Category: Persons

Hierocles of Alexandria

Neoplatonic philosopher of the 5th century AD.

Biographical elements

Born in Alexandria, Hierocles became a student of the Neoplatonist Plutarch of Athens, and then returned to his hometown, where he lived and taught until his death (which probably occurred a little earlier than 490). He was a contemporary of Syrianus as well as of the slightly younger Proclus and Hypatia. Damascius gives a short sketch of Hierocles’ rhetorical and professorial skills, whereas on another occasion he praises him for his determined display of courage in Constantinople in front of the (Christian) authorities, who inflicted horrible tortures on him, apparently in the context of persecutions against the Hellenes. The best known among Hierocles’ students is Aeneas of Gaza, who later converted to Christianity and wrote a philosophical dialogue entitled Theophrastus, in which he argued against the prenatal existence (προβιοτή) of the soul but for its immortality.

Works

We know of only two works by Hierocles: (1) a Commentary on the Pythagorean Golden Verses (still extant), and (2) a lost treatise in seven books (or seven parts) On Providence and Fate (heimarmenē), and the Coordination of Free Will with Divine Governance, whose general structure and arguments are known to us thanks to two detailed résumés and a few extracts given by the learned Byzantine patriarch Photius (Bibliotheca, codices 214 and 251).

A lively testimony on the construction of the Neoplatonic and Hellenic identity

Earlier scholarship tended to see in Hierocles a philosopher who stuck to the tradition of the so-called Middle Platonism while being exposed to the influence of the Christian theology of his time. However, more recent research, beginning with the fundamental monograph by Ilsetraut Hadot (1978), showed that his philosophy clearly belongs to post-Iamblichean Neoplatonism: in fact, it has fully assimilated the latter’s principles and basic theses and tendencies, particularly when it comes to Neopythagorean influences , theurgy and philosophical pedagogy.

Like his contemporaries Syrianus and Proclus (and perhaps already Iamblichus before them), Hierocles’ interests were not confined to the study of Plato’s philosophy alone. His conviction about the profound inner unity of the Greek intellectual and spiritual tradition (which he felt the need to oppose as a whole to the Christian threat) incited him to welcome all those figures, currents and texts belonging to it which were in accordance (συμφωνία) and doctrinal agreement (ὁμοδοξία) with the Platonic dogmata: the ancient ‘theologians’ Orpheus and Homer, the Presocratics (first of all Pythagoras, no doubt), and of course the ‘god-sent’ (θεοπαράδοτα) Chaldaean Oracles and the ‘sacred laws’ (ἱερατικοὶ θεσμοί) of theurgy. According to him – who was following here the example of the ‘divinely inspired’ (θεοδίδακτος) Ammonius Saccas – even Aristotle belonged to the same unitary tradition: those who emphasized the latter’s disagreement (διαφωνία) with his master were simply mistaken, given Hierocles’ conviction that Plato and his pupil agreed on such central issues as the soul’s immortality, the conception of the ‘heaven’ (οὐρανός), and divine Providence . After the centuries-long sceptical turn of the Academy during the Hellenistic period, the ‘sacred race’ (ἱερὰ γενεά, as he called it) of the Platonists came back at the forefront of history, thus restoring a new unbroken continuity – the most important links in the chain being Ammonius, Plotinus and Origen, Porphyry, Iamblichus, all the way down to Hierocles’ own teacher, Plutarch of Athens. It is obvious that with Hierocles the construction and display of the (new) Platonic identity has reached full maturity.

It is within the general climate of appropriation and assimilation of Pythagoreanism in the Platonic tradition that Hierocles produced his Commentary on the Golden Verses, whose reading (and most probably learning by heart) and in-depth understanding he considered necessary (as did already Iamblichus in his Exhortation to philosophy [Προτρεπτικός]) for the purification of the soul, the cultivation of virtue, and the moral praeparatio of the would-be philosophers. In his eyes, the Pythagorean wisdom of old, condensed in just a few easily memorizable verses, provided the perfect guarantee that, by practicing the spiritual exercises suggested in them, living according to the principles they set out, and assimilating the truth they contained, young philosophers could purify the spiritual vehicle* (ὄχημα) of their soul, and use the poem as a springboard for the much-desired ascent (ἀναγωγή) to God and assimilation to him as far as humanly possible (ὁμοίωσις θεῷ κατὰ τὸ δυνατόν).

Basic philosophical tenets

Hierocles repeats or further develops important tenets of the Neoplatonism of his time about the spiritual vehicle (ὄχημα) of the soul, the hierarchical scale of virtues, the generation of matter ‘outside of time’, the eternal creation of the world by the divine Demiurge from no pre-existing substrate , the conception of every man’s present life as punishment for his conduct during his previous lives and as a preparation for the future ones, etc. Hierocles’ personal opinion regarding the Platonic doctrine of metempsychosis is that the immortal human soul can settle in the bodies of humans alone, not of animals, given that the latter are deprived of reason (ἄλογα) and have therefore a mortal soul alone. As for the controversial issue of divine Providence, he begins by setting out the law governing the process of transmigration, as well as the theories of divine Justice adopted by the Neoplatonists of his time (primarily inspired by Iamblichus’ treatise On the Soul), whereas he ends up with a thesis that tries to reconcile human freedom with the omnipotence of the divine Intellect (νοῦς) steering the world.

Author: Constantinos Macris
  • Köhler, F. W. Hieroclis In Aureum Pythagoreorum carmen commentarius. Stuttgart, 1974.
  • Henry, R. ed. Photius, Bibliothèque τόμ. III + τόμ. VII, codices 214, 242 και 251.. Paris.
  • Meunier, M. Pythagore, Les vers d’or – Hiéroclès, Commentaire sur les vers d'or des Pythagoriciens. Paris, 1925.
  • Aujoulat, N, Le néoplatonisme alexandrin: Hiéroclès d’Alexandrie. Leiden, 1986.
  • Hadot, I. Studies on the Neoplatonist Hierocles. Philadelphia, 2004.
  • Macris, C. "Hiéroclès d’Alexandrie." Méla, Ch., Möri, Fr. eds. Alexandrie la Divine τόμ. I. Genève, 2014.
  • Schibli, H.S. Hierocles of Alexandria. Oxford, 2002.
  • Schibli, H.SGerson, L.P. ed. . The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, τόμ. 1. Cambridge, 2010.
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