JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl

Syrian School of Neo-Platonism. Iamblichus and His Disciples.

§ 53.

1. Iamblichus of Chalcis, in Coele-Syria, was a pupil of Porphyry and died in the reign of Constantine (A.n. 330.) By his disciples he was credited with the power of working miracles, and was by them named "the divine" ho Theios. They narrate that in prayer he was raised into the air ten ells high; that his garments shone with golden light, and his face assumed an expression of celestial beauty. He was the author of several works, the most remarkable of which, in point of philosophical interest, are the treatises, Peri tou puthagorikou biou, logos protreptikos philosophian, and the Theologoumena tês arithmêtikês.

2. In the system of Iamblichus, philosophy, as a science, loses its place, and becomes a mere device for the support of polytheism. He devotes his chief inquiries to the details of an elaborate demonology, in which all the gods of Greece and the East (the Christian God excepted), as well as the gods of Plotinus and many others, find a place. He also treats of theurgy, by which he understands the procuring of mysterious effects which God is pleased to accomplish, as also the power of bringing down the gods into communication with men by means of certain ineffable symbols, known only to God. In this connection we find certain Pythagorean mystic numbers play an important part. Plotinus taught that the soul could lift itself to that eminence of wisdom and virtue where it might be united with God. Iamblichus taught that this union might be accomplished by a contrary method -- that man, by means of mystical practices, ceremonies, and words (sumbola, sunthêmata) could draw down the gods to himself (drastikê henôsis). In the mind of Iamblichus, theurgy is the complement of philosophy.

3. Above the One (hen) of Plotinus, Tamblichus sets another -- the Absolutely First -- in which there are no contrary elements of any kind, which is not the Good, but something which, being absolutely without distinctive characteristics, is higher than the Good. Under this One comes the One of Plotinus. The latter produces the intelligible world (kosmos noêtos) and this in turn produces the intellectual world (kosmos noeros). The former includes the objects of thought (Ideas), the latter all thinking essences. The elements of the former are peras, apeiron and mikton, the elements of the latter are nous, dunamis and dêmiourgos. Next in succession comes the psychical world, which is again divided into three orders -- the world-soul, and, produced from it, two other souls. To this world belong the gods of the popular polytheism, angels, demons, and heroes, a whole host of whom Iamblichus makes us acquainted with, and whom he arranges according to certain numerical combinations derived from Pythagorean sources. Last, in the order of existence, stands the sensible world.

4. It is worth noting that Iamblichus endeavoured to introduce a formal worship of Pythagoras, the religious reverence for Apollonius being already antiquated. His work, Peri tou Puthagorikou biou, is written after the manner of the "Apollonius" of Philostrates, only that Pythagoras is put in the place of Apollonius. Iamblichus endeavours to show that the contemporaries of Pythagoras, with whom he came in contact, esteemed him a god who had come from heaven to teach men wisdom. He narrates a number of prodigies regarding him, and exalts his piety, which was set as an example to all men. That in this teaching Iamblichus had in view the doctrine of the Incarnation of God, which is the basis of Christianity, appears evident. Paganism also wanted its heaven-sent Messiah, and since Apollonius would not serve the purpose any longer, Pythagoras was substituted.

5. Iamblichus is probably the author of the work De Mysteriis AEgyptiorum. The mention of this work gives us occasion to call attention to another characteristic of Neo-Platonism, especially of the Syrian School of that Philosophy. Since the time of Porphyry, Neo-Platonism had progressively assumed an attitude of greater hostility to Christianity. It had set up in Pythagoras a Messiah in opposition to the Messiah of the Christians, and it then endeavoured to secure divine authority for his teaching. The Christians had their Scriptures which they attributed to Divine revelation and Divine inspiration, the reformed Paganism of the Neo-Platonist school would have its Scriptures also, to be on a level with Christianity. These Scriptures were actually produced. Such were the "Chaldaic Oracles," the "Orphic Poems" and the "Works of Hermes," to which appeal was made and which, it was contended, were inspired by the gods.

6. The Chaldaic Oracles seem to have been a selection from the maxims of the different Chaldaic seers and astrologists, who were very numerous at this time. The Neo-Platonists of the fifth century made great account of this fund of Chaldaic wisdom. The Orphic Songs, which had already been known at an earlier period of Grecian history in connection with the Orphic religion (see above p. 29.) were also included in the category of sacred writings. The Writings of Hermes (Mysteria AEgyptiorum) received their name from Hermes -- the Egyptian god, Thot or Taut -- and were supposed to contain the secret lore of the Egyptians. They were ascribed to Hermes in the sense that the doctrines they contained purported to rest on the authority of the Egyptian priests, who had received them from the god, Thot. There exists a considerable number of these writings, and the number was still greater in earlier times. They treated of questions of medicine, and chemistry, as well as of religious and philosophical subjects. They enjoyed a high reputation. For Egypt was regarded as a holy land, which the gods had chosen for their abode, when they descended in visible form to impart divine wisdom to men. It was, therefore, to be expected that the writings of Hermes would become the sacred book or Bible of the heathens.

7. The most important of these writings -- so far as religious and philosophical questions are concerned -- are the Poemander and the Dialogue of Asclepius. The latter is an epitome of the notions current during the rise of Neo-Platonism, a medley of Platonic, Neo-Platonic, and mythical doctrines, reduced to one system, and set forth, not in the form of philosophical investigation, but in authoritative dogmatic fashion. These dogmas are put into the mouth of Hermes Trismegistos. The Poemander has not any consecutive order in its parts. It consists of fourteen treatises in which widely different and unconnected elements of doctrine are laid down.

8. Among the immediate disciples of Iamblichus was Theodorus of Asine, who sketched the system of Triads in greater detail than Iamblichus, and thus prepared the way for Proclus. Between the (One) Primal Being and the psychical he interposes a triad of beings -- the intelligible, the intellectual, the demiurgical. We may also name among the disciples of lamblichus, Sopater of Apamea whom Constantine put to death on suspicion of his having used magical arts to deprive the Corn-fleet of a favourable wind; Dexippus, Aedesius of Cappadocia, successor of Iamblichus, and teacher of Chrysanthus of Sardis, of Maximus of Ephesus, of Priscus of Molossus, and of Eusebius of Myndus who were the instructors of the Emperor Julian the Apostate,{1} Sallust, the companion of Julian in his youth, and author of a compendium of Neo-Platonic Philosophy; also Eustachius, of Cappadocia. These men devoted themselves, for the most part, rather to the practices of theurgy than to philosophical theories. In proportion to the magnificance of their achievements in philosophy was the growth of their reverence for the chiefs of their school, and principally for Iamblichus. Commentaries upon the writings of the older philosophers were the principal works of the period. In this connection Themistius, of Paphlagonia, surnamed Euphrades, rendered considerable service to philosophy. We may further mention, as connected with the school, Aurelius Macrobus, author of the Saturnalia, the elder Olympiodorus, and the lady-philosopher, Hypatia. (murdered A.D. 415).

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{1} Julian the Apostate, is known as the last persecutor of the Christians. This is not the place to dwell upon his efforts in the cause of persecution. He composed a work "Against the Christians," which is not now extant, hut the leading ideas of which have been preserved to us by Cyril, in his reply Contra Julianum. Julian holds the view that there is one supreme God, but that under him, there are a number of inferior divinities, who rule the several parts of the created world. On this principle he explains the diversity of nations. The differences between nations, he thinks, are accounted for by the differences between the gods who preside over these nations. As a consequence of this view, he recognises only national gods and national religions. He has no sympathy with the notion of one universal religion exhibited in Christianity. It is on this ground that he combats Christianity and justifies polytheism. The God of the Jews is, in Julian's view, a merely national God, and if the Jews were wrong in recognising only their own God, and denying those of other nations the same charge is doubly true of the Christians. Christianity, in Julian's estimate, is not only a false -- it is also a pitiful religion, which cannot sustain comparison with the glory and greatness of the paganism of the past. The doctrine of the Divinity of Christ he considers a mere invention of Christ's foilowers. He exalts the civilisation of the pagans, contrasting it with the ignorance of the Christians, and taunts them with having produced from their schools no man of enlightened or vigorous character.