Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.04

Michael von Albrecht, John Dillon, Michael Lurje, Martin George, David S. du Toit, Jamblich. Pythagoras: Legende - Lehre - Lebensgestaltung.   Darmstadt:  Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellshaft, 2002.  Pp. 352.  ISBN 3-534-14945-9.  EUR 31.00.  

Reviewed by Peter Lautner, Eötvös University, Budapest (
Word count: 1973 words

The book contains the Greek text of Iamblichus' Vita Pythagorica with a German translation and annotations by Michael von Albrecht, as well as an introduction on Iamblichus' life and works by John Dillon, a short preface to the treatise by Michael Lurje and interpretive essays by Lurje, von Albrecht, Dillon (both of his contributions have been translated by Heinz-Günther Nesselrath), Martin George and David S. du Toit.

The Greek text is based on the Teubner edition by L. Deubner and U. Klein (Stuttgart, 1975) and the translation was originally published in 1963 in Zürich and Stuttgart. Dillon's introduction is an abridged and revised version of his study in the ANRW II 36.2.1 Here he abandons the idea that the teacher of Iamblichus was a certain Anatolius who taught Peripatetic philosophy in Alexandria in the 260s and later on became bishop of Laodicea in Syria. The reference in Eunapius' Vit. Soph. 457 should rather be taken as referring to a certain Anatolius, the dedicatee of Porphyry's ὁΜηρικὰ ζητήματα, who must have been Porphyry's pupil. The preface emphasizes the context of the treatise, that it formed part of a larger work entitled Περὶ τῆς Πυθαγορικῆς αἱρέσεως, thus all attempts to interpret it properly must start from the assumption that Iamblichus' aim was not to give a detailed historical account of Pythagoras' life and teaching. In all likelihood, the rationale of Vita Pythagorica was to introduce us to a systematic understanding of Pythagorean philosophy, as Iamblichus conceived it some hundred years after Pythagoras' death. The title itself also suggests that Iamblichus was interested not so much in the actual life of Pythagoras as in a way of life according to the principles of his philosophy.

The translation is accurate and reads well. The annotations are confined to the most necessary, mainly textual, data, which is forgivable since the subsequent essays provide us with all sorts of information. Just a small query. Is the general discussion of temperance found in Section 34, as note 131 claims? The subject-matter is discussed in Sections 68-69 as well.

Lurje discusses the text as a manifesto of Neoplatonic paideia. He intends to prove that in discussing the main lines of Pythagoreanism Iamblichus' aim was to introduce his audience into his own philosophy. Pythagoras thus turned into a guide to Platonism; indeed, he took up a role well attested in Plato's Symposium 210A-212A and reflected in Phaedrus 248C (συνοπαδός).2 The former dialogue portrays the guide as a daemon who mediates between the divine and the human and leads the souls towards a full contemplation of the Beauty itself. Another Platonic parallel, the image of cave in the Republic helps us understand the importance of paideia. It is tied to the effort to get rid of mere appearances and view their origins, the ideas, instead. As for the method of education, Lurje argues that the larger treatise to which VP once belonged takes the same line as that sketched in Republic VII. Paideia thus offers the means of ascending to the world of transcendence, which is intimately tied to the purification and re-orientation of the soul. In brief, the goal of the Pythagorean way of life is distinctly Neoplatonic; a unification of human soul with God. It is also the context within which Iamblichus' own philosophy proceeds. The arrangement of the treatise corresponds with this aim and serves Iamblichus' intention to portray Pythagoras as a Platonic guide of the soul. The notion of ascent is connected to a scheme of virtues. In the wake of von Albrecht, Lurje claims that VP supports a notion of the grade of virtues. (See also George's discussion on p. 313.) But he doubts if the theory on the grade of virtues can applied to the whole treatise. As von Albrecht has also seen, Sections 134-240 do not follow the line of such an argument. This is the reason why he talked about a 'new lecture-series' (263). Lurje seems to accept this proposal (246-47) and claims that it is the theme of the ascent of the soul that gives unity to the treatise. One could add that Iamblichus' discussion of σωφροσύνη (Sections 187-188) shows that this virtue does not fit into the scheme; it transgresses several grades. Pythagoras' legendary personality seemed particularly fit for Iamblichus to claim authority for his own Neoplatonism.

There may only be a few points on which to disagree. The cave may not be the most appropriate simile to account for the importance of paideia. It is true that Plato chose this context to discuss paideia (518B-519B), but it is equally clear that education cannot take full responsibility for providing the conditions to contemplate the idea of the Good. The image of the cave fails to explain why people in the cave can get rid of their bonds. This is the first move away from the world of shadows, and it has been left unexplained.3 At any rate, mathematical disciplines can only be preparatory studies for those who wish to study dialectics. The reason why Iamblichus gave Pythagoras such importance may also remain somewhat unclear. The statement that 'in using the name of Pythagoras Iamblichus established a philosophical program that determined the whole subsequent development of Platonism' (250) should not be taken at face value. Especially the relation between Pythagoras and Plato remained vexed. This is particularly clear in Proclus. One sample may suffice: in his commentary on the Timaeus he is compelled to say something on the ancient charge that Plato bought/stole Timaeus' book and publicized it as his own. To avoid explicit contradiction Proclus marks off two sorts of motives in the Timaeus, a Pythagorean and a Socratic (I 7.17-8.10 Diehl). Iamblichus must have taken a stand on the issue too, but his statements in in Tim. do not allow us to say anything with certainty. The only thing we can say is that he applies Pythagorean motifs in the explanation of the introductory part (17B-C) of the dialogue (fr. 5 Dillon).

The contribution of von Albrecht is a reprise of his seminal paper of 1966.4 He points out that Iamblichus was interested in Pythagoras as a personification of the contact between the human soul and God. This pagan conception contradicted the Christian assumption according to which Christ was an incarnation of God. The grades of virtues indicate the different kinds of perfections through which one can reach self-knowledge, which is nothing but the knowledge of the immortal part of our soul. They also explain the structure of the treatise, although the last part admittedly does not fit into this scheme. The discussion of cardinal virtues is centered on their ἔργα and has three main features. /1/ Piety is prior to all. Its high position is due to Iamblichus' opinion of the capacity of human reason. The less our reason can achieve by itself, the more important this virtue will be. At this point, however, one might wonder if the series implies dependence of virtues. In any case, the opening sentence of the work might indicate that the σώφρων has a special position. /2/ The relation of virtues is determined by the hierarchy within the cosmos and /3/ they culminate in φιλία that does a quadruple duty: it connects the different levels of reality; it is a bond between the elements and between man and man; and it also binds together the parts of our body and soul. Iamblichus' concept of man in the VP can be summarized in three points. He is interested in the position of man in a hierarchical cosmos, in the role of virtues that are needed to get on in this universe, and, finally, in the possibility of self-knowledge. 'Self-knowledge' is used in three ways. It is called metaphysical if we are clear about our station as humans in the cosmos. It is ethical if it is about the proper use of our capacities, and it is psychological if it is the knowledge of our true self, the immortal soul. All the three usages focus on universal characteristics and disregard individual marks.

Given the date and cultural context of the VP, the links with Christian treatises are obvious, though not much discussed. Small wonder, then, that the other three studies deal with the various aspects of that relationship. Du Toit compares the soteriological aspects of the Gospel of Luke and the VP. Unlike proper biographies, of whose aim was to urge the reader to imitate the lifestyle of the protagonists, the Gospel lays great emphasis on confession, while Iamblichus stresses the divine origin of Pythagoras' soul. For this reason, however, Pythagoras cannot be the mediator of virtue and knowledge. Thus VP is not a proper biography; it contains the elements of historiography, panegyric and fiction. Iamblichus chose the form of biography to declare that the virtuous life is the God-given paradigm that was transmitted through Pythagoras to the human race. Dillon raises the possibility of characterizing VP as kind of gospel, taking the term in a broader sense to include pagan texts as well. Iamblichus' pagan sources may have been Peripatetic vitae or collections of dicta from the pen of Aristoxenus and Heraclides of Pontus. One should add here that direct evidence shows only that Iamblichus knew Aristoxenus' Πυθαγορικαὶ ἀποφάσεις.

As for the other sources, Dillon points out that the motif of fisherman (Section 36) resembles the image of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels. There is also a strong possibility that Iamblichus was familiar with the Gospel of John. At any rate, the text was known in the circle of Plotinus for one of his students, Amelius, commented on the prologue (see Eusebius, Praep. Ev. XI 18.26-19.4). Porphyry also knew it. The comparison of the VP with John's work reveals structural similarities. The conclusion is that Iamblichus might have intended to create a pagan counterpart of Jesus Christ.

George discusses the soteriological function of virtues in the VP and in Athanasius' Vita Antonii. The status of the protagonists is different. While Pythagoras' soul was sent by Apollo and is not mortal, Antonius is a human being tout court. Thus Pythagoras cannot be a model for others in acquiring virtues whereas Antonius is not a teacher; and is never called so. Strikingly, Iamblichus does not give a formal definition of virtue. He only says that it enables us to overcome the two roots of every vice: ἀκρασία and greediness (Section 68). The former term is deeply entrenched in the ethical tradition, and, to my mind, it is not right to take it to mean bodily licentiousness (körperliche Zuchtlosigkeit, see p. 311).5 It is definitely not bodily and refers to incontinence (thus Unenthaltsamkeit might be a better rendering). George shows that temperance is a central virtue, especially with reference to ascetical practices, and sometimes may signify the whole area of virtue. In this context it is particularly interesting that Iamblichus maintains the ancient conception according to which virtue is not given by nature and cannot be taught while Athanasius rejects it and considers God's interference a necessary condition for acquiring virtue. Both authors think that virtues are necessary for a better afterlife and concentrate on temperance. The differences are based on different concepts of man. On Iamblichus' view, human beings are by their own efforts capable of becoming one with the god, while Athanasius lays great emphasis on divine grace. All these studies demonstrate that these aspects of pagan Neoplatonism are best understood against the background of Christian doctrines that pagan philosophers opposed vigorously in that era.

The indices (of passages and subject) are by Fabio Berdozzo. They are reliable. Just one remark: Anonymous' Comm. In Platonis Phaedonem now can safely be ascribed to Damascius.6 In sum, the book is an indispensable guide for those who try to find their way through Iamblichus' baroque style and line of thought and want to see it in its broader cultural context.


1.   'Iamblichus of Chalcis (c. 240-325 A.D.)', Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt II 36.2 (1987), 862-909. The study is a revised version of his Introduction to Iamblichi Chalcidensis in Platonis Dialogos commentariorum fragmenta. Ed. with trans. and comm. by J. Dillon, Leiden, 1973.
2.   Interestingly enough, a variant of same term (ὀπαδός) was applied to Syrianus as a follower of Iamblichus, see Damascius, in Parmenidem, 149.26 R. Otherwise I am somewhat uncertain whether the Neoplatonic eponym of professors (ἡγεμών) always has a quasi-religious connotation (see 225, n.12). It became a commonplace to call the teachers in this way, without acknowledging such an engagement.
3.   This has been well stressed by both J. Annas, An Introduction to Plato's Republic. Oxford, 1981, 253, and A. Schubert, Platon: 'Der Staat'. Ein einführender Kommentar. Padernborn, 1995, 121.
4.   'Das Menschenbild in Jamblichs Darstellung der pythagoreischen Lebensform', Antike und Abendland 12 (1966), 51-63.
5.   George's rendering is supported by von Albrecht's translation, which, however, does not qualify ἀκρασία with 'bodily'. The translation by J. Dillon and J. Hershbell (Iamblichus. On the Pythagorean Way of Life. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991, gives 'incontinence'.
6.   They have been published by L. G. Westerink, The Greek Commentaries on Plato's Phaedo. Volume II. Damascius. Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, Afd. Letterkunde, N.R., deel 93. Amsterdam-Oxford-New York: North-Holland Publishing Company, 1977.

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