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Iamblichus

Category: Philosopher

Iamblichus, also known as Iamblichus Chalcidensis, [c. 245-c. 325] was an Assyrian Neoplatonist philosopher who determined the direction taken by later Neoplatonic philosophy. His influence spread over much of the ancient world.  He is perhaps best known for his compendium on Pythagorean philosophy.

He 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 333. 

Influences

The events of his life and the details of his creed are very imperfectly known, but the main tenets of his belief can be worked out from extant writings. He initially studied under Anatolius of Laodicea, and later went on to study under Porphyry, a pupil of Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism.

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 wrote a number of commentaries that survive only in fragments.

Neoplatonism had been developed the most under Plotinus.  But lamblichus elaborated on its formal divisions, and gave a more systematic application to the Pythagorean number-symbolism. 

Thomas Taylor – from Introduction to Iamblichus’s Life of Pythagoras

Iamblichus was descended of a family equally illustrious, fortunate, and rich.  His country was Chalcis, a city of Syria, which was called Coele. He associated with Anatolius who was the second to Porphyry, but he far excelled him in his attainments, and ascended to the very summit of philosophy. But after he had been for some time connected with Anatolius, and most probably found him insufficient to satisfy the vast desires of his soul, he applied himself to Porphyry.

…Though the surface of his conceptions is not covered with the flower of elocution, yet the depth of them is admirable and his genius is truly sublime. ….. it appears to me that the decision of the anonymous Greek writer respecting his Answer to the Epistle of Porphyryr, is more or-less applicable to all his other works. For he says, "that his diction in that Answer is concise and definite, and that his conceptions are full of efficacy, are elegant, and divine."

Iamblichus shared in an eminent degree the favour of divinity on account of his cultivation of justice; and obtained a numerous multitude of associates and disciples, who came from all parts of the world, for the purpose of participating the streams of wisdom, which so plentifully flowed from the sacred fountain of his wonderful mind; so that it seems wonderful how Iamblichus could attend to all of them, with such gentleness of manners and benignity of disposition as he continually displayed.

Beliefs

Iamblichus believed the embodied soul could ‘return’ [travel] to divinity by performing certain rites, 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 the spiritual path.  It is worth adding at this point that he was both an Initiate and Adept from the Mysteries.

"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,  - Higher spirit - as well as genuinely part of a material, imperfect mortal domain. The soul  has lost touch with its deeper, divine nature and has become self-alienated."

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”.  The spiritual path.

Iamblichus' philosophy was not an all-inclusive one, although he is probably right in his assessment that the majority of people have neither the interest nor inclination to follow the spiritual path, as such "the masses of people to perform rituals that were more physical in nature, while the more spiritually inclined, who are closest to the divine (and whose numbers are few), may reach the divine realm through contemplation".

References

Much of Iamblichus’s texts survive only in fragments.  Fragments of his writings were preserved by Stobaeus amonst others and more details of his philosophy were preserved in the  notes of his successors, especially Proclus, apart from the text mentioned above, his known works are: 

  • Collection of Pythagorean Doctrines, which, in ten books, comprised extracts from several ancient philosophers. Only the first four books, and fragments of the fifth, survive.
  • Theurgia, or On the Egyptian Mysteries. The authorship of this book is disputed.  There is a difference between this book and Iamblichus' other works in style and in some points of doctrine.  However, Proclus seems to have ascribed to him the authorship of this work.
  • Iamblichus on The Mysteries (Writings from the Greco-Roman World, V. 4 translator Emma C Clarke)
  •  Iamblichus on the Mysteries and Life of Pythagoras: On the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Assyrians, the Life of Pythagoras, and Pythagorean Fragments by Thomas Taylor

The following may also be useful

  • History of the Restoration of Platonic Theology
  • Bibliotheca Graeca of Fabricius

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