Sect and Utopia in shifting empires: Plethon, Elissaios, Bedreddin*
Author: Siniossoglou, Niketas
Source: Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Volume 36, Number 1, March 2012 , pp. 38-55(18)
Publisher: Maney Publishing
This discussion reopens the file on Plethon’s purported stay in Ottoman territory in order to trace the origins of the Plethonean belief in sectarianism as a vehicle for attaining utopian sociopolitical ends. In the first part, possible approaches to Plethon’s alleged study with the mysterious mentor Elissaios are considered. In the second part, an argument is presented that in both the changing Ottoman Empire and the disintegrating Byzantine Empire esoteric societies contemporaneously developed a potentially antinomian role. Just like Plethon’s ‘brothers’, the ‘Brethren of Purity’ of al-Bistami, Sheikh Bedreddin and Börklüce Mustafa opted for sectarianism in order to recover a supraconfessional religious law and construe a novel political identity. This indicates the probability of a common nexus between Rumelia, the Peloponnese and the Aegean spanning confessional lines and utilizing sect as the vehicle of utopianism.
Around 1451/2 in a letter to the civil officer Oises, Gennadios Scholarios described a pagan circle operating in the Peloponnese that assumed the form of a religious ‘brotherhood’: phratria.1 Interestingly, the intellectual star of Mistra, Gemistos Plethon, author of a notorious underground book entitled Treatise on the Laws (henceforth Nomoi) on the revival of polytheism and the ideally just constitution, is not explicitly associated with this group — though to all appearances Plethon’s arch-enemy Scholarios kept an eye on his activities for a long time.2 The Nomoi were not Plethon’s first experiment with the notion of an ideal polity. His two Memoranda regarding the salvation of the Peloponnese from the Ottoman threat were inspired by Plato’s Kallipolis and addressed to the Despot Theodore and the Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos. They contained measures aiming at the radical military, fiscal, religious and sociopolitical reformation of the Despotate of the Morea. Plethon considered his plan to be viable, yet his contemporaries do not appear to have either attempted, or even considered its implementation. Modern scholarship has discussed the definite influence of Platonic utopianism and considers the possibility of Plethon’s political utopianism having inspired, in its turn, Thomas More’s Utopia.3
Document Type: Original Article
Publication date: 2012-03-01