The Platonic Academy of the fourth century B.C. retained the luminous imprint of its founder, and was modelled upon the teachings and methodology of Pythagoras. Younger students pursued the rigorous studies in mathematics, astronomy and philosophy established by Plato, while mature disciples of the master engaged in exploratory discussions of the dynamic ratios between archetypal Ideas and the living geometry of the cosmos. Speusippus, Xenocrates and Polemon maintained the Pythagorean tradition within the school, elaborating Plato's teachings and applying them to every department of Nature. During the third century the Old Academy waned under Crates and Arcesilaus, and the Middle Academy turned its attention to philosophical disputes with the Stoics. Though Plato's pupil Aristotle had long since set up the rival Lyceum in opposition to the essential Pythagorean elements in Platonic doctrines, it was the Middle or New Academy which abandoned them for a form of Greek philosophical skepticism. Argument ceased to be ancillary to living the philosophical life and became an end in itself, and Plato's teachings were virtually abandoned by those who saw themselves as his heirs. By the first century B.C., Athens remained an intellectual centre, but its social and political role was eclipsed by other cities, and its philosophers were unable either to generate originality in thought or to reach beyond the borders of Greece. The torch of creativity passed into Alexandria where another Academy arose to outshine and survive its parent.
Alexandria was the focal point of the Mediterranean world, attracting into its bustling streets Romans, Greeks, Jews, Egyptians, Nubians, Persians, Indians and a host of others. Intense religious and intellectual cross-fertilization spawned countless contentious factions and abortive cults, but it also provided the arena in which profound spiritual and philosophical insight emerged. Even though partially destroyed by Julius Caesar's troops in the time of Cleopatra, the world-renowned Library continued to encourage learned investigation into philosophical systems. Eastern religious ideas stimulated a return to the pristine thought of Pythagoras and Plato. According to Cicero, Publius Nigidius Figulus called for a renewal of Pythagorean teaching early in the first century B.C. By the time of Augustus Caesar, Juba II, King of Libya, showed such an interest in Pythagoras that spurious treatises were produced for his consumption, while Apollonius of Tyana so wedded Pythagorean teaching and practice in his life that he was widely recognized for his intuitive understanding of his master.
Interest in Pythagoras naturally led to a renewed interest in the teachings of Plato. Eudorus of Alexandria wrote commentaries on the Timaeus around 25 B.C., and Thrasyllus, a magician in the Chaldean tradition and astrologer to the emperor Tiberius, arranged the Platonic dialogues into an order designed to help unfold Plato's thought for the reader. Theon of Smyrna elaborated the mathematical doctrines of Plato in a treatise which survives today. Claudius Galenus – the celebrated Galen of medicine – pursued Platonic philosophy in minute detail, and Celsus, who disputed the truth and sources of Christian orthodoxy with Origen, was a declared Platonist. Numenius of Apamea brought together the teachings of Pythagoras and Plato and held that their wisdom had originally come from the Orient. Alexandrian receptivity to ideas preserved in the East, philosophical concern with the pure teachings of the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition and the recognition that truths must be lived to be fully understood, established the field in which the Teachings of the Wisdom-Religion could sprout again and grow. What was needed was a teacher who could frame universal ideas in an understandable common language and who could train disciples of sufficient insight and devotion to elicit those ideas from every tradition.
Ammonius Saccas was born around 175 A.D. to Christian parents who attempted to raise him in the faith. From early childhood, however, he was repelled by the extreme dogmatism that characterized the vociferous Alexandrian Christian movement. Disgusted by the mediumistic and superstitious tendencies indulged by numerous Christian devotees, he immersed himself in the philosophic quest of the older Hellenic religion. Unlike many intellectuals of the day, Ammonius willingly worked to earn a living, and while vulgar tradition holds that the surname 'Saccas' was derived from his occupation as a sack-bearer, the name Αμμωνος σακασ could equally well be taken as meaning 'shield of Ammon'. His search for an understanding of the nature of things was nourished by the conviction that one must practise the truths one learns in every context if one is to fully realize them. Devotion to his studies brought him to a deep consideration of Plato's teaching, and he found there a spirit of inquiry which matched his concern to discover a universal philosophy. His persistent meditation upon these teachings opened the way for him to receive illuminated insights through dreams and visions. Hierocles aptly called him Theodidaktos, 'divinely taught', for he blended a vigorous mind with an awakened intuition. The combination lent such clarity and force to his grasp of Plato and appreciation of Pythagoras that he was generally acknowledged to be the founder of Neo-Platonism. This movement would eventually breathe new life into the Alexandrian and Athenian Academies and encourage students to live the philosophical life rather than only discuss it.
After a long period of withdrawal for study and meditation, Ammonius established a school of philosophy in Alexandria in 193 A.D. He taught orally, and unwaveringly refused to commit his thought to written form. Porphyry wrote that "Erennius, Origen and Plotinus made a mutual promise not to divulge the doctrine of Ammonius: but Erennius having broken this agreement, Origen and Plotinus felt themselves no longer bound by it." Nevertheless, Ammonius had an inner circle, to which these three belonged. While the revelation of Erennius is lost to history, Origen and Plotinus transmitted much that Ammonius taught them, but it was veiled within the language of their own thoughts. Both honoured the Mysteries. Clement of Alexandria, who spoke highly of Ammonius, was well aware that there was an esoteric school in early Christianity, for he was a member of it and it is likely that Origen knew as much. Plotinus, according to the witness of Porphyry, knew the meaning of the Mysteries directly through his own ecstatic illuminations. The details of Ammonius' teaching may be unknown, but the fact that he had such loyal disciples from differing schools of thought demonstrates that his doctrine was so universal it could accommodate a wide variety of formulations.
His teaching began with the proposition that Deity is an absolute principle, utterly transcendent, indescribable and incomprehensible. Nemesius of Emesa wrote that from this initial presupposition Ammonius concluded that the human soul is an immortal radiation from the universal soul, or Aether, identical with it in essence and therefore imperishable. If the soul is immortal and of divine origin, then theurgy – divine work, the art of total self-transformation and transvaluation of all experience – is possible. Ammonius insisted that there was a universal basis for ethics within the heart of every metaphysical system, and that the value of the highest abstract reasoning lies in its ability to transform human nature through the sacred light it reveals. He held that each man should derive his ethics from the core of truth in the tradition of his own people and elevate his mind through meditation. The universal wisdom of the ancients was the one mother of all truths, and by laying aside sectarian strife, people could live a life filled with mutual reverence, allegiance to humanity and compassion for all creatures. The practice of contemplation, as Plotinus indicated, should pass through the stages of opinion, bound up with sense and perception; science, based upon dialectics; ultimately reaching to intuitive illumination. Ammonius taught that memory, also characterized by Olympiodorus as phantasy, was the enemy of the divine ecstasy of the soul, and the prime obstacle to spiritual clairvoyance. But, said Ammonius, for the pure soul it would not be strange that other kindred souls would reveal to it noble visions and conceptions by a touch. His most precious teachings were secret in the best tradition of Pythagoras, and his disciples did not reveal them.
Like Apollonius before him, Ammonius taught that the most profound wisdom is to be found in the time-honoured philosophies of the East. He traced the teachings of his school to the same origin as those of Plato and Pythagoras – to the Books of Thoth-Hermes. The doctrines of this Thoth or 'college', he said, originated with the earliest Brahmin Sages of India. The universal toleration of Ammonius is characteristic of the cathenotheism of the true Hermetic tradition which never worshipped some 'one god' but always the 'Gods One' of all theogonies. He taught his disciples not to worship the exoteric and superstitious images of diverse gods, but to seek out the hyponia, or 'under meaning' of these gods. His disciples came to be called Analogeticists because of his teaching that all sacred legends, myths and mysteries should be understood in the light of the principle of analogy and correspondence, wherein all purported external events represent interior processes and operations of the soul. This eclecticism, traced by Diogenes Laertius to the Ptolemaic Pot-Ammon, was for Ammonius Saccas central to the pursuit of the universal divine wisdom – Theosophia – of the ancients. Applying these principles, Ammonius sought to show, for example, that the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle could be harmonized if understood correctly, and that if the Gospel According to St. John were taken as its philosophic foundation, Christian doctrine could be seen as an authentic expression of the ageless wisdom. Jesus, he taught, was an excellent man and "friend of god" who sought to reinstate and restore the pristine wisdom of the ancients to its original integrity by purging popular religion of its dross of conceits, lies and superstitions, and by expounding the philosophical principles necessary to a life of pure devotion. Sectarianism arises, Ammonius held, through the amalgamation of superstition and human frailty. One who does not practise the philosophical life will invariably corrupt both philosophy and religion by personalizing and materializing them. The school of Ammonius existed outside the fashionable circles of the time. Students were drawn to him one by one, often after finding the conventional teachings of others barren, and each would study with him and then go out into the world to practise what he had learnt according to his own best understanding. The school of Ammonius was divided into three degrees – neophytes, initiates and masters – and all were bound by pledges and oaths to preserve the secrecy of the teachings of their degrees. The rules of the school were derived from the Mysteries of Orpheus, said by Herodotus to have been brought from India.
Among the more important disciples of Ammonius was Origen Adamantius, the Christian, who later became the head of the catechetical school in Alexandria, where he distinguished himself as the most skilful spokesman in the Mediterranean world for the new faith. His extensive allegorical and spiritual commentaries on the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments gave rise to the threefold interpretation of scripture – literal, symbolic and spiritual – which strongly influenced Renaissance thinkers, including Pico della Mirandola. Origen also taught a doctrine of reincarnation and perfectibility through self-devised means and efforts. Origen was asked by the Church to refute the writings of Celsus, also a member of the school of Ammonius. Celsus had demonstrated that the original and purer forms of Christian doctrine were to be found in the teachings of Plato. He had also accused popular Christianity of accepting the more superstitious elements of pagan thought and of interpolating misunderstood passages from the Books of the Sibyls into its doctrines. Origen succeeded in quoting Celsus copiously, but did little to refute him, so that by the fifth century the Church had no recourse but to order the destruction of all the writings of Celsus. It is said that a copy of his Λογος αληθης, or True Doctrine, survives still in the recesses of Mount Athos.
Many of the disciples of Ammonius sought to demonstrate the universal wisdom underlying various traditions, including a second Origen who studied under Ammonius and became a Neo-Platonic philosopher and wrote commentaries on various dialogues. Erennius, another student, was noted for defining metaphysics as that which lies beyond the sphere of nature. Longinus, a philologist more than a philosopher, carried the ideas of Ammonius into the political realm as minister to Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. He is identified as the author of On the Sublime, a substantial and insightful work on aesthetics. Porphyry studied under Longinus before becoming a disciple of Plotinus. Plotinus himself was the most illustrious disciple of Ammonius, studying with the master for eleven years before founding a school of his own in Rome. Like Ammonius, he was known for a life of simplicity, integrity and purity, and he did not commit his thoughts to writing until prevailed upon to do so late in life by his disciples. His Enneads, arranged by Porphyry, stand out as the profoundest achievement of Neo-Platonic thought.
The disciples of Ammonius were given various names associated with their activities, but perhaps the most significant was Philaletheans – friends of truth – because they were open to wisdom wherever it might be found. They were also known as ecstatics because they sought, through meditation, union in consciousness with the ineffable source that transcends all limitations of form and matter. Ammonius called his spiritual philosophy Eclectic Theosophy, for he sought divine wisdom in all the traditions that preserved it in their veiled doctrines and unsullied fragments of truth. Ammonius died towards the middle of the third century, but he was survived by his school in Alexandria. It endured until the early fifth century and the depredations of Theophilus and St. Cyril, the murderer of Hypatia. In Rome, through the school of Plotinus, and in Athens, through the revitalized Academy under Neo-Platonists such as Proclus, the teachings of Ammonius continued to leaven the Mediterranean world until the early sixth century. Then through the zealous sectarianism of Justinian, the Academy was closed and its properties confiscated. The last seven wise men of the Orient, the remnant group of the Neo-Platonists, departed to Persia and India, and the reign of wisdom ended. The Philaletheans were no more and the sacred Books of Thoth-Hermes had no interpreters in Christian Europe. Ammonius had taught the secrets of the Mysteries as and when appropriate, recording nothing, but opening as many doors as each could wisely enter. He worked for the future amidst the limitations of his epoch. The mark he left in the history of human aspiration is as profound and lasting as it is invisible. Even as the institutional structure and practice of the Mysteries were fast falling into decay, he established them on a new foundation which secured them for individuals who would come to them singly, willing and able to undergo the mental and moral disciplines necessary to unlock the door to the immortal spirit.
The man who hath spiritual knowledge and discernment, who standeth upon the pinnacle, and hath subdued the senses, to whom gold and stone are the same, is said to be devoted. And he is esteemed among all who, whether amongst his friends and companions, in the midst of enemies or those who stand aloof or remain neutral, with those who love and those who hate, and in the company of sinners or the righteous, is of equal mind.