Iamblichus (c. 245–320 CE)

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(c. 245320 CE)

The sources available for our knowledge of Iamblichus's life are highly unsatisfactory, consisting as they do largely of a rather hagiographical and ill-informed Life by the sophist Eunapius, who was a pupil of Chrysanthius, who had been in turn a pupil of Iamblichus's pupil Aedesius, but enough evidence can be gathered to give a general view of his life-span and activities.

Life and Works

The evidence points to a date of birth around 245 CE, in the town of Chalcis-ad-Belum (modern Qinnesrin) in Northern Syria. Iamblichus's family was prominent in the area, and the retention of an old Aramaic name (yamliku ) in the family points to some relationship with the dynasts of Emesa in the previous centuries, one of whose names this was. This noble ancestry does seem to somewhat color Iamblichus's attitude to traditionhe likes to appeal on occasion for authority to "the most ancient of the priests" (Iamblichus: De Anima, §37).

As teachers, Eunapius provides (VP 4578) us with two names: first, a certain Anatolius, described as second in command to the distinguished Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry, the pupil of Plotinus, and then Porphyry himself. We are left quite uncertain as to where these contacts took place, but we must presume in Rome, at some time in the 270s or 280s, when Porphyry had reconstituted Plotinus's school. If that is soand it is plain that Iamblichus knew Porphyry's work well, even though he was far from a faithful followerthen it seems probable that he left Porphyry's circle long before the latter's death, and returned to his native Syria (probably in the 290s) to set up his own school, not to his home town, but rather to the city of Apamea, already famous in philosophical circles as the home of the Neopythagorean Numenius. There he presided over a circle of pupils, including a local grandee, Sopater, who seems to have supported him materially, and as long as Licinius ruled in the East, the school flourished. After the triumph of Constantine, however, the writing had to be on the wall for such an overtly Hellenic and theurgically-inclined group, and on Iamblichus's death in the early 320s the school broke up; his senior pupil Aedesius moved to Pergamum, where the Iamblichean tradition was carried on quietly for another generation or so.

Iamblichus was a prolific author. Unfortunately, with the exception of Reply to the Letter of Porphyry to Anebo (popularly known, since the Renaissance, as On the Mysteries of the Egyptians ), only his more elementary works survive intact. Chief among these is a sequence of nine, or possibly ten, works in which he presented a comprehensive introduction to Pythagorean philosophy. Of these, the first four are still in existence, beginning with a Bios Pythagorikos. This work is not simply a life of Pythagoras, but rather an account of the Pythagorean way of life, with a biography of Pythagoras woven into it. It was followed by Exhortation to Philosophy, the treatise On the General Science of Mathematics, and a commentary on the Introduction to Arithmetic, the second-century Neopythagorean Nicomachus of Gerasa. The doxographical portion of a treatise On the Soul, and extracts from a series of philosophical letters also survive in the Anthology of John of Stobi.

Other than those, however, we have considerable evidence of commentaries on works of both Plato and Aristotle, fragments of which survive (mainly) in the later commentaries of Proclus. Most notable among these are commentaries on the Alcibiades, Phaedrus, Timaeus, and Parmenides of Plato, and the Categories of Aristotle (this latter preserved extensively by Simplicius). He is also on record as having composed a commentary on the Chaldaean Oracles, and a Platonic Theology. The Reply to the letter of Porphyry to Anebo mentioned above is an odd production, in that it is a response to a polemical open letter by Porphyry attacking the practice and theory of theurgy, which Iamblichus, taking on the persona of a senior Egyptian priest, Abammon, elects to defend.


Iamblichus's system of philosophy is essentially an elaboration of Plotinus's Platonism, though strongly influenced by Neopythagorean writings and the Chaldaean Oracles. He accepts the triadic system of principles, the One, Intellect and Soul, but he introduces elaborations at every turn.

First of all, in an attempt to resolve the contradiction between a One which is utterly transcendent but which also constitutes the first principle of all creation, he postulates a totally ineffable first Principle above a more positive One, which itself presides over a dyad of Limit and Unlimitedness. These in turn generate a third principle, the One-Existent (hen on ), which constitutes a link with the next hypostasis, that of Intellect (Nous ), whose highest element it also is. Inhering in the One-Existent, we may also discern a multiplicity of henads, which serve as unitary prefigurations of the system of Forms which are the contents of Intellect.

Intellect, meanwhile, also suffers elaborate subdivision in Iamblichus's system, first into a triad of three moments or aspects, Being, Life, and Intellect proper, and then into a series of three triads (again, of Being, Life, Intellect) arising out of each of these. He thus becomes the ancestor of the elaborate system of the later Athenian School of Syrianus and Proclus. The impulse for such elaborations seem to stem from a consciousness of the complexity of the spiritual world, and of the many levels of divinity which inhabit it.

Soul, likewise, is distinguished into Pure, or Unparticipated Soul, and Participated Soul, which is in a way the sum-total of individual souls. Some individual souls, likewise, transcend any contact with body, while others are destined to be embodied, and even these descend into body on various different terms.

Iamblichus, in his treatise On the Soul, sought to differentiate himself from his predecessors Plotinus and Porphyry, on the issue of the relation of the soul with what is above it, postulating a less direct contact with Intellect and the One, and a corresponding need of theurgy, or sacramental ritual, to secure personal salvation. He may thus be reasonably accused of making Platonism much more of a religion, a characteristic which endeared him in particular to the Emperor Julian, a generation after his death.

See also Neoplatonism; Plotinus; Porphyry; Proclus; Simplicius.


Blumenthal, H. J., and E. G. Clark, eds. The Divine Iamblichus, Philosopher and Man of Gods. Proceedings of First International Conference on Iamblichus, Sept. 1990. London: Bristol Classical Press (Duckworth), 1993.

Blumenthal, H. J., and John F. Finamore, eds. Iamblichus: The Philosopher. Syllecta Classica, Vol. 8. Iowa City: University of Iowa, 1997.

Clarke, Emma C. Iamblichus's De Mysteriis: A Manifesto of the Miraculous. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.

Clarke, Emma C., John M. Dillon, and Jackson P. Hershbell, eds., trans., introductions, and notes. Iamblichus: On the Mysteries. Atlanta: Society for Biblical Literature, 2003.

Dillon, John. "Iamblichus of Chalcis." In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II 36: 2, edited by W. Haase and H. Temporini, 862909. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 1987.

Dillon, John. In Platonis Dialogos Commentariorum Fragmenta. Leiden: Brill, 1973.

Dillon, John, and Jackson Hershbell, text, trans., and notes. Iamblichus: On the Pythagorean Way of Life. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991.

Finamore, John, and John Dillon. Iamblichus: De Anima. Leiden: Brill, 2002.

Shaw, Gregory. Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.

Wallis, Richard. Neoplatonism. London: Duckworth, 1972.

John Dillon (2005)