Numenius of Apamea

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Numenius of Apamea, the second-century Greek philosopher perhaps best known for his description of Plato as an Atticizing Moses, was a precursor of Plotinus and Neoplatonism and also had affinities with Gnosticism and the Hermetic tradition. Of his life practically nothing is known, and even the approximate dates of his birth and death are uncertain. Since his description of Plato is quoted by Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis i, 22.93), he cannot have survived much later than 200 CE, while the latest writers cited in the fragments of his works belong to the time of Nero (3768 CE). He may have been of non-Greek origin, and his name, like that of Porphyry, may have been a Greek translation of a Semitic original. Our sources commonly describe him as a Pythagorean, but Iamblichus and Proclus call him a Platonist, which comes to much the same thing in an age when Plato was considered a disciple of Pythagoras. Certainly Numenius is best grouped with such Middle Platonists as Albinus. His work was based primarily upon exegesis of Plato and presents a systematization of Plato's thought with a dualist emphasis. It is possible that he had some knowledge of Christianity, but what is truly remarkable is his knowledge of Judaism. It has been suggested that he himself was a Jew, but this is far from certain. What is clear is that he sought to go back before Plato and Pythagoras to the teachings of the ancient East, the Brahmins, the Jews, the Magi, and the Egyptians. In this respect there are links with the Hermetic books and with the prisca theologia of such Renaissance writers as Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, although scholars differ as to the extent to which Numenius's philosophy was actually influenced by Oriental ideas and the extent to which it was purely Greek.

A notable feature of his thought is his doctrine of the Demiurge. He postulates two opposed principles, God and matter, the monad and the dyad, but whereas the Pythagoreans adhered to monism by making the dyad emanate from the monad, Numenius developed a dualistic theory. Matter is evil, and the supreme God can therefore have no contact with it; hence the need for a second god, the Demiurge, who is of dual nature, an anima mundi related both to God and to matter (cf. the Philonic Logos). There are also two souls in the world, one good and one evil, and two souls in man, a rational and an irrational; and the only escape from this dualism is by deliverance from the prison of the body. Astrological elements in Numenius's anthropology suggest an attempt to give astrology a rational basis.

Numenius is important for his influence on later Neoplatonists, although some of his views were to be rejected by them. The allegation that Plotinus merely plagiarized Numenius prompted Plotinus's disciple Amelius to write a book pointing out the differences between them (Porphyry, Vita Plotini 17). The hierarchy of three gods, for example, appears to be similar to Plotinus's hierarchy of being, but the three entities in each case do not correspond exactly in detail. Moreover, Plotinus rejected Numenius's dualistic and Gnosticizing tendencies.

See also Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism.



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Bibliography updated by G. R. Boys-Stones (2005)