Header image
Iamblichus of Chalcis - Biography
William Richard Sorley. Encyclopaedia Britannica 11th edition, vol 14, p. 213. (with Greek text transliterated)

IAMBLICHUS (d. c. A.D. 330), the chief representative of Syrian Neoplatonism, is only imperfectly known to us in the events of his life and the details of his creed. We learn, however, from Suidas, and from his biographer Eunapius, that he was born at Chalcis in Coele-Syria, the scion of a rich and illustrious family, that he studied under Anatolius and afterwards under Porphyry, the pupil of Plotinus, that he himself gathered together a large number of disciples of different nations with whom he lived on terms of genial friendship, that he wrote various philosophical books, and that he died during the reign of Constantine, according to Fabricius, before A.D. 333. His residence (probably) at his native town of Chalcis was varied by a yearly visit with his pupils to the baths of Gadara. Of the books referred to by Suidas only a fraction has been preserved. His commentaries on Plato and Aristotle, and works on the Chaldaean theology and on the soul, are lost. For our knowledge of his system we are indebted partly to the fragments of these writings preserved by Stobaeus and others, and to the notices of his successors, especially Proclus, partly to his five extant books, the sections of a great work on the Pythagorean philosophy. Besides these, Proclus (412-485) seems to have ascribed to him the authorship of the celebrated book On the Egyptian Mysteries (so-called), and although its differences in style and in some points of doctrine from the writings just mentioned make it improbable that the work was by Iamblichus himself, it certainly emanated from his school, and in its systematic attempt to give a speculative justification of the polytheistic cultus of the day, marks the turning-point in the history of thought at which Iamblichus stood.

As a speculative theory Neoplatonism had received its highest development from Plotinus. The modifications introduced by Iamblichus were the elaboration in greater detail of its formal divisions, the more systematic application of the Pythagorean number-symbolism, and chiefly, under the influence of Oriental systems, the thorough-going mythic interpretation of what the previous philosophy had still regarded as notional. It is on the last account, probably, that Iamblichus was looked upon with such extravagant veneration. As a philosopher he had learning indeed, but little originality. His aim was to give a philosophical rendering of the popular religion. By his contemporaries he was accredited with miraculous powers (which he, however, disclaimed), and by his followers in the decline of Greek philosophy, and his admirers on its revival in the 15th and 16th centuries, his name was scarcely mentioned without the epithet “divine” or “most divine,” while, not content with the more modest eulogy of Eunapius that he was inferior to Porphyry only in style, the emperor Julian regarded him as not even second to Plato, and said that he would give all the gold of Lydia for one epistle of Iamblichus.

Theoretically, the philosophy of Plotinus was an attempt to harmonize the principles of the various Greek schools. At the head of his system he placed the transcendent incommunicable one (hen amethekton), whose first-begotten is intellect (nous), from which proceeds soul (psuche), which in turn gives birth to phusis, the realm of nature. Immediately after the absolute one, Iamblichus introduced a second superexistent unity to stand between it and the many as the producer of intellect, and made the three succeeding moments of the development (intellect, soul and nature) undergo various modifications. He speaks of them as intellectual (Theoi noeroi), supramundane (huperkosmioi), and mundane gods (enkosmioi). The first of these which Plotinus represented under the three stages of (objective) being (hon), (subjective) life (zôę), and (realized) intellect (nous) is distinguished by him into spheres of intelligible gods (Theoi noętoi) and of intellectual gods (Theoi noeroi), each subdivided into triads, the latter sphere being the place of ideas, the former of the archetypes of these ideas. Between these two worlds, at once separating and uniting them, some scholars think there was inserted by Iamblichus, as afterwards by Proclus, a third sphere partaking of the nature of both (Theoi noętoi kai noeroi). But this supposition depends on a merely conjectural emendation of the text. We read, however, that “in the intellectual hebdomad he assigned the third rank among the fathers to the Demiurge.” The Demiurge, Zeus, or world-creating potency, is thus identified with the perfected nous, the intellectual triad being increased to a hebdomad, probably (as Zeller supposes) through the subdivision of its first two members. As in Plotinus nous produced nature by mediation of psyche, so here the intelligible gods are followed by a triad of psychic gods. The first of these is incommunicable and supramundane, while the other two seem to be mundane though rational. In the third class, or mundane gods (Theoi henkosmioi), there is a still greater wealth of divinities, of various local position, function, and rank. We read of gods, angels, demons and heroes, of twelve heavenly gods whose number is increased to thirty-six or three hundred and sixty, and of seventy-two other gods proceeding from them, of twenty-one chiefs (hęge) and forty-two nature-gods (Theoi genesiourgoi), besides guardian divinities, of particular individuals and nations. The world is thus peopled by a crowd of superhuman beings influencing natural events, possessing and communicating knowledge of the future, and not inaccessible to prayers and offerings.

The whole of this complex theory is ruled by a mathematical formulism of triad, hebdomad, &c., while the first principle is identified with the monad, nous with the dyad, and psuche with the triad, symbolic meanings being also assigned to the other numbers. “The theorems of mathematics, he says, apply absolutely to all things, from things divine to original matter (hulę)." But though he thus subjects all things to number, he holds elsewhere that numbers are independent existences, and occupy a middle place between the limited and unlimited.

Another difficulty of the system is the account given of nature. It is said to be bound by the indissoluble chains of necessity which men call fate, as distinguished from divine things which are not subject to fate. Yet, being itself the result of higher powers becoming corporeal, a continual stream of elevating influence flows from them to it, interfering with its necessary laws and turning to good ends the imperfect and evil. Of evil no satisfactory account is given; it is said to have been generated accidentally.

In his doctrine of man Iamblichus retains for the soul the middle place between intellect and nature which it occupies the universal order. He rejects the passionless and purely intellectual character ascribed to the human soul by Plotinus, distinguishing it sharply both from those from above and those below it. He maintains that it moves between the higher and lower spheres, that it descends by a necessary law (not solely for trial or punishment) into the body, and, passing perhaps from the one human body to another, returns to the supersensible. This return is effected by the virtuous activities which the soul performs through its own power of free will, and by the assistance of the gods. These virtues were classified by Porphyry as political, purifying (kathartikai), theoretical, and paradigmatic; and to these Iamblichus adds a fifth class of priestly virtues (hieratikai aretai), in which the divinest part of the soul raises itself above intellect to absolute being.

Iamblichus does not seem ever to have attained to that ecstatic communion with and absorption in deity which was the aim of the earlier Neoplatonism, and which Plotinus enjoyed four times in his life, Porphyry once. Indeed his tendency was not so much as to raise man to God as to bring the gods down to men – a tendency shown more plainly in the “Answer of Abamon the master to Porphyry’s letter to Anebo and solutions of the doubts therein expressed,” afterwards entitled the Liber de mysteriis, and ascribed to Iamblichus.

In answer to questions raised and doubts expressed by Porphyry, the writer of this treatise appeals to the innate idea all men have of the gods as testifying to the existence of divinities countless in number and various in rank (to the correct arrangement of which he, like Iamblichus attaches the greatest importance). He holds with the latter that above all principles of being and intelligence stands the absolute one, from whom the first god and king spontaneously proceeds; while after these follow the ethereal, empyrean, and heavenly gods, and the various orders of archangels, angels, demons, and heroes distinguished in nature, power, and activity, and in greater profusion than even the imagination of Iamblichus had conceived. He says that all the gods are good (though he in another place admits the existence of evil demons who must be propitiated), and traces the source of evil to matter; rebuts the objection that their answering prayer implies passivity on the part of gods or demons; defends divination; soothsaying, and theurgic practices as manifestations of the divine activity; describes the appearances of the different sorts of divinities; discusses the carious kinds of sacrifice, which he says must be suitable to the different natures of the gods, material and immaterial, and to the double condition of the sacrificer as bound to the body or free from it (differing thus in his psychology from Iamblichus); and, in conclusion, states that the only way to happiness is through knowledge of and union with the gods, and that theurgic practices alone prepares the mind for this union – again going beyond his master, who held assiduous contemplation of divine things to be sufficient. It is the passionless nature of the soul which permits it to be thus united to divine beings, - knowledge of this mystic union and of the worship associated with it having been derived from the Egyptian priests, who learnt it from Hermes.

On one point only does the author of the De Mysteriis seem not to go as far as Iamblichus in this making philosophy subservient to priestcraft. He condemns as folly and impiety the worship of images of the gods, though his master held that these simulacra were filled with divine power, whether made by the hand of man or (as he believed) fallen from heaven. But images could easily be dispensed with from the point of view of the writer, who notionally held that all things were full of gods (panta plęrę theôn, as Thales said), but thought that each man had a special divinity of his own – an idios diamôn – as his guard and companion.