March 16, 2022
Episode 137: The Esoteric Iamblichus
[N.B: we forgot to mention that all English translations of Iamblichus’ De mysteriis in this episode are from Clarke, Dillon, Hershbell 2003 (see below), unaltered except for our usual practice of changing ‘intellectual’ to ‘noetic’, ‘intellect’ to ‘nous’, and so forth.]
In this episode we explore different elements of esoteric discourse (understood according to our standing definition, to be found in the SHWEP glossary) in the work, and even the teaching-practice, of Iamblichus. Under discussion are:
- The life of the late-antique polytheist sage and wonder-working holy man who also runs a philosophic seminar,
- The barbarian and Hellenic strands of wisdom-tradition constructed by Iamblichus, and his own willingness to identify with the barbarian over the Greek,
- His construction of perhaps his most enduring legacy, the ‘tradition’ of theurgy,
- And his employment of tropes of unsayability/ineffability.
Works Cited in this Episode:
On the complicated ways in which Iamblichus’ De mysteriis/Response to Porphyry are cited in scholarship, see the note to Episode 134.
The Hermetic Asclepius on the kosmic significance of ancient Egyptian religion and language: see the so-called ‘Apocalypse’, sections 24-27 Nock-Festugière; cf. CH XVI 1.
- ‘Occasionally, however, he did perform certain rites alone … when he worshipped the Divine Being’: Eunap. VS 458.
- The ancient Pythagoreans go underground and preserve the teachings of the Master in secret conclaves: VP 35. 252-3.
- The vulgar crowd and their ‘standing on charaktērēs’: De myst. III.13. Cf. e.g. PGM III. 292-303; VII. 586; XIII. 1003.
- The mass of men versus the (theurgic?) elite: De anima §29 Finamore-Dillon.
- The ‘True Tradition’ (ἀληθῆ παράδοσιν): e.g. De myst. II.11.
- On the solidity of the ‘ancient barbarian peoples’ and the flightiness of the Greeks: we cite passages from De myst. VII.4 and 5.
- The Assyrian language inherently sacred: De myst. VII.4.
- Orpheus and Aglaophemus transmit wisdom to Pythagoras: V.P. 146.
- Pseudopythagorica in Iamblichus: see the Protrepticus for some choice uses of this body of work.
- Iamblichus assumes that Aristotle was in agreement with Plato on the subject of the Forms: Elias/David, In Categorias, 123.2–3.
- The theurgists are purified of every evil and impassible: De myst. III.31.
- They are superior to ordinary religious folks: De myst. III.20.
- They can behold the gods directly, not in images: III.28; cf. II.10, where the gods reveal to them the autoptikon pyr, the ‘self-visible fire’.
- They use the power of arcane symbols [την δυναμιν την aπορρητων συθνημaτων] to command kosmic entities, etc: De myst. VI.6.
- ‘little pebbles, rods, or certain woods, stones, wheat, and barley meal’: De myst. III.17; cf. V.23.
- The ‘meaningless names’ (ἄσημα ὀνόματα): De myst. VII.4.
Plato: ‘O Solon, Solon …’: Tim. 22b45.
On the three Valentinian grades of soul, see Episode 83.
- Wilmer Cave Wright. Philostratus and Eunapius: The Lives of the Sophists. William Heinemann/Putnam, London/New York, NY, 1922.
- E.C. Clarke, J.M. Dillon, and J.P. Hershbell, editors. Iamblichus on The Mysteries. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA, 2003.
- Peter Brown. The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity. JRS, (61): 80–101, 1971.
- Sarah Iles Johnston. Overtime in the Afterlife; Or, No Rest for the Virtuous. In Ra’anan S. Boustan and Annette Yoshiko Reed, editors, Heavenly Realms and Earthly Realities in Late Antique Religions, pages 85–102. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004.
- H. Lewy, ‘The Meaning and the History of the terms ‘Theurgist” and “Theurgy”‘, Excursus IV in Oracles, pp. 461-66. Cf. however F. Cremer. Die chaldaikhen Orakel pp. 19-36.
- Nicholas Marshall. The social function of secrecy in iamblichus’ de mysteriis. Master’s thesis, University of Aarhus, 2011.
- Peter T. Struck. Speech Acts and the Stakes of Hellenism in Late Antiquity. In Paul A. Mirecki and Marvin W. Meyer, editors, Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World, pages 387–403. Brill, Leiden, 2002.
Apollonius of Tyana, Apophatic Writing, Astrology, Egypt, Esoteric Hermeneutics, Hermetica, Iamblichus, Late Antiquity, Late Platonism, Orpheus, Platonism, Platonist Orientalism, Platonist Perennialism, Plotinus, Porphyry, Pythagoreanism, Theurgy
March 23, 2022
Is there any evidence that Iamblichus incorporated Assyrian religious or metaphysical elements from his priest-ruler heritage into his Platonism? I don’t think it would be irrational to think that his father (assuming patriarchal transmission) passed down at least some of the family ‘secrets’, despite not holding any real political power anymore.
PS: In grad school in the late 1990s-early 2000s Iamblichus had a very poor reputation. It seems from your episodes that this has changed somewhat.
April 8, 2022
Well, there is this book out there: ‘Iamblichus on the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Assyrians’, described here:
and available online for free here: https://archive.org/details/b24884170/page/n19/mode/2up.
I also recently purchased Hans Lewy’s book, which comes up in many Shwep episodes. It’s quite a tome, a description of which can be found here
and the table of contents is here:
As far as I can tell, it is not available in electronic form online, but can be purchased here
While this book doesn’t directly answer your question, there may be some connections, to the extent that the content and scholarship reflect back to remnants from the civilizations of Assyria.
As to your postscript, I must say I am suspicious of the academy. There is a pretty strong strand of near hero-worship of certain philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) and denigration of others.
Take the Sophists.
A standard (and quite good) lecture from the 1980’s is available here (from Arthur Holmes’ famous series):
The usual points are made: ‘rhetoric vs. philosophy’, ‘relativism’, ‘truth-making vs. truth discovery’ (while at the same time Holmes does mention that later philosphers, the ones the academy favors for example, developed epistemology, partly in response to the types of arguments that Protagoras, Gorgias and other so-called “sophists” were making.
More favorable takes on Sophists can be found here.
Incidentally, I like Arthur Holmes. I enjoy his style, and there is pretty detailed syllabus available for his history of philosophy course
One last comment. A lot of the hullabaloo about Sophists seems to be about assigning to them a type of moral relativism (as opposed to what is considered a more principled stand of philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant etc).
It’s not clear to me how we get around the issue of figuring out what position to take about morality, but recently Patricia Churchland (the famous neurophilosopher) has dived in with book called “Braintrust” and “Conscience”. These books develop notions of morality from biological mechanisms (in mammals primarily in her books; she doesn’t discuss other parts of the animal kingdom as much).
April 8, 2022
Thank you so much for all of this information, and the time you took to share it! I’m very grateful. The Lewy book does seem impressive. Holmes’ course seems like something from a bygone era–I can’t imagine assigning that much work to students anymore.
There’s an interview or podcast on the SHWEP somewhere I think which discusses the history of the academic attitude towards ancient philosophy, and your comments reminded me of it–the negative attitude towards someone like Iamblichus may have been due to wanting to seem ‘serious’ and ‘professional’.
As for your last point–anyone who can come up with an objective basis for moral truths/claims that was convincing to any degree would enter the annals of philosophical history! I’m not sure if Churchland’s naturalistic/brain approach can do it though.
April 26, 2022
I haven’t seen anything which argues for genuine ‘Assyrian’ content in Iamblichus (but what does that even mean in his day? There has been a lot of speculation about that. Most likely it means ‘Syrian’, in fact, but with that lovely patina of authority granted by invoking the ancient Assyrians — see the Struck article in the bib. for some thinking on that.
As for Iamblichus’ reputation, it has absolutely improved in recent scholarship, but, as you say, it didn’t really have anywhere to go but up.