Iamblichus (Greek: Ἰάμβλιχος, probably from Syriac or Aramaic ya-mlku, meaning “He is king”), also known as Iamblichus of Chalchis, or Iamblichus of Apamea, was a Syrian Platonist philosopher living during 245 – c. 325 ACE. He was born in Chalcis-ad-Belum (modern-day Qinnesrin) in northern Syria as a son of a wealthy and illustrious family that descended from several priest-kings of Emesa (modern-day Homs). The main source of Iamblichus’ life is written in the style of a hagiography by a student of a student of a student of Iamblichus, a sophist named Eunapius.
Iamblichus was introduced to Platonism by a man named Anatolius, who is written to have ranked “second in command” to Porphyry (this ambiguous language implies that Anatolius was either second in command in Porphyry’s academy or second to Porphyry in the philosophy of Platonism) and would eventually become Bishop of Laodicea sometime following 270 ACE. During this time Iamblichus, possibly with his wife and child, left Chalcis for Caesarea, where he studied Aristotelian philosophy under Anatolius before leaving to study with Porphyry himself.
At this time Porphyry is in Sicily, sent there by Plotinus, to return to Rome sometime in the 280s. It is unknown if Iamblichus studied with Porphyry in Rome or in Sicily, but he does become a student at Porphyry’s academy, at least for a short time. Iamblichus even dedicates at least one of his books to Porphyry. The two had a rocky relationship, which is often attested in Iamblichus’ own writings. (An example lies in the surviving fragments of Iamblichus’ commentary on Plato’s Timaeus, where Porphyry is mentioned 32 times; 25 of these times are criticisms of Porphyry’s position, and merely 7 are in agreement.) Their tensions largely rose over disagreements primarily up regarding Iamblichus’ practice of theurgy and endorsement of pagan religiosity.
Sometime during 290s ACE Iamblichus left Porphyry’s academy and returned to Syria to found his own school at Apamea, a city already famous for its Platonic philosophers.
By this time his son is thought to have married one of Plotinus’ younger students or admirers, a woman named Amphicleia. Descriptions of Iamblichus’ academy are copious with devout disciples and long philosophical discussions, with an emphasis on community living and shared worship. Eunapius reported that many students gathered around him and that his company was so pleasant and his conversation so charming that his students never gave him any peace and wanted to be with him continually. He frequently conversed with his students and wasn’t demanding in his lifestyle. Eunapius describes the wisdom of Iamblichus’ words as being as filling as nectar so that his disciples are always desirous of listening to him.
Here he designed a curriculum for studying Plato and Aristotle, and he wrote commentaries on the two that survive only in fragments, where he described that Plato wrote of the divine while Aristotle wrote on the physical world.
Iamblichus believed that philosophy is a way of life; however Iamblichus did not see philosophy as the apex. The crown of life is not philosophical contemplation nor religion, but rather, theurgy. When precisely Iamblichus was introduced to theurgy (and the Chaldean Oracles supporting them) is unknown. It’s possible that he learned it from his teacher Porphyry before they rejected it, or he may be already involved with it before his studentship under Porphyry. What we do know through his teachings is that Iamblichus saw that Gods, and the One above them, are not merely beyond the physical realm but also beyond the realm of the mind. As the divine Mind, Nous, is beneath the One itself, how can a mere human mind, even one linked to the Nous, hope to connect itself to the Gods above? Contemplation can only take one so far towards the divine. Through theurgic rituals, the theurgist purifies themselves, attain to divine illumination, and perfect their soul. In doing so, theurgists engage in the work of the Demiurge, the divine intellect and Mind (Nous), as He governs the divine and physical worlds. Nothing shorter than theurgy is capable of this. Iamblichus would publish De Mysteriis sometime during his life, which addressed many of his teacher’s criticisms against the practice.
At a time when it was custom for wealthy families to adopt Greek names, Iamblichus decided to retain his Semitic name, likely to honor his noble ancestors. This choice is consistent with his view of Greek culture for, similar to Plato (Laws 657a), he felt that the Greeks changed ancient traditions too capriciously and had little respect for the “old nations.” Iamblichus writes “the Greeks are naturally followers of novelty and are carried off everywhere by their volatility, neither possessing any stability themselves, nor preserving what they have received from others, but rapidly abandoning this, they transform everything through an unstable desire of seeking something new.” (De Mysteriis VII.5) Hence, in his philosophy, Iamblichus tried to harmonize the rational discourse of Platonism and Greek thought with the ancient religious practices of Near Eastern nations such as Egypt, Assyria, and Chaldea.
According to German classical scholar Johann Albert Fabricius, Iamblichus died during the reign of Constantine sometime before 333 ACE.
By his contemporaries, Iamblichus was accredited with miraculous powers. One of the most renown miracles is the Twin Gods miracle, which is recorded by Eunapius and happened when during the summer season when Iamblichus’ school decided to go to Gadara, a place which has warm baths in Syria that were said to only be inferior to those at Baiae in Italy. Iamblichus was bathing and his students were bathing with him, and they begun pressing him for miracles, causing Iamblichus to smile and say: “It is irreverent to the gods to give you this demonstration, but for your sakes it shall be done.”
There were two hot springs smaller than the others but prettier, and he bade his disciples to ask the natives of the place by what names they used to be called. When they had done his bidding they returned and said: “There is no pretence about it, this spring is called Eros, and the name of the one next to it is Anteros.” Sitting at the edge of the spring where the overflow runs off, Iamblichus at once touched the water with his hand– and uttering a brief summons he called forth a boy from the depth of the spring. He was described as white-skinned and of medium height, with locks of gold as well as breasts and back that shone; and he “exactly resembled one who was bathing or had just bathed.”
His disciples were overwhelmed with amazement, but Iamblichus said, “Let us go to the next spring,” and he rose and led the way, with a thoughtful air. Then he went through the same performance there also, and summoned another Eros-like figure, like the first in all respects except that His hair was darker and fell loose in the sun. Both the boys embraced Iamblichus and clung to him as though he were genuinely their father. He restored them to their proper places and went away after his bath, reverenced by his pupils. After this the crowd of his disciples sought no further evidence, but believed everything from the proofs that had been revealed to them, and hung on to him as though by an unbreakable chain.
- De Mysteriis
- De Anima, a piece on the nature of the soul
- On the Pythagorean Way of Life
The Theology of Arithmetic
- The Exhortation to Philosophy
- Peri Psyche, commentaries on six of Aristotle’s books and twelve of Plato’s
- Collection of Pythagorean Doctrines, a ten-volume treatise on Pythagoras and his philosophy. Only four books survive.
- Various books on Hellenic, Syrian, Chaldean and Egyptian theology/philosophy.
Iamblichus was a prolific writer; however, the majority of Iamblichus’ written works were destroyed during the hostile Christianization of the Roman Empire, and only a fraction of them survived. He wrote copious amounts of work, such as a now-lost commentary on the Chaldean Oracles.
Iamblichus was highly praised in Antiquity, and often people would speak of him posthumously with the epithet of “the Divine.” The emperor Julian regarded Iamblichus as more than second to Plato, and claimed he would give all the gold of Lydia, a region of Anatolia, for one epistle of Iamblichus.
Eunapius. Lives of the philosophers and sophists. London: Loeb Classical Library., 1922.
Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, and Wilmer Cave. Wright. The works of emperor Julian. London: Heinemann etc., 1962.
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”. London: Avalonia, 2014.
New World Encyclopedia writers. “Iamblichus.” New World Encyclopedia. Accessed November 18, 2017. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Iamblichus.