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For the Greek novelist, see Iamblichus (novelist) (165-180).

Iamblichus, also known as Iamblichus Chalcidensis, (ca. 245 C.E.- ca. 325 C.E., Greek: Ιάμβλιχος) was a neoplatonist philosopher who determined the direction taken by later Neoplatonic philosophy, and influenced Jewish, Christian and Islamic theology. A student of Porphyry, he played an important role in the transmission of Platonic ideas into the thought of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Iamblichus established a Neoplatonic curriculum which was followed for the next two centuries. To the Neoplatonic theory developed by Plotinus, he introduced modifications such as the detailed elaboration of its formal divisions, a more systematic application of Pythagorean number-symbolism, and a mythic interpretation of cosmological hierarchy. He departed from his Neoplatonic predecessors, who regarded matter as corrupt, by declaring matter to be as divine as the rest of the cosmos.

Iamblichus was primarily concerned with the salvation of the soul, and did not believe, like Porphyry, that it could be achieved by elevating the intellect through reason alone. Instead he emphasized the need for religious symbolism and ritual to awaken the human soul to its own divinity. His writings on theurgy were later reinterpreted and some of his concepts were adopted into the ritual of the Roman Catholic Church. His ideas also had a profound influence on the thinkers of the Italian Renaissance and later Christian mystical thinkers.


According to the Suda, and the Neoplatonic biographer Eunapius, Iamblichus was born at Chalcis (modern Quinnesrin) in Syria. He was the son of a rich and illustrious family, and is said to have had several priest-kings of Emesa as his ancestors. He never took a Greek name, as was the custom, but kept his Semitic name. He began his studies under Anatolius, and later went on to study under Porphyry, a pupil of Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism. He is known to have had a disagreement with Porphyry over the practice of theurgy (rituals performed to invoke the actions of God), and De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum (On the Egyptian Mysteries) is believed to be his response to the criticisms of Porphyry.

Around the year 304, Iamblichus returned to Syria to found his own school at Apamea (near Antioch), a city famous for its Neoplatonic philosophers. Here he designed a curriculum for the study of Plato and Aristotle, and wrote commentaries on both of them, of which only fragments survive. He also wrote the Collection of Pythagorean Doctrines, ten books comprised of extracts from several ancient philosophers. Only the first four books, and fragments of the fifth, survive.

Iamblichus was said to be a man of great culture and learning and was renowned for his charity and self-denial. In his biography, Eunapius reported that many accomplished students gathered around him, including Theodorus and Aedesius, and that his company was so pleasant and his conversation so charming that his students never gave him any peace and wanted to be with him continually. Eunapius also refers to Iamblichus’ practice of religious rites, and recounts two incidents attesting to his mystical powers. According to Johann Albert Fabricius, Iambichus died during the reign of Constantine, sometime before 333.

Thought and Works

Iamblichus was the chief representative of Assyrian Neoplatonism, though his influence spread over much of the ancient world. Most of Iamblichus’ written works were destroyed during the Christianization of the Roman Empire and only a fraction of them have survived. Five of the ten books of Collection of Pythagorean Doctrines are extant, including a Life of Pythagoras, the Protreptic, "De communi mathematica scientia," In Nicomachi (Geraseni) mathematicam introductionem, a treaty with the meaning of the numbers, and possibly the anonymous work Theologumena arithmeticae. Fragments of his commentaries on Aristotle and Plato are preserved in the writings of other philosophers; and also excerpts from De anima, the Letters About Destiny addressed to Macedonius and to Sopater, and About Dialectic, addressed to Dexippos and to Sopater. Proclus left notes about the ideas of Iamblichus and ascribed to him the authorship of the treatise De mysteriis (On The Mysteries), or Theurgia. Differences in style and points of doctrine between De mysteriis and Iamblichus' other works have led some scholars to question whether Iamblichus was the actual author. The treatise certainly originated from his school, and attempted to give a speculative justification of the polytheistic cult practices of the day.

Iamblichus established a Neoplatonic curriculum which was followed for the next two centuries. He suggested that the Platonic dialogues be studied in a specific order, and defined principles for their allegorical interpretation. He regarded Plato’s dialogues as divine inspiration; the study of each dialogue was supposed to effect a specific transformation in the student’s soul.

Iamblichus apparently felt that the Greeks did not retain sufficient respect for ancient tradition, and devoted 28 books to theurgy and the interpretation of the Oracles of Chaldea, a collection of inspired verses from the second century.

For the Greeks are naturally followers of novelty and are carried off everywhere by their volatility, neither possessing any stability themselves, nor preserving what they have received from others, but rapidly abandoning this, they transform everything through an unstable desire of seeking something new. (Iamblichus, DM VII.5)

Neoplatonism had been highly developed as a speculative theory by Plotinus. Iamblichus introduced modifications such as the detailed elaboration of its formal divisions, a more systematic application of Pythagorean number-symbolism, and, under the influence of Oriental systems, a thoroughly mythic interpretation of what Neoplatonism had formerly regarded as notional. He departed from his Neoplatonic predecessors, who regarded matter as corrupt, by declaring matter to be as divine as the rest of the cosmos. He believed that the divine soul was embodied in matter, and that even the coarsest aspects of matter had an element of divinity.


The Monad

At the center of his cosmology, Iamblichus placed the transcendent incommunicable "One," the monad, whose first principle is intellect, nous. Immediately after the absolute One, Iamblichus introduced a second superexistent "One" to stand between it and 'the many' as the producer of intellect, or soul, psyche. These two formed the initial dyad. The first and highest One (nous), was distinguished by Iamblichus into spheres of intellective (domain of thought) and intelligible (objects of thought). These three entities, the psyche, and the nous split into the intelligible and the intellective, formed a triad.

The Dyad

Some scholars think that Iamblichus, like Proclus, inserted a third sphere between the two worlds, partaking of the nature of both and simultaneously separating and uniting them. In the intellectual triad he assigned a third rank to the Demiurge, the Platonic creator-god, identified with the perfected nous, thus creating a hebdomad. In the cosmology of Plotinus, nous produced nature by mediation of the intellect; according to Iamblichus, the intelligible gods were followed by a triad of psychic gods.

The Triad

The first of these "psychic gods" was incommunicable and supramundane, while the other two seem to be mundane, though rational. In the third class of mundane gods, there was a wealth of divinities associated with various localities, functions, and ranks. Iamblichus wrote of gods, angels, demons and heroes, of twelve heavenly gods whose number is increased to 36 (or 360), and of 72 other gods proceeding from them, of 21 chiefs and 42 nature-gods, besides guardian divinities of particular individuals and nations. The series of divinities emanated from the original One down to material nature itself, where soul became "embodied" in human beings. At each level, the number of divinities related to various mathematical ratios. The world was thus peopled by a crowd of superhuman beings influencing natural events and possessing and communicating knowledge of the future, and who were all accessible to prayers and offerings.

Nature was said to be bound by indissoluble chains of necessity called fate, and was distinguished from elements of the divine realms that were not subject to fate. Yet because nature itself resulted from the higher powers becoming corporeal, a continual stream of elevating influence from these higher powers interfered with its necessary laws to turn the imperfect and evil towards a good outcome.

The individual soul was a microcosm, or image of the cosmos. Love (desire) was conceived of as a deity (firstborn of the One) and as a cosmic force that drew the multiplicity of the universe into unity. The indissoluble principle of love “retains and preserves both things that are in existence and such as are coming into being" (DM IV.12), and “… connectedly contains all things, producing this bond through a certain ineffable communion" (DM V.10). Since there could be no desire without an object to be desired, it was necessary for the One to emanate a material universe and human beings embodying individual souls. Human beings therefore had an essential role in the creation of the cosmos.

Plotinus had scorned pagan religiosity, believing that “likeness to God” meant the perfection of one’s own divine nature through reason. Iamblichus placed humankind in a position subordinate to the divine, and held that religious practices could make human beings “who through generation are born subject to passion, pure and unchangeable" (On the Mysteries I.12.42; in Fowden 1986, 133).


Iamblichus sought "purification, liberation, and salvation of the soul." While Porphyry (philosophy) taught that mental contemplation alone could bring salvation, through ultimate unity with the divine intelligence, Iamblichus held that the transcendent was supra-rational and could not be grasped through reason alone. Embodied souls were dominated by physical necessities, but they were still essentially divine and rational. This created a contradiction which caused the personal soul to lose touch with its deeper, divine nature and become self-alienated. The study of philosophy was important because it led to a rational understanding of the cosmic order, but the embodied soul was to return to divinity by practicing theurgy (god-work), a series of rituals aimed at recovering the transcendent essence by retracing the divine 'signatures' through the layers of being. Since the material world (matter) had been organized by the Demiurge, the Platonic creator-god, according to the eternal Forms, material objects revealed these forms and could be used by the soul as a means of unifying itself with divinity.

A theurgic rite made use of certain symbols (signs, tokens), which god had imprinted with the Forms, and which awakened the human soul to an awareness of its own divine nature. The masses of people were to perform rituals with physical objects corresponding to various aspects of their essential divine nature, while those at a higher level could understand divinity through purely mental contemplation and spiritual practices. The highest form of theurgy was the contemplation of sacred geometric shapes and ratios.


Julian the Apostate (331 - 363 C.E.), the last non-Christian Roman emperor, attempted an unsuccessful revival of paganism based on the theurgy of Iamblichus, regarding him as more than second to Plato, and claiming that he would give all the gold of Lydia for one epistle of Iamblichus. Iamblichus' philosophy and cosmology had a powerful influence on later Neoplatonists, such as Proclus (c.410 - 485). In the sixth century, a Syrian Christian wrote several works which he claimed had been authored by Dionysius the Areopagite, a figure from the New Testament. Pseudo-Dionysius adapted Iamblichus’ system, modified by Proclus, to Christianity, reinventing his spiritual hierarchy as nine “angelic choirs” and replacing theurgy with Christian faith and the performance of religious rites such as the eucharist (the taking of bread and wine symbolizing Christ’s body). Instead of the universe, he viewed the Church as the manifestation of divinity. The works of Pseudo-Dionysius were translated in to Latin by Duns Scotus Erigena (800-880) and played a significant role in the shaping of Roman Catholic theology. Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), a Renaissance Neoplatonist, translated On the Mysteries into Latin and kindled an interest in mysticism which influenced the Italian Renaissance and which inspired a number of Christian thinkers, including Giordano Bruno. During the revival of interest in his philosophy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the name of Iamblichus was scarcely mentioned without the epithet "divine" or "most divine." More recently, Iamblichus' ideas have influenced the psychological theories and practices of C. G. Jung (1875-1961) and his followers.

See also

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Blumenthal, H. J. & E.G. Clark. The Divine Iamblichus: Philosopher and Man of Gods. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1993. ISBN 1853993247
  • Clarke, Emma C. Iamblichus' De Mysteriis: A Manifesto of the Miraculous. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2001. ISBN 978-0754604082
  • Dillon, John M., Iamblichi Chalcidensis in Platonis Dialogos Commentariorum Fragmenta. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973.
  • Dodds, E. R. Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety: Some Aspects of Religious Experience from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1965.
  • Finamore, J. F. Iamblichus and the Theory of the Vehicle of the Soul. An American Philological Association book. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985. ISBN 0891308830
  • Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1986.
  • Iamblichus. Iamblichus On the Mysteries and Life of Pythagoras, Transl. Taylor, Vol. XVII of the Thomas Taylor Series. Somerset, UK: Prometheus Trust, (original 1999) reprint: Kessinger Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0766188140
  • Iamblichus. On the Mysteries of the Egyptians: The Reply of the Master Abamon to the Letter of Porphyry to Anebo. Text, translation and notes by Clarke, E.C., Dillon, J.M., & Hershbell, J. Atlanta: Scholars, 2003. ISBN 158983058X.
  • Neusner, J.; Frerichs, E. S.; Flesher, P. V. M. (Eds.) "Theurgy and Forms of Worship in Neoplatonism" in Religion, Science, and Magic: In Concert and in Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, 185-228.
  • Shaw, Gregory. Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press 1995.
  • Van Riel, G. "The Transcendent Cause: Iamblichus and the Philebus of Plato." Syllecta Classica (1997) 8: 31-46.

External links

All links retrieved January 24, 2018.

General Philosophy Sources


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