Episode 79: Alone with the Alone: Numenius’ Metaphysics
Numenius, like all Middle Platonists, had a major debt to the cosmological myth of Plato’s Timæus, to Plato’s Republic, and to numerous other Platonic writings. He seems to have been especially impressed by the cryptic ‘King of All’ passage from the pseudo-Platonist Second Letter – most likely a Neopythagorean forgery of the Hellenistic period – and so formulated a signature doctrine of ‘three gods’: the Good/Father/King/Un-noetic Nous, the Demiurge/Son/Second, Active Nous, and the Grandson/Noetic Creator/Third Nous. He was also invested in contemporary Neopythagorean speculations, and thus placed major emphasis on a monad/dyad ontology – however, what he does with this dichotomy is unique in (surviving) Middle Platonist philosophy. Numenius’ work shows an interestingly ‘theological’ tone – he is quite happy speaking of his realities in personalised terms as gods, a usage which is always present in some measure in Platonism, but which is usually toned down a lot more than we find it in Numenius; he is, if not as theistic as Philo of Alexandria, at least on the same side of the aisle as the great Jewish Platonist.
Numenius’ philosophy made a big impression on later Platonists and Christians alike. For the Platonists his thought – especially his placing of a transcendent principle, the Good, at the summit of universal ontology – was an important contribution deserving of serious consideration. Plotinus knew his work intimately (see Porph. Plot. 14.12; 18.2–3, 17.1–23) and responded to it throughout his own writings, as did to a lesser degree his student Porphyry, while later thinkers like Iamblichus and Proclus cite him in numerous contexts.
Christians tended to cite Numenius’ thought for a very different set of reasons, finding in his doctrine of ‘three gods’ a Hellenic prototype or exemplum of their developing doctrine of the Trinity, a doctrine whose difficulties demanded serious ingenuity to solve. This three-in-one metaphysics, along with his love of Moses and exegesis of Jewish scriptures as esoteric philosophic texts, made Numenius a minor but important figure in the story of early Christian attempts to adopt/co-opt/appropriate Platonist thought in the service of Christ.
Works Cited in this Episode:
All translations and fragment references from Petty 2012.
Numenius of Apamea:
- The First god a Nous which is inactive: frr. 12.13, 15.2. The first god/the Good hidden (fr. 2.9), unknown, unsayable, and perfectly simple (fr. 11.11–14). The first god is Being, τὸ ὄν: frr. 5.5-14; 6.7-8; 8.2; 17.4. The first god as the (Biblical?) ‘One who exists’, ὁ ὤν: fr. 13.4. Undiminished giving of hypostasis: fr. 14.
- The second God is Plato’s demiurge: e.g. fr. 16.5; 22.1–2. He is an active Nous: fr. 15.3–4 He is split by matter: fr. 11.13–16. The primary demiurge continues to contemplate the first god noetically (frs. 11.14–20, 16.10–12, 21.4–5), but …
- The third god exercises discursive thought (διανοούμενον: fr. 22.4) and imposes the Forms onto matter, creating the cosmos (frs. 21.3–5, 22.4).
- The soul: Astral afterlife and reincarnation: fr. 12.14–16. ‘Undescended’ nature of the soul: fr. 42; cf. fr. 31.25–6; 52.73–5. Rational and irrational souls: fr. 44.
- Plato: The Form of the Good ‘beyond being’ or ‘beyond essence’ (ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας): R. 509b8-9. The demiurge creates the world by using the Forms as a blueprint: 28a7. The ‘King of All’ passage from ‘Plato’s’ Second Letter: 312d7-313a6.
- Plotinus: A nous which does not exercise noêsis is an absurdity, on Aristotelean grounds that nous is its action, noêsis: Enn. VI.737.
- Proclus on Numenius’ rather theistic way of speaking of the first three principles: In Tim. I.303, 27-304, 7 Diehl.
- Dodds theorises that ὁ ὤν is a textual corruption: Dodds 1960, 15-16.
George Karamonoulis’ article on Numenius in the Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a superb first introduction to the metaphysics of the man from Apamea; highly recommended. Also relevant and good:
- M. Baltes. ‘Numenius von Apamea und der platonische Timaios’. Vigiliae Christianae, (29):241–270, 1975.
- R. Beutler. ‘Numenius’. Real-Encyclopaedie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, Supplement 7:664–678, 1940.
- J. Dillon. ‘Numenius: Some Ontological Questions’. In R. W. Sharples and R. Sorabji, editors, Greek and Roman Philosophy 100 BCE–200 CE, volume II, pages 397–402. Institute of Classical Studies, London, 2007.
- E. R. Dodds. ‘Numenius and Ammonius’. Volume 5 of Entretiens sur l’antiquité classique, pages 2–61. Fondation Hardt, Vandoevres/Géneve, 1960.
- M. Edwards. ‘Porphyry and the Intelligible Triad’. Journal of Hellenic Studies, 110:14–25, 1990.
- M. Frede. ‘Numenius’. ANRW, 36(2):1034–1075, 1987.
- J. Halfwassen. Geist und Selbstbewußtsein. Studien zu Plotin und Numenios. Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart, 1994.
- E.A. Leemans. Studie over de Wijsgeer Numenius van Apamea met Uitgave der Fragmenten. Mémoires de la Classe des Lettres/Académie Royale de Belgique. Academie Royale de Belgique, Brussels, 1937.
- P. Merlan. ‘Numenius’. In A.H. Armstrong, editor, The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, page 96–106. University Press, Cambridge, 1967.
- R. Petty. Fragments of Numenius of Apamea. Number VII in Platonic Texts and Translations. Prometheus Trust, Hockley, 2012.
- J. Whittaker. ‘Numenius and Alcinous on the First Principle’. Phoenix, 32(2):144–154, Summer 1978.