Infinite Fire Webinar IV – The Revival of Platonic Orientalism 2

Infinite Fire Webinar IV – The Revival of Platonic Orientalism

Welcome to Prof.dr. Wouter J. Hanegraaff’s first webinar in the Infinite Fire series, devoted to “The Revival of Platonic Orientalism”. Hanegraaff explains that the Hermetic philosophy of the Renaissance was part of a larger development that has had an enormous impact on early modern thought. During the period of late antiquity, a range of influential church fathers – the so-called Christian apologists – had been trying to convince their pagan critics that the seemingly “new” religion of Christianity had in fact very ancient origins and therefore carried great traditional authority. Egyptians might claim that all true wisdom had originated with Hermes Trismegistus, Persians might point to Zoroaster (Zarathustra), and Greeks might look to legendary figures such as Orpheus or  Pythagoras, but for Christian apologists the most ancient “wisdom teacher” had to be Moses. From this original source, the true wisdom was believed to have spread to the various pagan nations, eventually reaching Plato and the Platonic tradition, which made Christian theology intellectually possible. The result was a “genealogy of wisdom” leading from Moses through various pagan sages to Platonism and finally to Christianity. Pagan philosophers and Christian apologists all agreed that Platonism was the inheritor of the ancient wisdom from the East, hence the term “Platonic Orientalism”.

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican

Platonic Orientalism made a spectacular revival in the 15th century, largely as a result of political developments: in response to the conquests of the Ottoman armies, many ancient Greek manuscripts were moved from the Byzantine libraries to Italy, where they were translated into Latin for the first time and transformed the thinking of Christian intellectuals. This Webinar focuses on three crucial figures in this process.

First, the Byzantine philosophers Georgios Gemistos Plethon arrived in Florence in 1438 to participate in a church Council, and made a great impression on the Italian humanists because of his superior first-hand knowledge of Plato and Aristotle. Plethon was a Platonic Orientalist who believed that Zoroaster was the most ancient wisdom teacher, and claimed that the so-called Chaldaean Oracles (actually from the first centuries CE) had been written by this extremely ancient Persian authority.


Three Wise Men, fresco in the Magi Chapel of Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, 1459-1461.

The second crucial figure in the revival of Platonic Orientalism was Marsilio Ficino, who in the early 1460s was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici to translate Plato’s complete works into Latin. Although Ficino also translated the Corpus Hermeticum, he seems to have been more impressed by Plethon’s advocacy of the Chaldaean Oracles, and came to share Plethon’s belief that the true wisdom had originated with Zoroaster. While Ficino is known as the central figure in the Renaissance revival of Platonism, he was in fact a Platonic Orientalist. Thanks to his translations, all the fundamental sources of that tradition now became available; Ficino added large and influential commentaries of his own; and thanks to the invention of printing, all of this could be disseminated on an unprecedented scale.

Marsilio Ficino in The Ritman Library

The third crucial figure is Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Plethon’s and Ficino’s emphasis on Zoroaster was potentially dangerous from a Christian point of view, because it made an ancient pagan teacher – who, moreover, was believed to have invented magic – into the source of all true wisdom. As a result, the Mosaic and Christian traditions could easily be seen as derivative and ultimately irrelevant. To counter this risk, Pico della Mirandola reverted to the more “orthodox” Patristic emphasis on Moses, but with the addition of a crucial new element: he claimed that on Mount Sinai, Moses had received not only the Law for the common people but a secret teaching for the spiritual elites as well. This wisdom tradition had been preserved by the Jews through the centuries and was known among them as kabbalah. The kabbalistic sources had become available in Pico’s time because of the anti-Jewish politics of the Spanish reconquista, which caused many kabbalists to leave Spain for Italy, together with their manuscripts.

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

The revival of Platonic Orientalism was a serious attempt, many decades before Luther, at reforming Christianity by going “back to the sources”. Plethon seems to have hoped that, in fact, Platonic Orientalism would eventually take the place of Christianity as the religion of the future; Ficino believed, rather, that the ancient wisdom was perfectly compatible with the true Christian faith, and hence the rediscovery of the Greek sources could lead Christians back to the actual revelation at the core of their own religion; Pico, finally, was hoping for a great unification of all religious and philosophical traditions under the umbrella of the rediscovered kabbalah, and believed that the Jews would have to convert to Christianity once they had accepted the shocking revelation that a quintessentially Christian message formed the true secret of their own mystical tradition. Plethon and Ficino defended a “Zoroastrian” form of Platonic Orientalism, and Pico’s Christian kabbalah was its “Mosaic” counterpart.

But what then about the “Hermetic” alternative: that of tracing true wisdom not to the Persians or the Hebrews but to the Egyptian teacher Hermes Trismegistus? This will be the topic of the second Webinar.


Check out the Infinite Fire Webinar IV – The Revival of Platonic Orientalism on The Ritman Library YouTube channel:

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2 thoughts on “Infinite Fire Webinar IV – The Revival of Platonic Orientalism

  • Maarten van den Berg

    Bedankt voor deze prachtige webinar !

    Hopelijk heb ik snel weer eens tijd om jullie bibliotheek te komen bezoeken. Echter hoop ik dan ook dat jullie eindelijk eens boeken die niet meer gedrukt worden gaan herdrukken. Gelukkig zijn er mensen op BOL die hun boek nog willen verkopen.

    Maar Corpus Hermeticum kan ik nog steeds nergens vinden… ik heb de andere twee delen wel… Of is er een PDF versie beschikbaar ???