Emperor Julian and Neoplatonism

Madeline Clark

Part II

In the introduction to his Life of Julian (1905), Gaetano Negri speaks of the Emperor as "one of the most cultured men of his century, and the last, most brilliant, and most profound writer of the Greek decadence." The fascination of his writings is in this: that there runs through them all, whether they be letters, orations, satires, or imperial decrees, the insignia majestatis of one who was not only a ruler of men but of himself. Ammianus Marcellinus, the friendly contemporary historian who was with Julian in many of his campaigns, has recorded the Emperor's incredible industry. His nights were parceled out into three periods: the first for rest; the second for affairs of state; with the remaining hours devoted "to the Muses," to writing and study. He employed secretaries in day and night shifts, dictating most of his works so that they have the directness of the spoken word, new-minted from his mind. His ideas did not have to penetrate a fog of dry intellection but seem etched by the diamond sword of something more than thought. Thus they carry not only comprehension but a measure of realization to the reader. Perhaps this is why they reflect a fresh immediacy which prevails even through translation.

In the Loeb Classical Library edition of Julian's works (3 vols, with Greek text and English translation, Harvard University Press, Cambridge; William Heinemann Ltd., London, 1913-1962), Wilmer Cave Wright offers a spirited rendition in harmony with the spontaneity of the original, although the translator himself considers some of his subject's concepts to be "superstitions." But on the whole we can be assured that a trustworthy job has been done through honest and painstaking editorship. However, this would have been closer to the author's intent had the translator been sympathetic to the Neoplatonic philosophy, as were Thomas Taylor and C. W. King.

In his orations and other writings Julian quoted from or alluded to no fewer than thirty-seven of the great philosophers, poets, and playwrights, as well as historians, known to his era: from the almost legendary Homer, Hesiod, and Aesop, to Plato and the Pythagoreans, Socrates and Empedocles; Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides among the dramatists who taught sacred truths by means of their art; and the well-known Neoplatonists Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus. All of these names represent men who lived by the traditional doctrines which in Julian's time were embodied in Neoplatonism.

Starting with the broad premise, quoted from Plato, that the universe itself "came into being as a living creature possessing soul and intelligence," Julian enunciates the doctrine (Oration IV: "Hymn to King Helios") of the hierarchical nature of the universe and all its parts, wherein the One Supreme Cause sends forth from itself gods or powers that rule over lesser and lesser degrees of living beings, until everything is included in the cosmic embrace. But the sun and moon and the heavenly bodies that we see "are only the likenesses of the invisible gods" whose vehicles they are. This oration contains Julian's allegorical description of the constitution of the universe, its substance, origin, powers, and energies which are the sun's gift to its domain, including the mysterious "Fifth Substance, Aether" (after Aristotle) which binds the whole together. Following Plato, he describes a chain of being, emanating from the "uncompounded Cause": the Supra Intelligible, the One, or the Good, as Plato names this central cause of existence. Next comes the Intelligible world, one step closer to generation. Then there is Helios, the god behind the visible Sun, lord of the Intellectual worlds, not only "the common father of all mankind," who "continually revivifies [the substance of things generated] by giving it movement and flooding it with life," but also "the mind of the universe" bestowing through Athene "the blessings of wisdom and intelligence and the creative arts." Helios gives to the "divided souls" (men) the faculty of judgment, and bestows on all nature the generative power.

Julian emphasizes continually that Helios brings about the various activities of his solar realm, not directly to the beings, but through the means of countless other gods (angels, daemons, heroes, and others in the nature of archetypes who do not come into incarnation) — what we might call the forces of nature. This would seem to have little reality for us, were it not for the very advanced scientific studies of the sun presently being made in which actual closeups are given of the sun's disc, the sunspots and solar flares. In addition, there are moving-pictures of sunspot activity with its pulsating streams of energy embodied in cosmic rays and electronic particles that circulate not only to the earth and back, but throughout the solar dominion. To witness these films is to watch — at least in their physical aspect — the very processes described by Julian.

In fact, there is much in his treatise that is purely scientific in the most modern sense, having to do with the action of light, the sun's effect upon the seasons as well as the circulations of the planets around the sun, which "dance about him as their king, in certain intervals, fixed in relation to him." Most intriguing of all is the idea of the function of the sun in stimulating thought and the higher faculties. Referring to the Phoenicians, Julian cites their teaching that "the rays of light everywhere diffused are the undefiled incarnation [imbodiment] of pure mind." Modern scientists are within an ace of confirming some of these more recondite facts for themselves.

The following quotations illustrate these points very clearly:

The god sows this earth with souls which proceed not from himself alone but from the other gods also; and for what purpose the souls reveal by the kind of lives that they select.
Are you alone ignorant that summer and winter are from [Helios]? Or that all kinds of animal and plant life proceed from him?

While the foregoing assuredly has a basis in scientific thinking, it also has the warmth of religious devotion and philosophic breadth. It is a strong hint as to the self-same origin of science, religion, and philosophy.

We have to consider in what light Julian looked upon his fellow human beings and their possibilities. He saw humanity from a planetary point of view — in its relation to the universe as a whole and especially to the solar system. He saw "the region of the earth" as containing "being in the state of becoming," and our whole world as "one complete living organism . . . full of soul and intelligence . . . which revolves forever in a continuing cycle of birth and death." To him the soul of the human race was "no other than reason and knowledge [nous] imprisoned so to speak in the body — the philosophers call it a potentiality"; hence each human life is, in the last analysis, "a probation." He saw the duality: "Man's is a twofold contending nature of soul and body compounded into one, the former divine, the latter dark and clouded." (Notice his term for men, "divided souls," cited earlier.) He recognized the "universal yearning for the divine that is in all men"; "Celestial by our nature, but . . . carried down to earth to reap virtue joined with piety, from our conduct upon earth." Consequently, the human objective is to "imitate the gods so far as we can, and they teach us that this imitation consists in the contemplation of realities."

We have to remember that Julian as Emperor was also Pontifex Maximus, and this gave weight to his admonitions and elucidations of religious matters. In offering these teachings, however, he took the traditional position of philosophy, that the hearer must accept no precept unless it satisfies his own sense of right and truth. In Orations VI and VII, Julian pursues in depth the theme of self-conquest, and sets forth in simple form teachings from the heart of the Cynic and Stoic philosophies. (Cynicism was, to Julian, a branch of philosophy "rivalling the noblest." It was founded by Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, who sought to perpetuate his master's teachings.) He says engagingly, "Let us begin with 'know thyself'" — for this cryptic saying of the Pythian Oracle points to the very reason why we are on earth at all. In the discourse that follows, the idea recurs that "man is a soul employing a body," and that in studying his essential nature, he finds that self-knowledge includes a "study of universals" — implying that the human being, in his many-faceted nature, is an epitome of the cosmos. "For to know things divine through the divine part in us, and mortal things too through the part of us that is mortal — this the oracle declared to be the duty of the living organism that is midway between these, namely, man." As for the component parts of this "living organism," Julian says:

One part of our souls is more divine, which we call mind and intelligence and silent reason [nous], . . . yoked therewith another part of the soul which is changeful and multiform, something composite of anger and appetite, a many-headed monster. . . . We ought not to look steadily and unswervingly at the opinions of the multitude until we have tamed this wild beast and persuaded it to obey the god within us.

Equally with "Know thyself," Julian treats of a quaint and at first mystifying injunction of the Oracle given to Diogenes the Cynic: "Falsify the common currency"; or as variously used: "Give a new stamp to the common currency," which simply means that a man "must not let himself drift with the current of the mob," but should be independent of the opinions of others in the conduct of his inner life. For

I think he who knows himself will know accurately, not the opinion of others about him, but what he is in reality . . . he ought to discover within himself what is right for him to do and not learn it from without. . . .
So long as you are a slave to the opinions of the many you have not yet approached freedom or tasted its nectar. . . . But I do not mean by this that we ought to be shameless before all men and to do what we ought not; but all that we refrain from and all that we do, let us not do or refrain from merely because it seems to the multitude somehow honorable or base, but because it is forbidden by reason and the god within us.

From this follows happiness:

The end and aim of the Cynic philosophy, as indeed of every philosophy, is happiness, but happiness that consists in living according to nature, and not according to the opinions of the multitude.
Then is it not absurd when a human being tries to find happiness somewhere outside himself, and thinks that wealth and birth and the influence of friends . . . is of the utmost importance? . . . Therefore in our minds, in the best and noblest part of us, we must say that happiness resides.

Quoting Julian's own words, in admirable translation, shows us the clarity and precision of his thinking. Reading his discourses and letters at length deepens this impression. In his oration "To the Cynic Heracleios," he develops the subject of myth, and shows that myth is most properly used in presenting recondite teaching (the Mysteries).

For nature loves to hide her secrets, and she does not suffer the hidden truth about the essential nature of the gods to be flung in naked words to the ears of the profane. . . .

Through riddles and the dramatic setting of myths, that knowledge is insinuated into the ears of the multitude who cannot receive divine truths in their purest form. . . . The more paradoxical and prodigious the riddle is the more it seems to warn us . . . to study diligently the hidden truth.

By way of illustration, in his Letter of Credentials to the Athenians at his accession, Julian gave the events of his outer life. In Oration VII, he gives his life story in mythical or allegorical form, impressing us with the thought that every man's inner life follows a trend best told in allegorical form and constituting its real import.

In this connection, there is Julian's satire or symposium, "The Caesars," wherein the long line of the emperors of Rome are entertained by the gods in the regions of the moon near Olympus. Each must give an account of his worthy achievements during life, and confess the secret aims that motivated him: a reminder of that moment of truth referred to in most religions, that awaits every disembodied soul. It also throws a searching light upon Roman history as seen through the eyes of its makers — namely, the emperors themselves.

Julian shared the basic belief of the Neoplatonists that there are many paths to truth; hence they searched for doctrines essential to all beliefs. In his easy and nondogmatic way, he observes that a man may

consider those who in every one of the philosophic sects did attain the highest rank, and he will find that all their doctrines agree. . . . All philosophers have a single aim, though they arrive at that aim by different roads. . . .
I still believe that even before Heracles, not only among the Greeks but among the barbarians also, there were men who practised this philosophy. For it seems to be in some ways a universal philosophy, and the most natural. . . .

The foregoing suggests the type of teaching that Julian would have given to the world had he lived. Call it Neoplatonism, Mithraism, Cynicism, or Stoicism: all of them embodied the same essential truths. Neoplatonism is usually defined by Christian interpreters as a vague and incomprehensible mysticism. T. R. Glover dismisses it as "that strange medley of thought and mystery, piety, magic and absurdity, which is called New Platonism and has nothing to do with Plato" (The Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire). But G. H. Rendall, in The Emperor Julian (1879), affords Neoplatonism more respect, as giving "a splendid primacy to the spiritual element in man"; and devotes space to a just resume of its principles. "Iamblichus," he says, "followed the numerical formulae of the Pythagoreans . . . and . . . proclaimed that there lay deep secrets of religion and philosophy." "He attracted a school of believers, popularized their philosophy. They exalted Pythagoras and deposed Aristotle." This was the school embraced by Julian.

The Christian Church would undoubtedly have benefited by accepting rather than spurning the Neoplatonic tradition. Particularly the doctrine of hierarchies — so little understood today — in regard to the origin and structure of the cosmos and the mutual relationship of the various classes or "kingdoms" on the ladder of life, with man himself reflecting this same pattern in the various facets of his total being. Unquestionably through the centuries the Christian Church became a focus of devotion for those who yearned toward the Divine; but the Neoplatonic interpretation of the universe would have enriched the unuttered thoughts and insights which form the fabric of every person's inner life.

The writings of the Emperor Julian present a philosophy in the princely style of a highly cultured mind, and in the manner of one who is completely at home in it. In this astonishing age of profound change, when we are fast awakening to the realization that we are free to entertain broader concepts that appeal to us as truth, there is hope that his works, among many other ancient and wonderful texts, will be read without prejudice and with understanding.

(From Sunrise magazine, December 1996/January 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press)

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