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Iamblichus (ca. AD 242/5 - ca. 325/7, Greek: Ιάμβλιχος) was a neoplatonist philosopher who determined the direction taken by later Neoplatonic philosophy, and perhaps western Paganism itself. He is perhaps best known for his compendium on Pythagorean philosophy.

Iamblichus' life

Iamblichus was the chief representative of Syrian Neoplatonism, though his influence spread over much of the ancient world. The events of his life and the details of his creed are very imperfectly known, but the main tenants of his belief can be worked out from extant wrirings. We learn from Suidas, and from his biographer Eunapius, that he was born at Chalcis (modern Quinnesrin) in Syria. He was the son of a rich and illustrious family, and he is said to have been the ancestor of several priest-kings of Emesa. He initially studied under Anatolius, and later went on to study under Porphyry, a pupil of Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism. It was with Porphyry that he is known to have had a disagreement over the practice of theurgy, the criticisms of which Iamblichus responds to in his attributed On the Egyptian Mysteries.

Around 304, he returned to Syria to found his own school at Apameia (near Antioch), a city famous for its Neoplatonic philosophers. Here he designed a curriculum for studying Plato and Aristotle, and he wrote grand commentaries on the two that survive only in fragments. Still, for Iamblichus, Pythagoras was the supreme authority. He is known to have written the Collection of Pythagorean Doctrines, which, in ten books, was compromised of extracts from several ancient philosophers. Only first four books, and fragments of the fifth, survive.

Iamblichus was said to be a man of great culture and learning and was renowned for his charity and self-denial. Many students gathered around him, and he lived with them in genial friendship.

According to Fabricius, he died during the reign of Constantine, sometime before AD 333.

Only a fraction of Iamblichus' books have survived, most of them having been destroyed during the Christianization of the Roman Empire. For our knowledge of his system, we are indebted partly to the fragments of writings preserved by Stobaeus and others. The notes of his successors, especially Proclus, as well as his five extant books and the sections of his great work on Pythagorean philosophy also reveal much of Iamblichus' system. Besides these, Proclus seems to have ascribed to him the authorship of the celebrated treatise Theurgia, or On the Egyptian Mysteries. However, the differences of this book from Iamblichus' other works in style and in some points of doctrine have lead some to question whether Iamblichus was the actual author. Still, the treatise certainly emanated from his school, and in its systematic attempt to give a speculative justification of the polytheistic cult practices of the day, it marks a turning-point in the history of thought where lamblichus stood.

As a speculative theory, Neoplatonism had received its highest development from Plotinus. The modifications introduced by lamblichus were the detailed elaboration of its formal divisions, the more systematic application of the Pythagorean number-symbolism, and, under the influence of Oriental systems, a thoroughly mythic interpretation of what Neoplatonism had formerly regarded as notional. Iamblichus introduced the idea of the soul's embodiment in matter, believing matter to be as divine as the rest of the cosmos. This was the most fundamental point of departure between his own ideas and those of his Neoplatonic predecessors, who believed, in an almost gnostic fashion, that matter was corrupt. It is most likely on this account that lamblichus was looked upon with such extravagant veneration.

Iamblichus was highly praised by those who followed his thought. By his contemporaries, Iamblichus was accredited with miraculous powers, which he, however, disclaimed. The Roman emperor Julian, not content with Eunapius' more modest eulogy that he was inferior to Porphyry only in style, regarded Iamblichus as more than second to Plato, and claimed he would give all the gold of Lydia for one epistle of lamblichus. During the revival of interest in his philosophy in the 15th and 16th centuries, the name of Iamblichus was scarcely mentioned without the epithet "divine" or "most divine".

Iamblichus' Cosmology

On first approach, the ideas and writings of Iamblichus seem almost impenetrable due to their being couched in dense neoplatonic jargon. Many of the ideas, however, are quite intelligible (some even familiar) to a 21st Century reader. Once a familiarity of the terminology and mindset of the times is achieved, the interpretation becomes much easier.

At the head of his system, Iamblichus placed the transcendent incommunicable "One", the monad, whose first principle is intellect, nous. Immediately after the absolute One, lamblichus introduced a second superexistent "One" to stand between it and 'the many' as the producer of intellect, or soul, psyche. This is the initial dyad. The first and highest One (nous), which Plotinus represented under the three stages of (objective) being, (subjective) life, and (realized) intellect, is distinguished by Iamblichus into spheres of intelligible and intellective, the latter sphere being the domain of thought, the former of the objects of thought. These three entities, the psyche, and the nous split into the intelligible and the intellective, form a triad.

Between the two worlds, at once separating and uniting them, some scholars think there was inserted by lamblichus, as was afterwards by Proclus, a third sphere partaking of the nature of both. But this supposition depends on a merely conjectural emendation of the text. We read, however, that in the intellectual triad he assigned the third rank to the Demiurge. The Demiurge, the Platonic creator-god, is thus identified with the perfected nous, the intellectual triad being increased to a hebdomad. As in Plotinus, nous produced nature by mediation of the intellect, so here the intelligible gods are followed by a triad of psychic gods.

The first of these 'psychic gods' is incommunicable and supramundane, while the other two seem to be mundane, though rational. In the third class, or mundane gods, there is a still greater wealth of divinities, of various local position, function, and rank. We read of gods, angels, demons and heroes, of twelve heavenly gods whose number is increased to thirty-six or three hundred and sixty, and of seventy-two other gods proceeding from them, of twenty-one chiefs and forty-two nature-gods, besides guardian divinities, of particular individuals and nations. The real of divinities stretched from the original One down to material nature itself, where soul in fact descended into matter and became 'embodied' as human beings. Basically, Iamblichus greatly multiplied the ranks of being and divine entities in the universe, the number at each level relating to various mathematical proportions. The world is thus peopled by a crowd of superhuman beings influencing natural events and possessing and communicating knowledge of the future, and who are all accessible to prayers and offerings.

The whole of Iamblichus's complex theory is ruled by a mathematical formulism of triad, hebdomad, etc., while the first principle is identified with the monad, dyad and triad; symbolic meanings being also assigned to the other numbers. The theorems of mathematics, he says, apply absolutely to all things, from things divine to original matter. But though he subjects all things to number, he holds elsewhere that numbers are independent existences, and occupy a middle place between the limited and unlimited.

Another difficulty of the system is the account given of nature. It is said to be bound by the indissoluble chains of necessity called fate, and is distinguished from divine things that are not subject to fate. Yet, being itself the result of higher powers becoming corporeal, a continual stream of elevating influence flows from them to it, interfering with its necessary laws and turning to good ends the imperfect and evil. Of evil no satisfactory account is given; it is said to have been generated accidentally in the conflict between the finite and the infinite.

Theurgy

Despite the complexities of the make-up of the divine cosmos, Iamblichus still had salvation as his final goal. The embodied soul was to return to divinity by performing certain rights, or theurgy, literally, 'divine-working'. Some translate this as "magic", but the modern connotations of the term do not exactly match what Iamblichus had in mind, which is more along the lines of religious ritual. Still, these acts did involve some of what would today be perceived as attempts at 'magic'.

Though the embodied souls are dominated by physical necessities, they are still divine and rational. This contains a conflict, being part of an immortal, divine nature, as well as genuinely part of a material, imperfect mortal domain. The personal soul, a kind of 'lost' embodied soul, has lost touch with its deeper, divine nature and has become self-alienated. In this conflict can perhaps be glimpsed Iamblichus' ideas about the origin of evil, though Iamblichus does not comment on this himself.

This was also the area where Iamblichus differed from his former master, Porphyry, who believed mental contemplation alone could bring salvation. Porphyry wrote a letter criticizing Iamblicus' ideas of theurgy, and it is this letter that On the Egyptian Mysteries was written in response to.

Iamblichus' analysis was that the transcendent cannot be grasped with mental contemplation because the transcendent is supra-rational. Theurgy is a series of rituals and operations aimed at recovering the transcendent essence by retracing the divine 'signatures' through the layers of being. Education is important for comprehending the scheme of things as presented by Aristotle, Plato and Pythagoras but also by the Chaldaean Oracles. The theurgist works 'like with like': at the material level, with physical symbols and 'magic'; at the higher level, with mental and purely spiritual practices. Starting with correspondences of the divine in matter, the theurgist eventually reaches the level where the soul's inner divinity unites with God.

Clearly, Iamblichus meant for the masses of people to perform rituals that were more physical in nature, while the higher types, who were closest to the divine (and whose numbers were few), could reach the divine realm though contemplation.

References

  • Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Princeton, Princeton University Press 1986 (Has an excellent section on Iamblicus and the Neoplatonists relation to the works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus.)
  • Shaw, Gregory. Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus. Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University Press 1971

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This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.

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