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Monday, 8 April 2019

Blavatsky and the Iamblichus Revival

In Letters to the Sage, vol. 2, a regular recurrent topic in Alexander Wilder’s letters to T.M. Johnson is his pioneering work on translating Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries, which he spent several decades working on. Both Blavatsky and Olcott were supportive of this work, although he ultimately opted for another publisher when the work was assembled in book form. The theosophy movement still continued to support the work, with Wizards Bookshelf offering a reprint of the Thomas Taylor translation in the 1980s.
Posterity has shown that these early theosophical efforts of reviving obscure neoplatonic works were important, considering the major rediscovery of the importance of Iamblichus in the history of western ideas. In the English language, it was the 1973 publication of John Dillon’s The Fragments of Iamblichus that brought to light the major influence of Iamblichus in determining the course of western philosophy for the medieval and early modern period. The fact that he is one of the most influential western thinkers of all time had been largely occluded due mainly to the loss of much of his writings and the rise of modern materialism. Since then, there has been a serious revival of interest in his work, a recent sample is Iamblichus and the Foundations of Late Platonism, Brill, 2012. .
To give an idea of the current position of Iamblichus in the academic world, below are some extracts from John Bussanich’s “New Editions of Iamblichus: A Review Essay,” Ancient Philosophy 25.2 (2005): 478-494.
Since he lived in Apamea in southeastern Turkey, it is not surprising that of all the Platonists in late antiquity it was Iamblichus who looked to the East most creatively and sought to harmonize its wisdom traditions with those of archaic and classical Greece. Like its aptly-named sister-city Zeugma, to which it was connected by a bridge over the Euphrates, Apamea was the home of that elusive second century CE Pythagorean-Platonist Numenius and as well as the refuge of Amelius (ca. 270 CE), a key disciple of Plotinus, and later of Iamblichus (born in Syria), who settled there in his mature years after long postings in Egypt and Italy. As a crossroads for caravans running East and West Apamea was a fitting base of operations for these Platonists who mixed Plato and Pythagorean oral traditions with the Oriental wisdom of the Brahmins, Magi, Egyptians, and Chaldaeans.
What is certain is that in the first half of the twentieth century Iamblichus’ immersion in Hermetic and Chaldaean wisdom and magic provoked antipathy from many classical scholars and ancient philosophers. These two masterly editions and commentaries make an essential contribution to the revaluation of Iamblichus’ thought which has been underway for a generation.
They join the editions of his major writings by Des Places and of the fragments of his commentaries on Plato and Aristotle by Dillon and Larsen and these fundamental studies of his thought: Carlos Steel, The Changing Self: A Study on the Soul in Later Neoplatonism: Iamblichus, Damascius and Priscianus (1978); John Finamore, Iamblichus and the Theory of the Vehicle of the Soul (1985); Garth Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes (1986); Dominic O’Meara, Pythagoras Revived: Mathematics and Philosophy in Late Antiquity (1989); Beate Nasemann, Theurgie und Philosophie in Iamblichus de mysteriis (1991); Greg Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus (1995); Emma Clarke, Iamblichus De Mysteriis: A Manifesto of the Miraculous (2001); and important articles by H.D. Saffrey, P. Athanassiadi, John Finamore, John Dillon and others.
With the changes in intellectual fashions marked by the explosion of scholarship on late antiquity in the past fifty years, including Neoplatonism, it is useful to recognize to what extent twentieth-century attitudes towards Iamblichus, especially among English-language scholars, are rooted in the seminal work of E.R. Dodds, who both perpetuated some of the extreme rationalist biases of earlier European scholarship against the religious dimension of his thought but who also recognized the Syrian’s philosophical genius. The religious and philosophical aspects of Iamblichus’ thought, which certainly would not have been recognized by its author as separate or distinct, sit uncomfortably side by side in Dodds’ interpretive perspective.
In his great 1933 edition of Proclus’ Elements of Theology he observed that ‘the historical importance of Iamblichus has hardly been sufficiently recognized’ because his primary metaphysical writings have been lost and his views have had to be reconstructed from fragments and from what Dodds called ‘the semi-philosophical’ De Mysteriis (1933, xix). Dodds’s schizophrenic image of Iamblichus comes into focus in the very next sentence: ‘Mystagogue and thaumaturgist though he was, and in intellectual quality immeasurably inferior to a Posidonius or a Plotinus, his contribution to the final shaping of Neoplatonism is scarely less than theirs’ (xix). How could an inferior intellect determine the character of Neoplatonism, a tradition for which Dodds had great respect? And, more disturbingly, how could a magician or mystagogue be a creative ‘philosophical’ thinker?
Dodds’s grand vision of late antique thought in decline is motivated in part by his sense of the gradual defeat of Hellenic rationalism by Oriental irrationalism, a war whose earlier battles in archaic and classical Greece were charted, with a good deal of Freudian cartography, in that classic of mid-century scholarship The Greeks and the Irrational (1951).
Even as Iamblichus scholarship has become more comprehensive and self-critical, it has continued to be shaped consciously and unconsciously by Dodds’s pathbreaking work, sometimes confirming his inspired judgments and sometimes replicating his biases in milder form.
In 1910 Praechter dubbed him the ‘Neoplatonic Chrysippus’, the second founder of the Neoplatonic school (114, cited by Dodds), which is appropriate for someone who was both synthesizer and innovator.
Iamblichus systematized the Platonism he inherited both methodologically and philosophically. In the first respect he articulated an educational curriculum, which may have begun with the Pythagorean curriculum before proceeding to the study of Aristotelian and then Platonic texts (DA 6-7).
Iamblichus’ major surviving work in religious thought is the De Mysteriis, an abbreviation of the title coined by Ficino in the fifteenth century: De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum, Chaldaeorum, Assyriorum. As Athanassiadi has argued (1995, 246) this title may be less extravagant than it is usually thought to be if Iamblichus’ knowledge of Hermetic doctrine and Egyptian religion generally is given its due. The actual title is ‘The Master Abamôn’s Response to Porphyry’s Letter to Anebo, and the solutions to the difficulties contained in it’.
The DM’s combination of oriential wisdom with Platonic philosophy alarmed earlier scholars like Dodds, but the suspicions remain alive in Armstrong 1987, 184, who refers to ‘the more spiritual, Plotinian, side of the tradition” and in Wallis, who contrasts Plotinian rationalism with Iamblichus’ superstition (1972, 100). However, other scholars assert that Iamblichus’ thought is more attractive precisely because it recognizes the limits of Plotinus’ putative rationalism, as in Shaw’s distinction between the theurgical Platonism of Iamblichus and his descendants and the non-theurgical Platonism of Porphyry and Plotinus (1995, 5).
Thus, differences among scholars tend now to turn more on how similar or not the complementary relationship between theurgy and philosophy in Iamblichus makes his thought in comparison to earlier Neoplatonists. In other words, disputes about theurgy are more fine-grained—and truer to the texts—than they were in Dodds’s milieu. A softer version of these judgments appears in FD’s edition of DA: ‘With Iamblichus and his advocacy of theurgy as a necessary complement to theology, Platonism also becomes more explicitly a religion. Before his time, the mystery imagery so popular with Platonist philosophers (going back to Plato himself), was, so far as can be seen just that—imagery’ (3). They maintain that theurgy is ‘is really only magic with a philosophical underpinning…Partly this was a response to a Christian emphasis on the miracle-working holy man’ (7).


  1. Hi - another interesting post.
    It made me think of the professional/amateur distinction. The works you reference, and that they in turn reference, are clearly highly specialised. As a private individual I could not afford to even purchase them - certainly not all of them. (The politics of higher education). And that is just one field of investigation. Lacking the relevant language skills, I could not really engage them in what might be called a 'scholarly' sense. I think I am an educated and informed member of the TS. But, I wonder in what sense the TS is at the forefront of any field of study right now. I think we might once claimed to have made contributions. What is it we are doing now? That was my emotional response to this post. Rgds, Dewald

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  3. hanks for the comment - it's a big question that I don't claim to have any definite answers - here are a few considerations; a-academia has changed since then - it has become more insular and specialized - it used to have a wider mainstream public interest - so the academic situation, I think, needs to change, and it is changeing, slowly, it seems; b-in many cases theosophy was way ahead of the curve, and often right on top of the zeit-geist, but it was easier to do then, the world was a lot simpler than it is now; c- ergo - with today's complicated world, it's very difficult for anyone to be a leading force, things are too fragmented - I think the theosophy movement is still there, they're part of the picture, doing their thing, along with everybody else, although not really breaking away from the pack, I assume; d- it's rare for a spiritual movement to have a strong impact for more than 50 years, I think the ts did as well as any other movement, historically, I would say - movements have their up and downs - the ts is still relatively young - time will tell in the long run, perhaps there will be a renaissance, as has happened with many movements over the centuries; e-it's conceivable that the current younger generations of theosophists can make their mark in various ways, but you probably would know more about that than me, but I can see things happening which show potential...