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While praising her character and deeds — her striking personal beauty and her spiritual and intellectual excellence, her supervision of the education that enabled him to rise from obscurity to the imperial circle, and her “saintly” later life and swerve into monasticism — Psellos implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) defends his inability to approve the Christian asceticism that in his view destroyed her, and which he characterizes as “apostasy,” while also defending his unswerving devotion to secular learning (and the secular, civic life it informs) as a staying-true to his mother’s original gift to him, and even as a truer form of devotion to God.Most of the lengthy peroration is a “confession” of this continuing devotion, from which, as he says, “I will never be torn away” (27).Psellos' mother had been not merely pious and orthodox in her own religiosity, but had embraced an especially puritanical variety of Christianity.The work in question is ostensibly written in praise (as is proper for an "encomium") of this monkishly ascetic Christian women, but it is in fact largely taken up by Psellos defending his own interest in and dedication to "secular" learning in general and Pagan philosophy in particular, that is, his life-long devotion to , the Pagan Greek thought of antiquity.His successor as “Consul of the Philosophers,” the less circumspect (and less rhetorically skilled) John Italos, would be tried and anathematized by Alexios I for the crime of submitting the Christian mysteries to Aristotelian analysis. But as for me, since I oppose your way of righteousness and resist its rule, I do not at all practice the philosophy dear to you.
8 , 239-313.)The extraordinary eleventh-century scholar, teacher, rhetor, and courtier Michael Psellos is one of the most important intellectual figures in the 1,000-year history of Byzantium, but he is scarcely known to students and scholars of rhetoric today.
The story of Theodota, then, is at least in part the story of what happens to an intellectually gifted Byzantine woman in such circumstances: she is not permitted to go to school, but she educates herself; and the only kind of learning that a woman in her position may pursue without attracting blame is religious learning.
This, abetted by an emotional crisis at the death of her daughter, leads her into an extreme asceticism — derived, most probably, from Symeon the New Theologian, who had at that time become the object of a cult — and that asceticism, eventually, brings her to what looks like death by anorexia. The secular paideia inherited from late antiquity, with its pagan roots and (mostly) pagan literary canon, was conventionally referred to in Byzantium as the “external learning” (, literally “the learning from outside the door”), or the “external wisdom,” which was conventionally placed in opposition to “our doctrine” or “the better philosophy,” meaning Christian doctrine.
As a defense of his life and career, Psellos’ Encomium of His Mother can be placed in a series of such defenses — or defenses of rhetoric — beginning at least with Isocrates’ Antidosis and continuing through such late-antique discourses as Aelius Aristides’ Defense of Rhetoric against Plato. It provides some glimpses into what the experience of the late-classical paideia was like, at least for a precocious Byzantine schoolboy like the young Michael Psellos.
It also provides some glimpses into Byzantine family life, and, perhaps most importantly, it gives us a rare portrait of the life of a highly intelligent, intellectually ambitious Byzantine woman from outside the imperial family, or for that matter below the upper ranks of the Constantinopolitan aristocracy.