Iamblichus of Chalcis: The Letters Dillon, John M., and Wolfgang Polleichtner

Posted by on Apr 7, 2011 in Articles, Library | 1 comment

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The Neoplatonist Iamblichus, of Syrian origin and an authority on Syrian deities, was a disciple of Porphyry, probably in Rome, before moving back to Syria to found his own school in Apamea, the city of the Middle Platonist (and Neopythagorean) Numenius. The only works that have survived of his are his De mysteriis Aegyptiorum, more properly his reply to Porphyry’s letter to Anebo, and the first four works of his so-called Summa Pythagorica. His letters survive fragmentarily, like his commentaries, and are preserved by Stobaeus in his Anthologium. Their addressees are both disciples of the philosopher—
and in one case, probably, even a teacher of his—and arguably prominent characters in late antique Syria.

The insights that we can gain from these letters are not in esoteric teachings but rather in a more popular way of presenting Neoplatonic philosophy. Iamblichus in his correspondence touches upon dialectics (in two letters), ethics, and even metaphysics. Iamblichus indeed praises virtue as a whole and the so-called cardinal virtues separately: δικαιοσύνη (justice), σωφροσύνη (self-control), φρόνησις (wisdom), and ἀνδρεία (courage). Iamblichus shows himself interested both in the civic level of these virtues and in their higher, cathartic level, to adopt Plotinus’s partition, which Iamblichus further elaborated. Other topics also emerge in these letters, such as those, well known already from Hellenistic moral philosophy, Περὶ οἰκονομίας and Περὶ γάμου, on household management and on marriage. We also see from these letters the public side of Iamblichus, which is described in Eunapius’s biography as well.

Dillon has worked extensively on Iamblichus, recently with an edition, translation, and commentary of his De anima together with John Finamore (Philosophia Antiqua 92; Leiden: Brill 2002), with a translation and commentary of his De mysteriis together with Emma Clarke and Jackson Hershbell, for the same series as this volume (SBLWGRW 4; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), and an article, “Iamblichus’ Defence of Theurgy: Some Reflections,” The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition 1 (2007): 30–41, and earlier with an edition and translation of the fragments from Iamblichus’s commentaries on Plato’s dialogues (Iamblichi Chalcidensis in Platonis dialogos commentariorum fragmenta [Philosophia Antiqua 23; Leiden: Brill, 1973]) and of his De vita Pythagorica together with Jackson Hershbell (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991), and with
a comprehensive survey, “Iamblichus of Chalcis” (ANRW 2.36.2:862–909). Many years ago, Dillon also made a collection and translation of fragments from the letters of Iamblichus, but he left it unpublished. Long after, Polleichtner, a disciple of Michael Erler, decided to edit these fragmentary letters in his doctoral dissertation. Thus, Dillon and Polleichtner joined their works in the present publication. The text of the excerpts is based on the reference edition for Stobaeus, that by Curt Wachsmuth and Otto Hense, Ioannis Stobaei Anthologium (5 vols. in 4; Berlin: Weidemann, 1884–1923).

The volume offers an introduction to the life of Iamblichus, philosophical epistolography, and specifically Iamblichus’s letters: their addressees, philosophical content, and style and vocabulary; the text and translation of the twenty letters preserved by Stobaeus, plus two testimonia; a commentary on the letters and testimonia; and a short bibliography and indexes. In the introduction, Iamblichus’s βίος Πυθαγορικός is rightly interpreted not simply as a “life of Pythagoras” but as an introduction to the Pythagorean way of life.
Treating philosophical epistolography of the protreptic kind, the authors observe that it goes back not further than Epicurus; it has no Platonic tradition, but a long Pythagorean tradition, which is mostly pseudoepigraphic, but this was not obvious to Iamblichus. The argument is that Plato’s Letters 7 and 8 are not really philosophical epistles but rather apologies for his own deeds. On the other hand, more philosophical epistles such as Letters 2 and 6 are not Plato’s but later.
The identifications of the recipients of the letters (xviii–xix) are convincing. Some are obviously easy to establish, since several letters are admittedly addressed to Iamblichus’s pupils: Sopater, his favorite disciple; Dexippus, the author of an introduction to Aristotle’s Categories; and Eustathius, Iamblichus’s successor as the head of the school.

Anatolius, the addressee of the letter On Justice, is probably to be identified with
Iamblichus’s homonymous teacher. Among the recipients of Iamblichus’s letters who were not his teacher or his disciples, Dyscolius, the addressee of a letter on ruling, is identified with the governor of Syria around 320 C.E. and Lady Arete with the homonymous lady who emerges several times in the correspondence of the emperor Julian. It is also plausible that, as the authors suggest (xxii), Iamblichus himself meant these letters to be collected, in order to provide an introduction to (Neoplatonic) philosophy. Indeed, there is evidence that these letters existed in a collection in the sixth century at the Academy.

The authors also do a fine job (xxi) in referring the very simplified metaphysical system of the Letter to Macedonius to Iamblichus’s metaphysics: they individuate the One, the Intellect, the principle of multiplicity, that is the indefinite Dyad, the World Soul, and the realm of Nature. Iamblichus, it is rightly stated, gets close to Plotinus’s view that the higher soul is not determined by Fate. Iamblichus makes Fate itself depend on divine Providence, as is clear from his Letter to Macedonius, fragment 4: “Fate exists by virtue of the existence of Providence, and it derives its existence from it and within its ambit.” Now, this conception, which is peculiar to Iamblichus, strikes me for its similarity to, and
indeed its identity with, that of a Syrian Middle Platonist, Bardaisan of Edessa (†222 C.E.). In his polemic against astral determinism, as is reflected mainly in his work Against Fate, preserved in Greek in two excerpts by Eusebius and in Syriac in the so-called Liber Legum Regionum, probably composed by a disciple, Bardaisan denied that Fate had power over the intellectual soul of the human being and maintained that it is not an independent force but an expression of God’s Providence. Iamblichus was a Syrian, his very name was Aramaic-Syriac, and he may well have known Bardaisan’s thought; moreover, Bardaisan’s
works were translated by his disciples into Greek soon after their composition, so that knowledge of Syriac was not even necessary in order to access them. Iamblichus’s teacher, Porphyry, knew Bardaisan’s work very well and even quoted two passages from Bardaisan’s De India in his own De styge, which are fundamental for the reconstruction of Bardaisan’s Middle Platonism and Christology (see my Bardaisan of Edessa: A Reassessment of the Evidence and a New Interpretation [Eastern Christian Studies 22; Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias, 2009], 107–26). Thus, it seems to me all the more probable that Iamblichus knew Bardaisan’s thought. The authors observe that in Letter 11, to
Poemenius, Iamblichus insists on the benign guidance of Fate by the Gods, “to an extent that seems to accord more with Christian theology than with Platonist philosophy” (xxii n. 10). Iamblichus was no Christian, of course, but Bardaisan was, and his Christianized Middle Platonism may well have influenced Iamblichus, especially in respect to the issue of Fate, divine Providence, and human free will, which was pivotal to Bardaisan’s speculation.

The translations of the letters are generally accurate and read well, and the commentary is rich and helpful. Of some letters we have long excerpts, of others only short fragments, and some (Letters 7, 17, 19, and 20) are preserved in just one small fragment. Besides the fragments from the letters, preserved by Stobaeus, the authors opportunely include two very interesting testimonia, both concerning the afterlife. One comes from Olympiodorus and discusses the possible reasons why Iamblichus in a letter mentioned only two of Plato’s eschatological myths, not three. The other comes from Damascius, In Phaed.
203,26–204,3 (Norvin) and concentrates on the theme of the apokatastasis of the soul. In their commentary (95) the authors rightly point out a difficulty in Plato’s myths concerning the otherworldly destiny of the soul: in Phaed. 113E Plato states that some souls, being incurable, cannot return to their origin, a blessed state, in the contemplation of the Ideas, but will remain in Tartarus forever (see also Resp. 10.615E–616A). This would seem to exclude the apokatastasis of at least some souls. Now, I would like to observe that a pagan Neoplatonist such as Macrobius expressly ascribed to Plato a doctrine of universal apokatastasis that Plato had probably never held (see my “The Theory of Apokatastasis in Some Late Platonists, Pagan and Christian [Martianus, Macrobius, Nyssen, and the Young Augustine],” lecture at the International Medieval Congress 2009). Those who supported this theory were rather Christian Neoplatonists such as
Gregory of Nyssa and, before him, his main inspirer, Origen of Alexandria. The latter, indeed, did not pretend that Plato supported the doctrine of universal restoration, but he clearly corrected Plato precisely on this point. For, while Plato declared some souls to be ἀνίατοι, and therefore impossible to restore, Origen proclaimed that no creature is ἀνίατος for the One who created it. This is why he could consistently support the theory of universal apokatastasis. Another point that the commentary on the same testimonium highlights (95–96) is that
Iamblichus in his De anima (§29 Finamore-Dillon) expounded an apparently odd
doctrine that has no correspondence in Plato. Some souls do not descend into the material realm as a consequence of sins they must expiate, but they descend even if they are “immaculate,” for the sake of salvation, purification, and perfection of this realm. Now, I think that this notion, too, finds a striking parallel in the Christian Neoplatonist Origen, who thought that some rational creatures descend into this world not for their own sake, to be instructed and purified, but in order to assist the general process of salvation. Iamblichus lived not too long after Origen and seems to have known his thought. He even expressly mentions some ideas of an Origen who was a Neoplatonist and who might be identified with the Christian Neoplatonist Origen (as I argue in “Origen, Patristic Philosophy, and Christian Platonism: Re-thinking the Christianization of Hellenism,” VC 63 [2009]: 217–63).

This is a valuable work, carefully done (with very few typos; e.g., “possible a son” for “possibly a son” [xix]) and interesting for the great deal of information it offers,
particularly on how Neoplatonic discourses developed outside the school in late antique society. Moreover, especially the final treatment of eschatological ideas and of the “descent of the soul” in the testimonia offer an account of a less popular form of philosophical argument and, as I hope to have shown, can even be fruitfully put in dialogue with Christian Neoplatonists’ treatments of the same issues. This kind of comparisons, between the pagan and the Christian sides of Middle and Neoplatonism, are still badly needed.

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