Ethics and morality, though rooted in the Gods ontologically, do hold a degree of autonomy, because otherwise we would not be responsible for our own actions. As such, everyone is understood to have free will, and it is an integral part of understanding ourselves. Free will is part of the soul‘s essence (ousia), and is expressed through its power and activity. Because the soul expresses its free will through its power and activity, our ethical decisions not only have an effect on our physical lives, but ultimately on our spiritual lives as well.
Free will’s relation to our descent to matter
- Impure souls who are reincarnated: Reincarnation, where the soul is put back into a body, occurs for the purpose of further purification. They are brought into generation by their Personal Daimon.
- Purified souls who are reincarnated: Having aligned their wills with the Gods and Demiurge, they understand the necessity of their work and the illumination of all souls and therefore willfully and freely descends into matter. This mirrors Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where the individual who escapes the cave bears witness to the light and truth of things, and willingly descends back into the cave to attempt freeing those still trapped inside.
For the large majority of us tied to material existence, however, free will isn’t an absolute since there are things beyond most of our abilities to control, such as Fate. With Fate, our free will becomes a variable, and can be easily overridden by influences of the Realm of Generation. This is because the soul is still in a state of confusion and separated from its true nature.
Fate (Heimarmenē) is the nature of the world, in that it is the inherent movement of the material world towards its divine ends and the necessities of nature, which include living, dying, pain, suffering and a host of other ills that are good for nature and its functioning, but not necessarily perceived as such by us. Thus, Fate works similarly to a clockwork mechanism, and is ultimately necessary for the proper functioning of the natural cosmos. As Iamblichus describes it, Fate is the “one order that comprehends in itself all other orders” (Iamblichus Letter 8, Fragment 1).
Fate’s ordering principle is based on all the higher ordering principles, such as the Intelligible moments and transcendent Time, and it functions as the ordering principle of the Sub-Lunar Realm and all things subject to Generation, including the incarnated impure soul. Only humans and beings possessing only an irrational soul (e.i., non-human animals) are subject towards Fate, and are inclined to Fate just as much as they are inclined towards generation.
Providence (Pronoia, literally “before intellect”) is the universal cause of being and well-being. Providence and Fate are, in truth, one and the same; but are viewed differently in a matter of perspective. While Providence is administered from above, Fate is seen by us from below.
As stated, a soul that needs purification does not recognize its own divine purpose to varying degrees, and thus ultimately works against itself, resulting in it being incarnated in a body as a means of purification and thus subjected to Fate.
This is untrue, however, for Purified Souls, who are those of us who have purified themselves by realizing their true nature as souls by aligning with its divine purpose, thus freeing themselves from material existence. These souls thus see the divine movement in natural actions, thus rising above Fate and recognizing all things as Providence.
Once we achieve Providence, we have true free will. This is because free will exists in the Rational Soul as part of its essence (ousia), and thus depends on the individual’s spiritual knowledge of their own soul. Those who identify entirely with their soul, rather than the material world, are freed from Fate by having aligned themselves with Providence. The Purified Soul’s free will becomes “fixed” in that the soul no longer needs to deliberate through rambling reasoning what actions to take; proper moral activity is known intuitively through gnosis. Furthermore, it is through Providence do we receive prophecy and healing, as the Gods give us a bit of Providence while keeping us subject to Fate.
To quote Iamblichus on this matter, “In accord with this same essence, then, fate is interwoven with providence and, in reality, fate is providence, is established from it and around it” (Stob. II, 173).
In relation to Material Theourgia
A Purified Soul, who comes to remember who and what we really, undergoes a perspective shift. They come to view creation from the divine realm, instead of viewing the divine from creation. Once we realize our true nature, we gain the opportunity to cast aside the shackles of Fate and instead participate in the unfolding of Providence. Salvation is ultimately found through philosophy, religion and, ultimately, through theurgy.
Through material theurgy, we willfully participating the divine and ordering work of the Demiurge by incorporating our material natures into the supracosmic patterns. Though our lives do not immediately change with this first step of theurgy, once it is fully realized we cease to be slaves to Fate, and instead, through demiurgy, become its masters by embracing Providence. This is the goal of material theurgy, and in part, the ultimate goal of theurgy as a whole.
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Iamblichus. De Anima. Translated by John F. Finamore and John M. Dillon. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002.
Iamblichus. De Mysteriis. Translated by Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon and Jackson P. Hershbell. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
Kupperman, Jeffrey S. Living Theurgy: A Course in Iamblichus’ Philosophy, Theology, and Theurgy. Glastonbury: Avalonia Books, 2015.
Sallustius, “On the Gods and the Cosmos”, 4th Century AD, accessed May 17, 2017, http://www.platonic-philosophy.org/files/Sallustius%20-%20On%20the%20Gods%20(Taylor).pdf
Shaw, Gregory. Theurgy and the Soul. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.