Discourses of Science and Philosophy in the Letters of Nikephoros Gregoras

Thesis author: 
Divna Manolova
Year of enrollment: 
Duration of thesis project: 
Sep, 2008 - Oct, 2014
Thesis supervisor: 
Niels Gaul
Thesis abstract: 

The principal objective of the present dissertation is to reconstruct and analyze the discourses of science and philosophy in the letters of the Constantinopolitan scholar Nikephoros Gregoras (d. ca. 1360), a prominent figure on the fourteenth-century Byzantine intellectual scene, well-known to modern scholars as the author of a major work on Byzantine history for the period from 1204 until ca. 1359. The inquiry explores Gregoras’ views on mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy expressed in his letters and, consequently, it reevaluates the existing scholarly perspectives on Gregoras’ intellectual legacy.
By means of contextualization, Part I: Nikephoros Gregoras’ Epistolary Collection offers a survey of Gregoras’ biography and works, as well as a detailed reconstruction of his ‘library,’ that is, a survey of the manuscripts (in particular, of those codices which transmit scientific and philosophical content) he, in all likelihood, possessed, annotated, compiled, and copied. Part I concludes with a discussion of the manuscript tradition of Gregoras’ letters and the context of their preservation and circulation accompanied by a critical commentary of their modern editions.
The main analytical body of the dissertation consists of two large sections dedicated respectively to astronomy (Part II: Justifications of Astronomy) and to philosophy and letters (Part III: Letters and Philosophy). The principal conceptual motivation behind Parts II and III is the exploration of the dialectical relationship informing Gregoras’ intellectual epistolary discourse, namely the relationship between knowledge (mathematical sciences and philosophy), on the one hand, and rhetoric (letters), on the other. Part II examines the status of the astronomical studies in the early Palaiologan period and discusses various strategies Gregoras employed in order to justify the value of this mathematical science. Gregoras’ programmatic effort to defend astronomy’s worthiness is analyzed in the context of the revival of Ptolemaic astronomy in Palaiologan Byzantium, a scholarly “project” that involved erudites from the two preceding generations, notably Maximos Planoudes and Gregoras’ mentor Theodore Metochites. Importantly, Part II: Justifications of Astronomy discusses for the first time after its edition in 1936 Gregoras’ arithmological treatise On the Number Seven which, among other things, is an important evidence for Gregoras’ readership of Philo and Macrobius.
Part III: Letters and Philosophy offers a discussion of philosophical letter-writing in Byzantium as well as an analysis of the philosophical premises of Byzantine epistolography. Importantly, its principal discussion problematizes the question of certainty with respect to the human condition through analysis of three case studies which illustrate Gregoras’ strategies for constructing epistolary friendship. Thus, Part III addresses two of the main problems of the dissertation, namely what are, in Gregoras’ view, the possibilities and limitations of human knowledge and, correspondingly, what is the status of science and philosophy as the acquisition of knowledge is at their core qua disciplines.
The dissertation concludes that in his letters Gregoras maintains that while there are limits of mankind’s ability to attain knowledge of the perceptible world, due both to the nature of the studied objects and to the faculties of the inquiring intellect, nevertheless, with the help of the divine providence, it is possible to achieve certainty and comprehension. One such example is the study of the heavenly bodies and their movements. Not only are the planets and the stars created by God as signs for mankind to understand, according to Gregoras, but also the regularity of their motion and its mathematical principles facilitate the use of the astronomical science for the attainment of knowledge. Similarly, the ideal friendship, one that manifests itself in the discursive unity of the correspondents, brings certainty and knowledge of oneself and of the other.