One of the most important Neopythagorean philosophers of Middle Platonism. His thought influenced Plotinus and Porphyry as well as some Christian thinkers. Some aspects of his thought opened the way to Neoplatonic developments, and some others present ‘elective affinities’ with the Chaldean Oracles and Gnosticism.

Life and work

Numenius was born in Apamea, Syria, where he taught toward the middle of the 2nd century AD. We know the titles of seven works of his, all of which have a recognizably Platonic character. None of them has survived in its entirety. What we have is only sixty fragments of and testimonies on them.

(1) In On the Good Numenius discussed the nature of the first principle. The title refers to the Form of the Good in the Republic, to Plato’s lecture On the Good, as well as to the lost treatise of Aristotle with the same title.

(2) On Plato's Secret Doctrines dealt with Plato’s secret teachings: those which were ‘hidden’ within the dialogues and/or those of the so-called ‘unwritten doctrines’ (agrapha dogmata).

(3) In the historiographical and polemical treatise On the Dissension of the Academics from Plato, Numenius criticized the deviation of Plato’s successors and epigones from the original doctrines of their master, especially during the Sceptical phase of the Academy. In this work Numenius makes an urgent appeal to a return to the spirit of the founding father and its Pythagorean roots.

(4) The On the Indestructibility of the Soul presented arguments in favour of the immortality of the soul, a fundamental Platonic doctrine; around this central thematic axis Numenius apparently developed some other doctrines on the soul.

(5) As for the treatise On Numbers, we can reasonably assume that some kind of number philosophy and ontology was proposed in it, probably combined with arithmological speculations (in the spirit of those found in Old Academy and Neopythagoreanism) .

(6) The title Ἔποψ (Epops = The Hoopoe) seems rather enigmatic – quite probably, it was a wordplay on the epopteia (ἐποπτεία), the vision reserved for the highest grade of initiation in the Eleusinian mysteries, which was used also by Plato as a metaphor for the contemplation (θεωρία) of initiated philosophers .

(7) On Place (only the title has survived).

It remains beyond our reach to determine in which work Numenius developed his allegorical interpretation of the Homeric ‘cave of the Nymphs’ (Odyssey, ν, 102-112), of which Porphyry, Macrobius and Proclus have preserved substantial fragments.

Basic philosophical tenets

Numenius was both a Platonist and a Pythagorean at the same time. He was exclusively seeking the essence of Platonism in Plato’s doctrines, purged from any innovation or deviation from the homodoxia (ὁμοδοξία = perfect agreement with Plato’s doctrines), and especially from the suspension of judgement (ἐποχή) of the Sceptical Academy as well as from exogenous Aristotelian or Stoic elements. He was convinced that the pure dogmatic Plato expressed the truth of reality insofar as he was Pythagorean, i.e. initiated to the principles of Pythagoreanism not only directly, but also via Socrates.

Beyond Plato and Pythagoras, and in support of their teachings, Numenius called upon the aid of the religious beliefs and practices of those people of the Orient who were held in honour (εὐδοκιμοῦντα ἔθνη) – Brahmans, Jews, Persian Magi, and Egyptians –, on the condition that they agree with the ‘canon’ of Platonic doctrines. It is one of Numenius’ originalities that from his broad synthesis of universalizing Platonism and oriental mysticism he did not exclude the Jewish tradition. The strict monotheism and the non-anthropomorphic, incorporeal, and transcendent (ἀκοινώνητος) character of the God of Israel, the father of all gods, obviously constituted a source of inspiration for Numenius’ theology . The same was true with Homer, in whose poems were hidden in a symbolic way, according to him, teachings of high theological and philosophical value, which Numenius tried to decipher and unravel by having recourse to the techniques of allegorical interpretation.

Combining the Form of the Good of the Republic, the One of the Parmenides, and the Demiurge as well as cosmic Soul from the Timaeus myth, Numenius conceived a hierarchical triad of gods, to which the 2nd Platonic Letter also alludes (undoubtedly a spurious text of probable Neopythagorean origin). The First or Supreme God (called ‘Father’, πατήρ) is identified with both the absolute Good and the One . The Second or Demiurgic God (ποιητής) contemplates the Forms-Paradigms and creates the sensible world. The Third God is either the result of the creative activity of the Second, and is identified with the world (ποίημα, fr. 21), or, more accurately (fr. 22), the intellective-discursive aspect of the Second (τὸ διανοούμενον), which is necessary to him, even if in an instrumental way (ἐν προσχρήσει), in order to come into contact with matter and get the creative process started.

Contrary to other Neopythagoreans with monistic tendencies such as Eudorus or Moderatus, who produced the Indefinite Dyad and the Monad from a higher One, Numenius was a pure dualist. Remaining faithful to the diarchy of the Platonic ‘unwritten doctrines’, he considered that the two parts of the primordial pair of opposites (hen – aoristos dyas [ἕν – ἀόριστος δυάς]) were not produced from a higher reality or from each other. So he identified the One-Good with God, and the Indefinite Dyad with both matter and the chōra (χώρα) of the Timaeus. According to him, the latter, which existed before the Demiurge, is disordered, fluid, deprived of qualities (ἄποιος) and irrational (ἄλογος), in short identical with Evil. It is the God-Demiurge who unifies it, thus transforming its disorderliness into a harmonious order (κόσμος). By coming in contact with it the Demiurge moves away and becomes estranged from the Intelligible (νοητόν), and thus splits into two (σχίζεται).

Numenius claimed that the incarnations of the human soul are a bad thing. He accepted the existence of two souls, one good and one bad, both on the cosmic and the human level. The second of them is submitted to the first, but not without resistance.

Influence

The philosophy of Numenius was quite influential until the 5th century AD. Plotinus and Porphyry were accused of plagiarizing him, whereas Amelius was an enthusiastic admirer of his: he wrote a whole treatise in order to explain the doctrinal differences between Numenius and Plotinus, and he finally chose Numenius’ homeland Apamea as his own adoptive city.

Multiple and profound is the debt owed to Numenius by the ‘father’ of Neoplatonism, Plotinus. Recognition of this fact puts the problem of continuities and dis-continuities between Middle and Neo-Platonism in a different perspective. To give only two characteristic examples: the distinction between three divine principles, which opened the way to the Plotinian hierarchy of three hypostases (One – Intellect – Soul), and the consideration of matter as evil are of Numenian origin.

Moreover, it is in Numenius that we find the very first formulation of two central axioms of Neoplatonism: the idea that all things are in all things, but in each according to its proper nature (ἐν πᾶσιν πάντα, οἰκείως μέντοι κατὰ τὴν αὐτῶν οὐσίαν ἐν ἑκάστοις), and the thesis that the provision (δόσις) of the divine goods does not imply that the giver loses them .

The thought of Numenius was received positively also by Christian thinkers such as Origen, Eusebius, Calcidius, and Marius Victorinus, who were attracted (a) by the emphasis he put on the Demiurge and the transcendent Good, providing them common ground for a discussion on the God of the Genesis and Christian monotheism alike; (b) by his respect for the Jewish tradition, the cradle of newborn Christianity; and (c) by his triadic conception of the first principles, which somehow prefigured the dogma of the Holy Trinity.

Author: Constantinos Macris
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