Category: Persons

Iamblichus: the defense of theurgy

Αfter Plotinus, the most prominent representative of ancient Neoplatonism, and the first upholder of the ritual means of union with the divine. He exerted decisive influence on the evolution of Platonic philosophy from the 4th cent. to the Renaissance.

Life and works

Iamblichus (c.245-c.325) was born at Chalcis of northern Syria (modern Qinnasrin) to a noble family that was probably related to the royal dynasty of Emesa. His name, of Aramaic origin (ya_-mlku = “[let him] be king/ruler”), reveals a traditionalist trend and contrasts with the then dominant tendency to Hellenize non-Greek names. Anatolius and Porphyry are mentioned as his teachers. The paltry evidence available on his life originates from the relatively untrustworthy testimonies of Eunapius (Lives of Philosophers and Sophists 5) that derive from the oral tradition of his students. It is certain that after completing his studies Iamblichus settled in Apameia of Syria, the home city of the Neopythagorean Numenius, which boasted a philosophical tradition more than a century old, where he established his own school.

Iamblichus composed a lengthy commentary on the Chaldaean Oracles (in 28 books at least), commentaries on Plato’s dialogues (Alcibiades Ι, Phaedo, Sophist, Phaedrus, Philebus, Timaeus, Parmenides), and on Aristotle’s treatises (Categories, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics, On the Heavens) as well as systematic works (On the Gods, On Statues, etc.). Apart from fragments preserved by later philosophers and compilers, all these works are nowadays lost. His extant works are the following: On the Egyptian Mysteries; On the Pythagorean Way of Life; Exhortation to the study of philosophy; On general mathematical science; Introduction to Nicomachus’ Introduction to Arithmetic (the last four formed the first books of a more wide-ranging 10-volume composition entitled On Pythagorean Doctrines which is otherwise non-extant). Furthermore, the Byzantine compiler Joannes Stobaeus preserves important fragments from Iamblichus’ various letters, as well as from his treatise On the Soul – echoes of which can also be found in Simplicius/Priscian’s commentary on Aristotle’s On the Soul.

The defense of theurgy

Iamblichus’ most important extant philosophical treatise (De mysteriis aegyptiorum = On the Egyptian Mysteries) received its title in the Renaissance by Marsilio Ficino and it is rather misleading. In this work Iamblichus only makes occasional references to mystery cults (Egyptian or otherwise), as his aim is to provide a theoretical defense for the entirety of antiquity’s religious rituals. This is the sole treatise on the philosophy of religion surviving from Greco-Roman Antiquity, and it was probably the earliest.

The On the Egyptian Mysteries represents Iamblichus’ response to the questions posed by his teacher Porphyry in letters addressed to an Egyptian priest named Anebo. The author assumes the guise of Abammon, an Egyptian priest higher in the hierarchy than Anebo, and undertakes to clear any of Porphyry’s doubts concerning the meaning of religious rituals. The aim of the work is to reveal that the sought-after redemption of the human soul cannot be attained solely through theoretical contemplation and knowledge, as Plotinus claimed, but necessitates the involvement of divine grace, which is granted only through the person’s active participation in sacred rituals. Iamblichus is unequivocal (Myst. 2.11, 96-97):

Δεν είναι η σκέψη που ενώνει τους θεουργούς με τους θεούς• γιατί τότε τί θα εμπόδιζε όσους φιλοσοφούν θεωρητικά να απολαμβάνουν τη θεουργική ένωση με τους θεούς; Η αλήθεια όμως δεν είναι έτσι: την θεουργική ένωση την παρέχει η τέλεση των άρρητων ιεροπραξιών που λειτουργούν με θαυμαστό τρόπο πέρα από κάθε ανθρώπινη κατανόηση καθώς και η δύναμη των ανέκφραστων συμβόλων που κατανοούνται μόνον από τους θεούς.

The term “theurgy” (<θεός+ἔργον), is a technical neologism of Late Antiquity, closely connected with the Chaldaean Oracles, which was coined in contrast to the older term “theology” (<θεός+λόγος). Literally, theurgy means “divine-working” either by humans or by the gods. The term referred specifically to magical practices ultimately aimed at uniting the human soul with a god, but could also denote, as is the case with Iamblichus, the totality of the traditional modes of worship (sacrifices, processions, divination, etc.). Central to theurgic rituals were the symbols or synthemata, material artifacts believed to possess special powers that could bring about miraculous results (ensoulment of statues, perceptible manifestations of gods and demons, telekinesis etc.). A theurgist was a person who possessed knowledge about all these sacred practices and symbols and could employ them accordingly. The knowledge he possessed was called, apart from theurgy, “hieratic” [sc. science or art] and was predicated on the natural correlation and interaction between the parts of the universe, known under the Stoic term sympatheia.

According to Iamblichus, the performance of traditional rites does not force the gods into some action, nor does it bound them to human will: the gods become freely attuned with what is performed in the material world and decide out of their own accord to provide their help to the inherent neediness of humans. At any rate, according to Iamblichus the rules for the performance of such theurgic rituals have been set down by the gods themselves, in accordance with the peculiarities of the various groups of people.

Iamblichus rejects all novelties in matters of religiosity. In fact, he believes that the relationship between signifier and signified, be it the words in a human language, or the terms of a sacred symbolic system, is not the product of human convention, but natural. Consequently he claims that in theurgical ceremonies even the most incomprehensible names (the so-called “barbarian names” ) or symbols must be preserved without alteration, for the carry internal affinities with the super-sensible beings to which they refer and mobilize. The objections of the rationalist Porphyry originate with his difficulty to accept rituals means of redemption that operate beyond the ken of human reason.

Other philosophical innovations

Although he abided by the schema of the three-hypostases that described the metaphysical structure of reality (One, Intellect, Soul, inaugurated by Plotinus), Iamblichus introduced certain innovative distinctions.

(a) In order to render the first principle of the cosmos completely transcendent and unconnected with anything that is produced by it, Iamblichus distinguished between an "uparticipated" prime One and a second One, born of the triad "monad-limit-limitless"; when this triad becomes unified, giving rise to the "united”, the Intellect is produced.

(b) Furthermore, he was probably the first to speak of “henads”, a technical term of later Neoplatonism that describes divine, supremely simple monads which are born of the “united”, a product of the (second) One, without the mediation of the Intellect; these operate as the super-intelligible origins of Platonic Forms. Thus, the traditional gods find their place in Iamblichus’ multilayered system and the gap between philosophy and religion is almost fully bridged.

(c) Even the triptych “being-life-intellect” found in later Neoplatonic texts is derived from Iamblichus' philosophy.

(d) Working out the extreme implications of the principle of universe’s completeness and continuity, Iamblichus introduced intermediate levels of reality that allowed for mediation between the extremes (e.g. the intelligible-intelligent level was posited as intermediary between the superior/intelligible and the inferior/intelligent) and thus the entire metaphysical structure of the universe, especially the intelligible, was described as triadic.

(e) In the same context, Iamblichus accepted a hierarchical series of entities inferior to the gods but superior to the souls, the so-called “superior genera”: archangels, angels, demons, heroes, archons.

Beyond the metaphysical distinctions, especially interesting is Iamblichus’ doctrine about the soul, which is fragmentarily preserved by Joannes Stobaeus (6th cent.). Contrary to Plotinus, Iamblichus claimed that the entire human soul -not just some part of it- descends from the intelligible realm and becomes united with the body; as a result the nature of the soul is essentially dual (at the same time mortal and immortal) and its functions are inherently contradictory. This intrinsic duality and inconsistency of the human soul entails, according to Iamblichus, the need for divine assistance from above to achieve redemption from the world of generation and destruction.

Iamblichus also sketched out the broad outlines of the hierarchy of virtues found in almost all later Neoplatonists. The full series comprises seven species: natural, moral, political, cathartic, contemplative, paradigmatic, and theurgic virtues.

Other innovations

Iamblichus believed that each Platonic dialogue has a main aim and the goal of the interpreter/commentator is to promote this to his readers/audience. He also determined the order in which Plato’s dialogues should be taught on the basis of their escalating degree of difficulty, thus inaugurating the Neoplatonic program of studies that was implemented, during the 5th and 6th centuries, in the philosophical schools of Athens and Alexandria.

Among Iamblichus’ innovations we should also mention the acceptance of the Chaldaean Oracles as divinely inspired holy scripture enjoying greater authority even than Plato’s dialogues, as well as the recognition of various Pseudo-Pythagorean works as authentic treatises by eminent Pythagoreans (Timaeus of Locri, Archytas, a.o.); he further believed that Plato, but also Aristotle, had drawn their main tenets from these works.

Historical significance

Iamblichus was the first philosopher who sought to furnish traditional religiosity with a metaphysical foundation. With the exception of occasional allusions, nothing similar can be found in Plotinus’ Enneads. This concern, coupled with the subtle metaphysical distinctions he introduced, led scholars to give him the epithet “the divine”, an appellation that previously had been only attributed to Plato. In his short-lived and ultimately abortive attempt to create a “pagan” church Julian relied on a popularized version of Iamblichus’ philosophy, while the main representatives of the later Neoplatonic school of Athens (Syrianus, Proclus, and Damascius) were deeply influenced by his thought. From a historical perspective, together with his defense of theurgy, Iamblichus’ greatest innovation was his acceptance of the Chaldaean Oracles as sacred texts of Platonism. What was recognized as Platonism in the West up to the Renaissance was in fact Iamblichus’ version of it.

Author: Spyridon Rangos


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