Psellus, Michael

Psellus, Michael


(known as Constantine before receiving the tonsure). Born in 1018, in Constantinople; died circa 1078 or 1096. Byzantine political figure, author, and scholar.

A prominent official, Psellus was the first director of the Higher School of Philosophy in Constantinople. He was a member of the circle of educated aristocrats in the capital that exerted great influence on the government of Constantine IX (1042-55). Around 1050 he fell into disgrace and became a monk, but afterward returned to court. Under Constantine × (1059-67), he was tutor to the heir to the throne, the future Michael VII.

As an educator and an authority on ancient culture, Psellus strove to understand the basic principles of the ancient world view, largely as they were reflected in Neoplatonism. He sought to combine these principles with Christian teaching, contending that while god is the creator of nature, nature follows its own intrinsic laws. He thus concluded that unnatural phenomena are impossible, and he was hostile to vulgar “miracle-working.”

Psellus’ Chronographia is not only the most important source on the history of Byzantium from 976 to 1078 but is also the first major literary work of pre-Renaissance literature. Written as a memoir, it is based on a new aesthetic principle of complexity, encompassing conflicts in the protagonists’ character and contradictions in their behavior. The political ideas contained in the Chronographia constitute a condemnation of despotism, which according to Psellus leads even the despot himself to moral and physical ruin. Psellus’ letters recreate the intellectual milieu of Byzantium. Psellus was the author of numerous orations, the most important of which were devoted to the major political and cultural figures of the llth century, among them Michael Cerularius, Constantine Leichudes, and John Xiphilin.

The theological and philosophical works of Psellus include commentaries on Plato and Aristotle and Universal Science, a brief systematic exposition of ideas on the nature of the universe. He also wrote about the life of St. Auxentius and composed treatises on mathematics, medicine, philology, law, and music. Many of his writings represent compilations of the views of others, along with the traditional wisdom of the time. A significant part of his literary legacy has never been published. Psellus’ rationalism was further developed by his younger contemporary John Italus.


Chronographie … , vols. 1–2. Paris, 1926–28.
Scripta minora, vols. 1–2. Milan, 1936–41.
De omnifaria doctrina. Nijmegen, 1948.


Bezobrazov, P. V. Vizantiiskii pisateV i gosudarstvennyi deiateV Mikhail Psell. Moscow, 1890.
Val’denberg, V. “Filosofskie vzgliady Mikhaila Psella.” In Vizantiiskii sbornik. Moscow-Leningrad, 1945.
Liubarskii, la. N. “Mikhail Psell: Lichnost’ i mirovozzrenie.” Vizantiiskii vremennik, 1969, vol. 30.
Zervos, C. Un Philosophe neo-platonicien du XI siecle: Michel Psellos. Paris, 1920.
Joannou, P. Christliche Metaphysik in Byzanz: Die Illuminationslehre des Michael Psellos und Johannes Italos. Ettal, 1956.
Gadolin, A. A Theory of History and Society With Special Reference to the “Chronographia” of Michael Psellus. Stockholm, 1970.