An overview of varied events in Alexandria, Rome, Athens, and other locations associated with the Neoplatonist phenomenon of the third to sixth centuries CE. Plotinus and Porphyry begin the sequence. Hypatia is a closely associated instance. Iamblichus and Proclus promoted the ideology of theurgy, a disputed ritual extension which exercised a strong influence upon the Athenian school.
1. Hypatia of Alexandria
5. The Problem of Theurgy
6. Post-Plotinian Neoplatonism
9. Damascius and the Flight from Athens
10. Perennial Philosophy
11. The Chaldean Oracles
12. Hierocles of Alexandria
13. Late Alexandrian Neoplatonism and Philoponus
1. Hypatia of Alexandria
During the fourth century CE, Alexandria was the scene of much ideological friction, created by the Arian controversy amongst the Christian clergy and their supporters. The local Nicene bishop Athanasius (d.373) was forced into exile several times. Riots occurred in which Christian ascetics (both female virgins and male renunciates) were exposed to violence and abuse, conducted by the regime which transited from Roman Empire auspices. See further Christian Virgins.
The third exile of Athanasius commenced in 356, when the imperial government installed the Arian bishop George as Patriarch. Pro-Athanasian mobs caused George himself to flee, and when he returned in 359, he was lynched by these Christian rioters. Nevertheless, supporters of Athanasius again suffered a persecution, including Alexandrian virgins like Eudemonis, who in 359/60 was tortured by imperial officials, a sequel to earlier mistreatment of ascetic Christian women who had been subjected to violence. (1)
Over fifty years later, a more famous pagan woman also suffered. In 415, the Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia was brutally murdered in Alexandria by a Christian mob. This woman had done nothing wrong, and was clearly the victim of a new political struggle occurring in the Christian sector. Some more widespread disturbances were symptomatic of the friction between a growing Christian majority and the pagan minority. The closure of Egyptian temples had culminated in 391 with the demolition of the Serapis temple at Alexandria, an event instigated by Patriarch Theophilus. The language and writing system of the Egyptian priests passed into obscurity. The Roman Empire had become the Christian Roman Empire.
Hypatia was a Greek accomplished in mathematics and astronomy. Her date of birth has been charted at circa 355, meaning that she was about sixty years old at the time of her murder. Her father was the mathematician Theon, and she is credited with commentaries on mathematical works. She taught philosophy in the Platonist tradition, which had by then changed into a Neoplatonist idiom. There were Christians amongst her students, and two of these became bishops; she maintained correspondence with her former pupil Synesius of Cyrene, a Greek Christian (with Platonising accents) who became Bishop of Ptolemais in 410, though after lengthy hesitation.
A fifth century Greek Christian annalist was Socrates Scholasticus (380-450) of Constantinople. He profiled Hypatia in his Ecclesiastical History. His very early report refers to her achievements in science, and credits Hypatia as the major philosopher of her time. Her affiliation is specified as the tradition of Plato and Plotinus.
An early sixth century report was contributed by the Neoplatonist philosopher Damascius (section 9 below) in his Philosophy History, and who himself studied in Alexandria some two generations after the death of Hypatia. Damascius says that Hypatia had more genius than her father, and was not satisfied with the paternal tutorship in mathematics, with the consequence that she committed herself to philosophy. She would don the philosopher's cloak and walk through the city to give a public interpretation of Plato and Aristotle, and others. Yet the Alexandrian Patriarch Cyril grew envious of her fame; this Christian ecclesiastic was to gain a reputation for religious intolerance and persecution of pagans. Damascius says that Cyril plotted the murder of Hypatia, and goaded a mob to kill her.
The Patriarch Cyril was evidently in conflict with the imperial prefect Orestes, the secular authority with whom Hypatia was on good terms according to Scholasticus. Orestes himself was a Christian, and so the issue does not amount to a simplified paganism versus Christianity contest, despite many presentations to the contrary. The Christian mob intercepted Hypatia's chariot and reputedly dragged her to the newly Christianised Caesareum church, where they savagely murdered her. The exact details of her death are uncertain; the reports are conflicting. The mob are said to have dismembered and burnt the corpse. Archbishop Cyril and the mob mentality were far removed from "Love thy neighbour as thyself." Nevertheless, in I882, the Roman Catholic authorities declared Saint Cyril to be a Doctor of the Church.
The mob are implied by some modern commentators as being Christian monks, but this is an exercise of associations. Other "pagan" associations became tragically influential. The seventh century annalist Bishop John of Nikiu wrote that Hypatia "was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles." Quotation from Wikipedia (accessed 04/03/2011). The relevance of insular religious reports is frequently very questionable, and may be dismissed in this instance. John of Nikiu believed that Hypatia's murder was justified because she was a witch; his version is favourable to Cyril.
In recent times, Hypatia has become very popular amongst feminists, and this is entirely understandable. There are some drawbacks in contemporary exegesis, such as the insinuation that Hypatia must have been closer to Ammonius Saccas than was Plotinus, in that the latter formulated a philosophy assimilated by the dogmatic mysticism of Christianity. Plotinus was actually the pupil of Ammonius, and his philosophy was not fully assimilated by Christian enthusiasms, and nor even by later Neoplatonism in certain respects. Plotinian philosophy is virtually a complete mystery to the contemporary aptitude in general. Philosophy history can be a very complex and demanding subject, as indeed is noetic philosophy.
A clarifying account was contributed by Professor Maria Dzielska, who briefly referred (Hypatia of Alexandria, page 102) to the latest historical novels on Hypatia, reflecting contemporary tastes and fashions. Factual pursuit of the Alexandrian Hypatia requires contrasting criteria to commercial novelism. The same scholar charted the "literary legend" of Hypatia, created by eighteenth century writers like Voltaire and Edward Gibbon, though more distended in nineteenth century versions. Both Gibbon and Voltaire allowed anti-Christian sentiments to distort their version of events.
Dzielska emphasised that even the best early reports are insufficient for reconstruction of Hypatia's situation, lacking the information provided about her and her students in the letters of Synesius of Cyrene (ibid., page 117). Synesius died before she did; Hypatia apparently ceased to correspond with him at the end, possibly because she did not wish to involve him in the fraught situation revolving around Patriarch Cyril. Synesius was the clerical subordinate to Cyril. Dzielska suggests that Hypatia may have turned away from Synesius in the last years, as "she had joined the struggle against the church" (ibid., page 95).
According to Dzielska, more is known about Hypatia's philosophical teaching than her research in mathematics and astronomy. Students from wealthy families studied privately in her home at Alexandria; they came from Egyptian towns, Syria, and even Constantinople. They were trained to keep details of the Platonist system a secret, in the face of incomprehension elsewhere (unfortunately perhaps, this tendency was often regarded in the Platonist world as an insulation against people of lower social status; the pedagogic system was elitist). Hypatia also gave public lectures (possibly wishing to offset the elitism). She occasionally advised municipal and imperial officials in relation to current social issues (cf. ibid., pages 101ff.).
In her personal lifestyle, Hypatia observed a code of moderate living and remained a virgin, never marrying. In the political conflict that arose between the archbishop (Patriarch) Cyril (office 412-44) and the imperial prefect Orestes, she evidently supported the latter, who resisted the clerical attempt to control secular power. The oppressed Jews and pagans sided with the Christian prefect (or governor) in a city that was increasingly violent. Riots between Jews and Christians in 415 are strongly associated with Cyril, who declared that all Jews must leave Alexandria.
In this complex scenario, the dogmatic Cyril had already closed the Novation churches in Alexandria. He was in evident friction with both the Jews and Orestes. There are discrepancies in the sources. Socrates Scholasticus says that Cyril expelled the entire Jewish community and then plundered all their property; however, the more conservative John of Nikiu affirms that only Jewish troublemakers (active in riots) were expelled. According to Scholasticus, hundreds of orthodox Christian monks appeared from the Nitrian desert in objection to Orestes; these men had earlier been exhorted by Cyril's uncle Theophilus (the former Patriarch) in the latter's campaign against monastic Origenists, who were declared to be heretical. The orthodox or "Anthropomorphite" monks regarded Orestes as a pagan because he had only recently converted to Christianity.
Some analysts have concluded that Orestes was determined to stop the persecution of non-Christians. A feasible interpretation is that Cyril's private army (the parabolans) attempted to assassinate the prefect, though collaborators are also implied. The thwarted leader of this attack was a monk named Ammonius, who is mentioned by Scholasticus in relation to the Nitrian contingent, who fled when the murder plot failed. Orestes was injured, though rescued by Christian onlookers. In retaliation, Orestes subjected Ammonius to public torture, an extreme strategy reminiscent of the Roman military elite. The victim died from the injuries inflicted. Cyril then invested the dead monk with the saintly status of a martyr. Yet the gesture was resisted by Christian supporters of Orestes, and this development caused Cyril to retreat at that juncture. His Christian opponents have been envisaged in terms of the educated elite of the city.
This situation, fraught with violence, was attended by an anti-Jewish rhetoric in the Festal letters of Cyril, commencing in 414. His aggressive stance stigmatised Jews as being rebellious and obstinate in their beliefs; he made the accusation that God had abandoned them, alleging that their impious resistance to Christianity was in a similar category to pagan Greek indifference. "Christians who failed to heed Cyril's advice were led to believe that they were in imminent danger of succumbing to a fate similar to that of 'unbelieving' and 'disobedient' Jews" (Susan Wessel, Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian Controversy, OUP 2004, p. 41).
The orthodox Coptic monks of Nitria were not the major sector influenced by Cyril, who had at his disposal the more local parabolans, a cadre of young men attached to the urban church. These Alexandrian juniors frequently exercised the benevolent role of placing the sick and homeless in hospitals and almshouses. However, the sources also reveal this contingent "as a sort of military arm of the Alexandrian patriarch, carrying out actions against his adversaries in various places" (Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria, page 96). The parabolans were effectively employed by the Patriarchate, whereas the monks were an independent faction.
The parabolans were 800 strong. Most of them were uneducated, and they gave unquestioning obedience to the Patriarch. This guard had earlier appeared with monks in support of the former Patriarch Theophilus (office 385-412), when that cleric campaigned to destroy paganism in Alexandria. They are closely implicated in the events of 414, when a mob was incited to attack the Jewish quarter of the city, resulting in riots.
"Hypatia did not cultivate Neoplatonic theurgic philosophy" (ibid., page 105), and so she could not be accused on that account by Christian censorship (as were other Neoplatonists, notably Maximus of Ephesus). She did not resist the conversion of pagan temples into churches. Instead she protected her Christian students. She was esteemed for her wisdom and ethical virtue, but the parabolans were incited to spread rumours that she studied magic and exercised a satanic spell over Orestes and the entire city. Dzielska identifies the parabolans as the murderers of Hypatia (ibid., page 96). They are interpreted as manipulating the Alexandrian mob who killed her in 415; her body was dragged around the city and then burned. Aggressive mobs are despicable, but perhaps far worse are the entities who incite them.
Religious fanaticism, as the tool of clerical schemes, annihilated Hypatia. The public were led to believe that if Hypatia was eliminated, the urban troubles would stop. The murderers knew nothing of what she taught, though the educated theologian Cyril would have had a biased idea. Damascius reports that those who committed the crime went unpunished (ibid., page 99). Orestes apparently departed from Alexandria, his followers paralysed by fear.
Another modern interpretation has tended to depict the murder as being carried out by local Christians (led by Peter the Reader) who acted independently of Cyril, though they were his supporters and feared that he might lose in the conflict with Orestes.
Cyril did not entirely escape judgment, as the city council made repeated petitions to the court at distant Constantinople. In 416 Cyril was divested of his authority over the parabolans; an imperial ordinance reduced the number of that cadre to 500 and restricted their movements (ibid., page 96). However, two years later Cyril regained his leadership of the parabolans, a development which left him free in his later years to persecute pagans in Alexandria, though meanwhile he harassed heretics and Jews. (2) The nominally holy robe so often meant hell for the victims of oppression.
Prior to Dzielska, an eminent Professor of Greek criticised the well known reference to Hypatia by Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy (1946). Russell quoted a part of Edward Gibbon's stock narrative in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Russell added the erroneous phrase: "Alexandria was no longer troubled by philosophers" (History, p. 365), which caused confusions amongst general readers. Neoplatonist philosophers did survive in that Egyptian city for several generations.
Professor J. M. Rist also observed that Socrates Scholasticus describes Hypatia as acquiring the Platonist way of thinking from Plotinus, though her Christian pupil Synesius of Cyrene does not make many references to Plotinus in his letters. Rist (an expert on Plotinus) suggested that it was Hypatia who revived interest in Plotinus at Alexandria. Female philosophers were rare. Rist also aligned Hypatia with the Cynic tradition, in that she was outspoken and wore the rough cloak that was virtually the uniform of Cynic preachers. (3)
Plotinus (204-270 CE) is the subject of a related article on this website, and so remarks here can be brief. He was the disciple of Ammonius Saccas, who taught in Alexandria during the early third century. Ammonius remains an obscure entity, though he was evidently different to other Platonist teachers in that Egyptian city. Plotinus was disappointed with the contrasting philosophy tutors whom he at first investigated. Those tutors appear to have been professional pedagogues, whereas Ammonius was "apparently self-taught." (4)
The atypical teaching of Ammonius was for some years maintained as a closely guarded secret by his students. This rather esoteric aspect of the situation is more comprehensible when viewed in the light of philosophy as an experiential commitment, as distinct from a career advantage or supplement. The latter course commonly attracted men in high social position.
Moving to Rome after his teacher's death, Plotinus eventually became well known, though adhering to a cautious tactic of guarding his unpublished manuscripts, which were available only to committed students like Amelius and Porphyry. A biography was composed by Porphyry, and this is quite atmospheric, though needing close study due to some complexities. Porphyry's Life of Plotinus reveals a philosopher of the more mystical type, and one cultivating high standards.
Plotinus was averse to the social distractions of his time. His disciplined lifestyle has been described in terms of a moderate asceticism. His example does not fit the category of modern philosopher exemplified by such entities as Nietzsche or Bertrand Russell. Commitment to a role like his is not particularly easy.
"Plotinus was an amateur: a highly intuitive man, arguing intensely, but obscurely, among sterile academics. He annoyed his pupils by insisting on threshing out each problem on its own merits as it arose, for days, if needs be, rather than give the usual course of set lectures on philosophical systems." (5)
His writings were later edited by Porphyry and became famous to posterity as the Enneads. Porphyry deemed the literary style of his teacher to be deficient, though fully recognising the merits of content. Plotinus was not a grammarian, and was solely concerned with the philosophical quest, and the achievement in prospect for a form of enhanced noetic activity which one might call "intellectual contemplation." That designation would merely suit literary convenience, as the word intellect, in the vocabulary of Plotinus, differed substantially from the modern usage.
Plotinus regarded himself as a Platonist, and basically followed the tradition of Plato as this had been received in his day. He is often identified as the instigator of what became known in much later centuries as "Neoplatonism," a modern blanket term applied to all the subsequent Platonist exponents until the demise of Hellenistic culture in the sixth century CE. There were some fairly pronounced differences amongst those exponents, and complexities remain an ongoing discussion.
Porphyry (c. 232-c. 305 CE) originally studied at Athens before encountering Plotinus at Rome. He was a Phoenician from Tyre (now Sur, Lebanon), though his parents are often described as Syrians. He was originally known by the name of Malkhos. He wanted to study different languages and religions, so he travelled to Athens, a city still in repute as a major centre of learning. There he became a student of Longinus (c. 213-72), who was apparently considered to be a leading Platonist philosopher.
A complexity here looms. Athens was renowned as the home of Platonism, where the nominal successors (diadochi) of Plato presided via imperial patronage in the second century CE. Yet this official Platonism was not highly regarded by Plotinus, as Porphyry subsequently discovered. At first Porphyry seems to have been perplexed when he moved to Rome in 263 and became the student of Plotinus. The methods of Longinus and Plotinus were very different, and Porphyry initially reacted to the latter. Longinus had composed the works On Causes and Philarchaios. When these treatises were read to Plotinus, he remarked: "Longinus is a scholar, but certainly not a philosopher" (Vita Plotini, 14). The translation of "scholar" can convey the sense of a literary man, in the role associated with oratory and rhetoric.
One interpretation has been that Longinus believed himself to be presenting "the authentic interpretation of Plato based on a close and accurate study of the text of the Dialogues, of a kind which Plotinus considered inappropriate to a philosopher." (6) Plotinus did not write commentaries on Plato; his own exposition was in the Platonist spirit without being pedantic. On a well known subject (the descent of the soul), Plotinus departed from the orthodox Platonist exegesis, a move which later gained the disapproval of Proclus. The Enneads can be read in the light of a major incentive on the part of the author "to rationalise his own intuitions and experiences." (7) This was a method of philosophising, or doing philosophy (to quote a modern phrase), that is less well understood today.
The teaching of Plotinus about an ultimate reality is nothing like that found in the contemporary "new age" versions. Although the objective was to achieve affinity with the reality, "Plotinus stressed that people did not have the mental capacity to fully understand both the ultimate reality itself or the consequences." Quotation from Porphyry Malchus. The "intellectual" faculties required a development that does not amount to the easiest project on earth.
Like Plotinus, Longinus had been a student of the deceased Ammonius Saccas in Alexandria. We do not know for how long, or whether Longinus had formerly encountered Plotinus. From a letter cited by Porphyry, we do know of the rival assessment. Longinus commented that "much of the theory [of Plotinus] does not convince me," though he conceded that the output of Plotinus could be classed in "the very highest rank." (8)
Perhaps due to his less formal approach, Plotinus was not a technical perfectionist in the way that Porphyry preferred. The student from Tyre admired the experiential depth of Plotinus, but deemed his writings to be deficient, meaning in respect of grammar and format. Some years after the death of Plotinus, Porphyry commenced to edit the Enneads, a task which he had completed by circa 301 CE, thereafter publishing that distinctive work. What we have today is very much the result of Porphyry's labours.
The original treatises comprising the Enneads were not intended for general circulation. Plotinus did not believe that the average reader was suited to the subject matter, which could merely cause confusions amongst beginners or those of a discrepant disposition. The subject of "intellectual contemplation" is today a largely theoretical pursuit. The contemporary notion that anyone can gain advanced insights, without a due preparation, would not have been been conceded by Plotinus. One has only to view the contemporary scene of "workshops" and commercial mysticism to learn something about what the lack of due preparation means.
After living in Rome for some five years as a student of Plotinus, Porphyry departed. The circumstances are of interest. According to his own report (Vita Plotini, 11), he was suffering from depression. Porphyry retreated from his colleagues and cloistered himself in his home. He resolved to commit suicide. The reason for this has been variously surmised.
The political climate was oppressive, and perhaps enough to make anyone feel less than optimistic. Disease was also rife, and Plotinus himself soon after became a victim of some contagion when an epidemic hit Rome. Before that problem occurred, Plotinus made a visit to Porphyry, and convinced the sufferer that the drastic recourse of suicide was irrational. The teacher advised the student to move to Sicily, and Porphyry complied.
The dire attitude of Porphyry may have been influenced by certain Stoic themes. In those rival circles, suicide was condoned in circumstances where the decision was made in a rational manner, independent of emotional complexes. The Platonist tradition had argued against this resort, and Plotinus followed suit. The Plotinian "flight to the beyond" did not mean the termination of physical life. (9)
Various academic theories about this phase have been expressed. A questionable version has been that Porphyry was reacting to the critical view of Aristotle in the circle of Plotinus. It is more definite that Porphyry himself was an admirer of Aristotle, though in accordance with a "Neoplatonist" perspective.
Porphyry moved to Sicily in 268, and from there corresponded with Plotinus. The situation became such that most of the pupils of Plotinus could no longer see the latter because of his contagious illness, which caused his death in 270. Porphyry was thus spared the tribulations of that episode. Porphyry occupied himself in composition. It is evident that he believed in a reconcilement of the teachings of Aristotle and Plato.
He returned to Rome circa 282. A decade earlier, Longinus had been executed by the Emperor Aurelian, due to the victim's role as a chief adviser to Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, a foe of the Romans who was defeated in 272. Political complications could be lethal. Porphyry wrote commentaries on Plato and the Elements of Euclid. He also composed a more unconventional Life of Pythagoras. (10) Some interpretations say that he taught Iamblichus, though subsequently these two Neoplatonists diverged strongly.
Porphyry also wrote commentaries on Aristotle. His most famous work in that category transpired to be the Isagoge, which is a preparation for the study of Aristotelian logic (and favoured by the medieval Christian Schoolmen). (11) From now on, Neoplatonists often commenced their curriculum with Aristotelian logic, a trend associated with Porphyry. He also composed the well known treatise On Abstinence from Killing Animals, (12) advocating vegetarianism. More controversial in later centuries was his Against the Christians, which survives only in fragments. (13)
On Abstinence is not simply a vegetarian exhortation. The selection of lifestyle was considered important. The philosopher necessarily had to exercise detachment from sensation and passion, live abstemiously, and withdraw from the crowd, "like the Pythagoreans and the philosophers described by Plato in the Theaetetus; thus, the contemplative life implies an ascetic lifestyle." (14) In On Abstinence, "Porphyry affirmed that the goal sought by philosophers was to live in accordance with the spirit or Intellect - this last word can be written either with a capital or without, for it signifies both our intelligence and the divine Intelligence." (15) Connotations of the word intellectual were not the same in Plotinian parlance as they are today.
About sixty works are attributed to Porphyry, though most of these are lost or in fragmented form. A problem lies in confirming many of these attributions. The losses and uncertainties mean pronounced difficulties in assessing his role. "He may throughout his life have used different styles, perhaps aiming at different readerships.... We do not know with any certainty what he stood for philosophically." Quotation from Eyjolfur Emilsson, "Porphyry" (2005), Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
Evidently a learned man, Porphyry gained the reputation amongst moderns for a rational orientation admixed with idiosyncratic inquiry into religion and superstition. One interpretation has been that Middle Platonist influences are strongly reflected in his corpus. He was certainly different to Plotinus in the range of his interests, although points of convergence are also evident. Extant only in fragments is the distinctive Letter to Anebo, which poses various questions about diverse religious subjects that were strong popular influences. This document "was in some way aimed at Iamblichus and, more specifically, at what Porphyry saw as his ex-pupil's interest in the occult." (16)
The querying tone is markedly critical, and this may be the reason why Porphyry opted for an eccentric format, in which the anonymous epistle is addressed to an Egyptian priest. Porphyry refers sceptically to astrological lore and theurgy, which could easily be combined in diverse religious and cultic activities. It is obvious that he was averse to Egyptian conjurors and diviners, being faithful to Plotinus in that respect.
The Letter to Anebo complains about Egyptian priests who exercised roles as astrologers, and names one of these as Chaeremon. This entity was an Alexandrian scholar and astrologer of the first century CE, and one who became familiar with Stoic philosophy. (17) The priests are queried for maintaining an inflexible astrological fatalism. The strong implication here is that Egyptian religion was too literal and materialistic, reducing divine gods to caricatures as natural forces.
Porphyry's epistle also refers to the subject of finding the daimon, one which can easily be dismissed as obscurantism, though evidently favoured by astrologers in Roman and Egyptian milieux. Porphyry asks what sort of power or influence this feat imparts. He informs that astrologers were in disagreement about this matter. A basic idea in currency was that the daimon could be ascertained through the birth chart. He implies that if the daimon could be known via astrology, then the individual could be free from Fate. The strict determinism of Fate was upheld by astrologers, including Vettius Valens (born at Antioch, and who became influential via his lengthy Anthology in Greek). See also Hellenistic Astrology.
Porphyry authored a lost work on astrology, and to his pen has been attributed an introduction to the astrological work Tetrabiblos, which describes horoscopy. This was composed by Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria, the second century CE scientist who mapped the heavens and the earth, and who innovated the theory of epicycles which was dominant until Galileo. The Introduction to the Tetrabiblos drew strongly upon Antiochus of Athens, an influential astrologer of the second century CE. Porphyry's apparent latitude for astrology, despite the critical accents, has aroused a suspicion that he was compromising the Plotinian teachings on freewill and virtue.
In his later years, Porphyry married a woman with an interest in philosophy. He was about sixty when he married Marcella, and one disputed modern theory describes this as a marriage of convenience. Porphyry certainly assisted Marcella with seven children from a deceased husband. The reason for the match has been deduced in terms of a common interest in philosophy. In the extant Letter to Marcella, Porphyry says: "Reason tells us that the Divine is present everywhere and in all men, but that only the mind of the wise man is sanctified as its temple" (Zimmern trans., 1910).
The biography of Iamblichus is not straightforward. The report by Eunapius of Sardis (349-c.414 CE) has been described by modern scholarship as "deliberately hagiographical and frustratingly vague in factual detail." (18) Iamblichus was born into a wealthy family at Chalcis, in Syria, and may have married a female disciple of Plotinus, namely Amphicleia (though another theory says that she married the son of Iamblichus). His date of birth is not clear, and could have been circa 240, "which may help to explain the rather uneasy pupil-teacher relationship they [Iamblichus and Porphyry] appear to have enjoyed." (19) The dating of Iamblichus is evidently tenuous, and one version is c.245-325.
If Porphyry taught Iamblichus after the death of Plotinus, or was merely an associate of Iamblichus at some stage, then they subsequently went very different ways. Iamblichus ended up teaching Neoplatonism in Syria, apparently on one of his family estates at the city of Apamea.To be more specific, he composed commentaries on Plato and Aristotle, extant only in fragments. Yet he awarded a higher authority to Pythagoras, whom he revived in a theurgic context. Iamblichus is credited with authorship of the controversial De Mysteriis (On the Mysteries), now described as "a point-by-point refutation of Porphyry's Letter to Anebo." (20)
In De Mysteriis, Iamblichus defends Egyptian religion, and emerges as a champion of theurgy. This work includes diverse components. There are fragments of Greek philosophers from Heraclitus to Plato, along with references to the Corpus Hermeticum, the Chaldean Oracles, and Greek magical papyri. The eclectic contentions have been rejected by some modern commentators, though favoured by others. Critics have deduced that the priests (hieratikoi) overshadow Platonist philosophers in this form of theurgic exegesis.
"He [Iamblichus] does not think the masses are capable of intellectual means of theurgy (this is reserved for the few and for a later stage in life), but that a theurgist must start at their own level of development and individual inclinations. His complex hierarchy of beings, including celestial gods, visible gods, angels and daimons, justifies a practice of theurgy in which each of these beings is sacrificed and prayed to appropriately.... Material means, i.e., use of stones, herbs, scents, animals, and places, are used in theurgy in a manner similar to magical practices common in the Late Hellenistic era, with the notable difference that they are used simply to please and harmonise with the order of the higher beings, rather than to obtain either an earthy or intellectual desire." (M. Lawrence,).
This is a very different angle to the "intellectual contemplation" of Plotinus. With regard to astrology, Iamblichus is much closer to Porphyry, believing "that astrology is in fact a true science, though polluted by human errors" (ibid). Iamblichus does not deny the relevance of horoscopy, though he views this popular pursuit in terms of the lower life of the body, as distinct from the intellectual domain of the soul. Nevertheless, Iamblichus believes that "theurgic exercises can elevate the soul above the cosmos and above Fate" (ibid.).
Neoplatonist literature records that Iamblichus was descended from the priest-kings of Emesa, an aristocratic provenance which has been deemed the probable key to his form of innovative Neoplatonist doctrine. He certainly favoured traditional cults of the gods against Platonist rationalism. Yet he did in fact claim to be a Platonist. His intention was clearly to provide a philosophical justification for cult rites which he viewed as an appropriate vehicle for theourgia (theurgy), a word which has been variously translated, e. g., divine action, religious ritual, god-work, ritual invocation of divinities. The phrase "ritual and divination" has also been used in scholarly commentary. Iamblichean theurgy is inseparable from topics like sacrifice, oracles, angels, supernatural power, and associated subjects.
It is relevant to stress that Iamblichus approached theurgy in a manner emphasising Platonist morality and virtue, and distinguished between vulgar magic and theurgy. The question remains as to what extent his divergence from Plato and Plotinus amounts to a complication rather than an enhancement. In this respect, under the influence of Iamblichus, Platonism "became more explicitly a religion." (21)
A notably sympathetic interpretation has described Iamblichus in terms of "the first leader of a Platonic school to function simultaneously as hierophant of a sacred cult." (22) His commentaries on Plato exist in fragments, but his general position is sufficiently known to merit the reflection that he "Platonised" popular religion. His glorifying emphasis upon the mysteries of "Egyptian and Chaldean" priesthoods has been considered confusing in the context of Platonism. The consequence has been compared to Christian sacramental theology, despite the ideological differences.
"Iamblichus maintained that the divine principles invoked in these rites were exemplified abstractly and theoretically in the teachings of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, and that both cultic acts and philosophic paedia were rooted in one source: the ineffable power of the gods." (23)
This contention may have suited the milieu of priest-kings, but is not Platonist or Aristotelian. A problem with the Iamblichean portrayal of the PreSocratic Pythagoras is the evident amalgamation of cultic worship and philosophy in the third century Syrian theurgic context. Iamblichus enthusiastically composed The Pythagorean Life, a text that has tried the ingenuity of scholars to ascertain due sources, and which meets with reserve from those who desire history as distinct from hagiography. The following quotation from the text may serve to illustrate this caution:
"Pythagoras... honoured the gods as Orpheus did, setting up carved and bronze images, linking the gods not to human form but to the divine foundations.... Pythagoras also proclaimed their purifications and the rites ascribed to them, having a most exact knowledge of them. His divine wisdom and worship were, they say, a synthesis he made, having learnt some things from the Orphics, some from the Egyptian priests, some from the Chaldaeans and the magi, some from the rite at Eleusis.... He said that we make three libations to the gods, and Apollo gives his oracles from a tripod, because number first came into being as a triad. We sacrifice to Aphrodite on the sixth day because six is the first number to share the whole being of number.... We must sacrifice to Herakles on the eighth of the month because he was a seven-months child." (24)
The gestures made by Plato to Egyptian wisdom were not in the same genre. The outcome was rather different. Some ancient philosophers, Plotinus included, did make references to Mystery teachings, but not in the Iamblichean mode. Plato and Plotinus evidently felt that the philosophical route lay outside the field of ritual, which obscured the purport of the actual teachings (whether "Mystery" or no).
NeoPythagoreanism was still a minority vogue in the time of Iamblichus. The ideal "Pythagorean" lifestyle was disciplined and basically vegetarian. "We do not know how soon in his working life Iamblichus decided that Pythagoras was the ideal philosopher, nor to what extent he and his students followed the Pythagorean lifestyle he describes. It is unlikely that they observed a five year silence for novices, or held their property in common." (25)
Porphyry also possessed NeoPythagorean tendencies. He had composed a celebratory Life of Pythagoras, though along different lines, as part of a history of philosophy from Homer to Plato. Iamblichus borrowed from Porphyry, but took the subject a lot further with a ten volume epic known as Pythagorean Doctrines (only partly extant). What are now called NeoPythagorean writings arose in the first and second centuries CE. However, "nobody was sure what exactly Pythagoras had taught, let alone what (if anything) he had written.... A few philosophers in the early centuries AD were counted as Pythagorean, because of their concern with number as an organising principle of the universe, and a few people were 'Pythagorean' in the popular sense: they were vegetarian, or they believed in reincarnation. But there was no major Pythagorean revival." (26)
Some analysts have been inclined to believe that Iamblichus composed The Pythagorean Life in response to the challenge presented to Hellenism by Christianity. During his lifetime, the "pagan" debate was strong, and his first teacher (Anatolius of Laodicea) apparently became a Christian bishop. Porphyry was certainly pitted against the rival ideology in a well known polemic. Yet Iamblichus apparently remained aloof from the discord. After his death, he became a figurehead for the pagan revival created by the Roman emperor Julian, the apostate nephew of Constantine the Great (who became a Christian in 312-13). Julian viewed Iamblichus as a theologian of philosophy and the equal of Plato.
The cause of Julian's defection from Christianity is attributed to his encounter with the Neoplatonist philosopher Maximus. This occurred at Ephesus in 351/2. Maximus of Ephesus favoured theurgy, and was reputed to have magical powers. Via incantations, he was believed to make an image of the goddess Hecate smile; even the iconic torch she carried would ignite into flame. The story reflects theurgic beliefs.
In 361, Julian invited Maximus to Constantinople, and in the capacity of an advisor. Eunapius of Sardis is the major source, in his Lives of the Sophists. Maximus "pandered to the emperor's love of magic and theurgy, and by judicious administration of the omens won a high position at court" (Maximus of Ephesus, accessed 15/03/2011). However, Maximus misused his position for personal gain. A few years later, he was arrested and fined, and unfortunately tortured. Maximus afterwards returned to Constantinople, but was suspected of supporting a conspiracy against the emperor Valens. He was executed in 372. The connection of Neoplatonism with theurgy was not to any advantage in the political sphere.
Meanwhile, during Julian's brief reign in 360-3 CE, he attempted to convert the Roman Empire back to paganism, rebuilding temples and creating a new priesthood that was obliged to emulate Christian moral standards. "Like the Christian clergy, they [pagan priests] were required to keep away from obscene shows, taverns, and all disreputable employment." (27) Julian declared toleration for all, but found that he "had to repress zealous Christians in Syria and Asia Minor whose robust methods with his newly built temples and images extended to insult and destruction." (28) There was much vandalism in process. Yet not all pagans could understand Julian's reliance upon diviners and soothsayers, and nor other events. "The execution of animals for his sacrifices was on so large a scale as to affect the economics of the meat market in some areas." (29)
Julian's short-lived pagan revival is thought to have influenced the Athenian school of Neoplatonism. Iamblichus appears favourably in the commentaries of Proclus, Damascius, and Simplicius. "Later Neoplatonists were wary of Iamblichus' claims about Aristotle and Plato, but maintained his curriculum, his metaphysical distinctions and his emphasis on mathematics." Quotation from Lucas Siorvanes, Iamblichus.
5. The Problem of Theurgy
The De Mysteriis has been attributed to Iamblichus, and could have been an early work of his. (30) The favoured mysteries of theurgy had earlier been strongly resisted by Porphyry in his Letter to Anebo (section 3 above). Iamblichus was saying that the Plotinian contemplation was not sufficient to achieve unio mystica; instead theurgic rituals were required to precipitate divine aid. De Mysteriis was composed under the pseudonym of Abammon, denoting an Egyptian priest, and evidently in response to Porphyry. Abammon claimed that Hellenes had abandoned their religious heritage, meaning cultic worship of the gods. De Mysteriis had the effect of endorsing divinatory rites practised at that era.
A few of the points raised in this dispute may be covered here, juxtaposing what are frequently viewed as opposing arguments.
Porphyry asked why the ritual Mysteries depicted obscene events and used shocking language. Abammon replied that this was the correct way to worship the generative energies, as the repression of emotions made them more destructive. Porphyry complained at the belief in diviners being able to manipulate divine forces by such simple materials as barley meal. Abammon countered that supernatural power used all media as instruments. Porphyry queried the belief that the gods could be present at cultic rituals. Abammon asserted that rituals could not work in the absence of such divine beings.
Porphyry argued that divination was a product of the subjective psychological state of the officiant, which involved the loss of normal awareness during the trance mode, the use of uneducated young persons as mediums, and the intensive use of invocations. Abammon countered that invocations were a direct channel of the gods, that simplicity and youth were proof of receptivity to the supernatural intelligence, and that loss of sensory awareness in trance entailed the absence of lower human faculties.
Porphyry urged that divination was a symptom of deficient mental states that could be considered a form of disease; he also equated trance visions with the deceptive phenomena induced by sorcery. Abammon denied these objections, maintaining that the divine inspiration of divination was transcendent of flaws and faults.
Porphyry queried the theurgic belief that divine beings (or gods) could be commanded by ritualists and diviners as though they were servants. Abammon countered that the theurgist could control higher beings because of the ritual investituture with supernatural power.
Porphyry queried the relevance of ritual sacrifices. He asked why animal sacrifices were believed to be desirable by the gods, even though a contrary belief advocated that men should gain purity by abstinence from meat. Abammon countered that sacrifice was not really food for the gods, though there were numerous benefits for men via sacrifices. Nothing was polluting to the gods, only to men. Sacrifices had the power to spiritualise and transform the material world. Without such theurgic activities, chaos and upset would result.
Porphyry resisted the popular cultic idea that theurgists retained purity by avoiding contact with corpses, although theurgic rites were facilitated by dead animals. Abammon justified the ritualism by asserting that corpses could contaminate, and that ritual consecration was the crucial factor in handling corpses.
Porphyry queried the ritual usage of unintelligible words and phrases, strongly implying that such a practice amounted to deception by diviners. Abammon countered with the insistence that such unintelligible wordings were meaningful at the level of divine comprehension. Further, in contrast to intelligible human language, the unintelligible verbiage reflected divine action.
Porphyry objected to the theurgic notion that ritual worship of the gods was the route to achievement; he implied another method as the answer. Abammon countered that the objective could not be achieved without the gods and attendant rituals, the reason being that the gods were the source of all good.
Porphyry was clearly concerned at the theurgic elevation of such media as divinatory trance, magical talismans or amulets, and cult statues. Whereas Abammon (Iamblichus according to modern scholars) was obsessed with justifying and defending the realm of ritual. Some defenders have unconvincingly argued for the Iamblichean standpoint on the basis that theurgy recognised the limitations of human reason.
Iamblichus effectively equated philosophy with religion. Subsequent Neoplatonism created a situation in which philosophy amounted to a religious pursuit endorsing ritual considerations. The disadvantages were recognised by certain of the late Neoplatonists like Damascius (section 9 below).
The inheritors of Iamblichean theurgy notably included Syrianus and Proclus of the Athenian school. They tended very much to award the teachings of Iamblichus more authority than those of Plotinus. The famous Proclus was a "theological" critic of Plotinus. Neoplatonism was not the same after Porphyry, despite some variations amongst the successors.
An enthusiastic commentary has reported that theurgy became the foundation for subsequent Neoplatonist communities until the Athenian Neoplatonist "Academy" was closed by Justinian in 529 CE. Thereafter the scenario was transferred (via exiled Neoplatonists) to the frontier city of Harran in Mesopotamia, eventually passing to the Muslim philosophers, who preserved the Iamblichean format until the tenth century CE. (31) There were also other components of the Greek heritage passing to the Muslims, and more celebrated in the history of philosophy.
6. Post-Plotinian Neoplatonism
Different phases in Neoplatonism ought really to be recognised more acutely than is the current norm. The gulf between the Plotinus-Porphyry action and the Iamblichean trajectory is very substantial, which means that Proclus is also pronouncedly post-Plotinian.
At this juncture, one may review some remarks on the period made by Professor Pierre Hadot. The Neoplatonist school of Athens associated with Syrianus and Proclus was "a private institution, kept afloat by subsidies from wealthy pagans." This activity should not be confused with the Imperial chair in Platonism established by the emperor Marcus Aurelius in 176 CE. That chair also had no real continuity with the past, and represented the royal attempt to revive Athens as a philosophical centre.
The orthodox Platonic school at Athens "succeeded in artificially resuscitating the organisation of the Old Academy.... As in ancient times, the scholarchs called themselves 'diadochs' (successors); and the members of the schools tried to live in the Pythagorean and Platonic way, which, they thought, had been that of the Old Academics. All this was, however, not the continuation but the re-creation of a tradition they supposed to be alive and uninterrupted." (32)
That development became intent upon commentarial activity. This revivalism was a looking back to the past, an attempt to preserve the traditional formats. The Dialogues of Plato and the treatises of Aristotle required reinterpretation for the new generations of student. Hadot provides a pressing observation:
"In such a scholarly, professorial atmosphere, there was often a tendency to be satisfied with knowing the dogmas of the four great schools, without worrying about strictly personal training. Apprentice philosophers were more often interested in improving their overall culture than in the existential choice of life which philosophy demands." (33)
From this perspective, the attitude of Plotinus towards Longinus can gain dimension (section 3 above). The judgment in terms of a scholar role, as distinct from a philosopher role, may have been justified. A relevant question could very easily become: what verdict would Plotinus have passed upon some of his Neoplatonist successors?
Hadot was sceptical of the post-Plotinian Neoplatonism, which did not amount to a development of the Enneads, but was instead "a gigantic attempt at synthesising the most disparate elements of the philosophical and religious tradition of all antiquity." (34) Was this a scholar's paradise of over-eclectic perennial philosophy?
The new diet of Orphic writings, the exotic Chaldean Oracles, and Hermetic texts, was now amalgamated with NeoPythagorean idioms and the Platonist commentarial tradition. Aristotelian texts were another accomplishment. Some erudition was certainly required. Men like Iamblichus and Proclus were indeed learned, and also industrious with the pen. But did they get all the equations right? Hadot was evidently in doubt.
"We thus arrive at what may seem like incredible juggling acts. The Neoplatonists [after Porphyry] were able to find the various classes of gods of the Chaldean Oracles in each of the articulations of the dialectical argument concerning the well known hypotheses on the One, as developed in Plato's Parmenides. Hierarchies of notions taken artificially from Plato's dialogues came to correspond, term for term, with Orphic and Chaldean hierarchies of beings." (35)
However, Hadot was not insensitive to the industry of the post-Plotinians. He credited that the "system" of Proclus, outlined in the Elements of Theology, is distinctive for a geometrical approach, while the same author's commentaries on Plato are "veritable monuments of exegesis." Damascius also is here conceded to have achieved "great profundity." (36)
Nevertheless, Hadot's caution is underlined by his references to theurgy. He observes that the word theourgia did not appear until the second century CE, apparently originating in the Chaldean Oracles to specify rituals believed to purify the soul and the astral body. "These rituals included ablutions, sacrifices, and invocations using ritual words that were often incomprehensible." (37) Those rituals were glorified by Iamblichus, and perpetuated by subsequent Neoplatonists whom he influenced. Hadot observes that the new dependence on rites was similar to the trend of sacramental observance developed by rival Christianity.
Some conflicting statements have appeared in scholarly literature about the Neoplatonist teachings on reincarnation. This doctrine was definitely taught by the Neoplatonists, though earlier signs are visible.
Plato is well known for allusions to the transmigration of souls in the Phaedo and other works. Some scholars have regarded this as a lamentable superstition, and tend to view the later versions as proof of an ongoing error. Certainly, the Christian prelates disapproved of the reincarnation concept, which was censured by orthodox Christianity as a pagan distraction from salvation dogma.
Plotinus also believed in reincarnation. Some commentators present this as a very minor component of his thought, but it is nevertheless in evidence. In his era, there were beliefs in a retrograde incarnation into animals, which may have been figurative in some cases, though Plotinus has been viewed in terms of a literal instance. (38) The later Neoplatonists, from Porphyry onwards, resisted the theme of retrograde incarnation, regarding this as symbolic; a progressive occurrence was instead favoured. However, that theme is not found in a graphic passage of the Enneads (III.2.13) where Plotinus describes human reincarnation.
Plotinus here urges that reincarnation is not to be despised. He presents this subject in terms of the Platonist word adrasteia, retribution or justice. He gives several instances of what he means in this respect. The monarch who abuses power will later become a slave, and this reversal is for the good of the miscreant. Those who abuse their wealth will subsequently live in poverty.
"Those that have unjustly killed, are killed in turn, unjustly as regards the murderer but justly as regards the victim, and those that are to suffer are thrown into the path of those that administer the merited treatment." (39)
The major refrain here is that "the man once did what he now suffers." Making his point even more clear, Plotinus then asserts that a man who commits the crime of murdering his mother will reincarnate as a woman and be murdered by a son. Further, "a man that wrongs [rapes] a woman will become a woman, to be wronged." (40)
The concept of retribution for rape has been criticised on the basis that there is an inherent justification for rape. Obviously, Plotinus did not mean his contention in any sense of unfairness. He viewed reincarnation in the context of a wisdom outworking in the life-cycle spread over a larger span of time than is often envisaged. The reincarnation theme is considered incapable of proof by the critics, though many enthusiasts also exist. The general context is seldom provided with any detailed explanation of causal processes, and certainly the version of Plotinus is brief, tending to be more illustrative than definitive.
An accompanying theme is that of the astral body. There were two basic versions of this amongst Neoplatonists. Iamblichus and others believed the astral body to be permanently attached to the soul. In contrast, Plotinus and Porphyry are both associated with the view that this intangible was acquired in the process of the soul's descent into matter and discarded as a consequence of the "ascent." Proclus has been interpreted as combining both these perspectives. The Alexandrian Neoplatonist Olympiodorus maintained that the astral body was egg-shaped. The same "astral" factor later appeared in the works of the Byzantine scholar Michael Psellus (1018-1078), while in modern times the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth (1617-88) defended the subject in his True Intellectual System. (41) In the nineteenth century, the astral body became a notorious subject of fantasy amongst European occultists.
A versatile writer, Proclus (412-85) was a Greek born in Constantinople, and educated in Xanthos. His parents enjoyed an elevated social position, his father being a law official in the courts of Byzantium. The pater intended him for the legal profession, and he was sent to Alexandria for an education. The curriculum included philosophy, here part of the "career" vocation attaching to the upper class. Proclus returned to Byzantium and became a lawyer, but afterwards decided that philosophy was the superior role.
Proclus accordingly returned to Alexandria. There he studied the Aristotelian corpus under Olympiodorus the Elder, and also gained proficiency in mathematics under a separate tutor. He subsequently moved to Athens, still regarded as the centre of philosophical activity. In this celebrated environment, from 431 he studied at a private (Neo)Platonist institution led by his teachers Plutarch (d. 432) and Syrianus. When the latter died in 637, Proclus became the head teacher or scholarch, and is often referred to by the honorific title of diadochus (successor). The curriculum was not that of pristine Platonism, having acquired the agenda of Iamblichean Neoplatonism.
He remained the scholarch of this institution for the rest of his life. Proclus never married, and was a vegetarian. He was not in any financial need, and was able to assist his friends and relations. He is reported to have practised theurgic rituals favoured by the innovative Neoplatonist curriculum; his habits included ritual bathing, all night vigils, and fasts. Although a vegetarian, Proclus resorted to animal sacrifice in the pagan manner. In his eyes, Plato was a divine prophet, though Platonism now lived in the shade of Christianity.
There were imperial edicts (of Christianity) passed against paganism in the fifth century, though the underdogs were still entitled to legal protection against abuse and injury. Proclus gained some Christian pupils, though his pagan status could be a target for reproach. Due to some problems of oppression, Proclus was in exile for a year in Lydia. At that time he gained initiation into diverse mystery cults that were still existent. Proclus evidently viewed this extension of his activity as proof of a universalist outlook. He reputedly nurtured a strong devotion to the goddess Athena, and is associated with the Athenian cult of Asclepius, whose temple was near his residence.
The major source is the early Life of Proclus, composed by the subject's successor Marinus, and considered partly hagiographical. Recent research has divulged that, in his status capacity as diadochus, Proclus had an annual income of 1,000 gold solidi, apparently equivalent in contemporary terms to over 500,000 dollars. (42) Critics of theurgy are not particularly impressed, especially in view of the Greek upper class tendency to use philosophy as an elevated career role conducive to elite profile over and above the unprivileged social strata who did all the hard work.
The learning of Proclus was substantial. Unfortunately, "roughly two-thirds of Proclus' output is now lost and several works, especially his commentaries on Plato, have been transmitted in a mutilated form" (Christoph Helmig and Carlos Steel, Stanford Encyclopaedia). His extant works include five commentaries on Plato, the Elements of Physics, and his Hypotyposis (on astronomy), which is basically an introduction to theories of Hipparchus and Ptolemy. His commentaries on Aristotle do not survive. Discussion of his themes has varied.
He wrote an influential commentary on the first book of Euclid's Elements of Geometry, one that is noted for being free of his religious beliefs, elsewhere quite strongly imposed. "Proclus was not a creative mathematician, but he was an acute expositor and critic, with a thorough grasp of mathematical method and a detailed knowledge of the thousand years of Greek mathematics from Thales to his own time." Quotation from Proclus Diadochus.
Proclus produced a number of commentaries on works of Plato, though not all of these survive. His lengthy commentary on the Timaeus has been considered the most important available on that text, providing insight into centuries of Platonist exegesis. (43) Proclus believed that his own system was an accurate interpretation of Plato ("the divine Plato"), and that the Dialogues employed a means of camouflage to conceal truth from the unprepared. (44)
In more religious dimensions, Proclus was a strong supporter of the Chaldean Oracles and NeoPythagorean doctrines. Some analysts view these tendencies as a drawback to his corpus as a whole. Only fragments exist of his partisan commentary on the theurgic text Chaldean Oracles. Theurgy (theourgia) was also known as hieratike, and hence the title of the fragmentary Proclean On Hieratic Art, which attests a ritualist activity encompassing statues of gods, oracles, and invocations. Proclus claimed a Platonist foundation for such activity, which should be distinguished from vulgar magic, though some correspondences are awkwardly strong. His Hymns have given rise to a view that prayers amounted to a more advanced theurgy, and culminating in the acquisition of virtues equivalent to unity with the One. The Proclean concept of "negative theology" is also involved, with affinities in the practice of silence.
The basic idea in hieratic psychology was that assimilation to the divine is the objective of philosophy. The ultimate inspiration for this exegesis was Plato, whose mediation of Socrates involved such emphases as: "we should make all speed to take flight from this world to the other, and that means becoming like the divine so far as we can, and that again is to become righteous with the help of wisdom" (Theaetetus, trans. F. M. Cornford, reproduced in E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, Plato: The Collected Dialogues, Princeton Univ. Press, repr. 1980, p. 881). Becoming like the divine is a complex theme, and different interpretations are possible, as in the variation between Plotinus and Proclus.
Proclus also authored the Platonic Theology, a lengthy work attempting a syncretistic metaphysical system and charting a hierarchy of the gods. (45) Yet some consider his most important book to be the Elements of Theology, (46) a metaphysical text comprising propositions and proofs in the geometric mode associated with Euclid. That treatise is certainly unusual for the deductive format employed, being unique in antiquity. Over a thousand years later, Spinoza contributed another geometric format in the Ethics, though the content provides a contrast. The propositions of Proclus meet with diverse reactions, e.g., metaphysics by default.
The differences between Proclus and Plotinus have often been discussed. The former strived for a logically ordered sequence of metaphysical processes, and was more elaborate in his emanationist cosmology; Proclus believed that he had substantially improved upon the format of the Enneads. In contrast, Plotinus was not a commentarial writer, and had a much less extensive output. Proclus did not fail to criticise the predecessor for what he believed to be flaws. A more resistant verdict has been that "Proclus is more faithful to the 'letter' of Plato's Dialogues, but for this same reason he fails to rise to the 'spirit' of the Platonic philosophy." Quotation from Edward Moore, Neoplatonism. Other critics say that theurgy contributes to an obscurantism.
9. Damascius and the Flight from Athens
The last scholarch at the Neoplatonist school of Athens was Damascius (c. 460-c.540). As his name indicates, he was born in Damascus, moving in his youth to Alexandria, where he became a professor of rhetoric. Subsequently, he decided that rhetoric was a distraction, an exercise only of the mouth and tongue; his commitment switched to philosophy and science. Rhetoric has been described in terms of the oratorical art of persuasion, and with associations of superficial literary elegance.
At this time, the Christian persecution of pagans in Alexandria was becoming acute. Damascius reports that interrogations and forced capitulations occurred, while in 489 the rhetorician Horapollo was arrested and tortured. Damascius moved to Athens, then more civilised, and where he joined the Neoplatonist institution at which Proclus had taught. He became a student of the scholarch (head teacher) Marinus of Neapolis, the follower and biographer of Proclus. Yet he learned more from Isidore, a later scholarch described as a dialectician. Damascius eventually became scholarch (and diadochus) by the year 515, and is credited with producing a revival of philosophy prior to a very dire event. This episode requires some investigation here.
In his Philosophical History, Damascius left a revealing portrayal of Neoplatonist occurrences. He does not hestitate to criticise the followers of Proclus, including the revered Marinus, his basic accusation being that they lacked intellectual acumen and insight. In contrast, Isidore "was deeply alarmed about the subordination of philosophical studies to ritual, and feared that the general intellectual rigour of traditional philosophy was declining." (47)
Damascius was particularly critical of Hegias, a wealthy patron who became head of the school in the 490s. "Isidore severely reprimands Hegias (who lavished funds on the restoration of pagan shrines) for promoting theurgy over philosophy." (48) The factor of wealth is potentially significant; the moderate asceticism of Plotinus was apparently not in much evidence at Athens. Certainly, the aim of Damascius was to change the stagnant situation and to revive systematic study of Aristotle and Plato. His agenda also included the Neoplatonist studies in theology, which extended to Orphic theogony and the Chaldean Oracles. This is not quite the same as advocating ritualism, though some analysts detect a discrepancy.
Critical observation is certainly a component of the Philosophical History. One passage reads:
"I have met many who externally were splendid philosophers: they had a good memory, with treasures of different doctrines and the power to quickly join one conclusion to another and an all-round faculty of observation. But internally, in the things of the soul, they were as poor as beggars concerning true knowledge." (49)
Damascius wrote his account in the first person, leaving no doubt as to his personal perspective. He evidently wanted a reform, and in favour of restoring the contemplative life as distinct from the ritual distractions creating a diffuse attention. He also composed the treatise known as Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles, which has recently been translated into English for the first time by Professor Sara Ahbel-Rappe. This work provides a surprisingly strong critique of the Proclean metaphysical system. The translator says that Damascius is frequently pitting an Iamblichean interpretation against the opinion of Proclus, though we are here discussing abstruse theology for the most part. This situation does illustrate the extent to which Iamblichus and Proclus had permeated and dominated the Neoplatonist repertory. Plotinus is a comparatively fringe participant.
There are signs in Problems and Solutions that the author is not an outright defender of Iamblichus.
"Far from emphasising the soul's helplessness in the face of embodiment, and hence its need for the assistance of the gods, Damascius espouses the exercise of philosophy as the remedy.... Damascius makes clear that Iamblichus' arguments, insofar as they attempt a proof of this doctrine, are inconclusive and even lead to absurd results." (50)
With regard to the treatises of Damascius as a whole, these integrate the "Chaldean" theurgic material into a general discussion of contemplative virtues. "Damascius, in effect, displaces a strictly theurgic account of ascent with greater attention to the supports for contemplation." (51)
In addition to the internal doctrinal problems, the cultural situation for Neoplatonists now became grim in Athens also. Increasing conversion to Christianity meant that Hellenistic religion and philosophy were an easy target for those in power. In 529, the Christian emperor Justinian the Great resorted to an iron fist tactic. This zealous Byzantine decreed that pagans should be removed from government roles, and he closed down all pagan schools. Some victims lost their property and even their lives. Exile was threatened if the pagans did not convert to Christianity. Philosophy could no longer be taught in Athens.
The Neoplatonist philosophers in Athens were financially independent, and evidently belonged to a privileged social class. The archaeological record shows that "a wealthy cadre of philosophers inhabited a sumptuously appointed enclave near the Acropolis." (52) This location shows signs of sudden abandonment in 529, the year of Justinian's decree, when pagan property was confiscated and conversion imposed.
Under these harassing circumstances, Damascius and six other Neoplatonists resolved to flee. They travelled a long way, taking with them precious manuscripts, and seeking refuge at the court of the Sassanian monarch Khusrau I. The Christian chronicler Agathias says that the court location was Ctesiphon, the Sassanian city in Iraq. Though some scholars have been inclined to regard this report as legend, others view the details in a factual light. The date was probably 532. The Persian army was then fighting Justinian in Iraq. Khusrau apparently welcomed the refugees, but they were disappointed with what transpired. There soon occurred a treaty between Khusrau and Justinian, in which the latter agreed that the seven philosophers could return home and live without fear in practising their religion.
One modern assumption has been that Damascius went back to Alexandria and continued his writing. However, an epigram carved on a stele in Emesa, and dating to 538, discloses that he returned to his native Syria after the sojourn at Ctesiphon. There is also the recent theory to consider that a Neoplatonist school was soon established at Harran under the protection of the Sassanian empire. The archaic pagan city of Harran (Hellenopolis) was located in north-west Mesopotamia (though now in Turkey), near the Syrian borderline. Harran was originally an Assyrian city, and subsequently under Persian control until the seventh century CE. The relevant theory of transplantation assists to explain why Harran eventually (by the late eighth century) became a noted centre for philosophical and scientific studies in Greek and Syriac, directly facilitating the Arabic revival of philosophy at Baghdad. Indeed, Harran has been called the "first university" of Islam.
In another direction, some recent scholarship has urged the role of Damascius as author of the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus, which if true, would certainly amount to a successful counter against the Christian church. That corpus was definitely a substantial influence on Christian thought for many centuries. However, a contrasting line of argument has attributed the Ps. Dionysian corpus to Peter the Iberian, a fifth century radical Christian bishop in Palestine who was part of the monastic movement.
Christian scholarship has acknowledged that the philosophy of Proclus "forms an indisputable background to the Dionysian corpus," this association being facilitated by assessment of the Proclean outlook in terms of "theology is an exegetical science, a form of knowing (episteme) which is also a spiritual exercise (gymnasia) that consists in the proper understanding of Plato's thought." (53)
The Ps-Dionysian corpus has conventionally been ascribed to the date of circa 500 CE, supposedly authored by a Christian monastic writer possibly living in Syria, an entity who employed late Neoplatonist writings, especially those of Proclus, and who adopted "an idiosyncratic, almost incantatory style filled with neologisms." (54) Another commentator says "the earliest reference to to the Dionysian corpus that we possess is from 533 CE.... Careful study of the Pseudo-Dionysian writings has uncovered many parallels between [with] the theurgical doctrines of Iamblichus and the triadic metaphysical schema of Proclus" (quotation from Edward Moore, Neoplatonism, 2005).
Damascius definitely did compose the customary commentaries on Aristotle and Plato, though a number of these are lost. His Life of Isidore (or Philosophical History) survived in fragments via the Bibliotheca of Photius, containing a biography of his own teacher, and furthering the Neoplatonist tradition that commenced with Porphyry's Life of Plotinus (and the intervening Life of Proclus by Marinus). In his biography, Damascius made reference to various other Neoplatonists, including the famous and ill-fated Hypatia of Alexandria, for whom he is a basic source (section one above).
The ninth century Byzantine commentator Photius gained clerical status as Patriarch of Constantinople. He attached to Damascius the stigma of impiety for not referring to Christianity. Nevertheless, another poke was made by Photius for criticising persons that Damascius did mention. Christians did not always turn the other cheek. Justinian was certainly not the proof of charity.
In 532 Justinian the Great ordered the brutal suppression of the Nika riots, in which 30,000 unarmed civilians were killed by the soldiery. He decreed the total destruction of paganism, and contemporary sources report severe persecutions. At Constantinople, on one occasion, a group of Manichaeans are reported to have been executed in the emperor's insensitive presence; some of these unfortunates were burned, and others were drowned.
One of the men who accompanied Damascius on his laborious journey to the Persian court was his disciple Simplicius (c.490-c.560). Very little is known about the life of Simplicius, and his eventual location is likewise uncertain. His learned writings are commentaries as distinct from original compositions. Simplicius followed the typical Iamblichean tactic of stressing agreement between Aristotle and Plato even on obvious points of difference.
Simplicius is notable for composing a commentary on the ethical philosophy of the Stoic Epictetus, whose Handbook (Encheiridion) he duly appreciated. The exiled Epictetus became something of an exemplar for persecuted Neoplatonists who refused to become Christians. The lowly slave from Phrygia became a famous Stoic, but would be unpopular today in affluent society for such Handbook reflections as: "Talk as little as possible; if there is an occasion for talking do not talk about sporting events, food and drink, or other trivia...swear as little as possible; avoid dinner-parties....foul language is dangerous." (55)
Neoplatonists like Damascius and Simplicius were learned scholars. A modern academic theory assumes that, after the Persian expedition, these travellers most likely gravitated to one of the three major library milieux of their time, meaning Athens, Alexandria, and Constantinople (though the third is very unlikely owing to imperial associations). A contrasting recent theory has argued that Simplicius composed the majority of his surviving works at Harran. (56)
Dispossessed refugees were surely capable of resorting to an Eastern location in order to avoid detection by the dogmatic oppressors, a location in which they were free to write what they wanted.
10. Perennial Philosophy
A number of the Post-Plotinian Neoplatonists argued for a theme analogous to what was later known in Latin as philosophia perennis. Exponents identified with this theme include Hierocles of Alexandria, Plutarch of Athens, Syrianus, Proclus, and Damascius. (57) These scholars attempted to demonstrate correspondences between Plato, Pythagoras, Orpheus, and Homer. They also fitted into their scheme some non-Greek theologies and traditions. The speculative content is obvious in retrospect.
The late Neoplatonist curriculum was committed to finding the "harmony," not merely amongst Plato and Aristotle, but amongst all the ancient philosophers, meaning those down to the time of Aristotle. The poet Homer was also considered a philosopher, or lover of wisdom. The eclectic incentive for universality was admirable by comparison with the more insular religious attitudes of Christian clergy. The breadth occasionally found in the early Christian exponents Clement and Origen was soon confined into more orthodox programmes. Origen reacted to the "Middle Platonist" critique of Christianity expressed by Celsus in The True Tradition.
In Alexandria and other places, a high value was also awarded by Greek scholars to revelations received by the "barbarian" nations, including Egyptians, Assyrians, Iranians, Indians, and Jews. In some respects, this cosmopolitan atttitude was admirable, though the confusions in exegesis were long-lasting. For instance, Zoroaster (Zarathushtra) was a favoured subject of Greek lore, being represented as both a magician and astrologer, contrary to the reality.
The Post-Plotinian Neoplatonists inherited these diverse enthusiasms, including theurgy in the guise of "Chaldean" wisdom. The Chaldean Oracles were inseparable from the practice of theurgy, and evoked fantasies of communication with the gods (section 11 below). The oracles of the Greek gods were a persistently popular subject, and visible at a number of temples, especially Delphi.
Renewed versions of the perennial theme emerged in both medieval Islamic and Italian Renaissance milieux. Perenniality is loosely associated with Leibniz, though more extensively with the art historian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. The criteria would have to be much improved to make more headway in intellectual circles, and not merely because of the popular myopia. (58) There are, of course, perennial factors in human experience, but these are so often mystified and deceptively presented. See my Investigating Perennial Philosophy (2008).
11. The Chaldean Oracles
One ingredient of the late Neoplatonist digest was the Chaldean Oracles, a text comprising Greek verses traditionally attributed to Julian the Chaldean and/or his son Julian the Theurgist. Those figures may have been of Syrian origin, and were contemporaries of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (rgd 161-180 CE). The term "Chaldean," rather than signifying anything Babylonian or Assyrian, may merely have amounted to the Hellenistic sector of magic, divination, and astrology.
Presented as a revelation, the Oracles achieved a bizarre canonical status in the third century, being favoured by Iamblichus. Julian the Theurgist was a medium of the type associated with divination; the Oracles may have been transmitted (at least in part) via a trance performance in which the pater evoked from his son "messages" believed to come from the the soul of Plato. Some of today's new age revelations are a reminder of extravagance.
The Oracles derive from what has been called the "underworld of Platonism," here meaning the diverse milieux of Middle Platonism. That idiosyncratic text survives only in fragments, though considered by scholars to have affinities with Gnosticism and Hermeticism. Extensive commentaries are believed to have been composed by Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Proclus, but these do not survive. Porphyry appears to have regarded the Oracles as a legitimate revelation, though his views differed from the other two exponents. (59)
The Oracles are far removed from the teaching of Plotinus. Iamblichus interposed the distraction of gods, angels, demons, and the souls of heroes, apparently based on "Chaldean" teaching. Demons were believed to exercise a pernicious influence on theurgic rites; they had to be placated and driven away. (60) Breathing techniques are also implicated in theurgy, being a fairly common feature of extroverted religious activities, varying from the Gnostic to Taoist practices, and recently revived in transpersonalism.
Scholarly commentary has disclosed that one of the theurgic rites, favoured in the Oracles, involved the "conjuring up" of a specific deity who would prophesy to the practitioner. This conjuration could occur either by animating the god's statue or by a ritual of "binding" and "loosing." There are apparent correspondences with the Greek magical papyri, though the belief in statue vivification ultimately derives from an Egyptian origin. (61) Such peculiarities are not rendered convincing by the distinction found in the Oracles between theurgists and the "herd" or ordinary men.The latter are depicted as being dominated by passions, while the former are said to be purified and saved. Diverse occultists frequently imagine that they are superior, which is a very questionable assumption.
The Oracles stress purification via theurgy as the means of salvation. The text has been interpreted in terms of a religious phenomenon rather than a magical one. Porphyry conceded that theurgy could purify the lower soul, but there were strong reservations on his part. He believed that theurgic ritual "was of value only to the ordinary man who could not follow the entire Plotinian path; in any event, for Porphyry, theurgy could elevate the soul only to a position within the material world; it could never lead the soul back to the One." (62)
That pro-Plotinian assessment met with objection from Iamblichus and Proclus. Both of these exponents viewed theurgy as extending to the "higher soul," and not merely the "lower soul." In De Mysteriis, Iamblichus enthusiastically describes several types of "divine possession," which he believed to be confirmed by alleged phenomena such as levitation and luminous apparitions entering or leaving the body of the medium/diviner. (63) Iamblichus was strongly influenced by the Oracles.
In his Life of Proclus, the Neoplatonist theurgist Marinus states that Proclus, as part of his theurgic activity, experienced luminous visions of the goddess figure Hecate. The rather exotic "Chaldean" context extends, in the same work, to the description of Proclus causing rain to fall in Attica, ending a drought. The miracle role of rainmaker has nothing to do with Plotinian philosophy. Other theurgic recourses included the wearing of magical amulets, the ritual offering of sacred stones, and animal sacrifices. (64) Indeed, there were probably many superstitious Neoplatonists and Gnostics sharing some apotropaic practices.
The much later Byzantine Neoplatonist George Gemistus Plethon (d. 1452) compiled a version of the Oracles under the name of Zoroaster, (65) an indicator of the extreme confusion about origins, which subsequently influenced nineteenth century European occultists noted for peculiarities of approach.
12. Hierocles of Alexandria
Hierocles of Alexandria was a Neoplatonist active in the first half of the fifth century CE. He studied under the Neoplatonist teacher Plutarch at Athens, and then returned to his native Alexandria. He may not have encountered Proclus, who arrived in Athens at the date of 430/1 to study with Plutarch (and Syrianus) during the latter's last years of life. Hierocles is believed to have achieved a distinguished career in Alexandria as a teacher (or professor) of Neoplatonist philosophy. There is very little reliable information about him.
Only one writing of his survived in complete form. This was a commentary on Golden Verses of the Pythagoreans, a compact poetic text that was very popular, and parts of which are thought to be quite early. Those verses contain moral precepts and an assertion of the revelation gained by appropriate purification. Hierocles regarded the Golden Verses as an introduction to philosophy, reminiscent of the attitude of Iamblichus, who commemorated the same text in his Protrepticus. The later Neoplatonists often regarded Plato as an exemplary Pythagorean, in the Iamblichean mode.
Hierocles also composed On Providence, which survives in the summary format contributed by Photius, a ninth century Byzantine scholar. (66) This work has been described as a thematic history of philosophy. Hierocles insisted that Aristotle was in harmony with Platonism, and identifies this theme of "harmony" with Ammonius Saccas, the earlier Alexandrian who had taught Plotinus in the third century. Some scholars have contested the accuracy of this attribution, in view of the fact that Plotinus himself was not an advocate of the harmony, and also because of the modern opinion that the harmony was understood in terms of an identity of doctrine. This negative reception of the harmony theme has met with a more exceptional repudiation:
"I think that both assumptions are mistaken. In the first case, it is clear that among the Neoplatonists themselves, disagreement over particular doctrines did not preclude an acceptance of general harmony among them. In the second, Plotinus' sometimes severe criticism of Aristotle did not prevent him from adopting a number of crucial Aristotelian distinctions and arguments and putting them in the service of Platonism. He did so, I would suggest, on the assumption that Aristotle's philosophy was in fact a version, albeit somewhat defective, of Platonism." (Lloyd P. Gerson, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 2003).
Hierocles attributed a PreSocratic vintage to the philosophy of Plato, which he mistakenly equated with the Chaldean Oracles promoted by the Iamblichean trend. The former scholarly view that the Alexandrian school basically differed from the Athenian counterpart has been revised. Via his teacher Plutarch, Hierocles is now thought to reflect the tradition of Iamblichus and Proclus. The "universalist" format of Neoplatonism was pervasive. However, Hierocles differed in his formulation of the metaphysical first principle, referring to the Demiurge of Plato's Timaeus instead of the Neoplaonist One, a preference apparently originating with Origen (the pagan disciple of Ammonius Saccas). Implications have been ventured of a possible hedging against danger, meaning the Christian majority in Alexandria.
In another direction, Hierocles strongly disputed astrological fatalism. He found that astrology was supported by the Stoic doctrine of "Fate and Necessity." Hierocles argued for a rational Providence, in contrast to what he deemed to be the irrational version of Necessity contrived by astrologers. His concept of "fate" was based on moral justice, a factor bypassed by horoscopy. "He also rejected magical and theurgical practices prevalent in his time as a way to either escape or overcome the fate set down in one's birth chart." Quotation from M. Lawrence, Hellenistic Astrology.
Like Plotinus and Porphyry, Hierocles referred back to the Myth of Er, composed by Plato and appearing in the latter's Republic. This influential document relates to a scheme of divine justice and reincarnation. That version of "fate" was quite different to horoscopy.
A comparison with Stoic attitudes on astrology is relevant. That contingent is generally associated with subscription to astrological lore, though exceptions are on record.
"Some Stoics kept their heads. Diogenes of Babylon admitted that the stars might indicate character, but nothing more. He pointed out that twins often had differing careers. Panaetius had absolutely no use for astrology." (67)
13. Late Alexandrian Neoplatonism and Philoponus
In the wake of Hierocles, the philosopher Ammonius Hermeiou (c.440-c.520) became prominent at Alexandria. He started life as a pupil of Proclus at Athens. At Alexandria he taught several leading Neoplatonists of that era, including Simplicius, Olympiodorus, and Philoponus. Ammonius is noted for his commentaries on Aristotle, which are nevertheless coloured by his assimilation of Proclus.
His father Hermeias had earlier grafted Platonism onto the curriculum of Horapollo, a rhetorician who was molested by the Christian persecution in 489. By that time, Alexandria had a Christian majority, and some students at the Neoplatonist school were Christians. According to Damascius (the scholarch at Athens), Ammonius negotiated an agreement with the Christian authorities in order that his school in Alexandria could survive. Damascius depicts Ammonius as being greedy for revenue in a pact with the local Christian Patriarch. Certainly, Ammonius managed to continue teaching despite the arrest and torture of Horapollo.
"Suggestions have been put forward that he [Ammonius] agreed to continue the alleged Alexandrian Neoplatonic practice of making the gods into one by collapsing the One into the Intellect (a view congenial to Christianity); or that he agreed to lecture only on Aristotle, not Plato, or not to mention in his teaching the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity and divinity of the world; or that he betrayed the hiding places of colleagues and pupils" (David Blank, Ammonius, 2005).
These unconfirmed suggestions do indicate the kind of oppressive atmosphere that prevailed for Neoplatonists at Alexandria. Another suggestion has been that Ammonius might have agreed with the authorities not to make the school a centre for theurgic ritual, which involved the use of "divine names," supposedly creating a psychic link between the practitioner and the entity named, such as a god. That was a subject adroitly disowned by Ammonius, who also observes that those names "clearly help or harm the people named" (art.cit.). This reference implies the magical accents for which theurgy is sometimes accused.
The sympathetic interpretation of the episode concludes that Ammonius sided with the view of Porphyry on the "divine names" as a recourse of mistaken human invention, i.e., theurgy was not effective in purifying the intellect and thus contributing to the spiritual ascent. In this version, Ammonius did not betray his associates and nor philosophy, preferring the critical teaching of Porphyry in relation to theurgy, and rejecting the influential promotion by Iamblichus and Proclus (art.cit.). We know that Damascius himself had reservations about the effect of theurgy on intellectual development (section 9 above). (68)
Olympiodorus (c. 500-570) was apparently a student of Ammonius, and one of the last pagans to teach philosophy in Alexandria. (69) Some of his commentaries on Plato and Aristotle survive, though deemed less scintillating than the works of some other Neoplatonists. His situation was basically that of teaching young Christians from socially elite familes, students who were preparing for roles in the clergy or at the Byzantine court. This aspect of transmission had been reflected in earlier Hellenistic situations, where philosophy was only a passing attraction en route to more prestigious positions.
Philosophy acquired "a highly ambiguous status" during the reign of the oppressive Justinian. The subject was strongly associated with theology; debates in Christian theology were now the cultural priority. The social elite were "acutely aware that it was impossible to sustain the culture of the empire, both secular and clerical, without a classical education, part of which was and always had been, philosophy." Quotations from Christian Wildberg, Olympiodorus (2007).
Moving at a tangent was the Greek Christian philosopher and theologian John Philoponus (c.490-570). He started his career as a pupil of Ammonius in Alexandria, but subsequently became a critic of Aristotelian and Neoplatonist themes, more especially the eternity of the world. The disputing attitude of Philoponus alienated his pagan associates. He did not succeed Ammonius as leader of the Alexandrian school, and remained a professional grammarian (grammaticus). Thereafter, Philoponus abandoned his philosophy career and became committed to theological debates, although he was posthumously condemned as a heretic in the hazardous environment of Christian doctrine. His output included commentaries on Aristotle, in addition to Christian theological works.
The controversial orientation of Philoponus aroused the opposition of Simplicius, the Neoplatonist who journeyed to Persia with Damascius at the closure of the Athenian school. Simplicius denied the competence of his Christian adversary as a logician, (70) though "Philoponus was the first to render a satisfactory account of the syllogism." Philoponus also "initiated and in fact anticipated the eventual liberation of natural philosophy from the straitjacket of Aristotelianism." Quotations from Christian Wildberg, John Philoponus (2007).
The Neoplatonist school of Alexandria was inherited by Christian exponents (71), with ramifications extending to Boethius and other commentators, (72) though subsequently the Islamic falasifa were significant heirs to the Aristotelian output of that school. (73)
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
April 2011 (last modified November 2011)
(1) David Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. xvii, 18, 65-6, 72, 268, 270. In many of his writings, Athanasius "described how virgins [female ascetics] suffered violence, imprisonment, torture, and verbal abuse for their pro-Athanasian activities" (ibid., p. 65). Inherent Roman tendencies to brutality can be invoked here, though Athanasius and his predecessor Bishop Alexander were a cause of many problems in their unyielding attitude to the heretical Arius, an Alexandrian priest who was excommunicated at the Council of Nicaea in 325 (ibid., p. 6). "In this struggle, virgins allied with the Arians probably suffered indignities similar to those endured by Athanasian ascetics" (ibid., p.66). One of the persecutors in the early wave of 330s violence was the duke Balachius, a pro-Arian aristocrat and military officer of Alexandria who gained notoriety for beating ascetics of both sexes, and who aroused the reproach of the ascetic leader Antony the Copt. See Susanna Elm, Virgins of God: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 364. Some outdated accounts do not refer to the pro-Athanasian factor in the murder of Bishop George, e.g., Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), p. 155, who refers to the victim as having "enraged the pagan mob by expressing regret at the existence of the temple dedicated to the city's Genius."
(2) See further Maria Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria, trans. F. Lyra (Harvard University Press, 1995). The author disputed the later date of birth at 370 that has frequently been favoured. Additional versions of the subject can be found in A. Petta and A. Colavito, Hypatia, Scientist of Alexandria (Milan, 2004); Michael A. B. Deakin, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (New York, 2007); Sandy Donovan, Hypatia: Mathematician, Inventor, and Philosopher (Bloomington, 2008). See also Susan Wessel, Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian Controversy: The Making of a Saint and of a Heretic (Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 33ff., 47ff. Dzielska states (p. 117) that the most influential female philosopher was Sosipatra, living in the first half of the fourth century CE, and teaching at Pergamon. Unfortunately, the major source on Sosipatra is Eunapius of Sardis, a rhetorician and mystery enthusiast (associated with Eleusis) whose Lives of the Sophists is strongly coloured by hagiology. His account of Sosipatra is sparse with respect to reliable detail. Born at Ephesus into a wealthy family, Sosipatra moved to Pergamon, a Greek city in Asia Minor, where she taught philosophy at her home and married Aedesius, another Neoplatonist philosopher. Details of her teaching are lost in legend. Her first husband was Eustatius, an eminent pagan gaining the role of ambassador to the Persian court.
(3) J. M. Rist, "Hypatia," Phoenix (Toronto, 1965) 19:214-225, and adhering to the contracted dateline of c. 370 for the subject's birth. Rist observes that Damascius compared Hypatia unfavourably with his own teacher Isidore, though the sixth century writer was here promoting the Athenian school over the Alexandrian. The tenth century Byzantine Suda (an encyclopaedia) implies that Hypatia's ability in astronomy contributed to her death. Rist deems the Gibbon version of her murder to be unduly lurid, and affording grist to Charles Kingsley's novel Hypatia. The same scholar also viewed the Suda as exaggerating the part of Cyril in the murder, though he had to admit that the cleric was a violent man. The Suda informs that Cyril plotted the murder of Hypatia. Rist believed that monks were implicated in the murder, deducing that some of these men accused the prefect Orestes of sacrificing to the pagan gods. Rist suggested that Cyril's crime was one of bribery in hushing up the matter to avoid disrepute for the Alexandrian church. More controversially, the classicist scholar of Toronto University asserted of Hypatia that "her dreadful end secured her a posthumous glory which her philosophical achievements would never have warranted" (art.cit., p. 224).
(4) John Dillon, p. civ note 5, in Stephen MacKenna, trans., The Enneads, abridged edn ed. by Dillon (London: Penguin, 1991). The full reference of Dillon to Ammonius Saccas reads : "Apparently self-taught, and wrote nothing. It is impossible to recover what he taught, but he was obviously a charismatic personality. He may at one time have been a Christian, if we can believe the church historian Eusebius."
(5) Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (London: Faber, 1967), p. 91. In contrast, Brown describes Porphyry as "a thoroughly trained academic," and one regarded by Augustine as the most notable pagan philosopher (ibid.).
(6) J. M. Rist, Plotinus: The Road to Reality (Cambridge University Press, 1967), p. 172. The quotation from Porphyry follows Rist. There have been slight differences in rendition, e. g., "Longinus is a man of letters, but in no sense a philosopher" (MacKenna, trans., The Enneads, 1991 edn, p. cxiii). Even if one agrees with Plotinus that the "intellectual" ascent surpasses scholastic priorities, the relevant assesssment of context in the history of philosophy is now crucial for the Greek heritage.
(7) Ibid, p. 185, in a chapter reacting to the modern tendencies to destroy originality. Professor Rist complains at the scholarly attempts to find indications of his subject's indebtedness to Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Numenius, Alexander of Aphrodisias, and many others (ibid., p. 169). Numenius is sometimes described as a NeoPythagorean, though he was also associated with the eclectic Middle Platonists. None of the Middle Platonists are mentioned by name in the Enneads; some of what they said Plotinus regarded as useful, though "sometimes it is to be corrected, as we have observed in the case of Numenius' interpretations of the Timaeus; sometimes it is to be rejected flatly, as are the extreme forms of dualism taught by Numenius and Plutarch" (ibid., p. 177). Rist entitled his chapter The Originality of Plotinus, a theme which does make sense. See also J. M. Dillon, The Middle Platonists (London: Duckworth, 1977). There has also been a tendency to view the saliency of Plotinus as overshadowing other early "Neoplatonists," as in P. Cauderlier and K. A. Worp, "Unrecognised Evidence for a Mysterious Philosopher," Aegyptus: Revista italiana di egittologia e papirologia (Milan 1982) LXII (1-2): 72-79. This concerns a Greek inscription found near Antinopolis (Antinoe), in Middle Egypt, honouring a Platonic philosopher whom the authors associate with Severus the Platonist, an entity dated to the late second century CE. Although he was previously identified with the Athenian school, the new inscriptional identity could mean that Severus operated in Antinopolis and Alexandria. Egypt is well known as the birthplace of many Greek philosophers, including Plotinus, who has eclipsed the fame of others. This article urges that the Neoplatonist school was existing in the Near East by circa 200 CE. Very little is known about the teaching of Severus.
(8) Stephen MacKenna, trans., The Enneads, abridged edn (1991), p. cxvii.
(9) Rist, Plotinus: The Road to Reality, pp. 175-7, and observing that since the time of Plato's Phaedo, it had been accepted amongst Platonists that suicide was to be rejected.
(10) According to Porphyry, Pythagoras was a pupil of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster (Zarathushtra). It is evident that Porphyry accepted the widespread belief that Zoroaster was a precursor of Greek philosophy. Yet the name Zoroaster does not appear in the Enneads. See J. Igal, "The Gnostics and 'The Ancient Philosophy' in Plotinus" (138-49) in H. J. Blumenthal and R. A. Markus, eds., Neoplatonism and Early Christian Thought: Essays in Honour of A. H. Armstrong (London: Variorum, 1981), pp. 145-6, commenting that Plotinus treats the Platonic allegory of the cave as a distinctive part of the Hellenic legacy, whereas Porphyry views this allegory as a discovery of Zoroaster. Two markedly different attitudes to tradition are here apparent. Porphyry's reference to "the ancient philosophy" has accordingly been considered ambivalent. Porphyry rejected the Gnostic text Revelation of Zoroaster (or Zostrianos) as a fake.
(11) See Jonathan Barnes, trans., Porphyry Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003). One modern deduction has been that Porphyry enabled some of the Aristotelian philosophy to be included even by Platonist professors in their curriculum. See A. C. Lloyd, "Porphyry" (411-12) in Encyclopaedia of Philosophy Vol. 6 (London: Macmillan, 1967), adding that Porphyry had a flair for expounding Aristotle without trying to Platonise him or to score against him. In a different direction, Porphyry studied many pagan religious beliefs and practices, and was generally sympathetic to these as inferior ways to salvation. Simplicius later called him the most learned of philosophers. See A. C. Lloyd, "The Later Neoplatonists" (272-325) in A. H. Armstrong., ed., Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 1967), pp. 283ff. Cf. R. T. Wallis, Neoplatonism (London: Duckworth, 1972), pp. 94ff., observing that Porphyry differs from Plotinus via his interest in popular religious manifestations, including the former's attempt at an allegorical interpretation of traditional myths; Porphyry seems to have adopted different attitudes in different works. Cf. A. Smith, Porphyry's Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1974), stressing that little is left of the subject's massive polymathic output, and that it is not clear whether he had a school of his own; Porphyry is here described as the first philosopher known to have quoted the Chaldean Oracles, so strongly associated with theurgy, and which came to comprise the major theological component of the later Athenian school, in response to the conflict with Christianity, which possessed a sacred book distinct from philosophy. Yet Porphyry denied to theurgy any connection with higher levels of reality, and concluded that there is no alternative to philosophy in relation to the "higher soul." Smith thinks that Porphyry failed to account for religious experience because he remained a philosopher, leaving the theurgic Iamblichus to further a more thorough popularisation of Neoplatonism (ibid., pp. 147ff.).
(12) See Gillian Clark, trans., Porphyry: On Abstinence from Killing Animals (Cornell University Press, 2000).
(13) See W. den Boer, "A Pagan Historian and his Enemies: Porphyry Against the Christians," Classical Philology (1974) 69: 198-208. Porphyry's 15 volume work Against the Christians was burned in 448, though surviving via quotations in Christian literature. Three new fragments exhumed in the record had proved that it is a mistake to ignore the historical aspect of this obscured Neoplatonist work. In these newly recovered fragments, Porphyry attempted to demonstrate the connection between Jewish and Phoenician religion. Some scholars had believed they could prove that Porphyry had distorted the details acquired from his source Philo of Byblus, to suit his polemical purpose. This effort had not proved definitive. "When Porphyry is compared with his contemporaries, one cannot but admire his method, which on numerous points reveals a genuine historical interest" (art. cit., p. 208).
(14) Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?, trans. Michael Chase (Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 159.
(15) Ibid., p. 160. See also Kathleen O'Brien Wicker, ed. and trans., Porphyry the Philosopher to Marcella (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987).
(16) Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon, Jackson P. Hershbell, trans., Iamblichus: On the Mysteries (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), p. xxix.
(17) Chaeremon was a teacher of the young Nero, and leader of the Alexandrian school of grammarians; all his works are lost, though fragments remain. See Pieter Willem Van der Horst, Chaeremon: Egyptian Priest and Stoic Philosopher (Etudes Preliminaires aux Religions Orientales dans l'empire Romain, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1984), pp. IX-XI. Chaeremon's interpretation of Egyptian deities and myths has been described as being in the Stoic manner. He is said to have belonged to the hierogrammateis, meaning the scholarly class of priests associated with Egyptian temples. Those priests were credited with several functions, including the testing of candidates, prediction of the future, interpretation of dreams, and knowledge of ancient Egyptian scripts. Chaeremon wrote a book on hieroglyphs, which became influential in late antiquity. Van der Horst says it is probable that both Clement of Alexandria and Horapollo drew upon this work, while the Byzantine polymath John Tzetzes certainly did so many centuries later. The longest Chaeremon fragment (preserved by Porphyry) reveals that he shared the typical Hellenistic tendency to extol Egyptian wisdom; Chaeremon idealised the lifestyle of Egyptian priests, superimposing Greek concepts and ideals. In this mode, the priests are described as ascetic philosophers, living in temples and preoccupied with fasting and purification, almost inaccessible to the common people; they were supposedly committed to contemplation of the divine and the study of sciences. Though partly based on actual data, the depiction fits "a distinct literary genre of idealisation" applied to religious communities amongst non-Greek peoples. Less romantically, like many other Hellenised Egyptians in Ptolemaic and Roman Alexandria, Chaeremon was anti-Semitic. There were strong tensions existing between Greeks and Jews in Alexandria. The general ideas of Chaeremon have been described as a syncretist version of Egyptian religion, Stoic philosophy, magical and astrological interests, and anti-Semitic emphases.
(18) Clarke et al, Iamblichus: On the Mysteries, p. xviii. Eunapius of Sardis composed Lives of the Sophists, which strongly features hagiological elements; he was a rhetorician and partisan of theurgy. The 1921 translation by Wilmer C. Wright is available online.
(19) Ibid., p. xix. Cf. A. C. Lloyd, "The Later Neoplatonists" (272-325) in Cam. Hist. of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (1967), pp. 295ff., and reflecting that it is an open question as to whether Iamblichus studied under Porphyry or only studied his books.
(20) Clarke et al, Iamblichus: On the Mysteries, p. xxii, describing the Letter to Anebo as a vicious attack on theurgy, though other analysts believe the repudiation to have been justified, and more especially if Porphyry really was the teacher of Iamblichus. Cf. E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (University of California Press, 1951), pp. 285ff., who says that De Mysteriis was attributed to Iamblichus by Proclus and Damascius, and that most scholars had since accepted this version.
(21) E. C. Clarke et al, Iamblichus: On the Mysteries, p. xx. Theurgy has been defined as "a form of ritual magic in which the aim is to become united with the gods" (Dirk Baltzly and Harold Tarrant, intro. to Proclus: Commentary on Plato's Timaeus Vol. 1, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 6). See also note 42 below.
(22) Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), p. 6.
(23) Ibid., p. 5.
(24) Gillian Clark, trans., Iamblichus: On the Pythagorean Life (Liverpool University Press, 1989), pp. 66-8.
(25) Ibid., p. xvi.
(26) Ibid., p. ix. The difficulty of establishing a biography of Pythagoras is acute. One of the few realistic traditional details is that he was the son of Mnesarchos the gem-engraver. His alleged travels have been viewed in relation to this craft, i.e., the Greek art of seal-engraving. See N. Demand, "Pythagoras, Son of Mnesarchos," Phronesis (1973) 18: 91-96. Porphyry relates that Pythagoras was reputed to have gained his knowledge of arithmetic from Phoenicians, which has been considered feasible, though the details are lost. In the sixth century BCE, Samos was one of the more important centres of the new engraving craft, also associated with Phoenicians. Iamblichus refers to journeys made in relation to the paternal business of his subject, and therefore some of the legendary travels of Pythagoras may have occurred.
(27) Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), p. 157.
(28) Ibid., p. 155. See also Chadwick, "Envoi: On Taking Leave of Antiquity" (449-78) in John Boardman et al, eds., The Oxford History of the Roman World (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 457, commenting on the resemblance between pagan Julian and Christian Justinian in that both of these emperors regarded religious dissent as treason. Chadwick nevertheless asserts that "the 'democratic' ideal of populist participation came to our modern world more from Christian beliefs in the share of all the faithful in the society of the people of God than from Aristotle, the Stoics, or the Greek experience generally."
(29) Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 158. See also Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (1951), pp. 286ff., deducing that even in the generation after Iamblichus, theurgy was not yet fully accepted amongst Neoplatonists. Eunapius referred to Eusebius of Myndus, a pupil of Aedesius (the student of Iamblichus), who stressed in his lectures that magic was the interest of "crazed persons who make a perverted study of certain powers derived from matter." Eusebius warned the future emperor Julian against the miracleworking theurgist Maximus of Ephesus. Julian dismissed the warning, and his patronage of Maximus made theurgy temporarily fashionable.
(30) See J. M. Dillon, ed. and trans., Iamblichi Chalcidensis in Platonis dialogos commentariorum fragmenta (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973), pp. 3-25, suggesting that De Mysteriis was an early work of Iamblichus, and composed as a response to Porphyry's Letter to Anebo, which is here implied to date to a very early period at Rome. The same scholar observes that Eunapius of Sardis, by his own confession, was very ill-informed as to the details of Porphyry's life, and the indications are that this deficit also applies to Iamblichus in the same Lives of the Sophists. Nothing Eunapius says requires any assumption that Iamblichus studied with Porphyry at Rome rather than Lilybacum. The only direct evidence of their association is the dedication to Iamblichus of one of Porphyry's works. A deduction is that the tendency to theurgy on the part of Iamblichus resembled that of Porphyry in his youth. The Letter to Anebo is here described as being "very much a recantation" of Porphyry's early beliefs. Dillon suggests that De Mysteriis was composed not long after 280 CE, and that the main influence was Gnostic-Hermetic, though "Chaldean" references can be discerned. We are dependent upon the inadequate anecdotal version of Eunapius for the movements of Iamblichus. It was not necessarily Apamea, but a suburb of Antioch, to which Iamblichus returned to establish his school. He may even have moved between the two localities. His leading disciple Sopater was an Apamean, later encountering a violent death due to political events. The posthumous school of Iamblichus went underground during a phase of repression, and Aedesius the Cappadocian moved the centre of activities to Pergamon. Dillon suggests that Iamblichus used his Pythagorean writings (apparently inspired to some extent by Nicomachus of Gerasa) as an introductory course, followed by study of Aristotle and then Plato. Iamblichus wrote commentaries on both of these pivotal figures. Another deduction is that Iamblichus must have utilised the Chaldean Oracles in lectures, to judge from his reputed commentary on that Middle Platonist text. Iamblichus is recorded to have dismissed rumours that he levitated during prayer, and he may be interpreted as resisting hagiological tendencies. His posthumous reputation for magical practices was probably mainly due to the excesses of theurgists like the ill-fated Maximus of Ephesus.
(31) Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul, p. 6. Cf. Shepherd. Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals (2004), pp. 187ff. See further Edouard des Places, ed. and trans., Jamblique, les Mysteres d'Egypte (1966; repr. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1993); S. Gersh, From Iamblichus to Eriugena (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1978); D. J. O'Meara, Pythagoras Revived: Mathematics and Philosophy in Late Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 1982); John F. Finamore, Iamblichus and the Theory of the Vehicle of the Soul (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985); H. J. Blumenthal and E. G. Clark, eds., The Divine Iamblichus (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1993); J. F. Finamore and J.M. Dillon, trans., Iamblichus De Anima (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002).
(32) Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy? (2002), p. 148.
(33) Ibid., p. 149.
(34) Ibid., p. 169.
(36) Ibid., pp. 169-70.
(37) Ibid., p. 170.
(38) According to one interpretation, Porphyry was probably influenced by the "Chaldean" doctrine denying reincarnation in the form of beasts. Porphyry accepted this teaching, unlike Plotinus, who is here said to have favoured the idea of inter-species transmigration, including vegetable form. See Ruth Majercik, ed. and trans., The Chaldean Oracles (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1989), p. 20, and referring to Ennead III.4.2 and Ennead IV.3.12.25-9. Cf. H. Lewy, Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy (Paris, 1978), pp. 449ff., observing how Augustine of Hippo relayed that Porphyry was averse to the version of Longinus and Plotinus, an aversion found in his De regressu animae; Augustine did not use the original Greek text, but a Latin translation, and his excerpts comprise the only extant fragments. See also note 59 below. More recently, the Plotinian theme has been mentioned in terms of asking which version he favoured. "Remes portrays Plotinus' view as barely committed to personal survival across incarnations.... I think Plotinus is arguably closer to the later [Neoplatonist] view than Remes would allow." Quotation from Peter Adamson, review of Pauliina Remes, Neoplatonism: Ancient Philosophies (Durham: Acumen, 2008). See Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (2009). Cf. the review of Remes by Jeremy M. Schott in Bryn Mawr Classical Review (2009).
(39) MacKenna trans., The Enneads, abridged edn (1991), p. 148.
(41) Basic deductions were expressed in E. R. Dodds, Proclus: The Elements of Theology (Oxford, 1963), pp. 319-21, and stating that the substitution of theurgy for the mysticism of Plotinus enhanced the importance of the astral body, a subject complicated by the Chaldean Oracles. On Psellus, see David Pingree, "Psellus, Michael" (182-6), Dictionary of Scientific Biography Vol. 11. The teaching of pagan philosophy by Psellus evoked attacks from opponents, and he was forced to reaffirm his religious orthodoxy. He retired from the Byzantine court to become a monk, though subsequently he regained political influence, returning to Constantinople. "He was not an original thinker, but did his best to explain what he had learned." Cf. R.T. Wallis, Neoplatonism (1972), p. 162, who says that Psellus was keen on Proclus though his attitude to theurgy was not uncritical; although he professed loyalty to the church, Psellus did not succeed in reconciling philosophy with revelation, and was clearly far more committed to the former. John Italus, the pupil of Psellus, was excommunicated in 1082 for teaching pagan doctine, including the alleged factor of transmigration.
(42) Dirk Baltzly and Harold Tarrant, intro. to Proclus: Commentary on Plato's Timaeus Vol. 1: Proclus on the Socratic State and Atlantis (Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 5, 7, including details of income; H. D. Saffrey and A. P. Segonds, ed. and trans., Marinus: Proclus ou sur le bonheur (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2001); M. Edwards, trans., Neoplatonic Saints: The Lives of Plotinus and Proclus by their Students (Liverpool University Press, 2000). Cf. L. J. Rosan, The Philosophy of Proclus (New York, 1949), pp. 11-35, on the biography by Marinus, and informing that Proclus lived in the same house where Syrianus and Plutarch had resided, not far from the Parthenon and adjoining temples of Asclepius and Dionysus. Proclus was convinced that he belonged to the Hermetic tradition, and is depicted as conversing with luminous apparitions of Hecate (ibid., p. 29). An earlier version of the Life of Proclus, dating to 1925, is available online.
(43) See further Glenn Morrow, trans., Proclus: A Commentary on the First Book of Euclid's Elements (Princeton University Press, 1970); Proclus, Commentaries on the Timaeus of Plato in Five Books, trans. Thomas Taylor (2 vols, London 1820); Harold Tarrant et al, ed. and trans., Proclus: Commentary on Plato's Timaeus (Cambridge University Press, multi-volume work 2007---). See also Glenn R. Morrow and John M. Dillon, trans., Proclus: Commentary on Plato's Parmenides (Princeton University Press, 1992); R. Van den Burg, Proclus' Commentary on the Cratylus in Context (Leiden: Brill 2008), which takes account of the theological and theurgic views of Proclus.
(44) See further Lucas Siorvanes, Proclus: Neoplatonic Philosophy and Science (Edinburgh University Press, 1996); A. C. Lloyd, "The Later Neoplatonists" (1967), pp. 302ff., and stating that in the introduction to his Platonic Theology, Proclus claims that alongside the philosophy of the Ideas, there is to be found in Plato a secret philosophy which Plotinus and his successors have assisted to expound.
(45) See H. D. Saffrey and L. G. Westerink, ed. and trans., Proclus: Theologie Platonicienne (6 vols, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1968-97).
(46) See E. R. Dodds, ed. and trans., Proclus: The Elements of Theology (second edn, Oxford University Press, 1963). Professor Dodds observed that the systematic style of Elements contrasts with the longer works of Proclus. He refers to prolixities visible on most pages of the Timaeus commentary and which go "unchecked" in the Platonic Theology (several times longer than the Elements). Instead of making the constant appeals to authority - meaning to Plato, Orpheus, and the Chaldean Oracles - in the Elements Proclus adopted, at least in appearance, "the method of pure a priori deduction known to the ancient mathematicians as synthesis and familiar to us from Euclid and Spinoza" (ibid., p. xi). The modern commentator also alights upon a saying of Proclus relayed by Marinus: "If I had it in my power, out of all ancient books I would suffer to be current only the [Chaldean] Oracles and the Timaeus; the rest I would cause to vanish from the world of today because certain persons suffer actual injury from their undirected and uncritical reading." This striking reflection has been much discussed. Dodds comments that this does not mean the most learned Hellenist of his time desired a holocaust of Greek literature; Proclus instead wanted to restrict circulation to the initiates of Neoplatonism (ibid., pp. xii-xiii). The modern scholar also says that Neoplatonist thought reflects the desire to create a single philosophy superseding the strife of sects, and to create within the framework of Greek rationalism a scheme of salvation capable of competing with the mystery religions (ibid., p. xviii).
(47) Sara Ahbel-Rappe, trans., Damascius' Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 5. Cf. L. G. Westerink, The Greek Commentaries on Plato's Phaedo Vol. 2: Damascius (Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing, 1977), pp. 7ff., and stating that at the deathbed of Marinus, Isidorus was elected his successor; yet finding that the situation at Athens was beyond remedy, Isidorus returned to Alexandria. Damascius followed him there, and studied philosophy and astronomy under Ammonius Hermieou; nothing is known, it is here said, as to when and under what circumstances Damascius succeeded to leadership of the Athenian school.
(48) Ahbel-Rappe, op. cit., p. 5. . See also Polymnia Athanassiadi, ed. and trans., Damascius: The Philosophical History (Athens, 1999). See also Athanassiadi, La lutte pour l'orthodoxie dans le platonism tardif: De Numenius à Damascius (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2006), for a treatment of the "heretical" Platonism of Numenius (second century) and Plotinus, as contrasting with the Platonist/Pythagorean orthodoxy of Iamblichus, who effectively claimed an ongoing revelation via the Dialogues of Plato and the Chaldean Oracles.
(49) R. Stromberg, "Damascius: His Personality and Significance," Eranos (Stockholm 1946) 44:175-192, p. 179. Stromberg adds that it is scarcely possible to say with certainty as to which persons Damascius is here alluding. The same scholar concedes the independence of Damascius in relation to Proclus, long before noted by Simplicius. However, the modern commentator here offers the conclusion that "the literary personality of Damascius is stamped by the contrast between philosophical research, science and rational sagacity on the one hand and superstition, mysticism and religious interests on the other" (ibid., p. 178). Stromberg credits a philological-linguistic interest in the expanations of words given by Damascius, and also his learning with regard to material including theogonies of the Babylonians, Persians, Phoenicians, and Egyptians. Yet Stromberg stresses an inclination to superstition, and refers to a lost book in terms of "occult paradoxography." The report of that missing work comes from Photius, the Byzantine cleric who referred to "the godlessness and impiety of Damascius who, when the light of the Gospel illuminated the world, lay sunk in the deep night of idolatry" (ibid., pp. 187ff.).
(50) Ahbel-Rappe, Damascius' Problems and Solutions, pp. 31, 46.
(51) Ibid., pp. 56-7.
(52) Ibid., p. 7. See also Sara Rappe, Reading Neoplatonism: Non-Discursive Thinking in the Texts of Plotinus, Proclus, and Damascius (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
(53) Quotations from Bernard McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism Vol. 1 (London: SCM Press, 1992), p. 57, and who also comments that "Proclus forms an interesting example of an anti-Christian writer in an explicitly Christian world who managed to exercise a profound influence on the religion he hated" (ibid., p. 61).
(54) Ibid., pp. 157-8. In a more incisive context, the observation is made that Proclus employed the influential term mystikos more frequently than earlier Neoplatonists like Plotinus, who used that term only once and in reference to "the hidden meaning of cult statues" (ibid., p. 361 note 201). The description of "mystical" currently refers to very different subjects in contemporary idioms.
(55) F. H. Sandbach, The Stoics (second edn, Bristol Classical Press, 1989), p. 169. See also N. P. White, trans., The Handbook of Epictetus (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983).
(56) Ahbel-Rappe, Damascius' Problems and Solutions (2010), pp. 6-7, and citing I. Hadot, M. Tardieu, and P. Athanassiadi on the subject of Harran. Cf. A. Cameron, "The Last Days of the Academy at Athens," Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society (1969) N. S. 15:7-29, pp. 21ff., who says that while Damascius may never have returned to Athens, there are grounds for supposing that Simplicius did return, making that city his headquarters, and there compiling his distinctive commentaries on Aristotle, "among the most erudite works that have been preserved from the ancient world." An inference is made that Simplicius did not need to do much lecturing, instead writing for fellow scholars; his commentaries were not dictations to class students, unlike many other Neoplatonist works.
(57) Ahbel-Rappe, op. cit., p. 49.
(58) For my early treatment of this subject, see The Resurrection of Philosophy (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1989), chapter nine. For some more recent and critical comments, see my Pointed Observations (2005), pp. 74ff., and referring to "a slogan of mockery" (i.e., perennial philosophy).
(59) Ruth Majercik, ed. and trans., The Chaldean Oracles (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1989), pp. 1-3. Cf. H. Lewy, Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy (Cairo 1956; new edn, Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1978), pp. 449ff., stating that Porphyry mentions the Chaldean Oracles in his early work known as Philosophy of the Oracles. Yet later, in his De regressu animae, excerpted from a Latin translation by Augustine, Porphyry criticised the "Chaldean" doctrine and refused to accept the claim that the highest grade of immortality can be achieved by theurgical consecration. In the view of Porphyry therefore, theurgy is useful only to those unable to lead a philosophical life. Nevertheless, Porphyry's criticism of "Chaldean" dogma did not prevent him from extending to that teaching more respect than he awarded to the Gnostics. See also Lewy, op. cit., pp. 696ff., for an appendix supplying a review of the first edition by E. R. Dodds, who suggested (via Bidez) that Porphyry had not yet discovered the Chaldean Oracles when he wrote his early work Philosophy of the Oracles. Professor Dodds advocated that these two works should be regarded as separate. Dodds also remarked on the uncertain (if plausible) nature of Lewy's conclusion that the original "Chaldean" theurgists drew upon a pre-existing Irano-Syro-Babylonian doctrine (ibid., pp. 700-1). Lewy conceded the possibility that the authors of the Oracles acquired their materials from a teacher of the Middle Platonist school, and here referring to Albinus (ibid., p. 316).
(60) Majercik, op. cit., p. 14. A related consideration is expressed. "Thus, to 'escape' Heimarmene [Nature] in the Chaldean system is to escape the control of sublunar demons which incite the passions, and not, as in the Gnostic systems, to escape the domination of astral and/or planetary powers above the moon" (ibid., p. 18).
(61) Ibid., p. 26.
(62) Ibid., p. 32.
(63) Ibid., p. 28.
(64) Ibid., pp. 29-30.
(65) Ibid., p. 45 note 118. See also Majercik, "ChaldeanTriads in Neoplatonic Exegesis," The Classical Quarterly (2001) 51(1): 265-96.
(66) See further Hermann S. Schibli, Hierocles of Alexandria (Oxford University Press, 2002); Ilsetraut Hadot, Studies on the Neoplatonist Hierocles, trans. M. Chase (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2004).
(67) F. H. Sandbach, The Stoics (1989), p. 80. Panaetius was an early Stoic, reported by Cicero. Panaetius composed On Providence, which "utterly rejected the claims of astrology" (ibid., p. 123).
(68) Cf. L. G. Westerink, ed. and trans., Anonymous Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy (Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing, 1962) for the Alexandrian school (pp. IX-LII). Ammonius is here thought to have possibly undertaken the formality of baptism, though it is evident that his treaty with the Patriarch Athanasius II (c. 489-496) cannot have had any lasting effect on his teaching; twenty years later, Ammonius continued to lecture on Plato and to express his unorthodox opinions even in his courses on Aristotle, which were probably given to a larger audience. See also P. Merlan, "Ammonius Hermiae, Zacharias Scholasticus and Boethius," Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies (1968) 9:193-203. The Christian scholar Zacharias attempted to belittle Ammonius, formerly having been his pupil, and being anxious to counter signs of reversion to Hellenism from Christianity amongst the other students.
(69) See Westerink, Anonymous Prolegomena (1962), introduction, and stating that paganism was confessed more openly under Olympiodorus than under Ammonius. Olympiodorus believed in reincarnation and did not compromise the teaching about eternity of the world. He was emphatic in his rejection of the Christian dogma of eternal punishment, which had been denied by Neoplatonists ever since Plotinus. See also L. G. Westerink, The Greek Commentaries on Plato's Phaedo Vol. 1: Olympiodorus (Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing, 1976), pp. 20ff., stating that the subject's extant work consists entirely of lecture notes by students. The Christian philosopher David quotes Olympiodorus as saying that the science of music had become a legend in his day, while only remnants of the other sciences survived, e.g., astronomy, geometry.
(70) Philoponus was opposed by Simplicius for his denial of the eternity of the world. The former resisted the Neoplatonist attempts to reconcile Plato and Aristotle, regarding this tendency as a form of mythology. See G. Verbeke, "Simplicius" (440-3) in Dictionary of Scientific Biography Vol. 12, p. 441. Philoponus maintained that Aristotle did not argue against those who misunderstood Plato, but against the authentic Platonic doctrine. The Christian stance of Philoponus was not motivated to a harmonisation, a theme which some analysts deem to have arisen because of the increasing influence of Christianity, whose exponents derided the presumed discord between the two major representatives of Greek philosophy.
(71) See further R.T. Wallis, Neoplatonism (London: Duckworth, 1972), pp. 138 ff., informing that only after the death of Olympiodorus, in 565 or later, did the Alexandrian school finally pass into Christian hands under Elias and David; their successor Stefanus moved to Constantinople, becoming head of a new imperial Academy, though other philosophers of this late branch were still active at Alexandria when the Arabs invaded in 641 CE. Cf. Westerink, Anonymous Prolegomena, intro., describing Elias as a high official of the Byzantines who appears to have been an example of complete personal freedom of thought coupled with an outward conformist attittude. The assumption that Elias was a pupil of Olympiodorus is merely derived from numerous parallels in their output. David is even more obscure.
(72) On diverse phases, see further Lloyd P. Gerson, ed., The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity (2 vols, Cambridge University Press, 2010).
(73) See, e. g., Muhsin Mahdi, "Alfarabi against Philoponus," Journal of Near Eastern Studies (1967) 26: 233-260, observing that the Alexandrian school produced a series of new commentaries on Aristotle which formed the basis of the tradition founded by Al-Farabi (870-950). The reason for the Neoplatonist focus on Aristotle seems clear enough; Plato had become too controversial in Alexandria, being viewed by Christians as the pivotal crux for paganism. Whereas the scientific character of Aristotle, and the comparative neglect of his works, made these look more neutral. Plato's works became relegated at official level, a situation which Farabi attempted to rectify. Shortly after the closure of the Athenian school, Philoponus (alias John the Grammarian) published two works attacking Proclus and Aristotle. Modern interpretations have varied. Professor Mahdi suggests that Philoponus rushed into a compromise position because of a fear of persecution. His refutations were ignored by the Alexandrian Neoplatonists; according to Mahdi, John's denials were too rhetorical in the way they disposed of relevant scientific questions, and in their appeal to public (i.e., Christian) prejudices. John's Against Aristotle did not survive, though his opponent Simplicius provides enough material to gain an idea of the contents. Farabi composed Against John the Grammarian, in which the Muslim philosopher opposed the arguments against eternity of the world, though his version of John's intention is far from being unequivocal. Farabi urged that Aristotle did not intend any of his statements to establish "eternity of the world." Cf. Majid Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy (second edn, Columbia University Press, 1983), pp. 76-7. See also Fakhry, Al-Farabi: Founder of Islamic Neoplatonism (Oxford, 2002), pp. 31ff., for Farabi's version of the harmony between Plato and Aristotle, and for the suggestion that Farabi was continuing a Neoplatonist tradition initiated by Porphyry in the lost treatise That the Views of Plato and Aristotle Are the Same.
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