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Michael Psellos

Even though Byzantium is often seen as a dark and bigoted empire without any innovative ideas, historians established a long time ago that the Byzantines not only preserved the Hellenistic heritage and transferred a part of it to the West, but also that recurring 'renaissances' inside the empire itself suggest creative continuity in Byzantine high culture.

michael
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Michael Psellos

Now, if you were one of the greatest minds of that medieval culture, like Michael Psellos was, you would certainly be offended by the fact that so few people today know about you. After all, he did resurrect the ancient philosophers in the dark 11th century, he was quite a philosopher himself, he did found the first modern university in Europe, he did serve under quite a few emperors and he used the chance to control them subtly. He was something of a genius.

If you had done all that, I'm sure that you would have overcome your monastic humility and bragged about your ingenuity. Old Michael sure did. Laced with some tasteful sarcasm, of course. And he would probably tell you not to try to study like him, because whatever you did, you would never be as good as him. However, in case you want to try nevertheless, here are few of his tactics...

1st Don’t save money on your education. Get the best tutor there is. Michael had private lessons with John Mauropus, the greatest scholar of the time. But don't give your tutor too much credit. Don't hesitate to claim you learned everything you know on your own. Our role model didn't have any trouble facing the fact that even when he was clueless, he was pure genius.

2nd Choose your school mates well. Michael used to hang out with guys who became prime-ministers, patriarchs and even one future emperor. He always knew he was brighter than them, but their help could come in handy. But be sure that all your mates will come to you for the advice, because they will recognise your greatness. And they will certainly need your help. Constantine X Doukas, the emperor, couldn't bear a day without seeing our good old Michael, and he 'drank his words like nectar.'

3rd Read the classics. Start with Plato, for instance. Don't let your religious or social surroundings get you down. If you are to become a first class genius, those who tried to do so before you might have some useful advice. And you will be just smart enough to 'take what is good as medicine, and spit out what is bad as poison.' But don't neglect the bestsellers of the day either. Without knowing the Bible and other church authorities, Michael could have hardly made his contemporaries do what he wanted.

doukas
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Emperor Michael VII Doukas, one of Michael's students.

4th Don't limit yourself to only one area. With your kind of potential, you can be an expert in whatever you choose. Even though Michael had a fancy title, Consul of the Philosophers, and was very good at the political games of the age, he didn't hold back from diagnosing the exact disease of the emperor when all the royal doctors failed. They only took some medicine lessons, but he had a natural talent. But, just in case, stay away from the military stuff. It's rumoured that it was Michael's fault that the Byzantine army lost at Manzikert in 1071, but that's probably just gossip spread by jealous people.

5th Be metropolitan. Let's be honest, the provinces are OK, but if you are heading for the top, you can only get there through the streets of the Polis. If you have a rather provincial background, well... hide it. That's the only way you can mock your 'peasantly' competition. And when you get into the Polis, go straight to the palace. It's said to have a great view. Michael wasn't even that rich when he got there, but he was quite convinced that he was noble, so he was sure to fit right in.

6th Change the school system. Found a new university and put yourself on at the top of it. But choose your pupils carefully. Some might become very powerful, such as emperor Michael VII Doukas. And you don't want to get exiled just because some spoilt kid couldn't handle his homework.

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