BMCR 2003.07.40

La Théurgie des Oracles Chaldaïques à Proclus. Kernos Supplément 9

Université de Liège., 981652. Liège:, 1988. 1 online resource.. EUR 40.00.

Carine Van Liefferinge’s 1997 Brussels thèse de doctorat was published in 1999 and is already enshrined in the Neue Pauly as essential bibliography s.v. Theurgie (Bd. 12 [2002], Sarah Johnston), but the volume arrived at BMCR for review only in 2002. I fear I have compounded the delay.

The study is divided into three substantial chapters, the first devoted to the De Mysteriis of Iamblichus (“La théurgie selon le De Mysteriis de Jamblique” [23-126]), the second to the Chaldaean Oracles and Porphyry (“La théurgie avant Jamblique” [127-211]), and the third to the emperor Julian and Proclus (“La théurgie après Jamblique” [213-280]). This clearly organized core is supplemented by an introduction, conclusions, a bibliography that is rather thin given the range of material covered, and indices, including a helpful index locorum.

VL’s major thesis is that theurgy, as practiced and described by Iamblichus, should be understood to designate “le culte païen tout entier et non une forme de magie” (42, passim) and that Iamblichus himself should be rehabilitated and viewed as a major player in the fourth-century “réaction païenne,” an innovator whose principal contribution — “récupérer le culte grec sous la dénomination et le statut de théurgie” (124) — has been underappreciated. There are several minor theses, some of which I will consider below, but this is the core, certainly interesting in itself, but nevertheless in need of some qualification.

First of all, the straw men set up by VL to represent normative judgments of the principal figures in the intellectual world of later polytheism are often the pioneering French (and Belgian) scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (e.g. Cumont [63], Bidez [276], Labriolle [11]). These, along with their contemporaries and many followers, tended to accept the division drawn through the Neoplatonic tradition by Olympiodorus (In Phaed. 103 [Norvin] cited by VL p. 280, n. 362), distinguishing the “philosophers” (specifically Porphyry and Plotinus) from the “hieratics” (Iamblichus, Syrianus, Proclus). These same scholars were inclined, no doubt naively from our perspective, to identify and to side with the philosophers. As VL acknowledges, (e.g. 13-14 in the Introduction), more than one swing of the pendulum has occurred since. Her book, however, perhaps because the vast majority of the scholarly material cited is from French sources (with even Dörrie, Dodds, Burkert, and Graf cited almost exclusively from what has appeared in French translation), sounds a little provincial and old fashioned. As all of us who have worked in this area appreciate, it has been dominated in the twentieth century by French scholars, those already mentioned and their successors including Boyancé, Festugière, des Places, Trouillard, Pépin, and Saffrey, to mention only a few of the most obvious (and most often cited here). Given all this lying close to hand, it is hard to fault VL with failing to look beyond, but there is a cost attached to her exclusivity.1

If recent scholarship on Iamblichus and the later Platonists has left VL’s major thesis less of a radical move than it might once have been, her point remains worth arguing (on both sides). Let us see, first of all, if it holds up.

VL is certainly right to emphasize (19-20, 281) that our windows into theurgy do not permit any sort of satisfactory, overarching definition of the phenomenon. Much of the time the term clearly refers to what we call magic, but those who praise theurgy go to great pains to distinguish it from magic ( goeteia, mageia). Failing such a definition, we can still, as VL asserts, hope to clarify specific theurgies — e.g. “la théurgie selon Jamblique” or “selon les Oracles Chaldaïques“. (Interestingly, theurgy “according to” Augustine seems to come closest to clearly designating the whole range of polytheist religious practice, the sense VL would have it bear in Iamblichus.)

Her first instinct is to follow the vocabulary (as frequently in this study, which still shows the marks of its birth from a dissertation, with some of its threads still in need of a final trim), but this quickly proves unsatisfactory. Indeed, if we sought to elucidate “la théurgie selon les Oracles” exclusively on the basis of the unique occurrence of theourgos in the fragments (fr. 153 des Places), taken to be the earliest attested occurrence of the term, we would not get very far. Fortunately, it is possible to reach some further plausible conclusions: the theourgos of the Oracles (perhaps to be equated with the hieros aner of fr. 98)2 seems to be an initiate (137) and belongs to an elite exempt in some sense from the lot of the “fate-bound herd” (fr. 153). VL is not willing to concede a great deal more than this, though she does emphasize the role, in the cryptic and sententious evocations the Oracles offer of what may be called theurgic rite, of sacrifice (or at least ritual), prayer, and prophecy, three elements of divine cult that she derives from Plato (100, 138-149). And she is able to conclude (quite surprisingly, in view of that monument of the study of ancient magic, Hans Lewy’s Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy [Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1956]) that “le rituel théurgique chaldaïque n’offre que peu de points communs avec la magie” (150).

This brings us to one of several red herrings that repeatedly obscure VL’s stronger arguments: Was what the theurgists did magic or was it religion? (38-42, passim). This question is at once quite simple and quite unanswerable — and my own impulse is to take refuge in John Gager’s refrain: Magic is a term used to designate someone else’s religion.3 In VL’s book, however, the issue is a frequent distraction, and the various criteria applied are inevitably disappointing. The move to define religion out of Plato reflects another distraction, namely the similarly recurrent attempt to show that Iamblichan and later theurgy is both fundamentally Hellenic (70, passim) and can be traced to Plato. It is true that an amazing percentage of the oddities of the Neoplatonists will, on examination, prove to have their roots in some text of Plato, often by way of a reading or tradition of reading one wonders whether to characterize as naive or as perverse. But this does not diminish the extraordinary gulf separating Plato from Plotinus (much less from Iamblichus and Proclus). And in a study centered on an extensive exchange, ca. 300 CE, between two teachers of Greek philosophy, Porphyry and Iamblichus, who were both Syrian by birth and who chose to address each other in the personae of Egyptian priests, it is surely wrongheaded to insist on the essentially Hellenic nature of the tradition they represent (e.g. 63). Ethnist snobs like Plutarch might still assert the purity of the traditions of Hellenism in the high Empire, but by the third and fourth centuries the real picture is both more complex and more interesting.

In her treatment of the Chaldaean Oracles, in any case, VL in fact needs none of this distracting appeal to “religion” (as opposed to magic) or to Hellenism. She will argue — more plausibly — that Iamblichus seems to have greatly expanded any notion of theurgy he could have derived from the Oracles, defining it as “symbolisme actif” and the theurgist himself as ” prêtre, spécialiste dans l’art des rites et détenteur d’un savoir nécessaire à leur opération. D’autre part [la théurgie] s’inscrit dans un traité [De Myst.] visant à la réhabilitation du culte traditionnel” (156, cf. 175).

Before we move on to the sequel, one further theme needs clarification. VL repeatedly represents Iamblichus as “surpassing” Plotinus (33, n. 84), in that the latter’s “intellectualism” (177) seems to be somehow confining, elitist, and focused exclusively on mind ( nous), while the former’s “religion ultra-intellectuelle” (124) somehow incorporates the goal of supra-rational union of adherent and divinity, beyond mind. Whatever such union might be or imply, it emphatically does not provide a basis to distinguish between the spiritual practices of Plotinus and those of the theurgists, given (e.g.) Porphyry’s account of his teacher’s encounters with “the god situated beyond mind and beyond all objects of mind” (Vit. Plot. 23). The One is no more a noeton for Plotinus than it is for Iamblichus and his followers, but VL repeatedly seems to imply the contrary (e.g. 281-82).

VL’s further theses include the claim that it was Iamblichus (and not Porphyry) who brought the Chaldaean Oracles to the attention of the Neoplatonists (208). This issue turns in part on just what, in the corpus of ancient oracles, we agree to call “Chaldaean”. VL’s reassessment of the issue is based not on an examination of all the points at which Porphyry may be claimed to cite or echo the Chaldaeans4 but on the fact that the vocabulary of theourgia occurs in the extant corpus of Porphyry (if at all) in the “De regressu animae”, which she would place after the exchange with Iamblichus and for which our only source is the hostile Augustine. This is, in itself, unconvincing. Whatever their date and origin, the Chaldaean Oracles reflect the metaphysical models current among second- and third-century Platonists. Lewy ( Chaldaean Oracles 449-456) spelled out the substantial reasons for believing that Porphyry referred to the Chaldaeans throughout his career, and Plotinus scholars (e.g., Rist and Dodds) in verious ways treat the Oracles as a part of the intellectual background of Plotinus (who never mentions them).5 It would take stronger arguments than VL musters to overturn this model and credibly to credit Iamblichus (perhaps ten years Porphyry’s junior) with springing this “theosophical rubbish” (Dodds, “Numenius and Ammonius”, 11) on his Platonist friends.

The concluding chapter treats Julian (whose initiation into theurgy by Maximus is debunked [217-18] and whose early Plotinian sympathies were, we are told, swept aside when he ascended to the throne and turned to Iamblichus as a guide in reconciling praxis and theoria [227]) and Proclus (who emerges as a diehard, consolidating Platonic theology [261] when the war against the monotheists was already, for all practical purposes, lost).

VL’s big picture is appealing and sometimes convincing. VL belongs to a new generation of scholars of later Platonism who neither mock the ritual magico-religious interests of the Platonists (as Dodds did) nor turn a blind eye toward those interests (and rather than pick some more controversial figure I’ll volunteer myself as straw man here). No one can doubt that theirs is a step forward toward a sympathetic and credible treatment of the Platonists’ experience and of their world and therefore an advance in intellectual history — but on some points, the old guard may prove hard to convince.


1. Anticipating VL’s book by several years, Gregory Shaw (Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995) has a similar orientation (p. 5: “in the hands of Iamblichus, theurgy represented a revaluation of traditional cult practices”) and is on the whole both richer in analysis and closer to the texts. Among younger scholars of the Neoplatonists, Sara Rappe (Reading Neoplatonism, Cambridge: CUP, 2000, esp. ch. 8: “Language and theurgy in Proclus’ Platonic Theology”) also addresses some of these issues and articulates sympathetically the later Platonists’ ventures beyond discursive thought.

2. Des Places ad fr. 153, VL 137. Garth Fowden’s early article, “The Pagan Holy Man in Late Antique Society,” JHS 102 (1982) 33-59 (esp. 43-45) provides valuable perspective here.

3. See J. Gager, ed., Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, New York: OUP, 1992, esp. pp. 24-25.

4. Andrew Smith’s 1993 Teubner of the fragments of Porphyry, with over 30 cross-references to the Chaldaean Oracles in the index locorum, would have been a place to start, but VL apparently did not consult this essential edition (given that she relies on Wolff’s 1856 edition of the fragments of De philosophia ex oraculis haurienda, calling it “l’ancienne, et, à notre connaissance, dernière édition” 178-79).

5. E. R. Dodds, “Numenius and Ammonius,” 1-61 in Entretiens Hardt V: Les Sources de Plotin, Geneva: Fondation Hardt, 1960; J. M. Rist, Plotinus: The Road to Reality, Cambridge: CUP, 1967. The influence of Lewy is significant in both instances.