Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.03.34 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.03.34

Eugene Afonasin, John Dillon, John F. Finamore (ed.), Iamblichus and the Foundations of Late Platonism. Ancient Mediterranean and medieval texts and contexts; Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic tradition, 13.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2012.  Pp. ix, 210.  ISBN 9789004183278.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by Dirk Baltzly, Monash University (


Scholarship now recognises the decisive and pervasive role played by Iamblichus (c. 240–325) in the creation of late antique Platonism (or Neoplatonism, if you prefer). Subsequent Platonists such as Proclus (410–485) credit Plotinus with the rediscovery of the true Platonic teaching. But when it comes to the refinement of Plotinus’ basic ontology the most important figure was clearly Iamblichus. The present volume brings together papers that (on the whole) deal with some of the relatively unexplored evidence on Iamblichus.

The Neo-Pythagorean fusion of Platonism with “Pythagorean” ideas (often derived from the Hellenistic pseud- epigrapha) was a feature of Platonism even prior to Plotinus. But Iamblichus’ work On Pythagoreanism played a key role in establishing Platonism as continuous with (Iamblichus’ understanding of) Pythagoreanism. Two papers in this collection address the Neo-Pythagorean aspect of Iamblichus’ philosophy.

The papers by Afonasin and Brisson should be read together. Brisson provides a translation and discussion of Chapter 18 of Iamblichus’ De Communi Mathematica Scientia. (Or, to be more exact, Michael Chase provides an English translation of Brisson’s paper from French.) In this chapter, Iamblichus discusses the way in which Pythagoreans taught mathematical science and the point and purpose of these methods. Afonasin discusses, inter alia, the same distinction as it is treated by Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215). At the centre of this discussion is the significance of the distinction between those admitted into the presence of Pythagoras – the mathêmatikoi – and the ‘hearers’, or akousmatikoi. In this case, I think the editors should have switched the order of presentation, putting Brisson’s paper first to provide a clearer context for Afonsin’s discussion of the lesser-known passages from Clement.

John Dillon’s contribution to this volume concerns the even less well-known letters of Iamblichus. In the introduction, the editors point out that this volume had its origins in a seminar at the Irish Institute for Hellenic Studies in Athens in 2009 at which Dillon launched the book he co-authored with Wolfgang Polleichtner. This book provides Greek text and translation of the letters of Iamblichus, mostly preserved in Stobaeus. (See the review at BMCR 2010.11.33.) Readers who already possess that book will not find much information in Dillon’s present article that is not already in the introduction to Iamblichus of Chalcis: The Letters. But it nonetheless gives anyone who does not already own this useful book an argument for the significance of what is presented there.

Daniela Taormina takes up an old chestnut in studies of Iamblichus’ theory of the soul, but with some new evidence in hand. She considers the issue of the change in ousia that the human soul seems to undergo in its descent into Becoming. This, of course, is part of Iamblichus’ reply to Plotinus’ notion that the soul does not descend into Becoming but retains an aspect that is always in contact with the intelligible. Taormina brings to this question a passage from one of Iamblichus’ letters, the Epistle to Macedonius. The argument is both philosophically and philologically complex since the passage in question has been thought by some editors to stand in need of emendation. I wish Taormina had been afforded more scope to develop her theme since it seems to me that the nuanced position she attributes to Iamblichus might have been usefully compared and contrasted with Numenius’ account of the duality of human souls.

Claudia Maggi contributes a paper on Iamblichus’ view of mathematical entities. The paper has a substantial introduction contrasting Aristotle’s approach to mathematical entities with that of late Plato – or at least the Platonists discussed by Aristotle in Metaphysics M and N. Given these preliminaries, one expects her to position Iamblichus in relation to the contrast just sketched, but instead we have a wide-ranging discussion that includes Plotinus’ as well as Iamblichus’ views. I found this among the least illuminating papers in the collection due to Maggi’s introduction of rather baffling terminology – e.g. ‘the omniextension of arithmetical number as an intermediate entity’ (p. 80) – that remains largely unexplained.

Gregory Shaw returns to a theme that he has explored extensively in his previous work: theurgy in Iamblichus’ work. In this article, however, he concentrates on the place of aisthêsis in theurgy. Drawing on the earlier work of John Finamore on the soul’s astral body or vehicle, Shaw examines two of the roles played by the ochêma in Neoplatonism: its role as the organ of perception and imagination and its role in purification through theurgic rites. While it is common to think of the purification of the soul’s vehicle as removing it from the realm of sensation, allowing it to rise above to the gods, Shaw stresses the way in which Iamblichus thought that theurgy changed the character of sensation and imagination in order that the soul’s vehicle might be filled with the gods. Sensation and imagination play a positive role; they are not merely obstacles to be overcome. Moreover, given the omnipresence of divine intelligibles, it is misleading to focus exclusively on the metaphor of ascent and retreat from Becoming. Rather than spatially removing the psychic vehicle from the realm of Becoming, theurgy makes it a fit receptacle here below for the presence of the gods.

John Finamore’s contribution takes up the question of Iamblichus’ multiplication of the gradations of the moral virtues that we find in Porphyry (Sententiae 32). Iamblichus added to Porphyry’s catalogue of four grades of each cardinal virtue (the political, the purificatory, the contemplative and the paradigmatic) three more grades. These included two at the lower end of the scale (the natural and the ethical) and one at the higher end – the theurgic. Iamblichus’ innovations in the Neoplatonic doctrine of the virtues are known to us only through other philosophers. Finamore argues against the view that Olympiodorus, Damascius and Marinus present conflicting evidence about Iamblichus’ account. He also seeks to clarify the nature and purpose of each of these gradations of virtue. This paper is clear and argumentative and, in my opinion, ranks as among the best in this collection.

Crystal Addey engages with the central problem of Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries – how can prayer and theurgic ritual work if the gods are unchangeable and exempt from influence by human beings? She rehearses the familiar points that Iamblichus makes. Humans are already connected to the gods by virtue of the ‘one in the soul’ and, in any event, prayer and theurgy work upon us rather than upon the gods. She adds to this, however, a discussion of ‘the necessities of the gods’. The invocation of a divine being through theurgy does not subject that being to a kind of necessary constraint to appear to the summoner. In Iamblichus’ theology the gods are superior to the kind of necessity to which human souls are subject. It is true that, if the ritual is performed correctly, the god will appear. But this is because the gods – unlike us – constantly know the Good. But it is a cornerstone of Platonism that the agent who knows the good acts for the best. Thus the “necessity” through which the gods appear to the theurgist is simply the inevitability that springs from the gods’ own providential natures.

Svetlana Mesyats revisits the controvery over the introduction of the henads. She sides with Dillon in arguing that Iamblichus was responsible for this innovation in Neoplatonic philosophy. However, she parts company with Dillon in her account of their nature and role. Rather than seeing them as intermediaries between the entirely transcendent One and its plural effects, Mesyats argues that they are not, in fact, lower substances that are products of the One. Instead, they are ways of thinking about the One’s role in bringing about effects. They are modes of the One. This is an innovative idea, since there is good reason to think of the “levels” of reality in Neoplatonism adverbially, rather than as ordered ranks of numerically distinct objects. If I have understood her view correctly, she is suggesting instead that the henads are the One acting creatively.

The paper by Adrien Lecerf concludes the volume by pursuing connections between Iamblichus’ account of the Demiurge and Julian’s reference to Attis in his oration To the Mother of Gods. Iamblichus rejected the idea found in Amelius and Theodore of Asine that there are three Demiurges in Plato’s Timaeus. While Iamblichus identifies the Demiurge with three traditional gods (the triad Zeus, Dionysus and Adonis) this is a way of presenting different aspects of the sole Demiurge’s creative activities. It is not a multiplication of Demiurges. Lecerf argues persuasively for the hypothesis that Julian’s allegorical treatment of Attis in effect identifies this god with the role played by Iamblichus’ Adonis. In much the same way, Helios in Julian’s scheme plays the role of Iamblichus’ Zeus.

Each paper in the collection has its own list of works cited. There is a general subject index, but no index locorum.

Specialists in the area of late antique Platonism will want to possess this collection or at least ensure that their university library orders a copy. The contributers are a mix of established, senior figures in the field and emerging talent. Some papers add more to the existing debates than others. Most of them consider texts related to Iamblichus that have not yet been given full consideration in the literature.

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