The continuous erosion of ancient wisdom increased exponentially throughout the Mediterranean world in the third century. Recorded history can reveal symptoms and quantify results, but it cannot show chains of causation extending back beyond the obscuring veil of prehistory. The secrets of Egypt and Babylonia were receding even in the time of Homer, whose epics suggest disconnections between the vivifying currents of the Mysteries and the emerging society of the Hellenic poleis. Plato sought to preserve the sanctity of the secret doctrine even while infusing its current into a fresh conception of man. Alexander, who conquered territories unimaginable to the Macedonian mind, failed to realize his dream of a just kingdom in which all peoples would be united by a universal vision of mankind rather than separated by parochial loyalties to race, culture and custom. Nevertheless, he founded centres like Alexandria in Egypt that could preserve and transmit the inheritance of humanity. Cleopatra may be viewed less as a voluptuary with political cunning and more as a votary of the spiritual wisdom of Isis, who hoped to safeguard it by introducing rejuvenating blood into the effete Ptolemaic dynasty. Rome welcomed the cultures of Greece and the Orient into its forums, but it did nothing to nurture or sustain them. Despite a galaxy of enlightened teachers, from Pythagoras and Plato to Ammonius and Plotinus, the Christian church emerged into a world shattered by sectarianism, superstition and salvationism. As Origen had feared, the dogmatic and literal-minded wing of the church systematically destroyed the ancient truths even while assimilating the psychic and supernaturalistic absurdities of decrepit paganism.
Reformulating the Pythagorean teachings, Plato had imparted a vital impulse to philosophic thought and ethical action that inspired the Academy and the Stoa alike, and bequeathed a sense of proportion to the Sceptical school. Ammonius Saccas provided a universal foundation for all religions and philosophies profound enough to stimulate the resurgence of the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition through Plotinus, and to nourish the inner teachings of nascent Christianity through Origen. Though fought with spiritual courage and moral clarity, Origen lost the battle for the soul of the church, but he transmitted a current that kindled the intuitive spark of gnosis in scattered individuals across seventeen centuries. Plotinus settled in Rome and gathered around him a galaxy of remarkable men and women who passed the torch of truth and the light of philosophy to the later Platonic Academy and many generations of seekers. Plotinus had laid down a systematic metaphysics that nurtured noetic psychology and ethical practice; Amelius of Tuscany defended the ideas of his teacher amidst powerful competing schools of thought; and Porphyry elaborated in elegant detail the ethical implications of Plotinian doctrines. It was Iamblichus, however, who saw clearly the vital significance of the eclectic philosophy for magic, theurgy and self-transformation.
Iamblichus was born around A.D. 250 at Chalcis in Coele-Syria and nothing is known of his childhood and youth. He was already learned and mature when he first heard the lectures of Anatolius, a disciple of Porphyry. Completely won over to the neo-Platonic teachings of Plotinus and his successors, Iamblichus travelled to Rome to study under Porphyry himself. Eventually he returned to Syria, most probably Chalcis, and formed a school of disciples who studied Pythagorean philosophy, expounded the spiritual theurgy of Iamblichus and revitalized the Academy. Iamblichus did not merely pass on the teachings of his august predecessors: he refined their doctrines at every level and extended them into areas hitherto left in silence. Recognizing that the philosophical teachings of Pythagoras and Plato were based upon insight into and concern for the destiny of each human being, Iamblichus understood that the nature and properties of the soul, necessarily hidden by the veil of the persona, must be consciously nurtured. This requires the ordering of one's life in relation to other human beings, the social and natural environment, and the universe as a whole. For Iamblichus, ethical thought and action derived from universal principles are essential. It is also necessary to learn the powers of soul, its organic connections with superior and inferior forces and its potentials for commanding and channelling those energies. This requires theurgy. Just as conduct can be misguided when based on ambiguous or inconsistent principles, theurgic operations can be harmful when inappropriately undertaken. Unceasing purification of consciousness is a prerequisite of philosophical activity or self-conscious soul-evolution, leading to precise knowledge and ultimately to luminous gnosis across the threshold of initiation.
Iamblichus composed a Life of Pythagoras to illustrate the nature of the philosophical quest through its greatest exemplar, as well as a widely read Exhortation to Philosophy. His Theologumena Arithmeticae discussed the complex mathematical basis of the structure and dynamics of the cosmos, and to this he added two treatises, now lost, on the geometry of ethics. His Protrepticus drew from Plato, Aristotle and the Pythagoreans to show the importance of abstract philosophical understanding to the human enterprise. His lost commentaries on the Chaldean Oracles, composed from ancient sources by Julian the Babylonian, explained the principles of theurgic operation, while his essay On Daemons warned against any sort of intercourse with them.
Sometime after Iamblichus had returned to Syria, Porphyry became concerned that the pellucid teachings of Plotinus might be mixed with the superstitious and degraded thaumaturgy prevalent in the eastern Mediterranean. Shunning direct criticism of his best disciple, whose purity of life and good counsel had already won the admiration of philosophers and thinkers from Rome to Asia Minor, Porphyry disguised his doubts in the form of a letter to an Egyptian seer known as Anebo, and sent it to Iamblichus. With equal restraint and deference, Iamblichus responded at great length in a treatise purporting to come from the hand of Abammon, the teacher of Anebo. While thus admitting authority in matters of theurgy, Iamblichus advised:
The cogent and careful reasoning of Iamblichus, together with his remarkable knowledge of ancient magic, won Porphyry's approval of the place he assigned to theurgy in the philosophical life. As Porphyry had interpreted the classical myths in the light of philosophic reason, so Iamblichus penetrated to the essentials of Eastern theurgy, providing the foundations for a fruitful marriage of rigorous philosophy and reflective religion. His success in drawing together these sympathetic strands of thought into a consistent harmony established him as the first scholastic philosopher, but the spirit in which he worked distinguished him from subsequent scholars who sought to systematize Christian theology. De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum, On the Mysteries of the Egyptians, remains the enduring achievement of a man who understood both the requirements of the mind and the needs of the soul.
Iamblichus found worthy disciples to continue his work in Theodorus of Asine, Sopater of Apamea, who was executed in the reign of Constantine, and Aedesius of Cappadocia. Emperor Julian, who tried to revive the ancient religions and schools of philosophy under a policy of universal religious freedom, was born about the time Iamblichus died (around A.D. 326). When Julian came to study philosophy, he sought out Aedesius at Pergamum, but the aged teacher advised him to study under his own disciples, Eusebius of Myndus and Chrysanthius of Sardis. Eventually he became the student of the great Maximus of Ephesus, of whom Eunapius wrote: "Not even the most experienced ventured to contradict him in discussion; they yielded to him in silence, as if he were an oracle, so great was the charm that sat upon his lips." But religious reform was doomed by Julian's tragic death after ruling only three years and by the ruthlessness of the church in destroying existing alternatives to its narrowing dogmatism. The teachings of Iamblichus, however, shone brightly in Proclus, the brilliant successor to Syrianus in the Athenian Academy, until its doors were permanently closed by the edict of Justinian.
Iamblichus noted the general tendency to degrade exalted conceptions by discussing them in terms of comparison and contrast. The First Hypostasis of Plotinus, the One above all, had been assimilated in some degree to the Second Hypostasis, the Intellect, by the Porphyrian school. Iamblichus countered what he took to be a tendency towards a misplaced monism by positing the One as aloof and above the Intellect. Likewise, he taught that the soul is a self-subsistent Hypostasis inferior to and dependent upon the Intellect. Having restored a strict Plotinian perspective, he boldly affirmed what Plotinus had only intimated: that there is a supreme principle beyond even the One, which can be called the Ineffable.
The universe, including all the intelligent and vital forces within it, emanates by ontological stages from the One. Iamblichus, conscious that nothing in nature emerges by jumps but rather through graded unfoldment, was not content to speak of three Hypostases even when the latter two are subdivided into triads. He sought to discern the ultimate ontological gradation by which the One becomes many at various levels.
The concern to trace as precisely as possible the connections between each hypostatic unfoldment, thus delineating the ladder of contemplation which the aspiring soul must ascend, led him to modify or restate a number of neo-Platonic principles. Accepting the compatible doctrines that, according to neo-Platonic tradition, everything is in everything and, according to Hermetic doctrine, the particular is a microcosm of the macrocosm, Iamblichus added that while each particular entity reflects the whole of reality within itself, it does so only in a manner consonant with its own nature. Each entity is therefore a part of the whole and a unity in itself. The hypostatic triad is reflected in everything, including whatever falls within any Hypostasis itself. Iamblichus saw the need to point to the Ineffable beyond all Hypostases. Intellect is one, but intelligible as an object of thought and intellectual as an act of thinking. This means that objects of thought precede particular acts of thinking, ideal forms are prior to minds that apprehend them, and therefore logical distinctions imply ontological instantiations. Prior to both is Intellect as a reflection of the One, and there logic and ontology merge. Everything that can be said to truly exist does so in three modes. As the ideal matrix, it is what Plato called the Form, in which things participate. Instantiated, it is both the class and its members, for they participate in the ideal matrix. But it is also 'imparticipable', transcending all relationship with inferior levels of being. This dynamic triune structure of manifest existence separates things into appropriate orders (taxis), series (seira) and numbers (plethos) and yet binds them together. While separation produces extremes, such as the imparticipable and the instantiated particular, they are always bound through the law of the mean, by the ideal matrix in this example. This law applies to all levels of being, each level binding together the level above it and the level below, and with each level, drawing together the particulars of any given level.
Though the logic and ontology of Iamblichus might seem unnecessarily complex and even arid, it is a powerful tool for self-transformation. Each Hypostasis expresses the totality of being, and so the logical reality of the First Hypostasis becomes the psychological truth of the Third (Soul) and the physiology of the material world. Each level of reality contains through irradiation, as it were, the intelligent dynamic principles of higher levels. Thus beings can descend into increasingly more heterogeneous levels through these reflections, and can ascend to higher levels by activating the higher principles within the level which is their abode. Iamblichus, writing as the Egyptian preceptor Abammon, offers an example of descent in a discussion of the teachings of Hermes:
The soul also is a connecting link between the pure intelligence, which is impersonal and universal, and the sensible world. Containing all the intelligent forces of reality, the logoi of all that is, the soul is the exemplar (paradeigmatikos) in relation to material nature and the image (eikonikos) of the Intellectual Hypostasis. Thus the soul's reflective and executive powers are linked and both bear directly upon the welfare of the world. Philosophy is crucial to the soul's capacity to become an accurate image of transcendent realms of greater unity, manifest in action as harmony and in thought as bliss, and ethics is central to the soul's ability to be a paradigm of nature that contributes to the welfare of all beings. For Iamblichus, speaking of the soul's descent and ascent is rather like speaking of the sunrise and sunset, convenient but, strictly speaking, inaccurate. Nothing can move out of its order and level of being. But it can obscure the numinous irradiation within itself and thus 'fall', weakening the whole order; or it can strive to reflect that irradiation more completely, and in aspiring, draw up the whole order. Applied to Iamblichian anthropology, this means that each soul has its own pilgrimage but its destiny is causally linked to the destiny of all other souls and all beings. Therefore ethics cannot be divorced from theurgy.
The myriad levels of being, mathematically structured and ontologically interrelated, correspond to hierarchies of gods, from the wholly transcendent Ineffable to hosts of nature-spirits. Theurgy deals with the transformation of nature, through self-transformation, seen as the interaction of intelligences involving rites, sacrifices and invocations. Wisdom is magic, though not all magic is wisdom, and that is why he who would commune with the Divine must nurture in himself philosophy, the love of wisdom, and not simply the love of magic. Any sacrifice or ritual offered to the gods is efficacious, but since the universe is a living geometry, each sound, number, colour and action corresponds to some order of intelligent being. The nature of the sacrifice and the state of mind with which it is offered determine the god it calls forth. One must be of pure mind and heart, as well as knowledgeable, if one does not wish to attract a demon or elemental spirit. Hence, "we ought to be very cautious lest we should offer any gift unworthy of, or foreign to, the gods". Powers thought to be remote by the ordinary human being may be attained, as Pythagoras demonstrated and as was believed of Iamblichus himself. It is disastrous to seek them for their own sake, "for always in the theurgic order, secondary are invoked through primary natures", and this requires true spiritual knowledge. Critical to all sacrificial activity is prayer. Iamblichus taught that there are three kinds of prayer. Collective prayer, or meditation on the Divine, can lead to contact with divinity. Concordant communion, transcending speech and conception, calls forth the gifts of the gods. But "the seal of ineffable union with the gods" brings the soul to repose in Deity.
This is the consummation of the philosophic search and the religious quest, the birth of wisdom and magic.
Thus the aspirant to wisdom enters that state of transcendent existence experienced by all in sleep and forgotten, but now in waking life and fully conscious of it. This purification of the soul allows one to pass through the after-death state symbolized by Hades and ultimately win freedom from involuntary rebirth. Obscured souls are deluded in Hades and are soon reborn on earth.
Though Iamblichus was calumniated by the church as a teacher of pagan superstitions and dismissed by a philosophical tradition that preferred to ignore the spiritual significance of theurgy, those who studied him drew different conclusions. Proclus and others called him 'the divine', and the emperor Julian wrote that he had a mind equal to that of Plato. Like all those of the line of teachers from which he came, the subtle thought and disciplined life of Iamblichus served to sound a simple message to humanity: