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By Damascius, Neoplatonism, Theurgy

Proclus (412-485) was head of the Athenian school of Neoplatonism, shortly before paganism was suppressed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. His prodigious output reflects the full-blown phase of Neoplatonist exegesis, which had departed from the Plotinian version.

Born in Constantinople, his Greek parents came from the upper class; his father was a law official in the courts. Proclus was educated in Alexandria, still renowned for a classical study curriculum. That syllabus included philosophy, in general part of the career vocation available to the Greek-speaking upper class. Like many others, Proclus was training for a professional role. Upon his return to Constantinople, he became a lawyer, as his father had intended.

He afterwards decided that philosophy was the most important subject, and returned to Alexandria. There he studied the corpus of Aristotle. Under a separate tutor, he became proficient in mathematics. Proclus moved to Athens, a city still enjoying a reputation as the hub of philosophical activity. From 431 CE he studied at a (Neo)Platonist school led by his tutors Plutarch and Syrianus. When Syrianus died in 437, Proclus became the head teacher or scholarch, a position he maintained for the rest of his life.

The curriculum of his school did not represent a pristine Platonism, having absorbed the agenda of Iamblichean Neoplatonism, which displaced the Plotinian version. This development meant that theurgy was a primary interest, reflected in various ritualistic activities. Proclus himself is reported to have practised theurgic rituals in his otherwise studious routine. He never married, and was a vegetarian.

The major source is the Life of Proclus, composed by his successor Marinus of Neapolis, and in part hagiographical. This account refers to his vigils and fasts. During his temporary exile in Lydia, Proclus gained initiation into diverse mystery cults. This activity demonstrated a theurgic outlook, in which the ritual Mysteries were venerated and pagan ceremony glorified in the face of encroaching Christianity.

Recent scholarship has revealed that Proclus acquired a lavish annual income of 1,000 gold solidi, equivalent in contemporary terms to over half a million dollars. The patrons of theurgy did not neglect to support his activities. His surroundings were basically opulent. Proclus is associated with the Athenian cult of Asclepius,  the focus of a temple near his residence (located in the vicinity of the Acropolis).

His substantial learning is evident from his books. However, much of his corpus is lost. His religious beliefs, quite strongly accentuated, are absent from his commentary on Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, in which he demonstrates “a thorough grasp of mathematical method.” In quite another direction, only fragments exist of his partisan commentary on the Chaldean Oracles, a theurgic text which became so influential amongst Neoplatonists. Different again is his Elements of Theology, containing propositions and proofs in the geometric mode associated with Euclid. Unique in antiquity, the Elements is often regarded as his most important work.

Proclus is also noted for his commentaries on Plato, not all of which have survived. His extensive commentary on the Timaeus has been considered the most important available on that text. Proclus regarded Plato as a divine prophet, an attitude symptomatic of the rivalry with Christianity.

Critics say that Proclus made Platonism into a theology supported by theurgy. His lengthy Platonic Theology has more generously been described as “a magisterial summa of pagan Hellenic theology.” In this text,  Proclus was “eager to demonstrate the harmony of the ancient religious revelations (the mythologies of Homer and Hesiod, the Orphic theogonies and the Chaldean Oracles) and to integrate them in the philosophical tradition of Pythagoras and Plato” (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy).

The subject of theurgy is controversial. Proclus advocated theurgy in his treatise On Hieratic Art, only partially extant. The Neoplatonist version should be distinguished from magic, despite certain resemblances in ritual practices, including invocations. Critics regard the ritualism as a retrogression from Plotinus. Proclus converged with Iamblichus in the belief that theurgy was a means of salvation compatible with Platonism, which referred to the gods.

Three types of theurgy have been discerned in Proclus. The first category is ritualistic, concerned with the evocation of oracles and divine visions, also involving the “animation of statues,” a distasteful subject to some analysts. The second category is associated with the Hymns of Proclus, representing a more aspirational use of prayers and invocations. The third category relates to unity with the One, celebrating such matters as silence, “negative theology,” and “faith” (pistis). Complexities are still debated.

Some years after the death of Proclus, Damascius (c.460-c.540) became leader of the Athenian school by 515; he  is credited with producing a revival of philosophy. Damascius cultivated a critical attitude to the adoption of theurgy. His Philosophical History furnishes relevant information on various events. Revealingly, he criticised the followers of Proclus, including even the revered Marinus. Damascius accused these theurgists of lacking insight.

Damascius was especially critical of Hegias, a wealthy patron who became head of the Athenian school during the 490s. The factor of wealth is significant; affluence had ousted the “moderate asceticism” of Plotinus, instead permitting the influx of ritual preoccupations, to the extent that intellectual study was in jeopardy.

Damascius clearly wanted to change the situation, being in favour of restoring the contemplative angle as distinct from ritual distractions. Systematic study of Aristotle and Plato was a primary feature of his “revival.” He composed the treatise known as Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles, providing a critique of the Proclean metaphysical system.

However, Damascius employed an Iamblichean mode of interpretation rather than anything Plotinian. He still tried to integrate the “Chaldean” theurgic doctrines into a Neoplatonist framework, nevertheless expressing a different standpoint to Proclus, with some critical attention to the arguments of Iamblichus.

Time was running out. In 529, paganism was prohibited by the oppressive Christian emperor Justinian the Great. Exile was threatened if the pagans did not convert to Christianity. Some victims lost their lives. In this grim situation, Damascius and six other learned Neoplatonists decided to flee from Athens, emigrating to Mesopotamia in an endeavour to gain a hearing at the Sassanian court in Ctesiphon. The details are not clear.

A recent theory posits that a Neoplatonist school was soon established at Harran (Hellenopolis) under Sassanian protection. Harran certainly became a subsequent centre for philosophical and scientific studies, in Greek and Syriac, during the early Islamic era.


Ahbel-Rappe, Sara, trans., Damascius’ Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Baltzly, Dirk, and Harold  Tarrant, ed. and trans., Proclus: Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus (multi-volume, Cambridge University Press, 2006——). 

Clarke, Emma C., et al, trans., Iamblichus: On the Mysteries (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003).

Dodds, E. R., ed. and trans., The Elements of Theology (second edn, Oxford University Press, 1963).

Morrow, Glenn R., trans., Proclus: A Commentary on the First Book of Euclid’s Elements (Princeton University Press, 1970).

Siorvanes, Lucas, Proclus: Neoplatonic Philosophy and Science (Edinburgh University Press, 1996).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd

November 8th, 2011

ENTRY no. 44

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



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.