Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.11.33

John M. Dillon, Wolfgang Polleichtner (ed.), Iamblichus of Chalcis: The Letters. Writings from the Greco-Roman World.   Atlanta:  Society of Biblical Literature, 2009.  Pp. xxv, 119.  ISBN 9781589831612.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Graeme Miles, University of Tasmania (

This short but valuable book provides Greek texts and English translations of twenty fragmentary letters of Iamblichus (preserved in John of Stobi’s Anthologium), along with two further testimonia (from Damascius and Olympiodorus). In these letters we see Iamblichus in a more public, popular philosophical vein than is the case in his other surviving works. As the editors note, the technicalities of Iamblichus’ system are largely absent in these ‘philosophical calling cards’ (viii). The letters do, however, give insight into the world of Syrian Neoplatonism in Iamblichus’ time, and into the broader elite culture to which it belonged. This is the nineteenth volume in the Society of Biblical Literature’s ‘Writings from the Greco-Roman World’ series, and continues that series’ useful work of providing easier access to texts which are far from mainstream. It will be of great interest to students of the Platonic tradition and of religion and philosophy in late antiquity, and sits well beside SBL’s editions of De Mysteriis (Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon and Jackson P. Hershbell), De Anima (John F. Finamore and John M. Dillon) and On the Pythagorean Way of Life (Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon and Jackson P. Hershbell).

The English translation of the letters is the work of John Dillon, while Wolfgang Polleichtner has re-edited the text. The editors have collaborated on the introduction and commentary. All of these tasks have been ably handled. The translation reads well and is close to the Greek without being unidiomatic in English. It also avoids making the text sound more elegant than it is. The opening of Letter Four provides a reasonable sample: ‘It is wisdom, which dominates all the other virtues and makes use of all of them, like an eye of the intellect ordering well their ranks and proportions according to the most apt arrangement, that discourse displays before our gaze at the present. This, then, receives its existence principally from the pure and perfect intellect. Once generated, however, it contemplates the intellect itself and derives its perfection from it, possessing it as a most noble measure and model for all the activities that take place within it’. As the editors note in their introduction, Iamblichus’ style in these letters is less convoluted than in his other surviving works, and some of the letters at least (e.g. Letter Five) show a greater concern for literary and rhetorical form than a reader of Iamblichus will be used to. Nonetheless, it is still clear that prose style is not among Iamblichus’ leading priorities, though these letters make it evident that this is a choice rather than plain inability.

The commentary is invariably useful and to the point: the prosopographic and philosophical background is provided succinctly and methodically. Lexical choices and other linguistic matters are also informatively discussed, as for instance in the treatment of ταυτότης in Letter Ten (p.81) or of ἐγκράτεια and γλυκυθυμία in Letter Three (p.66). The notes frequently assume a reader with at least a fair grasp of Greek, but this is not an unreasonable assumption to make.

Despite their popular and non-technical nature, these letters stand in interesting relationships to Iamblichus’ other works and to Neoplatonic thought more generally. Letter Four (To Asphalius, ‘On Wisdom’), which is concerned with the role of φρόνησις in directing cities and in human interaction, appears to assume a Neoplatonic notion of νοῦς as an hypostasis, though there is an ambiguity here, as Dillon and Polleichtner observe, between the hypostasis νοῦς and the intellect of an individual. Nonetheless, it is probable that we see here a hint of a slightly more technical level of philosophical terminology than is generally the case in these letters. Among the more philosophically substantial letters is number eight (To Macedonius, ‘On Fate’), which sketches the relationship of fate and providence to free will. Here Iamblichus places the higher aspects of the soul above the constraints of fate and providence, though still staying clear of Plotinus’ doctrine of the undescended soul. Interestingly, the first of the two testimonia to the letters shows Iamblichus coming close to this Plotinian doctrine, which he famously rejected. As Dillon and Polleichtner observe, his apparent acceptance of it in this testimonium relates only to the cases of certain select individuals (Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato).

Since these letters are likely to be unfamiliar even to readers interested in the history of Platonism, it has seemed advisable to give some idea of their contents as well as of their presentation in this volume. Dillon and Polleichtner are suitably cautious in their treatment of this fragmentary material, and aware of the likely distortions of perspective in the process of selection. The first of the testimonia would seem to indicate a more technical content in some other lost letters. This material would not have suited a collection like John of Stobi’s, any more than the personal material which the editors quite reasonably speculate must have opened many of these letters. This is not to deny that we do see Iamblichus in a more popular mode here, but the balance of popular to technical philosophy may well have looked somewhat different if the collection survived intact.

One minor quibble concerns the claim of the blurb that ‘Iamblichus is the only Platonist philosopher whose philosophical letters have survived from the ancient world’, a claim fleshed out in the second section of the introduction (xv-xvii). The editors address the issue of the possibly genuine letters of Plato (xv), observing that these are in any case among the less philosophical of the letters attributed to him. They also rightly mention Plutarch’s Consolations to his wife and to Asclepiades as texts which may possibly be regarded as philosophical letters. The definition of a philosophic letter which they offer is sensible: ‘The philosophic letter, as a genre, is really a short philosophical (usually moral) essay, given a lively and personalized slant by being addressed to a particular recipient, usually a friend or student of the author, but sometimes a patron or other public figure’ (xvii). This, however, would fit Porphyry’s To Marcella and the (fragmentary) Letter to Anebo, neither of which is mentioned. Whether Stoics were more interested in letter-writing than Platonists remains difficult to say given the relatively small samples available from either school. It is, however, a helpful move on the editors’ part to consider the very different view of the history of philosophic epistolography which Iamblichus would have had (xv).

An Index Rerum and Index Locorum further increase the utility of the volume. This is a useful book, which does a fine job of making these letters accessible to a wider readership, and of placing the contents in their social and philosophic context.

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