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By Enneads, Iamblichus, Letter to Anebo, Neoplatonism, Theurgy

Depiction of Plato and Aristotle by Raphael

The most well known disciple of Plotinus was Porphyry (c.232-c.305 CE), a Phoenician from Tyre, whose parents are often described as Syrians. Before meeting Plotinus, he originally studied at Athens under the Platonist Longinus. Possessing the disposition to study different languages and religions, he developed a polymathic ability.

When Porphyry moved to Rome in 263, he became a pupil of Plotinus. He was at first disconcerted by differences with the “official” Athenian format. The method of Plotinus contrasted with that of Longinus. Plotinus was far more informal and unorthodox. Longinus had composed two works of note; however, Plotinus classified him as a scholar or literary man, not as a philosopher.

Plotinus did not write commentaries on Plato; his exposition, preserved in the Enneads, was in the Platonist spirit but altogether more free-ranging. Both he and Longinus had been students of the deceased Ammonius Saccas in Alexandria. They were nevertheless in disagreement. Porphyry at first expected technical perfectionism from Plotinus. He found instead that Plotinus was not concerned about grammatical niceties in his usage of Greek. Like Ammonius, Plotinus was outside the official Platonist curriculum, whereas Longinus had become part of this convention.

Porphyry inherited the private manuscripts of Plotinus, which he considered defective in terms of format, though not in respect of ideational and experiential content. Porphyry eventually edited those manuscripts, publishing the result some thirty years after the death of his teacher. The Plotinus texts became known as the Enneads.

The output of Porphyry is different to that of Plotinus. He was an industrious writer, evidently believing in a reconcilement of the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. Porphyry wrote commentaries on Aristotle that Plotinus might have deemed too academic. These included the famous Isagoge, a preparation for the study of Aristotelian logic, well received by the Christian Schoolmen centuries later.

About sixty works are attributed to Porphyry. Most of these are lost or extant in a fragmented form. The subjects covered include history, mathematics, Homeric literary criticism, and metaphysics. There are scholarly uncertainties in confirming a number of the attributions.

The uncertainties have contributed to a mixed assessment of Porphyry’s role. He may have deliberately composed for different readerships, given the diverse nature of attributions. Modern scholars have credited Porphyry with a basically rational orientation. However, he diverged into what some commentators have deemed an idiosyncratic preoccupation with religious matters (and even astrology).

One view is that he validated the Chaldean Oracles for the common worshipper, while himself remaining aloof from theurgy. Augustine of Hippo presented Porphyry in terms of an anomaly; Pierre Hadot concluded that Porphyry tried to find a universal denominator in varied religious phenomena, including the Indian “gymnosophists.”

His lengthy work Against the Christians survives only in fragments; this critique was denounced by Christianity, being burned in 448 by Byzantine decree. Porphyry was a defender of paganism, more specifically the philosophical tradition of Plato and Aristotle. During his lifetime, the spread of Christianity was slow by comparison with fourth century developments after the reign of Constantine.

One aspect of his mentation was a “Pythagorean” disposition associated with vegetarianism, which he advocated in the treatise On Abstinence from Killing Animals. Like Plotinus, Porphyry believed in a contemplative and ascetic lifestyle. Nevertheless, at about the age of sixty, he married Marcella, whose interest in philosophy was commemorated in his Letter to Marcella.

Perhaps the most evocative writing of Porphyry is the Letter to Anebo, extant in fragments. This work has been assessed in terms of critical reference to the ritualist version of Mysteries, as a device to turn the attention of distracted readers to philosophy. The anonymous epistle is addressed to an Egyptian priest. The author was evidently averse to divination and theurgy.

The Letter to Anebo complains about Egyptian religion, and the priests who acted as astrologers, teaching an inflexible astrological fatalism. The document has been interpreted as an attack on Iamblichus, apparently a former pupil of Porphyry, who became an influential advocate of theurgy.

Iamblichus (c.245-325) is a disputed subject. “Hailed by some as the most sublime and dazzling metaphysician who changed the course of Platonism, he is deprecated by others as the most obscure though prolific author, who imported into his texts all sorts of superstition, oriental beliefs and magic, and eclectically fitted all this into his own bewildering metaphysical schema with a heavy reliance on triadic subdivisions” (Afonasin et al 2012:1).

A Syrian from a wealthy family of aristocratic association, Iamblichus taught a version of Neoplatonism at the Syrian town of Apamea. He was an enthusiast of Pythagoras, whom he revived in a theurgic context that is controversial. In his De Vita Pythagorica, Iamblichus attempted a new programme for philosophy via his interpretation of the Pythagorean way of life. The De Vita “can be seen as a kind of protreptic summation of the whole ethical tradition of Greek philosophy, a tradition in which all the schools agreed that philosophy was not simply a set of doctrines, but a whole way of life” (Dillon and Hershbell 1991:29).

Iamblichus is credited with authorship of On the Mysteries (De Mysteriis); the attribution has not been universally accepted. That treatise was composed under the pseudonym of Abammon, signifying a putative Egyptian priest. De Mysteriis  was evidently intended as a response to Porphyry’s anti-theurgy composition. Iamblichus here “concentrates on highlighting the signs by which Porphyry would be able to recognise true theurgy when he sees it, and argues that the only way Porphyry will gain the understanding which he seeks is by participating in the divine rites” (Clarke et al 2003:xlix-l).

There is no doubt that the issue of theurgy was attended by a strong disagreement. Porphyry was furthering the outlook of Plotinus on this point, while Iamblichus and his school were in support of ritual sacrifices, divination, trance, invocations, ritual mysteries, talismans, and other trappings.

This issue remains an important significator of orientation, both in respect of the Neoplatonist exemplars and the contemporary responses.


Afonasin, Eugene, John Dillon, and John F. Finamore, eds., Iamblichus and the Foundations of Late Platonism (Leiden: Brill, 2012).

Barnes, Jonathan, trans., Porphyry: Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003).

Clark, Gillian, trans., Porphyry: On Abstinence from Killing Animals (Cornell University Press, 2000). 

Clarke, Emma C., John M. Dillon, Jackson P. Hershbell, trans., Iamblichus: De Mysteriis (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003).

Dillon, John,  and Jackson Hershbell, ed. and trans., Iamblichus: On the Pythagorean Way of Life (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1991).

Finamore, John F., and John M. Dillon, Iamblichus, De Anima: Text, Translation, and Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2002).

Hoffman, R. Joseph, Porphyry’s Against the Christians: The Literary Remains (New York: Prometheus, 1994).

Smith, Andrew,  Porphyry’s Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1974).

Wallis, R. T., Neoplatonism (London: Duckworth, 1972).

Wicker, Kathleen O’Brien, Porphyry the Philosopher: To Marcella (Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1987).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd

October 10th 2011, modified October 2021 

ENTRY no. 43

Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.


By Against the Gnostics, Enneads, Neoplatonism, Plotinus

Representation of Plotinus

Plotinus (circa 204-70) is conventionally described as a Neoplatonist. However, his teaching exhibits differences to later exponents of “Neoplatonism.” There is no theurgy in his Enneads. This factor alone comprises a gulf between Plotinus and Proclus, a well endowed exponent of the Athenian school.

A biography of Plotinus was composed by his disciple Porphyry many years after his death. The famous Vita Plotini (Life of Plotinus) is regarded as a basically reliable report; some hagiology may have infiltrated. Porphyry was also the redactor of the Enneads, representing the formerly secretive writings of Plotinus.

His date of birth is uncertain, and likewise his racial origin. Plotinus would not refer to his early years, nor allow his birthday to be celebrated. As a consequence, the date and place of his birth passed into obscurity. His world-renouncing outlook was basically a mystery to commentators like Bertrand Russell. The “moderate ascetic” orientation of Plotinus decodes to a gulf between him and most modern commentators, including even Pierre Hadot.

An early hagiographer, Eunapius of Sardis, informs that the birthplace was Lyco(polis) in Upper Egypt. Plotinus might easily have been a Hellenised Egyptian; the scholarly opinions have differed. His social class may or may not have been elevated.
As a young man, Plotinus searched for a teacher amongst the Greek-educated philosophers of Alexandria. These tutors gave formal lectures, and were divided into different schools. Plotinus was disappointed with the example and teaching of these more or less official pedagogues. He eventually became a disciple of Ammonius, an obscure Platonist who was apparently self-taught and relatively distanced from the conventional professorial scene. Later authors applied the nickname of Saccas to Ammonius; the meaning is uncertain.

When Ammonius died circa 242 CE, Plotinus had been his pupil for a decade. The latter departed from Alexandria in 243, joining an ill-fated expedition (possibly as a court philosopher) of the Roman emperor Gordian III against the Persians. Gordian was murdered in Mesopotamia by rebellious soldiers; this situation was part of the political problem afflicting Rome. Plotinus fled to Antioch, subsequently moving on to Rome by 245.  There he settled, gaining followers in senatorial ranks. Plotinus eventually became well known. He maintained a cautious tactic of guarding his unpublished manuscripts, which were available only to committed students like Amelius and Porphyry. His circle were cosmopolitan, including Syrians, Alexandrians, and at least one Arab.  Also, three women are fleetingly mentioned, two of them apparently Romans.

Plotinus disliked the rhetoric favoured by orators. He also detoured the set speeches maintained by Platonist convention, preferring an informal procedure involving the discussion of texts. He did not claim originality in his version of Plato. However, the Enneads are clearly innovative in a number of respects.

He endorsed study of the sciences, in a Platonist manner. He was evidently familiar with geometry, mechanics, optics, and music (then regarded as a science). Plotinus would not himself practise those pursuits, which he viewed as a secondary support for training the mind. In the Neoplatonist view, too much attention given to scientific activity is a distraction from the philosophical quest. There are differences with Aristotle, an authority whom Plotinus frequently contested. Some elements of convergence are also evident. In another direction, “the writings of Plotinus apparently contain strong repudiation of Stoic doctrines, as well as tacit acceptance of some of them” (Graeser 1972:xiii).

He is noted for opposing astrology, regarding horoscopy as deceptive. Plotinus taught freewill as distinct from determinism. His objective was to live in accordance with the standards of “virtue,” a complex theme associated with his elevation of the “Divine Mind” or Intellect. The strongly mystical element in his teaching emphasised a purification and illumination far removed from the convenient routines of orators and pedants. Plotinus contested the persuasions of Diophanes, an orator in Rome who favoured pederasty.

“We must break away towards the High,” was a Plotinian theme. Then as now, such emphases were unwelcome in many directions. A wealthy Roman pupil of Plotinus was Rogatianus, who declined the office of praetor pressed upon him by the Senate. The pupil renounced all his property and set free all his slaves. Under the influence of Plotinus, Rogatianus chose a simple lifestyle forsaking all social status and elitism.

Plotinus was opposed to the excessive wealth and slavery in the Roman environment, trappings which accompanied military prowess. One may conclude that he scored over Aristotle, who had endorsed slavery in a  conciliatory gesture to the ruling class. Science might do little to remove social problems, whereas diligent mysticism may move a lot further.

Plotinus gained a reputation for austerity. Amongst his admirers were the Roman Emperor Gallienus and his wife Salonina. Gallienus was an intellectual type, with a taste for Greek culture; he was not popular with military commanders, despite his victories in battle. Plotinus advised that Gallienus should rebuild a ruined city in Campania, one that should be renamed Platonopolis, and accordingly governed according to the laws of Plato. This proposal was opposed at court, probably by the military. The details are vestigial.

The treatise entitled Against the Gnostics (Ennead II.9) is a well known feature of the Enneads. The protest was made on grounds of Platonist tradition, reason, and morality. The Gnostics were present in Rome; there are implications of flawed doctrines and behaviour. Gnostics were claiming a secret knowledge facilitating a short and easy path to the Divine. Plotinus contrasted this with the long, difficult, and necessary route involved in the Platonist practice of virtue and the due exercise of philosophic intelligence. He repudiated a resort to magic and ritual in the popular Gnostic sector, usages amounting to theurgy (theourgia).

Gnosticism, like Platonism, was a variegated phenomenon, one causing extensive confusions in the modern day. Popular Gnosticism rivalled both Platonism and orthodox Christianity. Gnostic adherents were spread throughout different countries, with diverse figureheads in the vista of “ascetics and libertines” discussed by scholars. Plotinus himself has some similarities to the ascetic wing; he claimed a “mystical union” in his version of philosophic rationalism. These subtleties are difficult to convey in the current climate of misconception caused by “new age” thinking, which includes the disputed integralism.

At the end of his life, Plotinus suffered a severe illness in the onset of an epidemic created by war and social unrest. The distinctive Emperor Gallienus was assassinated by military schemers. A mood of anarchy was prevalent, Rome was beset by troubles. Plotinus retired from Rome to the countryside, possibly afflicted with leprosy, stoically awaiting his end. The man who had rejected his birthday could also transcend death.


Armstrong, A. H. ed. and trans., Plotinus (7 vols, Harvard University Press, 1966-88).

——–“Plotinus” (195-268), in The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 1967).

Gerson, Lloyd P., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus (Cambridge University Press, 1996). 

Graeser, Andreas, Plotinus and the Stoics: A Preliminary Study (Leiden: Brill, 1972).

Hadot, Pierre, Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision, trans. M. Chase (University of Chicago Press, 1993). 

MacKenna, Stephen, trans., The Enneads, ed. John Dillon (London: Penguin, 1991).

Narbonne, Jean-Marc, Plotinus in Dialogue with the Gnostics (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

Rist, J. M., Plotinus: The Road to Reality (Cambridge University Press, 1967).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd 

ENTRY no. 42

Copyright © 2011 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.