ancient Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle, Stoicism and Alexandrian Neoplatonism.

3:AM: Does comparing him with Muhammed Al-Farabi, the founder of medieval Arabic philosophy working a couple of hundred years later than Maximus, help us understand Maximus’s philosophical interests and his philosophical education? Are Maximus and Al Farabi important alternatives to the approaches of Augustine and Ibn Sina (Avicena) in understanding the way the Christian and Arabic traditions of philosophy handle time and history? What does a comparison between these two reveal?

GS: Abu Nasr Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Al-Farabi (c. 870–c. 950), the founder of medieval Arabic philosophy had a good knowledge of ancient Greek philosophy, as it was presented in late antique commentaries. Namely, the principal sources of his philosophy are to be sought in the Greek tradition, in the original writings of Plato and Aristotle, in Neoplatonism and in the Aristotelianism of Alexandria. Most significant is his turn towards the much undervalued Middle Platonism. Al-Farabi followed in the footsteps of the late antique Alexandrine school of philosophy, which blended Platonism and Aristotelianism. Al-Farabi’s philosophy has been studied extensively and we have a good idea about his possible sources. There are several indications that Al-Farabi and Maximus the Confessor share common insights, for they resort to the same ancient Greek tradition. It is obvious that, despite their different perspectives, Maximus and Al-Farabi resorted primarily to the same Middle Platonic and Neoplatonic tradition.

[Al-Farabi]

3:AM: Why do you think that Al-Farabi was right to found his anthropocentric ecumenical state on philosophy?

GS: Al-Farabi’s historical experience – the great empires of Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Sassanids and the Arabs – lead him to realize that the perfect society should be realized in political associations larger than the city. Moreover, the pseudo–Aristotelian tradition of the late antiquity could have had inspired al-Fārābi. The virtuous world-state, according to al-Fārābi, is not a reality, but it is possible to be realized in the future when all nations shall struggle for happiness. Al-Fārābi aspires to that specific type of ecumenism because it will maximize the common good and facilitate the realization of human nature. In addition, al-Fārābi, in his Compendium of the Laws, refrains from mentioning the passages of the Platonic Laws which refer to the extent of the virtuous city–state, a prepositional omission in favor of ecumenism. Al-Fārābi was well aware of the political reality of his era and realized that the limitations of the Greek city–states, both theoretical and practical, could not correspond to the needs of his epoch and of the coming generations. The realization of happiness for all the human beings requires a single, universal state which safeguards the necessary conditions for such an accomplishment. Al-Fārābi visualizes an ecumenical state based on laws and institutions appropriate for its size and goal: a political association of justice which serves the totality of the citizens and not only dominant and powerful groups. Al-Fārābi’s ecumenism is integrated in the intellectual climate of his era, but at the same moment it lacks the cornerstone of the Abbasid’s ideology, namely Islam. It is worth mentioning here that al-Fārābi suggests ecumenism as a gradual process starting from the city. It is the progress and not the outcome of imposition by a certain authority. The cities–states should unite so as to form nations while nations, in turn, should form the union of the inhabited part of the world. In this way, al-Fārābi avoids the hazard of tyranny and imposition.

3:AM: Is there a philosophy of language associated with Maximus and how would you characterise his approach to epistemology and apophaticism (which, for the readers who might not have come across the word, is knowledge of God obtained through negating concepts that might apply to God) and were these important to his ideas regarding human nature, ethics and the will?

GS: In Maximus the Confessor as a European Philosopher, fr. Maximos Constas argues in his “A Greater and More Hidden Word: Maximus the Confessor and the Nature of Language” that there is indeed what we would today call a philosophy of language in Maximus, although scattered in the Confessor’s oeuvre. In a certain sense, his epistemology is apophaticism, although I would describe apophaticism as something more thorough than simply “knowledge of God through negative concepts.” Of foundational — ontological and cosmological — importance for thinkers like Maximus is the created/uncreated distinction, i.e. that the world is created, in contrast of course to classical philosophy. The world has its cause and source of being outside of itself, but our immediate experience is derived only from this created world, thus properly speaking there is no language to refer to the uncreated, for nothing that applies to creation applies to the uncreated God in the same way , including existence/being. Thus, for Maximus “because of His being beyond being, [God] is more fittingly referred to as nonbeing” (Myst., proem.109) and “nonbeing is properly meant with regard to [God], since he is not among beings”. His philosophy on humanity, ethics and will is built on the bedrock of this created/uncreated distinction and its import and priority, something which distinguishes him from more properly Neoplatonic Christian thinkers of his time.

[Maximus]

3:AM: Byzantine intellectuals according to you were drawn to archaism, proto-nationalism and Hellenism. Can you sketch for us what these were, why they were so appealing and how they tried to build identity on historical and cultural continuity and otherness?

GS: During the 14th and 15th centuries, a number of influential intellectuals in the Eastern Roman Empire preferred the term Hellene (Ἓλλην) to identify themselves, instead of the formal Roman (Ρωμαῖος) and the common Greek (Γραικός).  According to the prevalent view of modern scholarship, the shift should not be interpreted only as a statement of proto-national identity, but also as the outcome of growing archaism. Besides archaism, proto-nationalism and Hellenism, I suggest that a careful reading of the sources would lead us to reappraise the ways 15th century intellectuals perceived identity. I support that, in the 15th century, Byzantine scholars attempted to create an identity, and not just an imagined community, based on cultural and historical continuity and otherness. The basis of philosophical elites’ Hellenism in the 15th century was not only common language and literary tradition, but also historical continuity and cultural otherness.  Late Byzantine scholars lamented the decline of the former Eastern Roman Empire and sought proud in ancient Greek civilization. In this attempt, otherness was crucial. They do not specify who the others are; they all agree that the Turks were a threat, but they are not in accord on whether the Latins were a threat or not.

3:AM:  How would you characterise the relationship between Byzantine and Renaissance thought – and how important was Arabic thinking in this mix? So when you compare the relationship between politics, religion and heresy in the early Byzantine treatise and in the work of Al-Farabi what do you find? Is there convergence?

GS: Either way, the Byzantines of the 14th and 15th century were not familiar with the original Arabic philosophy, but with its interpretation by Medieval Christian and Jewish thinkers. While the Byzantine scholars paid attention to Arabic science and attempted translations of Arabic and Persian scientific works, they constantly refused to study thoroughly and incorporate Arabic philosophy in their culture. Gregoras’ position proves that they were aware of Arabic philosophy even before the Greek translations of Aquinas’ works and rejected its validity. In the 15th century Averroism became a crucial matter for Byzantine intellectuals, since a critical mass of scholars had at least a limited and mediated knowledge of his philosophy. The thorough study of the Scholastics led the Byzantines to realize that Aristoteles Arabus had a distinct place in Western schools and universities. Scholarios was the most philosophical of Byzantine scholars of his time and his philosophical interest was genuine; however, his knowledge of Scholastic philosophy and Arabic Aristotelianism was not adequate to allow him renew Byzantine Aristotelianism and adjust it tο the standards of his time.

For the most part, Byzantine scholars’ reaction was awkward or hostile, since they were not always prone or ready to apprehend and appreciate Arabic philosophy. They felt that they were obliged to defend their interpretation of the Aristotelian philosophy, which was the only accurate and authentic, because they were the privileged inheritors of Greek wisdom. They failed to realize that the major threat for Greek culture was not Arabic and Scholastic philosophy but their very reluctance to revise, renew and enrich their traditional viewpoints. Moreover, he thought of philosophy as being superior to religion, because the latter simply provided a symbolic and naïve interpretation of the eternal truth. Instead, philosophy is the only way to truth and the philosopher the most perfect kind of ruler. Al Farabi supported the idea that humans are able to attain the ultimate goal of happiness only in the framework of the virtuous city, despite of the fact that certain classes hamper the attainment of happiness because they misinterpret philosophy and religion. As a result they distort the institutions of the virtuous city.

But, while religion guides the public in its quest for happiness, true happiness is the outcome of solid philosophical endeavor. Religion, according to al Farabi, is not an outcome of divine revelation, although he does not deny the existence of the First Cause. It is rather an ancilla philosophiae. Usually lawgivers, who are also prophets, ground legislation upon religion, instead of philosophy.  People, who are unaware of the fact that religion is just representation of philosophical truth, give predominance to religion and oppose philosophy. While there is no rational way to overcome true philosophy, al Farabi claims that any religion is open to objection, a view peculiar for any apocalyptical religion. Philosophers attempt to defend philosophy, but the powerful supporters of religion usually prohibit philosophy and instruct people through religion, concealing that religion is just an analogy of truth.  Al Farabi accuses political theology and major religions that they misinterpret true knowledge about the universe and the meaning of life. In fact they are heresies. He also accuses philosophers, among them Plato, and religion leaders who support the mortification of senses and call people to choose voluntary death so that they achieve happiness. All these views lead cities to pernicious paths and keep them away from happiness. False philosophical and religion views produce in turn false religions and heretical beliefs that bring to cities misery and decline. Any form of heresy or misinterpretation of the philosophical and religious truth, which in fact are the same, has catastrophic consequences for the political and social structure of any city.

3:AM: Interestingly you find aspects of the ontology of animals and their moral worth in both early Christian and Arabic sources don’t you? Isidore of Seville and Al-Farabi are your case studies. Can you say what they have to say about animal ontology and ethics as it seems to be something that both Christian and Islamic thinkers have not dwelled on.

GS: Isidore of Seville and al-Fārābi are two seminal figures of the early medieval world. Although their main interest was not in animals, they left us some interesting views and insights. They both follow the traditional view, namely that animals are ontologically inferior to humans, remaining loyal to the principles of their paradigms. But, on the other hand, their argumentation on animal’s free will was of great importance for the evolution of animal rights and, I dare say, much more progressive than those of future philosophers and scholars.

[Pico della Mirandola]

3:AM: Why was Anaxagoras’s metaphysics so important to Pico della Mirandola’s, in particular Pico’s syncretism and his attempt to reveal hidden truths in every text and level of reality?

GS: Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) focuses on Anaxagoras (ca. 500–428 BC) because he considers him as a precursor of the the later Neoplatonic concept all things exist in all things in their own mode, which became the core of Pico’s metaphysics. Anaxagoras’s philosophy permits Pico to establish his doctrine that all things share a portion of God within them, in their own way. Pico rejects the fixed position of man in the ontological hierarchy. Man has the chance to become everything. Pico asserts that man con-tains all things in himself as their center, just like God contains all things as their origin. As a consequence, Anaxagoras’s principle is supportive to Pico’s metaphysics. Furthermore, Anaxagoras’s metaphysical prin-ciple is supportive of Pico’s method of allegorical interpretation, which is indispensable for his syncretism and his attempt to reveal hidden truths in every text or level of reality.

3:AM: What was Pico’s view on emanation and why is it of philosophical importance and why do you say that he probably thinks of himself as a modern Orpheus?

GS: Τhe philosophy of Proclus was of seminal importance for Pico della Mirandola. Pico was not mainly preoccupied with defending the Christian religion in general or key theological doctrines, but was preoccupied in his early period with the attempt to appropriate the philosophy of the Neoplatonists – predominantly Proclus – so as to present his holistic philosophical program. Pico’s goal was to reveal hidden affinities which conjoin all the major philosophical, theological and theosophical traditions of the ancient and medieval world. Proclus was the key figure in Picos’ endeavor because of his importance for the Greek, Arabic and Jewish intellectual traditions. According to Pico, Proclus recapitulated the Greek philosophy and affected the vast majority of later scholars. Pico believed in innovation. He was not satisfied with the philosophical corpus of his day and he struggled throughout his life to enrich it. He wanted to promote philosophical dialogue so as to renew philosophy.

His concern was to present new ideas or to reappraise common ones so as to uncover hidden knowledge and benefit humanity. Despite his intentions, Pico in the mid-1480’s was not up to such a task. He was rather young and did not grasp in full depth the Procline philosophy, as has been shown previously in this paper. The ambivalences in Pico’s texts and his often deficient philosophical vocabulary prove that he was fascinated by his project – the concordance of all the major philosophical, theological and theosophical traditions – but did not care about consistency. In addition he occasionally relied on untrustworthy primary sources and commentaries and he did not hesitate to present his conclusions in a way convenient for his general position. I dare to suggest that sometimes, in the early stages of his philosophical career, his argumentation shares more affinities with rhetoric than philosophy. Pico’s views on emanation help us understand the fundamental purposes of his attempt and reappraise his philosophical vocabulary and method.

[George ofTrebizond]

3:AM: Who was George of Trebizond and how did his views on death via his studies of Plutarch  plus his contributions to cosmology  as well as the way he treated maths and physical sciences contribute to the Italian and Northern Renaissance?

GS: Georgios Trapezuntios (1395-c.1472), otherwise known as George of Trebizond, was an eminent scholar of the 15th century, who contributed vastly to the dissemination of ancient Greek philosophy and rhetoric in Renaissance Italy. According to a letter of consolation he sent in the 1420s to Georgius Vatacius Cretensis on the occasion of the latter’s wife’s death, Trapezuntios was fascinated by the Spartan culture. In the letter, he frequently refers to Pseudo-Plutarch’s Consolatio ad Apollonium, especially to the passages where Pseudo-Plutarch praises the Spartan attitude towards death. A few decades later, in 1451, Trapezuntios translated the Platonic Laws, the careful study of which led him to express the view that the Platonic philosophy was what inspired Venice’s founding fathers to establish their mixed constitution. As proposed by modern scholarship, Trapezuntios specifically refers on passages where Plato praises the Spartan constitution. Further, in his Comparatio Philosophorum Platonis et Aristotelis, Trapezuntios discusses Venice’s mixed constitution and its relation to the Spartan polity. As a result, he was responsible, along with Aristotle and Polybius, for the reappraisal of the Spartan constitution in 15th-century Italy.

3:AM: Machiavelli prefers Sparta to Athens. What was his attitude towards Greek antiquity and the Renaissance and coming up to date, are there things in Machiavelli and other thinkers you have looked at in Byzantine, Arabic, Hellenistic and Renaissance philosophy that engages with contemporary Greek identity which according to you ‘remains an open question – and wound’?

GS: Niccolο Machiavelli (1469–1527) was an emblematic figure of the Renaissance, a person who bore all the characteristics of a homo universalis. His interests were broad and included history, politics and literature. Machiavelli is well known for his thorough examination and use of classical Antiquity, both Roman and Greek. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, there was a profound interest in Greek Antiquity. Machiavelli, however, undermined ancient Greece while he praised Rome. In his eyes, there could be no question that Rome was the ultimate model of human civilization. The manner in which he idealized Rome, however, was closely related to his attitude towards his own time and has a significant impact on this manner in which he should be located in relation to the ‘Renaissance’. Although, like his contemporaries, Machiavelli praised Sparta, he ultimately came to the conclusion that it was in fact inferior to Rome. Of course, he did not deny that the two states were very different: whereas Sparta possessed a simple and stable political structure, the Roman polity was of a more mixed and dynamic variety. In contrast to Sparta, however, it was the strife between plebs and nobles that had led Rome to greatness. Whereas Sparta’s growth was only limited, the development of Roman territory and authority was immense, and in this regard, its superiority was beyond question.

3:AM: And finally are there five books you can recommend to readers here at 3:AM that will take us further into your philosophical world?

GS:

  1. The Problem of Modern Greek Identity: from the Εcumene to the Nation-State, G. Steiris, S. Mitralexis, G. Arabatzis (eds). Cambridge Scholars Publishing: Newcastle  2016.
  2. Maximus the Confessor as a European Philosopher, S. Mitralexis, G. Steiris, M. Podbielski, S. Lalla (eds). Cascade Books / Wipf and Stock: Eugene OR 2017.
  3. Thomas Leinkauf, Grundriss Philosophie des Humanismus und der Renaissance (1350-1600), 2 vols., Hamburg 2017.

  1. JGA Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, Princeton 1975.

  1. Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1958.

[Sir Lennicus Bibby: archive footage of interviewer arguing with bouncer about no-tie rule ]

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, July 1st, 2018.