Neoplatonism, like modern Theosophy, may be considered under three aspects: (1) philosophical and scientific; (2) practical and ethical; and (3) mystical and occult. In modern times these three aspects are discussed and elaborated in full detail by one writer, H. P. Blavatsky. But in the third century there were three outstanding Neoplatonists, each of whom specialized in a particular aspect of the Theosophical teachings of those days. The philosophical and scientific aspects of Neoplatonism were first recorded by Plotinus, whose Enneads may in a way be compared with The Secret Doctrine. The practical and ethical teachings were stressed by Porphyry, whose writings were similar in character to The Key to Theosophy, while the mystical and occult side of Neoplatonism found its most complete expression in the works of Iamblichus. His two works, The Egyptian Mysteries and On Daemons, present many of the problems discussed by H.P.B. in Isis Unveiled, in The Voice of the Silence, and in her numerous articles dealing with Occultism and Magic.
Porphyry was a native of Tyre, and was born around the year 230. His real name was Melek (a king). This name was rendered by Longinus into Porphyrius (the royal purple), as its proper equivalent, and so he has come down through history under the name of Porphyry. While there is no doubt that Porphyry had Jewish blood in his veins, it is apparent that he never followed the Hebrew doctrines, but was thoroughly Hellenized and a true “pagan.”
Plotinus and Porphyry were not only great philosophers, but great occultists as well. Both of them studied the pure Indian system of Raja-Yoga, which leads to the eventual union of the Soul with the Over-Soul. This union, known as Samadhi, is the highest degree of Yoga. It is a state of abstract contemplation, a spiritual condition in which the individual becomes the ALL. In The Voice of the Silence the condition is thus described:
Where is thy individuality, Lanoo, where the Lanoo himself? It is the spark lost in the fire, the drop within the ocean, the ever-present ray become the All and the eternal radiance.
Plotinus reached this condition several times during his life; but Porphyry was unable to attain the state of ecstasy until he was sixty years old. He devoted his life to the consideration of the practical applications of philosophy and considered a teaching to be of little value unless it were made a living power in the life of the individual. For this reason Porphyry, of all the Neoplatonists, approached nearest to the practical Occultism of H. P. Blavatsky and W. Q. Judge.
Iamblichus, the third member of this great Neoplatonic triad, was born in Chalsis, in Coele-Syria, at about the middle of the third century. From the fragments of his life which have been collected by impartial historians, we find that he was a man of great culture and learning, and renowned for his charity and self-denial. His mind was deeply impregnated with Pythagorean doctrines, and in his famous biography of Pythagoras he has set forth the philosophical, ethical and scientific teachings of the Sage of Samos in full detail. He was also a profound student of the Egyptian Mysteries and expressed his determination to make public what hitherto had been taught only in the Mystery Schools under the greatest secrecy.
To accomplish this purpose Iamblichus founded a School of Theurgic Magic among the Neoplatonists. At first this School was distinct from those established by Plotinus and Porphyry, both of whom considered the knowledge of practical Theurgy as dangerous to the majority of men. But in the passage of time Porphyry came to adopt Iamblichus’ point of view and gave him both encouragement and support.
If we would understand the true purpose of Iamblichus’ School, we must first learn the real meaning of the word Magic, as it was understood by the ancients. Magic was for them true science, the sacred Science, indissolubly connected with Religion. In defining this Science, Plato said: “Magic consists of, and is acquired by the worship of the gods.” But when Plato spoke of “the gods,” he referred simply to the occult powers and potencies of Nature.
As all the powers and potencies of Nature subsist in a common Root, the ancient scientists knew that there were natural sympathies and attractions among all parts of Nature. As the Supreme Power in which they subsist is dual in its manifestations, they knew that there were natural antipathies as well as natural sympathies. From this knowledge they formulated the Science of Magic. As related by Proclus:
Ancient priests, when they considered that there is a certain alliance and sympathy in natural things to each other, and of things manifest to occult powers, and discovered that all things subsist in all, fabricated a Sacred Science from this mutual sympathy and similarity.
The Science of Magic includes a knowledge of the entire constitution of Nature and man. Both are triune. Both have their visible, physical side; their invisible, indwelling, energizing aspect; and above these Spirit, alone eternal and indestructible.
The Science of Magic also includes a knowledge of the means by which a man can gain control over Nature’s forces, and unite himself with the Self of all. When one studies the Science of Magic with the idea of helping Nature and working with her, then, as said in the Voice, Nature regards him as one of her creators and makes obeisance. She opens wide before him the portals of her secret chambers, lays bare before his eyes the treasures hidden in the very depths of her pure virgin bosom. She makes of him a Magician, in the truest sense of the word.
But, as “light and darkness are the world’s eternal ways,” the Art of Magic falls into two distinct divisions. When the adept uses his knowledge beneficently, with no other thought than to benefit Nature and man, the result is White Magic, or Theurgy. But when he applies his knowledge with a selfish or evil motive, it is Black Magic, or Goetia.
Iamblichus, instigated by a pure motive, taught White Magic. He had two objects in view: He wanted to uncover the invisible side of Nature, to warn men of the perils that lurk in the shadows of this “Hall of Learning,” and to show how the dangers there may be avoided. His second object was to give men who had not been initiated into the Mysteries the means by which they could effect the union of the divine spark in themselves with its parent-flame, the Divine All.
Porphyry’s objection to the revelations of Iamblichus was not based upon his ignorance of the invisible side of nature, nor upon his disagreement as to man’s power to unite himself with the Universal Self. It was rather that Porphyry was fully aware of the bad effects which might accrue to those who attempted to practice Theurgy without a thorough preliminary cleansing of the lower self. For, as he said:
To unite one’s soul to the Universal Soul requires a perfectly pure mind. Through self-contemplation, perfect chastity and purity of body, we may approach nearer to it, and receive in that state true knowledge and wonderful insight.
Therefore, when Iamblichus expressed his determination to make these things known to the world at large, Porphyry addressed a letter to an Egyptian Initiate known as Anebo, asking him to explain certain points in the Egyptian system with which he was unfamiliar. The letter was answered by Iamblichus himself, who hid his identity under the name of his teacher, Abammon. The discussion between Porphyry and Iamblichus makes up the book known as De Mysteriis Aegyptorum, or The Egyptian Mysteries. The quotations used in this article are taken from Alexander Wilder’s translation.
Before Iamblichus makes reply to Porphyry’s questions he tells him the sources from which his knowledge has been gained — that his answers are to be taken from many different sources, some of them from the Chaldean traditions, some from the Gnosis, some from the hereditary opinions of the Assyrian Sages, and that “the rest will be from the works upon the entire range of Divine Matters, which the old compilers have collected into a book of limited dimensions.” This “book of limited dimensions” suggests the work to which H.P.B. refers on page 272 of the first volume of The Secret Doctrine — wherein “the facts which have occupied countless generations of initiated seers and prophets, to marshal . . . are all recorded on a few pages of geometrical signs and glyphs.”
Having established the fact that the teachings which he is about to propound represent the accumulated wisdom of the ages, Iamblichus advises Porphyry to give his attention to the teachings themselves, without thought of the personality through whom they come. He tells Porphyry that he is at liberty to consider the person speaking as Anebo, to whom he addressed his letter, or as any other Egyptian Prophet — “or, as I think a still better way, let it pass unnoticed whether the person speaking is of inferior or superior rank, and direct the attention solely to the things that are uttered, thus arousing the understanding to eagerness simply as to whether that which is said be true or false.”
Porphyry, being a Neoplatonist, starts with universal principles, asking Iamblichus to define what the Egyptian Theosophers consider the First Cause to be. Is it Mind, or above Mind? Is it the ONE, or does it subsist with others? Is it embodied or unembodied? Is it the same as the Creator of the Universe (the Demi-urgos), or prior to that?
Before all things that really are, Iamblichus answers, is THAT which is self-begotten and self-produced, the ONE truly GOOD, which can be worshipped by Silence alone. This is the Source of all that exists, the Root of the first ideals subsisting in the Supreme Mind.
Then Porphyry asks about the ancient Egyptian teachings on evolution. Iamblichus’ answer shows how far in advance of modern science were the ancient Egyptian scientists. “It is not in the order of nature,” he says, “for superior things to be generated from those that are inferior.”
Then, turning to the constitution of man, Iamblichus advises Porphyry that he must begin with the first Principle if he would understand himself. “This divine irradiation,” he says, “shines upon all from the outside, just as the sun illuminates every object with its rays.” He compares this Principle to the light of the sun, which is present in the air without being combined with it. “Being firmly established in itself,” he says, “it makes its way through all existing things.”
The soul, he says, is an immortal entity, unbegotten and imperishable, indivisible and incorporeal. Therefore it could not have come into existence at birth, nor will it perish at death. Furthermore, “being indivisible, being essentially incorporeal, and having nothing in common with the body, it can be affected by nothing, nor has it any concern with change or condition.”
He then enters into a lengthy description of the soul, which he says is two-fold, the lower part being concerned with bodily existence, while the higher part is separable from everything corporeal. It is only as the higher part of the soul is awakened that man can bring about the union of the Self with the Universal Self. He describes the faculty in man which makes this union possible.
There is a faculty in man which is immeasurably superior to those which are grafted or engendered in us. By it we can attain to union with superior intelligences, finding ourselves raised above the scenes of this earthly life, and partaking of higher existence and superhuman powers of the inhabitants of the celestial spheres.
What is this faculty? In modern Theosophy it is called Intuition — a faculty of the soul itself. Dormant in the majority of men, it can be awakened, and will grow in proportion to its use. The use of intuition arouses the spiritual senses. These can penetrate into the very core of matter and see any object as it really is, and not merely as a physical appearance.
Iamblichus describes this faculty in detail, claiming that it releases man from even the bonds of Karma.
By this faculty we find ourselves liberated from the dominion of destiny [Karma], and we become, as it were, the arbiters of our own fate. For when the most excellent parts of us find themselves filled with energy; when our soul is lifted up toward essences higher than science, it can separate itself from conditions which hold it in bondage of every-day life. It exchanges its ordinary existence for another one. It renounces the conventional habits which belong to the external order of things, to give itself up to and mix itself with another order of things which reign in that most elevated order of existence.
Porphyry is greatly interested in the subject of dreams. He knows that Ammonius Saccas was called the “god-taught” because he had received much of his knowledge in dreams and visions. He believes, as he confides to Iamblichus, that persons in the dream-state often have a fore-knowledge of things that are about to happen. Iamblichus then discusses the state of consciousness we call dreaming. In sleep, he says, the soul is set free from the fetters that bind it during the waking state, and entering life on its own plane puts forth energy according to its own nature. But, he continues, it is wrong to classify all dreams under a common heading. Things which have troubled the mind during the day cause dreams which are sometimes true and sometimes false.
The dreams, however, which are termed “god-sent” do not have their origin in the way thou describest. On the contrary, when sleep is leaving us and we are beginning to awake, it happens that we hear a brief expression in regard to things to be done. These are not like ordinary dreams. Some, however, who do not take cognizance of these proofs of dreams which are truly oracular, fall rarely upon those in which there is a foreknowing of the future.
These “god-sent” dreams, he continues, are often prophetic, and he cites the dream of Alexander the Great, whose whole army was saved by such a vision. He remarks that in dreams of this sort discoveries in the arts and sciences are often made, and sometimes the proper diagnosis of disease and the method of its cure This, he says, is explained by the fact that the soul, in this sleep condition, “not only takes a view of every period of time, and examines events that are to take place in the period, but it likewise participates in the arrangement, management and correcting of them.”
The works of Iamblichus deal primarily with the invisible side of nature and with the psychic and spiritual powers latent in man. His instructions, therefore, like those in The Voice of the Silence, are for those “ignorant of the dangers of the lower Iddhi.”
The ancients did not consider Aether as a great void but pictured it as a boundless Ocean peopled with living forces — entities known in modern Theosophy as Elementals and Elementaries.
The Elementals are the souls of the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. They are centers of force which may be shaped by the conscious or unconscious will of the human being who puts himself en rapport with them. Being subject to characterization by the human will, they may appear to us as either good or bad. Porphyry describes them in this way:
Daimons are invisible. But they know how to clothe themselves with forms and configurations subject to numerous variations, which can be explained by their nature having much of the corporeal in itself. When they can escape the vigilance of the good Daimons, there is no mischief they will not dare commit. One time they employ brute force; another time, cunning.
But there is another class of entities residing in the Astral Light of far greater danger to men than the Elementals. These are the Elementaries, the inhabitants of Kama-Loka. Elementaries may be roughly divided into three classes. First there are human souls who through utter depravity have severed connection with their Higher Self and therefore have lost their chance of immortality. To this class also belong the “Brothers of the Shadow,” the sorcerers and Black Magicians.
The second group of Elementaries includes those who, although not actually “lost souls,” have strongly attached themselves to earth life through concentration of their desires on things terrestrial rather than on things spiritual.
In the third group are the remains of those whose bodies have perished by violence: suicides and the victims of capital punishment. These are the living dead, with every principle present except the physical body. Their state in Kama-Loka is described by Porphyry.
The soul, having after death a certain affinity for the body, an affinity proportioned to the violence with which their union was broken, we see many spirits hovering in despair about their earthly remains. We see them eagerly seeking the putrid remains of other bodies, but above all, freshly spilt blood, which seems to impart to them for the moment some of the faculties of life.
It is with the direct help of these “bad daimons,” Porphyry continues, that every kind of sorcery is accomplished. It is their ambition to deceive those who try to get into communication with the dead. It is their desire to be accepted as oracles, and their wrath is kindled against those who neglect to offer them legitimate worship.
Iamblichus agrees fully with Porphyry in regard to the danger of coming in contact with these “bad daimons.” But there is a way, he says, in which a person can differentiate between the good spirits and the bad. The good spirits fear not the light, while the wicked ones require darkness. He then enters into a lengthy description of what today would be called a “seance,” describing in full detail how the figures that appear are produced. Man himself, he says, is the maker of them, using “inferior emanations” (astral matter) for that purpose.
By what art or skill is this spectral figure put into form? The thing does not have its existence in the way it is imagined. The creating of spectral figures attracts from the auras a portion of generative energy. The creator deals with the last and most inferior emanations. But these emanations being partially commingled with matter, they are capable of changing to it, and likewise of taking new form and being modelled differently at different times.
Therefore, he continues, the creator of these spectral figures puts his trust in entities destitute of soul, animated by only the outward appearance of life, and of ephemeral duration. Why, then, he asks, should such juggling be desired? He refuses to regard such things as worthy of consideration.
If they who make these specters know that these things about which they are engaged are structures formed of passive material, the evil would be a simple matter. But if they hold to these spectral figures as to gods, the absurdity will not be utterable in speech or endurable in act.
Iamblichus then draws a strong line of demarcation between the passive condition which develops mediumship and the active condition of the mind in that sublime state of ecstasy which leads to the union of the Soul with the Higher Self.
It is necessary from the beginning to make the distinction of the two species of ecstasies, of which one causes degeneration to an inferior condition, and fills with imbecility and insanity; but the other imparts benefits that are more precious than intelligence. The former species wanders to a discordant and worldly activity; but the latter gives itself to the Supreme Cause which directs the orderly arrangement of things in the world.
The mediumistic trance, he continues, leads to a deterioration of both mind and body. But the divine ecstasy imparts health to the body, virtue to the soul, purity to the mind. It removes the cold and destructive quality of the mind and brings the whole man into accord with the soul. The higher part of our nature is awakened, and begins to long vehemently for its Universal Source.
In closing his discussion with Porphyry, Iamblichus says:
After the theurgic discipline has conjoined the soul with the several departments of the universe, and with all the divine powers that pervade it, then it leads the Soul to the Creator of the World, uniting it with the Sole Eternal Reason. This, with the Egyptian Sages, is the end of the “Return” as taught in the Sacred Records.