Crystal Addey on Platonism, Theurgy, and Ecology

   (Living Esoteric Cultures Series Interview 4)

We speak with Crystal Addey, specialist on all things ancient-Platonist with a particular expertise on the subject of Late Platonist theurgy. Her many excellent publications can be found listed on her staff page at University College, Cork, where she teaches in the Classics department and blows everyone’s mind.

Crystal’s question is whether the ancients have anything useful to tell us about how we humans can enter into a more integrated, better, healthier relationship with our environment. Her answer is that we (that is, Europeans and their colonial diaspora) have a tradition in which human beings are part of nature, nature is holy, and animals and humans really are kin. This is the Pythagorean/Platonist tradition, or a current within this larger tradition, in which late-antique theurgy has a particularly important message of right embodiment and cosmic engagement.

We discuss a wide chronological sweep of antiquity, starting from Pythagoras (about whom we can say little) and Empedocles (about whom we can say considerably more), passing through Plato (particularly in the Timæus, where the universe is depicted as a single living animal, of which we are all parts), and on through Plutarch, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Proclus. Running through the philosophies of these thinkers, Addey argues, is a current of non-anthropocentric — indeed, ecocentric — concern with not only animals, nor even animals and plants, but with the universe as a whole, considered as a living being, and thus endued with all the ethical significance which life brings with it.

We then discuss the tradition of theurgy: what our working definition of it is, and how the philosophical theory of theurgy can be read as leading toward a life-affirming ethic of universal justice applied not only to human agents, but to life as a whole, the relevance of this tradition to modern actors, the important parallels between the theurgic world-view and those found among contemporary indigenous peoples, and much more.

Download Crystal Addey on Platonism, Theurgy, and Ecology

Works Cited in this Interview:



  • ‘they are born as lions and laurels’: Fr. 127/408 in Kirk, Raven, Schofield.
  • ‘For I have already been once a boy and a girl, a bush and a bird and a leaping journeying fish’: Fr. 117/417 KRS=D.L. 8.77.
  • ‘The father lifts up his own son changed in form and slaughters him with a prayer, blind fools, as he shrieks piteously, beseeching as he sacrifices … in the same way son seizes father and children their mother, and tearing out the life they eat the flesh of those they love.’ Fr. 137/415 KRS = Sextus Empiricus, Contra math. 9.129.

Plotinus on the rational works of some animals: Enn. VI.7[38]9, 14

Plutarch on elephants worshipping: On the Cleverness of Animals 972b-c [English in Moralia, Volume XII: Translated by Harold Cherniss, W. C. Helmbold. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957. Cf. Beasts are Rational (a.k.a. Gryllus) and On the Eating of Flesh, which can be found in the same Loeb Moralia volume].


  • De abstinentia. English in Porphyry, On Abstinence from Killing Animals, translated by Gillian Clark (London: Duckworth/Bloomsbury, 2000).
  • The Porphyry-Iamblichus correspondence discussed in the interview can be accessed in the most up-to-date form in the following volumes: Porphyre: Lettre à Anébon l’Égyptien. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2012, and Jamblique: Réponse à Porphyre (De mysteriis). Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2018, both edited by Henri Dominique Saffrey and Alain-Philippe Segonds.

Proclus on sunflowers: On the Sacred Art (On the Priestly Art) 8-11.


Recommended Reading:

  • Adams, Madonna R., “Environmental Ethics in Plato’s Timaeus”, in Laura Westra and Thomas M. Robinson, edd. The Greeks and the Environment (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997).
  • Blakeley, Donald N., “Plotinus as Environmentalist?” in Laura Westra and Thomas M. Robinson, The Greeks and the Environment (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997).
  • Broadie, Sarah, Nature and Divinity in Plato’s Timaeus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
  • Corrigan, Kevin, “Plotinus on the Nature of Physical Reality,” in Lloyd P. Gerson (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  • Crumplin, Mary-Ann (ed.), Deep Philosophy, Deep Ecology. Papers from the Prometheus Trust Conference 2017 (Lydney, Gloucestershire: Prometheus Trust, 2018).
  • Kingsley, Peter, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic: Empedocles and the Pythagorean Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Lane, Melissa, Eco-Republic: What the Ancients Can Teach us about Ethics, Virtue and Sustainable Living (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).
  • Mahoney, Timothy A., “Platonic Ecology, Deep Ecology,” in Laura Westra and Thomas M. Robinson, edd. The Greeks and the Environment (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997).
  • Newymer, Stephen T., Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook (London-New York: Routledge, 2007).
  • Newymer, Stephen T., Animals, Rights and Reason in Plutarch and Modern Ethics (New York: Routledge, 2006).
  • Osborne, Catherine, Dumb Beasts and Dead Philosophers: Humanity and the Humane in Ancient Philosophy and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
  • Riedwig, Christopher, Pythagoras: His Life, Teaching and Influence (Ithaca, NY – London: Cornell University Press, 2008).
  • Rist, John M., “Why Greek Philosophers Might Have Been Concerned about the Environment,” in Laura Westra and Thomas M. Robinson, edd. The Greeks and the Environment (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997), pp.19-32.
  • Sorabji, Richard. Animal Minds and Human Morals: The Origins of the Western Debate (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993).