Michael Constantine Psellus

Michael Psellus image from the Monastery Pantokrator, Athos

Michael Constantine Psellus (Greek: Psellos) the younger, born in 1018 (probably at Nicomedia; according to some, at Constantinople) of a consular and patrician family, was a philosopher. He studied at Athens and Constantinople, where he became intimate with John Xiphilinus. Although he counted consuls and patricians amongst his father's ancestors, his immediate family was so limited in funds that providing a dowry for his sister deprived Psellus of the money to continue his own education.

Under Constantine Monomachus (1042 - 1055) he became one of the most influential men in the Byzantine Empire. As professor of philosophy at the newly founded academy of Constantinople he revived the cult of Plato at a time when Aristotle held the field; this, together with his admiration for the old pagan glories of Hellas, aroused suspicions as to his orthodoxy. At the height of his success as a teacher he was recalled to court, where he became state secretary and vestarch, with the honorary title of "prince of philosophers." The author of the Oxford Classical Dictionary article on Psellus wrote that his style "owed much to the Plato, Aelius Aristides and Gregory Nazianzen. More than any other man he laid the foundation of the Byzantine literary and philosophical renaissance of the 12th century."

However, towards the end of Constantine's reign he followed the example of his friend John Xiphilinus he entered the monastery of Olympus in Bithynia (near the modern Bursa), where he assumed the name of Michael. But, finding the monastic life little to his taste, he returned to his public career.

Under Byzantine emperors Isaac I Comnenus and Constantine Ducas he exercised great influence, and was prime minister during the regency of Eudocia Macrembolitissa and the reign of his pupil Michael Parapinaces (1071 - 1078). It is probable that he died soon after the fall of Parapinaces.

Living during the most melancholy period of Byzantine history, Psellus exhibited the worst faults of his age. He was servile and unscrupulous, weak, fond of intrigue, intolerably vain and ambitious. But as a literary man his intellect was of the highest order. In the extent of his knowledge, in keenness of observation, in variety of style, in his literary output, he has been compared to Voltaire; but it is perhaps as the forerunner of the great Renaissance Platonists that he will be chiefly remembered. His works embraced politics, astronomy, medicine, music, theology, jurisprudence, physics, grammar and history.

Writings and Bibliography

Of his works, which are very numerous, many have not yet been printed. A complete list of his works is given in Fabricius (Bibliotheca graeca, x.41). They may be catagorized as follows:

  1. Scientific and philosophicla treatises. The best known example of this is De Operatione Daemonum, a classification of demons.
  2. The Chronographica (covering the events from 976 to 1077), which in spite of its bias in favour of the Ducases is a valuable history of his time, chiefly on domestic affairs. This has been translated by E.R.A. Sewter (London: Penguin, 1982 ISBN 0-140441697).
  3. Various tratises on literary and philogical topics.
  4. Three Epitaphioi or funeral orations over the patriarchs Michael Cerularius, Constantine III Lichoudas and Xiphilinus; as well as panegyrics, persuasive speeches (including works against the Bogomils and Euchites), and nearly 500 personal letters, full of details of the period.
  5. Rhetorical exercises and essays on set themes.
  6. Occasional, satyrical, and epigrammatic verse

On Psellus himself s

  • Leo Allatius, De Psellis et eorum scriptis (1634)
  • Émile Egger in Dictionnaire des sciences philosophiques (1875)
  • Alfred Rambaud in Revue historique (1877)
  • PV Bezobrazov, Michel Psellos (1890; in Russian)
  • Carl Neumann, Die Weltstellung des byzantinischen Reiches vor den Kreuzzügen (1894)
  • Karl Krumbacher, Geschichte der byzantinischen Literatur (1897)
  • JE Sandys, History of Classical Scholarship (1906), i. 411.

Links

Full Text of Psellus' Chronographia (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/psellus-chronographia.html)

Chronographia Who was the better poet, Euripides or George of Pisidia? , Who is George Pisidia you may ask? :-)

This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.

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