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.
For the later Platonists, the Pythia at Delphi had revealed the spiritual pedigrees of their principal teachers, Iamblichus and Porphyry: “The Syrian is full of god; the Phoenician a polymath”1 was the Delphic assessment of Iamblichus and Porphyry. The Syrian Iamblichus was more highly regarded in Platonic circles than the learned Porphyry, but because his theurgical Platonism vanished after the sixth century, we are left with only “learned” reports about theurgic divination. Scholars today are polymaths; we are the children of Porphyry. We are therefore skilled at thinking logically, organizing arguments, memorizing facts, and discerning strategies of discourse. But of what use are these skills for understanding the theurgic reception of the gods? In the sixth century, the last Neoplatonic teacher Damascius addresses this issue and says:
I have indeed met some who are outwardly splendid philosophers in their rich memory of a multitude of theories; in their shrewd flexibility of countless syllogisms, in the constant power of their extraordinary perceptiveness. Yet within they are poor in matters of the soul and destitute of true knowledge.2
True knowledge for Damascius requires familiarity with the soul. But this is challenging for us since in our more enlightened worldview we know that “soul” is simply part of the narrative strategy of ancient thinkers to give their lives meaning. In short, it is a term invented to serve social and psychological needs. This, of course, makes it hard for us to understand anything in the Neoplatonists beyond their subtlety of discourse, their shrewd arguments, and their extraordinary perceptiveness, precisely the skills that Damascius deemed inessential. There is certainly enough intellectual subtlety in their work to merit our attention. The Neoplatonists were brilliant writers, thinkers, and mathematicians. But these skills, while necessary, were of little value if the philosopher lacked true knowledge and remained uninitiated in the mysteries of the soul.
If it is difficult for us to acquire knowledge of the soul, it may be even more difficult to understand the precognitive divination of the future, seeing the unfolding of future events. The learned Porphyry had asked Iamblichus for a “precise explanation” of precognitive divination as if it were a skill or technique capable of being discursively explained.3 For the inspired Iamblichus, Porphyry’s very question was presumptuous. “To start with,” he says, “what you are trying to learn is impossible!”4 Divination, he tells Porphyry, is not a human skill: “It is not a human achievement at all. It is divine, supernatural, and sent down to us from heaven; it is both unbegotten and eternal and takes its initiative spontaneously from itself.”5
Iamblichus proceeds to explain to Porphyry that his mistake is not simply a matter of inaccurate information; it is his entire orientation. For Porphyry, discursive knowledge holds priority over the ineffable; the “known,” for the learned Porphyry, is more important than the unknown. In the judgment of Iamblichus, Porphyry is possessed by the habit of discursive thinking. Like many intellectuals of his age, and our own, discursive thinking dominates his attention. For Iamblichus and for Plotinus this discursive habit—which we practice without question—is characterized as a kind of bewitchment or spell that blinds us to true knowledge.6 Thus, in order to understand divination as a spontaneous supernatural power we first need to be protected from the spell of discourse. Iamblichus explains:
The greatest talisman (µέγιστον ἀλεξιφάρµακον) against all these difficulties is to know the principle of divination (ἀρχὴν τῆς µαντικῆς), know that it is not activated by bodies or by bodily conditions, by natural objects or natural powers, by human disposition or its related habits.…. Know, rather, that the supreme power of divination belongs to the gods and is bestowed by them alone. Divination is accomplished by divine acts and signs, and consists of divine visions and spiritual insights.7
The Greek term ἀλεξιοφάρµακον, translated as “talisman,” literally means counter-drug to ward off the effects of a drug or spell, in this case the spell of discursive thought. It is important to recognize that Iamblichus was not opposed to discursive thinking. After all, virtually all Platonic philosophy is communicated in discursive thought. The key is that the exercise of discursive thinking was never taken as an end in itself; it was valued only as the means to realize something prior to and deeper than discourse. It is that “prior to and deeper than” that challenges us, and it challenged Porphyry too.
Iamblichus tells Porphyry that what he needs is not more or better information; he needs the experience of receiving the gods in theurgic ritual. What is required is the capacity to free himself from the spell of discursive thinking, from the presumption that knowing how to describe an experience is equivalent to the experience itself. Iamblichus tells Porphyry:
Some of these [issues] that require active experience for their understanding will not be possible [to explain] by words alone.8 …[Later he writes] [I]t is not enough simply to learn about these things, nor would anyone who simply knows these things become accomplished in the divine science.9
Like many philosophers in Iamblichus’s era, Porphyry had become bewitched by the pharmakon of discourse; he had grown addicted to sophistication, and as long as he attempted to explain theurgic divination discursively he would fail to understand it. Iamblichus, therefore, does not offer an explanation but a talisman to protect Porphyry from the spell of discourse. For Iamblichus, the transformation of the soul is not an intellectual accomplishment but an ancient practice preserved by sacred races and later received by Pythagoras and by Plato.10 The Greeks, he argued, had turned this experiential art into an intellectual game incapable of penetrating the soul.
To Porphyry’s criticism of Egyptian theurgists for using words that have no discursive meaning, Iamblichus replies that Porphyry’s concern is typical of the shallowness of the Greeks. He writes:
At the present time I think the reason everything has fallen into a state of decay in our words and prayers is because they are continually being changed by the endless innovations and lawlessness of the Greeks. For Greeks by nature are followers of the latest trends and are eager to be carried off in any direction, possessing no stability in themselves. Whatever they have received from other traditions they do not preserve; even this they immediately reject and change through their unstable habit of seeking the latest terms.11
For Iamblichus, the talisman or “counter-drug” to the spell of discursive thinking is our receptivity to the active presence of the gods. Although they are the source of all discursive thought, the gods remain hidden; they are always outside the parameters of discourse. The talisman Porphyry needs would release him from the spell and hubris of thinking that human discourse can reveal divine mysteries. As Iamblichus explained, the experience of the gods cannot be acquired through words alone or by our thinking. In effect, we do not acquire an experience of the gods but can, rather, enter states of receptivity that allow the gods to acquire us, to possess us. To be taken by the god is enter one’s innate gnōsis; it is to possess the talisman that protects us from the bewitchment of discursive thought.
Although educated as a Greek, Iamblichus was a scion of Syrian priests and kings and he continued to venerate the traditions of sacred races like the Egyptians because they—like the Syrians—kept their symbols and prayers unchanged.12 They did not translate them into more intellectually sophisticated terms nor did they try to correct their supposed defects;13 they preserved and performed the original prayers received from the gods. Porphyry, representing the Hellenic habit of mind, which is very much our own, challenged Iamblichus to explain the meaning of the ασηµα ὀνόµατα, the “meaningless names” used in theurgic ritual.14 For Iamblichus, it was precisely the ineffability of these names that preserved their revelatory power: “even if it is unknowable to us,” he says, “this is its most sacred aspect: for it is too excellent to be divided into knowledge”—and this is the point.15 Knowledge, discursive knowledge, is always divided, always dual. Divine unity can never be known. As Iamblichus explains:
Union with the divine cannot be a matter of knowledge (γνῶσις), for knowledge is separated (from its object) by a kind of otherness. But prior to that knowledge, which knows another as being itself other, there is a unitary connection with the gods that is spontaneous and undivided.16
This connection is not something we can achieve, for it is already given. It is the ground of our existence; it precedes self-awareness. As Iamblichus puts it, “we are enveloped by this presence; we are filled with it and through it we possess our very existence.”17
There is, then, among the later Platonists like Plotinus and Iamblichus an acute awareness of the limits of discourse and discursive thinking. Definitions of the “known” are valuable only as portals to the unknown. The exercise of mind is valued for its cathartic power, for stripping the soul of its attachment to concepts—however subtle—when they are mistaken for truth. The full recognition of our limits serves as a protective talisman from the lure of conceptual revelations and prepares the soul to receive true gnosis—a knowing that is undivided, spontaneous, and divine. This gnosis is like Plotinian noēsis which, according to Sarah Rappe, is “utterly unlike … normal thinking.”18 Strictly speaking, the theurgic gnosis of Iamblichus is not even rational. It is more amenable to visionary language, to symbols or images that collapse oppositions (e.g., knower and known) into unities. This is why the later Platonists privilege ritual and symbol over philosophic discourse. As the poet and theurgic magus William Butler Yeats put it shortly before his death, “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.”19
For Iamblichus, receiving the god is not something that can be known, discussed, or analyzed. It awakens a presence in us that is “superior to all judgment and choice and prior to logic and argumentation.”20 This presence, Iamblichus says plainly, is “not human,”21 and through it we are united with the gods. He continues: “an innate gnosis (ἔµφυτος γνῶσις) of the gods co-exists with our very nature.… This gnosis is joined from the beginning with its cause and is interwoven with our essential yearning (ἐφέσιν) for the Good.22
Iamblichus says the soul’s awareness of the gods must be correspondingly godlike. Framing this non-dual epistemology with an image borrowed from Plato’s Phaedrus, Iamblichus says:
With the eternal companions of the gods, there corresponds an innate cognition of them; for even as the gods themselves possess a being of eternal identity, so too the human soul joins itself to them in knowledge in the same way, not using conjecture or opinion or syllogistic reasoning, all of which derive from temporal reality … but rather the soul connects itself to the gods with pure and blameless intuitions that it receives from eternity from those same gods.23
The purpose of theurgic Platonism was to induce this reception, whether it was effected through a material ritual or a visualization. Unless the induction awakens this innate gnosis and our essential yearning, the soul will experience neither revelation nor transformation. This is why Iamblichus emphasizes that theurgic divination can be understood only through practical experience.
It is not surprising that scholars initially disparaged theurgy for, in their estimation, it fails to live up to the high standards of Hellenic rationalism and Platonism. Iamblichus’s talisman threatens us because we are the descendants of the rationalist culture that he criticizes as deficient. Since the Enlightenment we have seen ourselves as the heirs of a tradition of rationality beginning with Parmenides, Socrates, and Plato. To sustain this fantasy, we have overlooked the mystical elements that play a critical role for all of them. In the case of Socrates, the most celebrated philosopher in Western history, we have a man who admitted that he knew nothing, entered deep states of trance that could last up to twenty-four hours, and listened to an invisible daimon and to dreams for guidance. Socrates was discursively brilliant, but in searching for the secret of his power to transform his listeners, we tend to give too much weight to the logic of his arguments, forgetting the role of his erotic presence.24
As represented by Socrates, the solution to our discursive bewitchment is to recognize that thinking, as we ordinarily practice it, goes nowhere, leads to a dead end, to what Socrates called aporia, literally meaning “no path,” nowhere to go. It is only by fully recognizing this condition, this not knowing, that we can begin to share in Socrates’s realization that “human wisdom is worthless,” even more specifically, that my wisdom is worthless and your wisdom is worthless too.25 The Socratic path gets very personal and embarrassing, but unless one is ready to lose face, to not know, one cannot begin to receive the talisman that Iamblichus offers to Porphyry.
As long as we think we can intellectually grasp theurgic divination, we either reach a dead end or, what is worse, we presume to know what it really means by reducing it to a “narrative structure” that meets social or political ends. We fail to understand it because we resist initiation into the mysteries, into states of unknowing without which, Iamblichus says, we cannot receive the god. Theurgic divination requires possession, ecstasy, the loss of our habitual discursive orientation. We are inexperienced in nurturing these states, although for later Platonists ecstatic possession was critical for uniting with the divine. As Iamblichus explains:
Divine possession is not a human action nor does its power rest in human attributes or actions, for these are otherwise receptively disposed and the god uses them as his instruments. The god completes the entire work of divination by himself … with neither the soul nor the body being moved at all, the god acts by himself.26
In mantic possession, our initiative is given over to a god who acts through us. The soul becomes a medium through which the deity takes human form. Although this experience is definitive for theurgy and later Platonists, it is no longer worthy of consideration by today’s philosophers. The legacy of the Neoplatonists today is no longer preserved in schools of philosophy but by poets and visionaries. D.H. Lawrence, for example, reveals the secret of mantic transformation in the opening stanza of his poem “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through.” He writes:
Mantic possession may be sung, but it cannot be discursively explained; it must be experienced and from such experiences an invitation may be offered to those able to receive it. The theurgist becomes a vehicle of a deeper reality, a god. But Iamblichus warns Porphyry that as long as he presumes to know or to take the initiative in theurgic divination, he will lack the capacity to receive the god. The discipline is not learning how to act but to be acted on: “not I, but the wind that blows through me.” The essential skill of the theurgist, therefore, is not in learning the techniques of divination but in becoming sensitive enough to receive the divine and invisible presence.28 Lawrence got it right. When the soul develops this refined sensitivity it becomes an instrument of the god; it enters another order of reality. As Iamblichus puts it:
The soul is entirely separated from things that bind it to the world. It flies from the inferior, exchanges one life for another and gives itself to another order of reality, having entirely abandoned its former existence.29
Iamblichus’s talisman of gnōsis was passed down the golden chain of Platonic teachers. Damascius, the last and perhaps most critical of the Neoplatonists, refers to this talisman in the soul’s approach to the One. Let his epistemological caution serve as our conclusion. He says:
To the extent that the knower approaches the One it is not as with other things that we know more as we get closer. In fact the opposite happens. We know less, since knowledge is dissolved by the One into unknowing. This makes sense, since knowledge needs differentiation … but differentiation as it approaches the One collapses into unity so that knowledge disappears into unknowing.30
This article draws from my previous study of the Iamblichean talisman; see Shaw 2007, 25–34.
1 David, In Porphyrii isagogen commentarium 92 4. Cited by Athanassiadi 1995, 244.
2 Athanassiadi 1999, 14.
3 Iamblichus, Myst. 99.9 (Clarke, Dillon, and Hershbell 2003). References follow the Parthey pagination used by the translators who serve as the basis for my translations.
6 Plotinus, Enn. iv.4.43.16. See Rappe 2000, 104.
10 Iamblichus, De Anima 30.24–27 (Finamore and Dillon 2002). Cf. Iamblichus, Myst. 2.8–3.4.
11 Iamblichus, Myst. 259.5–14. A similar criticism of the Greeks in contrast to the Egyptians is found in the Hermetic corpus (Corp herm. xvi.2): “For the Greeks, O King, who make logical demonstrations, use words emptied of power, and this very activity is what constitutes their philosophy, a mere noise of words. But we [Egyptians] do not [so much] use words (λόγοι) but sounds (ϕωναι) which are full of effects” (Nock and Festugière 1954–1960; reprint 1972–1983, 232).
12 Iamblichus, Myst. 259.10–14. On Iamblichus’s Syrian background and his veneration of traditional forms of worship, see Athanassiadi 2006, 153–60.
13 As Porphyry does with divine oracles, despite his own pious protestations: “I myself call the gods to witness, that I have neither added anything, nor taken away from the meaning of the oracles, except where I have corrected an erroneous phrase, or made a change for greater clearness, or completed the meter when defective, or struck out anything that did not conduce to the purpose; so that I have preserved the sense of what was spoken untouched, guarding against the impiety of such changes” (Eusebius, Praep. ev., iv.7). Porphyry unwittingly contradicts himself by making several changes to preserve the meaning of the oracle as he conceives it!
18 Rappe 2000, 27.
19 Ellman 1948, 289.
24 Bussanich 1999, 29–52; for Socrates’s erotic power see especially Alcibiades’s speech in Plato, Symp. 215b–222c.
27 Lawrence 1986, 72. Lawrence emphasizes the experience of receptivity, of our being carried, borne by the wind to another world. Peter Kingsley has emphasized the critical role of “being taken” among ancient philosopher-magicians, seeking the soul’s transformation and deification. He writes: “We can never make our way to the truth. That would be out of the question. Like Parmenides, we have to be taken there instead; all we can do is wait. And it’s only when we finally are taken that we can begin to see just how impossible it would have been to work our way out of the illusion towards the truth” (Kingsley 2003, 257, emphasis mine).
28 Iamblichus uses the Greek verb χώρειν to describe how theurgists receive the light of the gods (De Myst. 86.6; 87.7; 125.7; 173.5). Χώρειν is the cognate of χώρα, the term Plato uses in the Timaeus (49ab; 52a) for the receptacle or “space” that receives and transmits the Forms without distortion. For an exploration of the Platonic chōra in the work of Iamblichus, see Shaw 2012, 103–129.
30 Damascius, Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles, Vol. i: i.84.1–7 (Ahbel-Rappe 2006, 126, and Combès and Westerink 1986, 84; this represents my translation based on those of Ahbel-Rappe and Combès).
Athanassiadi Polymnia , '“The Oecumenism of Iamblichus: Latent Knowledge and Its Awakening.” ', in Henry Jacob & E. Gillian Clarke (eds), The Divine Iamblichus: Philosopher and Man of Gods , (Bristol Classical , London 1995 ) 244 -250 Review of Blumenthal 1993 Journal of Roman Studies.
Athanassiadi Polymnia , La lutte pour l’orthodoxie dans le platonisme tardif: de Numénius à Damascius , (Les Belles Lettres , Paris 2006 ) LÂne d’or.
Athanassiadi Polymnia , Damascius: The Philosophical History, text with translation and notes , (Apamea Cultural Association, Athens 1999 ).
Bussanich John , '“Socrates the Mystic.” ', in John Cleary (ed), Traditions of Platonism: Essays in Honor of John Dillon , (Ashgate Publishing , Aldershot 1999 ) 29 -51.
David , 'In Porphyrii Isagogen commentarium ', in Maria Pantelia (ed), Thesaurus Linguae Graecae Digital Library , (University of California , Irvine ) http://www.tlg.uci.edu.
Ellman Richard , Yeats: The Man and the Masks , (W.W. Norton , New York 1948 ) Gifford, Edwin Hamilton. 1903. Eusebius. Preparation for the Gospel, iv.7. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
'Plato, The Apology, in Plato ', in Edith Hamilton & Huntington Cairns (eds), Collected Dialogues , (Princeton University Press, Princeton 1973 ).
Rappe Sara , Reading Neoplatonism: Non-discursive Thinking in the Texts of Plotinus, Proclus, and Damascius , (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2000 ).
Shaw Gregory , '“The Talisman: Magic and True Philosophers,” ', in Angela Voss & Jean Lall (eds), The Imaginal Cosmos: Imagination, divination, and the sacred , (University of Kent, Canterbury 2007 ).
Athanassiadi 1999, 14.
Iamblichus, Myst. 99.9 (Clarke, Dillon, and Hershbell 2003). References follow the Parthey pagination used by the translators who serve as the basis for my translations.
Iamblichus, Myst. 259.5–14. A similar criticism of the Greeks in contrast to the Egyptians is found in the Hermetic corpus (Corp herm. xvi.2): “For the Greeks, O King, who make logical demonstrations, use words emptied of power, and this very activity is what constitutes their philosophy, a mere noise of words. But we [Egyptians] do not [so much] use words (λόγοι) but sounds (ϕωναι) which are full of effects” (Nock and Festugière 1954–1960; reprint 1972–1983, 232).
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)| false , Myst. Iamblichus 259. 5–14. A similar criticism of the Greeks in contrast to the Egyptians is found in the Hermetic corpus (Corp herm. xvi.2): “For the Greeks, O King, who make logical demonstrations, use words emptied of power, and this very activity is what constitutes their philosophy, a mere noise of words. But we [Egyptians] do not [so much] use words (λόγοι) but sounds (ϕωναι) which are full of effects” (Nock and Festugière 1954–1960; reprint 1972–1983, 232).
Iamblichus, Myst. 259.10–14. On Iamblichus’s Syrian background and his veneration of traditional forms of worship, see Athanassiadi 2006, 153–60.
Rappe 2000, 27.
Ellman 1948, 289.
Bussanich 1999, 29–52; for Socrates’s erotic power see especially Alcibiades’s speech in Plato, Symp. 215b–222c.
Lawrence 1986, 72. Lawrence emphasizes the experience of receptivity, of our being carried, borne by the wind to another world. Peter Kingsley has emphasized the critical role of “being taken” among ancient philosopher-magicians, seeking the soul’s transformation and deification. He writes: “We can never make our way to the truth. That would be out of the question. Like Parmenides, we have to be taken there instead; all we can do is wait. And it’s only when we finally are taken that we can begin to see just how impossible it would have been to work our way out of the illusion towards the truth” (Kingsley 2003, 257, emphasis mine).