by Leonard George

My serious interest in Neo-platonism began shortly after starting work as a clinical psychologist in a hospital burn unit. In this setting I was exposed to horrible mutilations of the human form, and to pain that is difficult to conceive. My deep response to this onslaught of mortal reminders was paradoxical — I became more and more sensitized to the beauty of things around me. And the Beauty twinkled. It drew my attention beneath the beautiful surfaces, into beautiful depths that led to a place of utter simplicity and stillness and silence. Feeling my own rootedness in that stillness — what I believe Plotinus and Iamblichus called the One — is what sustains me in my challenging work with survivors of severe physical and emotional traumas.

Incident at Gadara

The town of Gadara was a welcome stop for ancient travelers. Located a few miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee, it was renowned throughout the Roman Empire for its soothing hot springs. Sometime in the first years of the fourth century AD, the philosopher Iamblichus paid a visit to Gadara, along with a group of his students. One day, according to Iamblichus' biographer Eunapius, an amazing scene unfolded. The sage's devotees had been urging him for some time to show his divine power by performing a miraculous feat.

Iamblichus had always declined. But for some reason, on this day and in this place, he chose to acquiesce. Sitting down by a hot pool known as the Spring of Eros, he plunged his hand beneath the roiling surface and pulled a young boy out of the water. The child was radiant, with blond hair and fair complexion. Iamblichus then walked over to the next pool, called the Spring of Anteros. Again he reached into the depths, and retrieved another boy. This one was dark of hair and skin, but no less radiant. The children of the springs clung to him "as though he were genuinely their father." Shortly, Iamblichus led them back to their respective pools where they swam out of sight beneath the bubbles. The philosopher continued his stroll with a retinue of astonished followers.

What are we to make of this? Eunapius obtained his account third-hand from a student of one of Iamblichus' devotees. The biography hints that some of Iamblichus' disciples were rather literal-minded, so we might suspect that the Gadara episode originated as a story in symbols, a teaching tale rather than a news report. And indeed, the figure of Iamblichus in the story portrays the sacred ideal taught by the sage himself.

Dreaming of a Pagan Reformation

But before we explore this ideal, and the means he offered to progress toward it, some background on this myth-shrouded character is in order. Who was Iamblichus? Details of his life are sketchy. We know he was born into a wealthy family in Chalcis in the Roman province of Syria around 240. His direct ancestors were the priest-kings of the city of Emesa. He keenly felt his roots — contrary to the day's fashion, he refused to adopt a Greek or Latin name ("Iamblichus" derives from the Syriac ya-mliku, "the god rules"). He spent most of his life in the vicinity of the Orontes Valley. With its headwaters in the Lebanese highlands, meandering through a verdant swathe of western Syria and emptying into the Mediterranean Sea near Antioch, the Orontes River had been a conduit of influences between Greece and the East for many centuries. Iamblichus' background readied him for his main life-task — crafting a synthesis of the pagan worlds deepest spiritual insights.

He lived a luxurious but simple life, tended by slaves and enjoying his suburban properties. Unfettered by material want, he could devote his life to searching for the highest truths using the best means available. Iamblichus studied under the famed Neo-platonist Porphyry, likely in Rome, but came to believe that his own discernment surpassed that of his teacher. The Syrian sage founded a school in Apamea, a columned town by the Orontes. This site was already esteemed in cultured circles as the hometown of Numenius, a great philosopher of the second century AD.

Iamblichus died around 325. His lifetime has been called an "age of anxiety." It had become obvious that the shared sentiments binding the Empire together were fraying. Like the papacy a millennium later, the institution of imperial rule fractured into camps that often fought each other, softening the Empire’s defenses against the attacks of restless neighbors. In his youth, Iamblichus saw Persian troops storm through Chalcis and pillage northern Syria. Other trends pointed to a deeper malaise. The leading thinkers viewed the sacrifices, prayers, and myths of traditional religion as naive and stale. Commoners for their part found the intricate philosophizing of the intellectuals remote and irrelevant. And even in popular devotion there were disturbing signs. The ancient network of oracles was falling silent one by one, like wells that dry up when their aquifer is exhausted. In his old age, Iamblichus witnessed the unthinkable. Emperor Constantine turned away from the pagan path to embrace the god of a fringe cult called Christianity. Iamblichus was troubled by the pallor of the pagan spirit. But he thought it could be nursed back to health. Iamblichus dreamed of a pagan Reformation.

His remedy for the pagan malaise was a return to the roots of antique wisdom: the most venerable spiritual practices, especially those of the eldest societies (Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria); the fountainheads of classical thought (Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle); and the major mystical movements and texts of later antiquity (the Mystery cults, the Hermetic writings, and a visionary book known as the Chaldean Oracles). Could these strands be woven into an integrated world view profound enough to hearten the philosophers, majestic enough to awe and comfort simpler folk? This was the challenge Iamblichus set for himself.

When considering the teachings of Iamblichus, we must always keep his goal in mind. He wasn't interested in speculation or argument for their own sake. He believed that many of his philosophical forebears had lost their way in deserts of arid theorizing rather than pursuing contact with ultimate realities. Iamblichus' ideas about the nature of world, self and spirit aren't factual descriptions or logical points, but tools to alter awareness. We can't judge their worth by rational or empirical means, but only by "trying them on" and assessing their impact on our consciousness and our lives.

The Erotic Cosmos

First, let's review the stage on which our spiritual life is played out, according to the Apamean. We live, Iamblichus taught, in an immense and mostly invisible universe. The kaleidoscope of perceptions, thoughts, feelings, images and impulses that crowd the mind only skims reality's surface. From unfathomable depths, the things we experience emerge in a perpetual upwelling of creation. Just as constantly, these forms melt back into the unseen domain. This appearance and dissolution is a flow, a circulation or current, encompassing the visible and the hidden.

The ultimate source of the current is a being of sheer simplicity. Iamblichus followed Neoplatonic convention in calling it 'the One.' But even this term misleads, as 'the One' is beyond anything countable. This mystical entity is not apart from all that flows from it and to it, but contains and unites the whole turbulent cosmos within its perfect stillness.

There are no lines between the colors in a rainbow. But we need to parse the rainbow to describe it: "Red / orange / yellow / green." So also with the circuit of existence, seamless and endless. Iamblichus divided creations cascade from the One to the sense-world into levels. At each step away from the One there is more diversity and less unity. In our own realm diversity rules, and the unity of all is evident only in subtle ways.

Iamblichus described reality's first forms as they bloom from the One in Pythagorean terms — as Numbers. From the One, there comes Two. The Two generates the Many. These Numbers aren't the familiar counters used in practical transactions and measurements, but divine presences. Their patterns resonate across succeeding levels, giving rise to the regularities of the sense-realm.

For instance, the imprint of the Two can be detected throughout our world. Inspired by Plato, Iamblichus affirmed that everything is composed of dualities — light and dark, cold and hot, left and right, odd and even — knit together into the myriad objects we see around us. But everything in the cosmos yearns for its origin, the place where the opposites fuse. All longings in life, unmasked, are this. Iamblichus called this universal passion Eros. The One loves the Many, and the Many the One, impelling the cosmic flow. Every duality is Eros split in two, and the struggle of opposites that makes up our lives is the hide-and-seek of the halves of desire, the Lover and the Beloved — or as Plato put it, Eros and Anteros.

Iamblichus not only parsed reality's rainbow. He personified each color. A spectrum of spiritual beings ranges between the One and the Manyworld of the senses — deities, archangels and angels, archons, daimones, heroes, and ourselves. The daimones are the spirits closely entwined with our daily lives, lurking just beneath the veneer of the mind and the physical world. Daimones personify the natural energies that comprise our environment, and the character features that sway our fate. Before engaging the higher beings we have to establish mature relations with our daimones.

The most fulfilling relationships — with people, daimones, or divinities — are based on the ability to love (the mark of the One) while keeping our own distinctness (the signature of the Two). This is Eros' flow, the play of the One and the Two. And we relate most intensely with other persons. lamblichean personifying isn't a simple-minded projection of human traits onto non-human things, but a psychological device helping us to relate fully — that is, Erotically — with the forces of creation.

The Double Identity

This vast unity — the entire cosmic cascade — is our home. And, more mysteriously, it is our identity. Who am I? Iamblichus taught that there are two valid answers. From the angle of ordinary awareness, I am a being with a body and an inner life or soul, sharing a world of other bodies and souls. I am an individual, limited in knowledge and power. And I am mortal. This finite identity is who I am. But it isn't all that I am. From the standpoint of cosmic Eros, this individual life blends into the life of daimones, gods, archetypal Numbers, and the One. My immersion in the universe is so thorough that my "self" is in some sense the totality.

We live a double life, and a paradoxical one. The paradox in Iamblichus' picture of the self is that both identities — finite and endless, dying and deathless — are utterly real. Neither is just a mirage or derivative of the other. I am both part and Whole. And to be completely present, we must be mindful of both identities, without either one eclipsing the other.

This is no easy task. Plato wrote that merely existing as a physical being scrambles the soul. We're seduced by the vivid minutiae of our material life. Irresistibly we become confused and overidentified with them, mesmerized by the affairs of the small self. The sweet, faint note of the One is drowned by the clatter of everyday sensation and thought.

As a first step toward relaxing these attachments, Iamblichus' students pondered lessons about the miseries of embodiment, such as Plato's statement that "the body is a tomb." But Iamblichus carefully balanced this seeming distaste for matter with teachings that praised the sanctity of the body. The coarsest thing is included in the highest good, the One. We are embodied beings. There is no use pining for escape to nonmaterial worlds. From Aristotle our Syrian sage learned that the soul is not other than the body. But from Plato he understood that the soul is more than the body.

Iamblichus compared the growth of divine self-awareness to the blossoming of a lotus. And like a flower it benefits from proper cultivation. Reading and thinking about higher truths — the usual pastime of philosophers — is helpful, like fertile mud. But on its own this activity is spiritually ineffective, because it remains on the plane of ordinary consciousness. Iamblichus insisted that spiritual flowering can only be powered from beyond the boundaries of personal identity. We must open ourselves to influences from outside, as a lotus to light. And again a paradox: these "external" influences remind us that from the Erotic vantage they aren't "outside" us at all.

Rites of Self-Remembrance

We are to befriend daimones and link with gods and rouse our unitive identity. But we won't succeed by relying on our normal kinds of thought and effort. The sage emphasized that we can only approach Truth on its terms, not ours. How then do we proceed? Iamblichus taught that the hallowed repertoire of pagan spiritual practices held potent means of stirring awareness. These methods work because they aren't inventions of the limited mind, but come from the side of divinity. He took a word from the Chaldean Oracles to denote these means of divine self-remembrance: theurgy. This term means 'divine activity.' Iamblichus contrasted theurgy with theology, or 'divine words' — talking about the Erotic cosmos isn't the same as living it.

The Greek philosopher Thales said, "all things are full of gods." The universe is stocked with objects that point to the mystery of the One. Our souls too harbor such reminders, in the form of images. Iamblichus' favorite word for these numinous cues was synthemata, a Greek term that literally means "tokens" or "signals." Synthemata are witnesses of the gods' presence. They act as mirrors in which the souls sacred element can view its own divinity. Iamblichus prescribed the rites and meditations of pagan religion as means of guiding the soul's attention to the synthemata around and within it.

The details of Iamblichus' theurgical ceremonies are lost. But we know that he offered an array of disciplines to match the states of the soul. Many souls are so fixed on material things that they can only work with synthemata made of matter, and aspire to contact only the most material kind of gods. They performed rituals with certain stones, animals, plants, and other natural objects that revered lore associated with deities. For such people, life feels like a punishment, and the material theurgies eased their pain by calming their daimones.

More mature souls who had achieved some mindfulness of the One could include more refined synthemata in their theurgies. Because sounds are invisible and mental images are inaudible, the sage taught that they are tokens of divinities a step removed from the sensory realm. Theurgical chants and visualized symbols could arouse synthemata in the soul connected with them. Souls of this quality regard life's travails as chances for purification.

Rarely is a soul so advanced that it can work with the subtlest synthemata of all, Iamblichus admitted. His surviving writings say little about the highest type of theurgy. Gregory Shaw, the preeminent Iamblichus scholar, believes that this summit of pagan practice was the contemplation of sacred geometric shapes and ratios. These mathematical synthemata joined the soul with the realm of archetypal Numbers, near the One itself.

To the most developed souls, the world seems neither punishment nor purgation, but a single exalted synthema. Every object within this grand vision appears clearly as a ripple on the ocean of Eros, a wave of yearning for the deep Source it will shortly return to. The self-concept of the advanced theurgist is also transfigured. Thoughts, emotions, and personality persist, but now are suffused with the feeling that these phenomena, no less than outer things, are shapings of the One. Every action is a theurgy, and an expression of love, because Eros is Love. It is also a creative act. The gods whose 'divine activities' theurgists emulated are channels of the One's world-making. Through theurgy, we come to know that we are co-creators of the universe.

Philosophical Shamanism

What would it have been like to perform the theurgies of Iamblichus' school? Visions were common during the rites. Iamblichus described the types of transcendent beings that might appear to the theurgist, and a mysterious light — a glimmering of the current of creation itself. A sound like the wind was also reported, coming from every direction at once. These signs were taken to mean that the ceremony had contacted the sacred realms. They also point to a shift in the performer's consciousness. And this is not surprising. Many components of theurgy had been known to trigger altered states of awareness since the Old Stone Age. Concentrating on a holy object, rhythmic singing, visualization — all of these techniques can loosen the hold of the ordinary world and the everyday self, and permit the mind to slip beneath the surface.

The stereotypic ancient philosopher is a toga-clad gentleman, calmly pondering the meaning of life. This image seems as far removed as can be from the howling, prancing shaman of primeval hunting cultures. The theurgist was both — a philosophical shaman who wielded every instrument, logical, mystical, or material, to probe the secrets of existence.

Iamblichus, like the shamans of old, taught that the soul is housed not just by the physical body, but also by an invisible and immortal frame. This 'spirit-body' is made of the same stuff as the stars. The spirit-body can only be sensed through the imagination — indeed, it is the imagination. But it is obscured by the froth of discursive thinking. Breath meditations swept and cleansed the mind, bringing the imaginal body into clarity. The visions and celestial sounds invoked in theurgies were perceived with the spirit-body's organs. And it is in this vehicle of imagination that the soul meets the gods.

Iamblichus saw himself as the preserver of paganism's highest values and fullest insights. But he wasn't uncritical of many common beliefs of his time. Then as now, people tried to divine the future by dreams, astrology, and numerology. Iamblichus thought that the only thing worth divining is the true nature of self and cosmos as manifestations of the One. Chasing after worldly secrets for their own sake was for infant souls. He was just as harsh in his judgment of egotistical magicians. Grasping at personal power through magic is a sad caricature of the theurgic quest, which is also a pursuit of power — the potency of universal creation itself. But the theurgist's aim isn't to gain this might for self-aggrandizement. When the personal soul is harmonized with cosmic Eros, the soul's endowments serve the Whole. Our sage also cast a cold eye on seekers of exotic experiences such as trances and ecstasies. Iamblichus pointed out that not every altered state is spiritually opportune. The ecstasies that occurred in theurgy weren't treasured in themselves, but only as means to alert the soul to the One's presence.

Personal knowledge, power, thrills — these weren't what Iamblichus' pagan Reformation was supposed to be about. He urged his disciples to model their lives on that of Pythagoras. The Apamean believed that Pythagoras had reached the peak of wisdom and compassion, not by rejecting his human existence but by doubling his sense of self to include the One and its infinite creativity. Pythagoras had matched his double identity with a double awareness. He became a living synthema of the One.

And in Eunapius' tale, Iamblichus himself represents this attainment. Asked for a sign, he reaches beneath reality's swirling surface (the springs), touches the dual currents (bright Eros and dark Ameros) of cosmic passion, and unites them in his own embodied life as "their genuine father." He is a symbol of the Many, the Two, and the One. This, not some literal magic trick, was the miracle shown at Gadara.

Loss and Legacy

We all know today that Iamblichus' pagan Reformation failed, washed away in the rising tide of Christianity and the shipwreck of Empire. But for a time a different outcome beckoned. His renewal of ancient wisdom freshened hope in the sagging pagan spirit. He was recognized as a genius within his lifetime, hailed as the "benefactor of the entire world" and dubbed Theios Iamblichos — Divine Iamblichus, Julian, the last non-Christian emperor, campaigned to revive the pagan faith along theurgical lines. According to historian Stephen Gersh, Iamblichus' vision was "the dominant philosophy of late Antiquity in its most elaborate and developed form." Every notable pagan thinker from Iamblichus' age until the last light was snuffed at the Athenian Academy in 529 saw the world in his terms.

But the rebirth of paganism was not to be. Even among thoughtful pagans, Iamblichus' ideas were almost immediately misunderstood. His cherished theurgical rites with their lofty goal of enlightenment fell into the very sort of magic and mystery-mongering that he condemned. Although he explicitly dismissed the use of statues for divination, theurgists became known as experts in the practice. Theurgic ceremonies were enacted as late as the eleventh century in Byzantium, but by then the ideals of the Apamean sage were long dead.

Iamblichus could have been a pagan Luther. But his timing was terrible. In the year of his death Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, which gave birth to Christian orthodoxy. Christianity's strength grew through political maneuvering, escalating violence against its religious competitors, and luck. By century's end, paganism was withering in the Church's looming shadow.

But Iamblichus left a hidden legacy. In the sixth century, a Syrian Christian wrote several philosophical works. He pretended that his books had actually been authored by a minor New Testament figure named Dionysius the Areopagite. This "Pseudo-Dionysius" combined Christianity with the system of Iamblichus. The writer recast the invisible hierarchy personifying the circulation of Eros as nine angelic choirs. He applied Iamblichus' arguments for the frailty of human thought and the value of theurgic rites to the need for Christian faith and the eucharist. And instead of viewing the entire universe as a synthema of divinity, he shrunk this notion to embrace only the Church. Pseudo-Dionysius' writings were crucial in moulding the Christian world view in both East and West, where they were translated into Latin by the Irish theologian Erigena. Ironically, the pagan sage who tried to revive the religion of his past ended up creating much of the religion of his future via his anonymous Christian interpreter.

Iamblichus eventually did play a role in a revival of pagan thought. Eleven centuries after his death, a copy of his major surviving work came into the hands of Marsilio Ficino, the Neoplatonist philosopher of the Italian Renaissance. Ficino translated it into Latin, giving it the title it is known by today — De Mysteriis, or On the Mysteries. The Renaissance fascination with ancient spirituality was fueled in part by Ficino's enthusiasm for Iamblichus.

Does this nearly-forgotten sage have anything to teach us today? In some ways, Iamblichus' time was like ours. Old values and certainties were under fire, and civilizations survival seemed doubtful. In this ominous setting, Iamblichus outlined the soul's condition in terms that many of us can recognize: scrambled, unable to feel clearly its connectedness with the Whole, often bearing life as an anxious trial. Our spiritual search yields many examples of the egocentric sidetracks the seer warned against. Modern seekers talk about Soul and Imagination, two of Iamblichus' main concerns. This is due largely to the writings of James Hillman and Thomas Moore, who acknowledge their debt to the antique and Renaissance Neoplatonists. It may be time to reconsider the views of the ancient soul-master himself.

Perhaps it's good that we no longer know the details of his theurgic ceremonies. Otherwise, we might be tempted to mimic behaviors taken out of a context that has passed forever. But from the fragments of Iamblichus' works that have come down to us, we can recreate the theurgic attitude. And we can "try it on."

The theurgist knows that the sensory world isn't an illusion. But neither is it everything. Its rippling surface veils a vast, animate energy flooding from inconceivable depths. The mathematical patterning of this flood, discovered by Pythagoras, is the basis of modern science. The inner world isn't what it seems either. Below the flotsam of thought and fantasy the immortal Imagination dwells, seeing and hearing and swimming in creations stream. We don't need to flee to another world, or another time, or another identity. There's no exit anyway. We can find our own ways to glimpse the One in the mirrors of Nature, songs, images, and symmetries. By nurturing our soul's double awareness, we too can feel at home in this wondrous realm between Eros and Anteros. Walt Whitman saw the same vision as Iamblichus, a vision that can also be ours, of an all-embracing Being nearer than our breath:

I am the poet of reality

I say the earth is not an echo

Nor man an apparition;

But that all the things seen are real,

The witness and albic dawning of things equally real...