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Platonism in the Eastern Mediterranean

Posted On May 03, 2022 | 11:34 am | by alysonw | Permalink
Samet Budak traces scholarly networks and intellectual traditions of Byzantine, Ottoman, and Arab philosophers

Samet Budak, PhD candidate in Middle East studies at the University of Michigan, is a junior fellow in Byzantine Studies. His research report, “A Mediterranean Episteme: Intellectual Networks and Contacts in the Eastern Mediterranean (1380–1480),” connected the lives of Mediterranean philosophers Gemistos Pletho, Bedreddin of Simavna, and Abd al-Rahman al-Bistami in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Q&A with Samet Budak

Who are the philosophers you are studying, and what is their significance in the medieval Mediterranean?

I compare three philosophers born in the second half of the fourteenth century and who died around the mid-fifteenth century. One is a Byzantine philosopher, Gemistos Pletho, from Constantinople. He became perhaps one of the foremost thinkers during the last century of Byzantium, a time when there was an enormous amount of contact between Byzantines, Italians, and Ottomans. I also am studying an Ottoman philosopher, Bedreddin of Simavna, and an Arab philosopher, Abd al-Rahman al-Bistami, who finally settled in Ottoman Bursa. Bedreddin was half-Greek, half-Ottoman and was also quite an important political figure. He is famous for starting a large rebellion against the Ottomans. Al-Bistami was from Mamluk Antioch in today’s southern Turkey. Antioch was initially a significant Byzantine city that changed hands many times among Arabs, Byzantines, and Crusaders.

By comparing these three figures, I’m trying to understand larger intellectual issues and connections in the eastern Mediterranean in the late fourteenth to fifteenth century. These three are particularly connected by their engagement with a new Platonic movement. Plato’s writings had mostly been forgotten in the West, and most of the Platonic dialogues weren’t translated into Latin, but in Byzantium and the Islamicate world, people had access to Platonic ideas through the original works of Plato and/or Neoplatonic literature. The new Platonic movement in the fifteenth century became a Mediterranean-wide movement and created the fertile soil for not only Renaissance philosophy but also Islamicate discussions about philosophy and theology, and these philosophers were at the center of this development. It’s important to work with them to understand the macrohistory of the region and to reflect on commonalities between Byzantines and their neighbors.

How were they connected and exchanging knowledge with one another?

There were many aspects to their connections, the most basic of which was geography. They were all active and traveling in roughly the same area—the eastern Mediterranean—roughly today’s Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt. Pletho and Bedreddin both studied at the Ottoman court. We don’t know for sure whether they knew each other personally, but it’s very likely, and we do know that Bedreddin and al-Bistami knew each other because in their writings, they talk about each other. They had similar friends, patrons, and the ideas in their books all deal with answering the same problems—and most of the time those answers are rather similar. In a nutshell, they were connected through both their networks and their intellectual semiosphere. 

In the fifteenth century, there was a departure from earlier Platonic and Neoplatonic movements. For example, within the Platonic framework, the philosophies of Pletho and Bedreddin assume an imminent creator—the divine does not preside over the universe from the outside. This was a completely new synthesis for their time that changed the approach to the divine and to scriptures and created a completely new metaphysics without formal understanding of religious scriptures necessarily. Fascinatingly, they were also all interested in Zoroaster—Pletho especially was on a quest to find something older than the Abrahamic scriptures. He discovered a collection of revelations called the Chaldean Oracles, which were Neoplatonic revelations mostly used for divination and magic of a pagan background. Pletho attributed it to the ancient Persian prophet and sage Zoroaster and his followers called magi. This attribution made the rounds in the Mediterranean and was the basis for Pletho’s Prisca Philosophia. Ottomans too connected Platonism with Zoroaster, as did Italians; we even see a depiction of Zoroaster in Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens, among other significant figures of human thought. It’s a fascinating example of how ideas traveled throughout the Mediterranean from Persia to Greece to Italy.

What does this tell us about intellectual life in the medieval Mediterranean broadly?

Studying the epistemology of this historical period reveals how we must examine intellectual histories of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires in connection with each other. Until recently, scholarship on these topics were somewhat parochial, and I am showing these intellectual traditions in the Mediterranean must be understood together as a connected episteme. This allows us to conceptualize how epistemic shifts happen, particularly during the historical period when people think that modernity starts. Platonic philosophy and its counterarguments played an important role in the development of modern epistemes, so it’s imperative to conceptualize this Mediterranean episteme during this formative period. Dumbarton Oaks has provided me with the opportunity of working with fascinating scholars, not only in intellectual history but also in many other branches of Byzantine scholarship.  


May Wang is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow. Photo by Emily Orr, humanities fellow.