Universal Brotherhood – May 1898

IAMBLICH0S AND THEURGY: THE REPLY TO PORPHYRY — Alexander Wilder

In the Lexicon of Suidas we find the following brief sketch of the subject of this paper: "Iamblichos (1) the philosopher, a native of Chalkis in Syria, disciple of Porphyry who was himself the pupil of Plotinos, flourished about the time of Constantine the Emperor (basileus) and was the author of many philosophic treatises." He belonged to a noble family, and received the most liberal education that could be obtained. He pursued the study of mathematics and philosophy under Anatolios, probably the bishop of that name who had himself delivered philosophic lectures at Alexandreia as a follower of Aristotle.

After this Iamblichos became a disciple of Porphyry, and succeeded to his place in the School. He is described as scholarly, but not original in his views. His manner of life was exemplary, and he was frugal in his habits. He lacked the eloquence of Plotinos, yet excelled him in popularity. Students thronged from Greece and Syria to hear him in such numbers that it was hardly possible for one man to attend to them all. They sat with him at the table, followed him wherever he went, and listened to him with profound veneration. It is said that he probably resided in his native city. This may have been the case, as the affairs of the Roman world were then greatly disturbed. The philosophers, however, were not circumscribed to one region, and there were schools where they lectured in Athens, Pergamos and other places, as well as at Alexandreia. Plotinos spent his last years at Rome and contemplated the founding of a Platonic commune in Italy; and Porphyry was with him there, with other pupils and associates, afterward marrying and living in Sicily. Alypios the friend and colleague of Iamblichos remained at Alexandreia.

Many of the works of Iamblichos are now lost. He wrote Expositions of the doctrines of Plato and Aristotle, a treatise on the Soul, and another to demonstrate the virtues and potencies existing in the statues and symbols of the gods. Another work treated of the Chaldean Theology. The loss of this is much to be regretted. The religion of the Chaldeans was largely astronomic as well as mystical, and its creed could be read in the heavens. Late researches indicate that the Egyptian, with all its antiquity, was derived from it in the remote periods. The science denominated Mathematics, including geometry and astronomy, was a part of the system, and all problems of genesis and evolution were wrought out by it. The philosophy of Pythagoras was modelled from it, and the Rabbinic learning was Chaldean in its origin. It has been repeatedly suggested that the Mosaic book of Genesis was a compilation from the same literature, and capable of being interpreted accordingly.

Iamblichos also wrote a Life of Pythagoras which was translated into English by the late Thomas Taylor, and published in London in 1818. Part of a treatise on the Pythagoric Life is also yet extant. It contains an account of the Pythagorean Sect, explanations of the Pythagorean doctrines, the Profounder Mathematics, the Arithmetical Science of Nikomachos, and Theological Discourses respecting Numbers, besides other divisions which have not been preserved.

The most celebrated work ascribed to him, however, is the Logos, a Discourse upon the Mysteries. It is prefaced by a "Letter of Porphyry to Anebo, the Egyptian Priest," and is itself described as "the Reply of Abammon, the Teacher, to the Letter of Porphyry to Anebo, and Solutions of Questions therein contained." This work was also translated by Mr. Taylor and published in 1821. The translation was thorough and faithful, but unfortunately, it is difficult for a novice to understand. He would need to know the Greek text itself. There is a profusion of unusual terms, and the book abounds with allusions to occurrences, and spectacles in the Initiatory Rites which are nowhere explained, leaving the whole meaning more or less vague and uncertain. It has been said in explanation of this that Mr. Taylor desired the sense to be obscure, so that it would be difficult for all general readers to understand it, as truth is only for those who are worthy and capable. (2)

The genuineness of the authorship has been strenuously disputed by Meiners, and defended with apparent conclusiveness by Tennemann. It is certainly somewhat different in style from the other works, and as is well-known, it was a common practice at that period, not only for copyists to add or omit words and sentences in manuscripts, but for authors themselves to give the name of some more distinguished person as the actual writer. But there is said to be a scholium or annotation in several manuscripts in which Proklos declares that this treatise on the Mysteries was written by Iamblichos, and that he had merely disguised himself under the name of Abammon.

Iamblichos was greatly esteemed by his contemporaries, and those who lived in the ensuing centuries. Eunapios, his biographer, styled him Thaumasios, or the Admirable. Proklos habitually designated him the God-like, and others actually credited him with powers superior to common men. Julian the Emperor considered him as in no way second to Plato, and reverenced him as one of the greatest among mankind.

Iamblichos made a new departure in the teaching of philosophy. He exhibits a comparative indifference to the contemplative discipline, and has introduced procedures which pertained to Magic Rites and the Egyptian Theurgy. (3) It was natural therefore that Porphyry, his friend and former teacher, who taught the other doctrine, should desire to know the nature and extent of this apparent deviation from the accepted philosophic procedures. Uncertain whether his questions would otherwise reach the Master, perhaps then absent from Egypt, he addressed them to Anebo, his disciple, who held the office of prophet or interpreter in the sacerdotal order. He did not assume to blame or even criticise, but asked as a friend what these Theosophers and theurgic priests believed and were teaching in respect to the several orders of superior and intelligent beings, oracles and divination, the efficacy of sacrifices, and evocations, the reason for employing foreign terms at the Mystic Rites, the Egyptian belief in respect to the First Cause, concluding with enquiries and a discussion in regard to guardian demons, the casting of nativities, and finally asks whether there may not be after all a path to eudaimonia, or the true felicity other than by sacrifices and the technique of Theurgy.

The reply of Abammon is explicit and admirable, as affording a key to the whole system. To us, perhaps, who have grown up in another age and received a training in other modes of thinking, his statements and descriptions may appear visionary and even absurd. We may, however, bear in mind that they did not appear so to those for whom he wrote; and should respect the convictions which others reverently and conscientiously entertain.

In the work under notice, the author plainly endeavored to show that a common idea pervaded the several ancient religions. He did this so successfully that Samuel Sharpe did not hesitate to declare that by the explanation given of them the outward and visible symbols employed in the Arcane Worship became emblems of divine truth; that the Egyptian religion becomes a part of Platonism, and the gods are so many agents or intermediate beings only worshipped as servants of the Divine Creator. With this conception in mind, this work may be read with fair apprehending of the meaning of the author.

He proposes to base the classification of Spiritual Essences upon the doctrines of the Assyrians, but modifies it by the views better understood by the Greeks. For example, he enumerates the four genera of gods, demons, heroes or demigods, and souls, and explains some of their distinctions. Before concluding he introduces three other orders from the Assyrian category, making seven in all, occupying distinct grades in the scale of being.

In defining their peculiarities, he begins with "the Good — both the good that is superior to Essence and that which is with Essence," the Monad and Duad of the philosophers; in other words, the Essential Good and that Absolute Good that is prior to it. The gods are supreme, the causes of things, and are circumscribed by no specific distinction. The archangels not carefully described. This may be because they belong to the Assyrian and not to the Egyptian category. They are there enumerated as seven, like the Amshaspands in the Zoroastrian system. They are very similar to the higher gods, but are subordinate to them, and indeed seem to denote qualities rather than personalities. After them come the angels. These are likewise of the East, and doubtless the same as the Yazadas of the Avesta, of whom Mithras was chief. The Seven Kabeiri or archangels preside over the planets; the Yesdis or angels rule over the universe in a subordinate way. The demons or guardians carry into effect the purposes of the gods with the world and those that are inferior to them. The heroes or demigods are intermediate between the more exalted orders of spiritual beings and psychic natures, and are the means of communication between them. They impart to the latter the benign influences of those superior to them and aid to deliver from the bondage of the lower propensities. Another race that Abammon names is that of the archons or rulers. These are described as of two species: the cosmocrators or rulers of the planets, and those that rule over the material world. Souls are at the lower step of this seven-graded scale, and make the communication complete from the Absolute One to the inhabitants of the world. The result of this communication is to sustain the lower psychic nature and exalt it to union with Divinity.

This union is not effected by the superior knowledge alone, nor by the action of the higher intellect, although these are necessary auxiliaries. Nothing which pertains to us as human beings is thus efficacious. There must be a more potent energy. This is explained subsequently.

 In regard to oracles and the faculty of divining, Abammon quotes the Chaldean Sages, as teaching that the soul has a double life, — one in common with the body, and the other separate from everything corporeal. When we are awake we use the things pertaining to the body, except we detach ourselves altogether from it by pure principles in thought and understanding. In sleep, however, we are in a manner free. The soul is cognizant beforehand of coming events, by the reasons that precede them. Any one who overlooks primary causes, and attributes the faculty of divining to secondary assistance, or to causes of a psychic or physical character, or to some correspondence of these things to one another, will go entirely wrong.

Dreams, however, which may be regarded as God-sent occur generally when sleep is about leaving us and we are just beginning to awake. Sometimes we have in them a brief discourse indicating things about to take place; or it may be that during the period between waking and complete repose, voices are heard. Sometimes, also, a spirit, imperceptible and unbodied, encompasses the recumbent individual in a circle, so as not to be present to the person's sight, coming into the consciousness by joint-sensation and keeping in line with the thought. Sometimes the sight of the eyes is held fast by a light beaming forth bright and soft, and remains so, when they had been wide open before. The other senses, however, are watchful and conscious of the presence of superior beings.

These, therefore, are totally unlike the dreams which occur in ordinary conditions. On the other hand the peculiar sleeplessness, the holding of the sight, the catalepsy resembling lethargy, the condition between sleep and waking, and the recent awaking or entire wakefulness, are all divine and suitable for the receiving of the gods as guests. Indeed, they are conditions sent from the gods, and precede divine manifestations.

There are many forms of entheastic exaltation. Sometimes we share the innermost power of Divinity; sometimes only the intermediate, sometimes the first alone. Either the soul enjoys them by itself, or it may have them in concert with the body, or the whole of the individual, all parts alike, receive the divine inflowings. The human understanding, when it is controlled by demons, is not affected; it is not from them, but from the gods that inspiration comes. This he declares to be by no means an ecstasy, or withdrawing from one's own selfhood. It is an exaltation to the superior condition; for ecstasy and mental alienation he affirms indicate an overturning to the worse.

Here Abammon seems to diverge from the doctrine of Plotinos and Porphyry. Indeed, he is often Aristotelian rather than Platonic in his philosophy, and he exalts Theurgy above philosophic contemplation. He explains himself accordingly.

The Soul, before she yielded herself to the body, was a hearer of the divine harmony. Accordingly, after she came into the body and heard such of the Choric Songs (4) as retain the divine traces of harmony, she gave them a hearty welcome and by means of them called back to her memory the divine harmony itself. Thus she is attracted and becomes closely united to it, and in this way receives as much of it as is possible. The Theurgic Rites, sacred melodies and contemplation develop the entheastic condition, and enable the soul to perceive truth as it exists in the Eternal world, the world of real being.

Divinity, it is insisted, is not brought down into the signs and symbols which, are employed in the art of divination. It is not possible for essence to be developed from any thing which does not contain it already. The susceptible condition is only sensible of what is going on and is now in existence, but foreknowledge reaches even things which have not yet begun to exist.

Abammon explains the doctrine of "Karma" as readily as Sakyamuni himself. This shows what King Priya-darsi declared, that the Buddhistic teachings had been promulgated in Egypt, Syria and Greece. "The beings that are superior to us know the whole life of the soul and all its former lives; and if they bring a retribution by reason of the supplication of some who pray to them, they do not inflict it beyond what is right. On the other hand, they aim at the sins impressed on the soul in former lives; which fact human beings not being conscious of, deem it not just to be obliged to encounter the vicissitudes which they suffer."

His explanation of the utility of sacrifices is ingenious, but will hardly be appreciated by many at the present time. Some of the gods, he explains, belong to the sphere of the material world, and others are superior to it. If, then, a person shall desire to worship according to theurgic rites those divinities that belong to the realm of material things, he must employ a mode of worship which is of that sphere. It is not because of these divinities themselves that animals are slaughtered, and their dead bodies presented as sacrifices. These divinities are in their constitution wholly separate from any thing material. But the offerings are made because of the matter over which they are rulers. Nevertheless, though they are in essence wholly apart from matter, they are likewise present with it; and though they take hold of it by a supra-material power they exist with it.

But to the divinities who are above the realm of matter, the offering of any material substance in Holy Rites, is utterly repugnant.

In regard to the efficacy of prayer, Abammon is by no means equivocal or indefinite. He declares that it joins the Sacred Art in an indissoluble union with the divine beings. It leads the worshipper to direct contact and a genuine knowing of the divine nature. A bond of harmonious fellowship is created, and as a result there come gifts from the gods to us before a word is uttered, and our efforts are perfected before they are distinctly cognized. In the most perfect form of prayer the arcane union with the gods is reached, every certainty is assured, enabling our souls to repose perfectly therein. It attracts our habits of thought upward, and imparts to us power from the gods. In short it makes those who make use of it the intimate companions of the divine beings.

It is easy to perceive, therefore, says Abammon, that these two, prayer and the other rites and offerings, are established by means of each other, and give to each other the sacred initiating power of the Holy Rite.

He denies the possibility of obtaining perfect foreknowledge by means of an emotional condition. This is a blending of the higher nature with corporeal and material quality, which results in dense ignorance. Hence it is not proper to accept an artificial method in divining, nor to hold any one making use of it in any great esteem. The Theurgos commands the powers of the universe, not as one using the facilities of a human soul, but as a person preexistent in the order of the divine beings, and one with them.

The explanation of the use of foreign terms, not intelligible to the hearer, is noteworthy. "The gods have made known to us that the entire language of sacred nations, such as the Egyptians and Assyrians, is most suitable for religious matters; and we must believe that it behooves us to carry on our conferences with the gods in language natural to them." Names are closely allied to the things which they signify, and when translated they lose much of their power. (5) The foreign names have great significance, greater conciseness, and less uncertainty of meaning.

The First Cause, the God Unknowable, is indicated in graphic language, "Before the things that really are and universal principles is one Divine Essence, prior even to the First God and King abiding immovable in his own absolute Oneness. For nothing thinkable is commingled with him, nor anything whatever; but he is established the antecedent of the God self-fathered, self-produced, sole Father, the Truly Good. For he is the Being greatest and first, the Origin of all things, and the foundation of the primal ideal forms which are produced by the Higher Intellect. From this One, the Absolute God radiated forth; hence he is the self-fathered and self-sufficient. For this is the First Cause and God of Gods, the Unity from out of the One, prior to Essence and the First Cause of Essence. For from him are both the quality of essence and essence itself — for which reason he is called the Chief Intelligence. These are therefore the oldest principles of all things."

This is perhaps as plain and explicit as this subject can be made. The close resemblance to the Brahman of the Indian system, from whom proceeds Brahma the Creator, is apparent at a glance. Abammon cites also the Tablet of Hermes, which placed Emeph or Imopht at the head of the celestial divinities, and named a First Intelligence as before him and to be worshipped in silence. The Chaldreans and also the Magians taught a similar doctrine.

It being established that the Supreme Mind and the Logos or Reason subsist by themselves, it is manifest that all things existing, are from them — beginning with the One and proceeding to the many. There is a Trine: a pure Intelligence above and superior to the universe, an indivisible One in the universe, and another, the universal Life, that is divided and apportioned to all the spheres. Matter is also introduced into the circle, being evolved from the spiritual substance; and so, "materiality having been riven from essentiality on its lower side, and being full of vitality, the spheres and all living things are created and organized therefrom."

Abammon has taken a view of Fate which though in many respects acceptable seems also to relate to the ruling of the nativity. It is not true, he insists, that every thing is bound with the indissoluble bonds of Necessity. The lowest natures only, which are combined with the changeable order of the universe, and with the body, are thus subjected. Man, however, has, so to speak, two souls: one that participates of the First Intelligence and the power of the Creator, and one from the astral worlds. The latter follows the motions of those worlds, but the former is above them, and therefore is not held by fate or allotment. "There is another principle of the soul superior to all being and becoming to all, nature and nativity, through which we can be united to the gods, rise above the established order of the world, and participate in the life eternal and in the energy of the gods above the heavens. Through this principle we are able to set ourselves free. For when the better qualities in us are active, and the Soul is led back again to the natures superior to itself, then it becomes entirely separated from every thing that held it fast to the conditions of nativity, stands aloof from inferior natures, exchanges this life for the other, abandons entirely the former order of things, and gives itself to another."

In regard to nativities, Abammon admits that the divine oracular art can teach us what is true in respect to the stars, but declares that we do not stand in any need of the enumeration prescribed by the Canons of astrology or those of the art of divining. That the astronomic predictions are verified by results, observations prove. But they do not relate to any recognition of the guardian demon. It is true, he remarks, that there is the lord of the house, as mathematicians or astrologists declare, and the demon bestowed by him. But the demon is not assigned to us from one part of the celestial world or from any planet. There is a personal allotment in us individually from all the universe, the life and corporeal substances in it, through which the soul descends into the genesis or objective existence. The demon is placed in the paradigm or ideal form, and the soul takes him for a leader. He immediately takes charge, filling the soul with the qualities of physical life, and when it has descended into the corporeal world, he acts as the guardian genius.

When, however, we come, by the sacred initiation, to know God truly as the guardian and leader, the demon retires or surrenders his authority, or becomes in some way subordinate to God as his Overlord.

Evil demons have nowhere an allotment as ruling principles, nor are they opposed to the good like one party against another, as though of equal importance.

The "Last Word" includes a brief summary of the whole discourse. Abammon insists that there is no path to felicity and permanent blessedness apart from the worship of the Gods as here set forth. Divine inspiration alone imparts to us truly the divine life. Man, the Theotos, (6) endowed with perception, was thus united with Divinity in the beforetime by the epoptic vision of the Gods; but he entered into another kind of soul or disposition which was conformed to the human idea of form, and through it became in bondage to Necessity and Fate. There can be no release and freedom from these except by the Knowledge of the Gods. For the idea or fundamental principle of blessedness is to apperceive Goodness; as the idea of evil exists with the forgetting of the Good and with being deceived in respect to evil. Let it be understood, then, that this knowledge of Good is the first and supreme path to felicity, affording to souls a mental abundance from the Divine One. This bestowing of felicity by the sacerdotal and theurgic ministration, is called by some the Gate to the Creator of the Universe, and by others the Place or Abode of the One Supremely Good. It first effects the unifying of the soul; then the restoring of the understanding to the participation and vision of the God, and its release from every thing of a contrary nature; and after these, union to the Gods, the bestowers of all benefits.

When this has been accomplished, then it leads the Soul to the Universal Creator, gives it into his keeping and separates it from every thing material, uniting it with the one Eternal Reason. In short, it becomes completely established in the Godhead, endowed with its energy, wisdom, and Creative power. This is what is meant by the Egyptian priests when they, in the Book of the Dead, represent the Lord as becoming identified with Osiris; and, with such modifications as the changing forms of the various faiths have made, it may fairly be said to be the accepted creed of the religious world.

FOOTNOTES:

1. There are several persons of this name mentioned by ancient writers. One was a king; of Arabia to whom Cicero referred. A second was a philosopher who was educated at Babylon and flourished under the reign of the Antonines. The original term is Malech or Moloch, signifying king. It was applied by all the various Semitic peoples as a title of honor to their chief divinity. The subject of this article employed simply the Greek form to his name, but Longinus translated the designation of his own famous pupil, Porphynos, wearer of the purple. (return to text)

2. The writer himself prepared a translation several years ago which was published in The Platonist. It is now undergoing revision with a view to make the author's meaning more intelligible to the novitiate reader, and notes are added to explain the frequent references to scenes and phenomena witnessed in the Autopsias and arcane ceremonies; which, however plain to the expert and initiated, are almost hopelessly difficult for others to understand. (return to text)

3. "Theurgy. * * * The art of securing divine or supernatural intervention in human affairs; especially the magical science practiced by those Neo-Platonists who employed invocations, sacrifices, diagrams, talismans, etc." * * * Standard Dictionary. (return to text)

4. The chants of the Chorus, at the Mystic Rites. The choir danced or moved in rhythmic step around the altar facing outward with hands joined, and chanted the Sacred Odes. (return to text)

5. We may perhaps, see in this the ulterior reason why Brahmans choose the obsolete Sanskrit. Jews the Hebrew and Roman Catholics, the Latin in their religious services, saying nothing of the "unknown tongues," the use of which in religious services was so much deprecated by the Apostle Paul. We observe the same notion or superstition in the attachment witnessed for the word Jehovah, a term falsely literated in place of the Assyrian divinity Yava or Raman. Even the Polychrome Bible transmits this idle whim by lettering the word as J H V H, which nobody can pronounce intelligently. (return to text)

6. The Beholder or Candidate looking upon the spectacles exhibited at the Initiatory Rites. (return to text)


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