Iamblichus and the Talisman of Gnosis

In: Gnosis: Journal of Gnostic Studies
Gregory Shaw Stonehill College

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For Neoplatonic philosophers, the Delphic oracle had authoritatively characterized their two great teachers, Iamblichus and Porphyry. Later Platonists cited the Pythia’s oracular pronouncement, “The Syrian is full of god; the Phoenican a polymath” as revealed wisdom. The Syrian Iamblichus, “full of god,” was more highly regarded in Platonic circles than the learned Porphyry, but because Iamblichus’ theurgical Platonism vanished after the sixth century, we are left with only “learned” reports about theurgic divination. Contemporary scholars are polymaths; we are the children of Porphyry. So, when Porphyry asks for a precise definition of theurgic divination, it seems entirely reasonable, and it is hard for us to appreciate Iamblichus’ barbed response. He chastises Porphyry for presuming that divination can be discursively explained and says he needs a talisman (ἀλεξιοφάρµακον) to protect him from his discursive addiction. Divination, he says, can only be known through experiences that awaken the soul to an innate gnosis that precedes dualist thinking. This paper will explore that talismanic gnosis.

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