Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.08.56

Daniela Patrizia Taormina, Rosa Maria Piccione (ed.), Giamblico. I frammenti delle epistole. Introduzione, testo, traduzione e commento. Elenchos, 56.   Napoli:  Bibliopolis, 2010.  Pp. 680.  ISBN 9788870886009.  €60.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Peter Lautner (

Iamblichus’ philosophy has recently received renewed interest. In particular, there seems to be a special emphasis on the aspects that both reveal the influence of Plotinus and connect these views to the later developments of Neoplatonic philosophy in late antiquity.1 The volume to be discussed offers a new edition of the fragments of Iamblichus’ epistles, preserved in Stobaeus. The new edition is preceded by an extensive introduction where Piccione discusses textual problems along with an examination of Iamblichus’ position in the Anthology (1-89) whereas Taormina offers a detailed analysis of the philosophical content and background of the letters (89-275). The Greek text is accompanied with a translation and detailed notes (334-517).

The new edition is all the more welcome since, as Taormina (17) and Piccione (34-38) say on the basis of autopsy of the manuscripts, the standard edition of Stobaeus’ text by Wachsmuth and Hense needs critical revision. To take just one sample, it seems that Hense did not pay due attention to the Cod. Bruxellensis (11360) containing a fragment of a letter by Iamblichus (Stobaeus IV 5.76). As for a general feature of the Anthology, it is clearly a kind of manual, serving the purpose of an exhortation to philosophy (30). The kind of philosophy the work is supposed to turn us towards is Neoplatonism, which is shown by the selection of the material and the conceptual frame. Within Neoplatonism, Stobaeus followed Iamblichus. He selected and arranged portions of texts for didactic purposes, as it is particularly clear in the fragments of Iamblichus’ De anima (48). The excerpts from the letters, addressed to members of Iamblichus’ circle, are also arranged in such a way as to fit in with the particular lemmata that introduce the themes in Stobaeus’ work. They reflect the central themes in the philosophical debates of the age, which was an important reason for including them into the anthology.

Taormina points out that Iamblichus examines the notion of dialectic both in his works that have come down to us in medieval transmission and in the letters excerpted by Stobaeus (89). The reason why he did so may be that he applied the term to cover two main areas; knowledge of Forms and logic in the Aristotelian sense. Thus dialectic has both an elenctic and a purificatory function. From this point of view Iamblichus dissents from Plotinus who considers dialectic as a knowledge pertaining to falsehood and sophisms as well (Enn. I [20] 3.5.10-23). In Iamblichus, the logical function is, of course, subordinated to the Platonic notion of knowledge of Forms. The discussion of the difference between the Plotinian and Iamblichean conceptions of the individual soul centers on the response to the Plotinian view of the undescended soul according to which a part of our individual soul do not descend into the world of generation. As is well known, Iamblichus rejects this doctrine. Taormina examines his views in detail and also reconstructs the fate of the doctrine of undescended soul among Neoplatonists living right after Plotinus, with Porphyry as the protagonist. She points to an important parallel between Porphyry’s Sent. 22, 13.13-14 Lamberz, and Iamblichus’ De anima (in Stobaeus I, 365.7-9 W.) where we read that νοερὰ οὐσία is ὁμοιομερής (148-149); it cognizes always as a whole and its parts represent the whole in the sense that they do not differ from it in respect of their essence – a thesis quite common in later Neoplatonism (see also the parallel between Porphyry’s Sent. 10, 4.7 Lamberz, and Iamblichus’ De anima in Stobaeus I, 365.12-13 W.). Relying on Iamblichus’ De anima and Ep. ad Maced. (Stobaeus II 8.45, 174.9-27 W.) she argues that for Iamblichus the soul is sharply separated from the intellect and the superior genera (beings located between the intellectual realm and the rational soul) and that the individual human soul as a whole is an integral part of the physical world, but at the same time is endowed with a certain autonomy insofar as it can revert to the higher realm. This makes it a true intermediate entity. Taormina also attempts to get some idea of the content of Iamblichus’ De providentia et fato, a work attested by Proclus, but unfortunately lost by now. She examines the details of the letter to Macedonius (Stobaeus I 5.17, 80.10-81.6 W.). The thesis ‘all what exists exists in virtue of the one’ (80.10 W.) is ambiguous since it says both that the One is the principle of the all and that unity inheres everything. She shows that Iamblichus dissents from the Plotinian model (see Enn. VI 9.1.1) radically.2 The crucial difference is that he thinks unity manifests itself in the single net (συμπλοκή) of the primary, total causes. In supposing such a net, Iamblichus shows his preference to establish extra layers between the ontological realms discussed by his predecessors. The unity has different aspects, referred to by different terms, which reflects the problems of the theory (193-194).3 The relation of fate and nature is explained with reference to De Mysteriis VIII 7, 269.19-270.7 Parthey, and formulated with the thesis ‘fate as nature’ (197-8). Here one might object that the text seems rather to say that fate is a result of the activity of natures – fate is what natures bring about (ἐπιτελοῦσιν) in the world of generation. Fate shows the same structure in the world of generation as the interweaving of ‘total causes’ in the world of universal beings. Iamblichus’ classification of virtues draws on the vertical arrangement in Plotinus but develops it in greater detail, into a sevenfold stratification. The classification results from three operations: (1) collection of the traditional material with special emphasis on Plato, (2) fixing the criterion for the arrangement and the relation between different levels, and (3) basing the theory of virtue on a theory of the soul (229). As a consequence, Taormina discusses the relevant portions of Iamblichus’ De anima as well. As part of the Platonic heritage, Iamblichus stresses the importance of paideia in the acquisition of virtues.

As mentioned above, the edition of text is based on a new examination of the manuscripts, which resulted in many important and plausible revisions. The notes are detailed and some of them amount to an independent essay. For instance, in n. 14 (338-41) there is a discussion of the notion of τὸ πρώτως ὄν (to be read in I 5.17, 80.13 W. for τὸ πρῶτον ὄν) with reference to Damascius’ analysis in De principiis III.4 The notion, attested in Iamblichus’ commentary on the Timaeus (fr. 29 Dillon), refers to the principle of plurality. From n. 207 (439-41) we learn not only that the notion of ‘intellective eye’ (ὄμμα νοερόν, III 3.26, 201.18 W.) takes its origin in Plato’s Rep. VII, 533d2 (though he mentions ‘the eye of the soul’) but also that Iamblichus modifies it to separate it from the ‘the eye of the soul’, the former being attached to the intellectual, the latter to the psychic realm. Iamblichus’ view of temperance (σωφροσύνη, III 5.9 and 45-50), a fundamental virtue, is examined in n. 213 (442-51) with the conclusion that its meaning is quite close ‘moderation’ (μετριότης, 445). One might add here that approaches of this kind can be seen in Middle Platonism as well. Piccione also draws attention to the musical terminology such as ‘well- tuned state’ (of the soul) in the description of this virtue. The organization of the fragments on temperance shows a certain process from the theoretical level (description of its status in III 9, definition in III 45) to the practical.

We also find two appendices, one by Piccione on Iamblichus’ Protrepticus, the other by Taormina on two passages, one from Damascius’ in Phaed. 1 §548 Westerink, the other from Olympiodorus, in Gorg. 46.9, 242.1-9 Westerink. To sum up, the book is thorough and will be definitely an indispensable tool for scholars interested in the philosophy of late antiquity. It contains a selected bibliography of 34 pages, and four indices, of words, fragments, places and names, all highly informative.


1.   For an English translation of the letters, see Iamblichus of Chalcis. The Letters. Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by John M. Dillon and Wolfgang Polleichtner. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009.
2.   This led her to claim (‘“Todos los seres son seres en virtud del Uno”. Unidad y multiplicidad en el principio Jambliqueo de causalidad universal’, Signos filosóficos XI, n. 22 (2009), 59-74, esp. 70) that the One regulates the series of causes at the level of ‘total causes’ (τὰ ὅλα αἴτια) that are the principles of universal beings (see De Mysteriis VIII 1, 260.17, and 2, 261.9 Parthey, where ‘total causes’ are paralleled to ‘total principles’.).
3.   One of terms is εἱρμός (Stobaeus I 5.17, 80.22 W.) which has a distinctly Stoic legacy, referring there also to a series on antecedent causes. One might wonder if Iamblichus did not allude to a certain priority (clearly not a temporal one) between these causes. Taormina discusses the Stoic origins (201-4) and points out the differences from Iamblichus’ conception without dwelling on the problem of possible priority. In n. 31 she talks about ‘assimilation’ of fate and nature in Hellenistic context (347) and ‘identification’ of the two in post-Iamblichean Neoplatonism (349).
4.   Here we encounter a methodological problem since even if we consider (p. 340) Damascius as defending Iamblichus’ position (identifying the One-being (τὸ ἓν ὄν with the first-being (τὸ πρῶτον ὄν), the being itself (αὐτὸ τὸ ὄν) we might not be entitled to say that the argument itself is ’not without an implicit allusion to Iamblichus’.

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