02 January 2010

Bessarion's Nazi


-->I, Bessarion, while living, made this tomb for my body,
but my spirit will go to immortal God.

by Pierre A. MacKay, guest blogger and co-author on the Theodoros poems.

-->This is an account of two radically different personalities tied together over several centuries by a thread of scholarship. The earlier is the gracious and open-minded Cardinal Bessarion, whose sense of proportion and innate generosity, both material and emotional, makes him one of the most captivating humanists of the fifteenth century. The other was a small-minded, obsessive and, at best, mean-spirited scholar, Ludwig Mohler (18831943), who devoted much of his active life to studying the Cardinal.
The lifelong study of a sympathetic subject does not necessarily produce a sympathetic scholar. Mohler was not only one of the “Brown Priests” (Catholic priests who openly supported the Nazi party), he actually joined the party, one of a minority of even the brown priests. It appears that he did nothing worse than move into a Munich University position left vacant by the purge of its former occupant---he seems to have been an uninteresting Nazi and his party membership may have been largely opportune. It is still distasteful, and Bessarion himself would surely have found it distasteful.

At one point in an evaluation of the relations between the Greek and Roman churches, Mohler deplores the “outbreak of fanaticism (Fanatismus),” and one may wonder whether he felt any uneasiness about the Fanatismus of the party he belonged to.  It remains that he was explicitly a Nazi, and it must have been by his own choice.  Fifty of the hundred and thirty-eight known Brown Priests joined the Nazi party, nineteen of them on 1 May 1933, on the occasion of the first parade review for Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany.  Mohler was one of those nineteen. 

Nonetheless, for the study of Bessarion, Mohler's work is the most thorough treatment we have, and the history of its thirty-year long composition is of interest, because he is subtle about some of his views in ways not always noticed by those who cite him, although they are essential for the interpretation of manuscripts which contain Bessarion's early writings.

Mohler went to Rome some time around 1910 to carry on research in the Vatican archives for a study of the revenues of Pope Clement VI 134252) and his successors. His work there, and in the libraries of Florence, Milan and Venice led to a broader interest the humanist world of the 14th and 15th centuries and eventually to a particular focus on Cardinal Bessarion, in whom he saw a distillation of all the best characteristics of humanists of the period. He did, eventually, finish the work on Clement VI in 1931, but his interest in Bessarion is seen in his 1920 doctoral thesis on Bessarion's early life and writings up through the council of Ferrara-Florence in 134748.

Bessarion remained the continuous undercurrent of Mohler's scholarlship, and he eventually published three volumes on aspects of the Cardinal's life. He announced a plan for these in 1923, but they were issued almost independently of one another in 1923, 1927 and 1942. By 1914, he was well started on the first part of the 1923 volume which he took it into the war with him—one assumes he served as a chaplain—and continued his philological research through the turmoil of 191920 in Munich with its quick succession of Communist and reactionary regimes.

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He managed to publish his doctoral thesis in 1920 and, in 1923, he saw the first, biographical, volume of his Bessarion studies through the press. Up to that year he still intended to publish the material that ultimately went into volume three as a second volume, a fact which complicates references to edited texts of Bessarion's letters in the footnotes to Volume One, because four years later he devoted the entire second volume to his edition of Bessarion in calumniatorem Platonis libri IV. (1927) .

Bessarion's treatise was occasioned by a comparison between Plato and Aristotle by Georgios Trapezuntios which strongly condemned Plato as a source of heresy, using arguments that distorted both philosophers by treating them as foreshadowers of Christian doctrines. Bessarion cited both Plato and Aristotle directly, discarding the Neo-Platonism of his teacher Gemistus, and cleverly dodging around those parts of Plato which were indeed incompatible with Christianity. 

Bessarion, “the most Greek of the Latins and the most Latin of the Greeks,” may have been the only person in either the Greek or Latin world who was familiar enough with the Platonic corpus to write such a treatise in his time. (It was surely this work, with its many long quotations from Plato, that helped to cure Bessarion of his youthful tendency to “a horribly over-ornamented style, (schrecklich verschnörkelten Sprache),” as Mohler describes it.) Scholars all across Europe recognized the value of Mohler's work and we learn, with some astonishment, that the director of the Marciana even permitted the principal manuscript of in calumniatorem Platonis to be borrowed for use in Münster.

Once the second volume was complete, there was a period of fourteen years when nothing more of the planned Bessarion corpus was published, although it quite obviously remained a significant part of Mohler's interests.

Mohler's third volume, Aus Bessarions Gelehrtenkreis. Abhandlungen, Reden, Briefe (1942) looks like a collection of much of the material Mohler had started on in 1914. The largest part of the book is given over to Bessarion but several contemporaries, Theodore of Gaza, Michael Apostolios, Andronikos Kallistos, Georgios Trapezuntios, Niccolò Perotti, and Niccolò Capranica, are also published here. 

One of the most interesting sub-collections in this volume is a collection of letters from a manuscript (Marciana, Cod. gr. 533) which contains a large part of Bessarion's youthful writingssome of them little more than school exercisesand others dating from his years spent at the court of Mistra, where he was a student of Gemistus Plethon and a friend of the Despot Theodore II and Kleopa. Despite their belonging to a genre that tends strongly to platitudinous ornament, these letters contain surprising indications of what the personal life of the court was like. They also contain three poems ascribed to Bessarion although they include phrases that could not possibly have been written by him. They are, in fact, the work of Theodore himself, as he makes very clear in one of them.

Bibliographical references to Mohler's Bessarion, expecially on the Web, can be quite confusing, so they are consolidated here.
The most accessible imprint is: Mohler, Ludwig. 1967. Kardinal Bessarion als Theologe, Humanist und Staatsmann. In 3 Volumes. Paderborn, Scientia Verlag Aalen Ferdinand Schöningh ( = Volumes XX, XXII, and XXIV of Quellen und Forschungen aus dem Gebiete der Geschichte). This printing is a photographic reproduction of three earlier printings:
Mohler. 1923. Vol. 1. Darstellung. Paderborn.
——. 1927. Vol 2. In calumniatorem Platonis libri iv. Paderborn.
——. 1942. Vol 3. Aus Bessarions Gelehrtenkreis. Abhandlungen, Reden, Briefe. Paderborn.

The photograph of Bessarion's epitaph comes with great appreciation from 

For portraits of Bessarion: http://nauplion.net/CP-BESSARION-portraits.html

1 comment:

  1. The 1967 reprint of Mohler's work, in 3 volumes, is online at


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