Esoteric Philosophy: part two
An occult investigation of the doctrines of Plato, Aristotle and the Neoplatonists
Philosophy has been called "the Queen of Arts and the daughter of Heaven." But this is only true if the Philosophy in question is based upon true knowledge which leads to Wisdom. As we discussed in the first part of this investigation the principal object of Philosophy should be the search for Truth in all its purity, without any errors. But how many philosophers can be said to have fully succeeded in that quest? Of those that came nearest, Plato is perhaps the greatest, though even he committed errors, as we learnt in part one. Moreover, as an initiate of the Mysteries, he was not permitted to reveal all, and what he did reveal, as we mentioned in our previous afterword, was often couched in the most obscure and arcane language, the better to conceal the truth from the unworthy and unready. The Neoplatonists who succeeded him came to a good many wrong conclusions too. If you have not read part one, please do so before proceeding further or you will not reap the full benefits of this series of articles.
In the first of our afterwords we briefly examined what little is known of the life of Plato. In this article we review his principal writings and philosophy, whilst in our final afterword we shall consider his ideas further in connection with the esoteric School he founded, ending with a summary of the theory of Hylozoism which we mentioned in part one. The final part of our investigation will be published next month.
No survey of Greek philosophy can be regarded as complete without including Aristotle, but to consider his ideas in depth is impossible in a short article. Nor is this necessary as none of them were an improvement upon those of his teacher, Plato. Nor did he reveal any esoteric truths that had not been stated previously by the pre-Socratic philosophers we discussed in part one.
Aristotle was born at Stagira, a Greek colony in Thrace in 384 B.C. Deprived of his parents at the early age of 17, he travelled to Athens where he became a pupil of Plato, and remained so for twenty years until the Sage's death in 347 B.C. Plato often had cause to upbraid Aristotle for his impatience and unbridled tongue. A severer reproach was Aristotle's unscrupulousness towards his teacher and his philosophy. He did not flinch from borrowing from Plato when it suited his purposes and criticising him when it did not. Perhaps his worst fault was his habit of treating his master's metaphorical language as though it were meant to be taken literally. A criticism one might level at many modern occult students, as we mentioned in the afterword on the Art of study in our final Astral Conversation!
Following Plato's death, Aristotle immersed himself in empirical studies and shifted from Platonism to empiricism—a philosophical theory which holds that knowledge comes primarily from sensory experience. In this he anticipated the modern philosophers we shall consider in part three. A good idea of his woeful ignorance of the esoteric doctrines of his master can be found in his treatise on the soul—Peri Psyche—in which he posited three kinds of 'soul': the vegetative, belonging to plants; the sensitive belonging to animals; and the rational, belonging to human beings. He further said that the human soul incorporates the powers of the other kinds. Here we have the lower self plus instinct and nothing more. Nor did he seem to know the origin and destiny of man which we discuss in our article on evolution.
Aristotle died in Chalcis in Euboea in 322 B.C. There is no question that he was an Adept in the material sciences, especially logic, physics, geology, astronomy, biology and psychology. As such we may regard him as the first truly material scientist whose contribution to all the modern sciences is immense. Furthermore, we are indebted to Aristotle for many of the details of the lives and teachings of the philosophers who came before him.
The Neoplatonists did not call themselves by this name. They considered themselves to be faithful transmitters and interpreters of Plato's philosophical and scientific ideas, not improvers or alterers of them which the prefix 'neo' or new implies. It was only during the 19th Century that historians and philosophers, who thought they knew Plato better than his direct successors, decided that the teachings of this group of philosophers differed sufficiently from the Sage's original ideas to require the prefix 'neo'. This school of thought was inaugurated in the third century A.D. in Alexandria by the followers of Ammonius Saccas. From Rome and Alexandria, Neoplatonism passed to Athens.
Ammonius Saccas (175-242 A.D.)
Ammonius was born to devout Christian parents but rejecting the exclusive narrowness of his parents religion and claiming that he was "god-taught", took a far more expanded view of philosophy than any one religion could offer. Ammonius was said to have been a charismatic teacher who wrote no books and, with the aid of his pupils, kept his teachings secret after the manner of the Pythagoreans. Accordingly, we have no direct evidence of his philosophical beliefs. He was a mysterious figure, who attempted to combine Platonism with Indian and Egyptian philosophy and theology. Ammonius is reputed to be the first philosopher to employ the word theosophia, meaning "divine wisdom." He is known mainly through the writings of his pupil, Plotinus, whom he taught for eleven years. Ammonius believed that knowledge consisted of three grades, ascending from mere opinion derived from sense perception, to science gained through dialectic, to illumination gained from direct spiritual intuition. This is essentially the same as Plato's three grades of knowledge outlined in the Republic. H. P. Blavatsky suggests that Ammonius' endorsement of solitary prayer or meditation to achieve enlightenment is found in Plato's belief that direct realization of the Form of the Good occurred when one remained "silent in the presence of the divine ones."
Plotinus (205-270 A.D.)
Plotinus is said to have been born in Egypt about 205 A.D., and died in 270 A.D. This has led to speculation that he may have been a Hellenised Egyptian. He cordially distrusted the materialistic doctrines of Aristotle, holding firmly to the view that sensory experience and external phenomena were mere reflections of higher and truer realities. This distrust extended to his own body, and it is reported by Porphyry that he refused to have his portrait painted because he did not wish to perpetuate an illusion; wise man! For similar reasons, Plotinus never discussed his ancestry, childhood, or his place or date of birth. On the other hand, he said he was "ashamed that his soul was in a body," which is not so wise, for we are placed in a material body to learn the lessons that only material existence can teach us.
Plotinus travelled to Alexandria to study philosophy at the age of 27, but found little to satisfy his hunger until he heard Ammonius lecture, whereupon he is said to have told a friend: "this is the man I have been seeking!" Plotinus taught that there is a supreme, totally transcendent "One", containing no division, multiplicity, or distinction; beyond being and non-being. In this he but echoed the teachings of the pre-Socratic philosophers and Plato that we discussed in the first part of this investigation. He further taught "Henosis", or Oneness—union with the Source of All. This too reprises the Vedantic idea of Nirvana. In speaking of Henosis, Plotinus taught a spiritual discipline analogous to that of the Greek Mysteries: "Purify your soul (Higher Self in our terminology) from all undue hope and fear about earthly things; mortify the body, deny self—affections as well as appetites—and the inner eye will begin to exercise its clear and solemn vision." But here Plotinus erred. If we wish to develop spiritual, as opposed to psychic powers, we need to wisely control the appetites of the body and desires of the lower self as we discuss in our article on Inner Peace, not deny or suppress them altogether.
Unlike his teacher, Ammonius, Plotinus distinguished four kinds of knowledge: sensory knowledge, which is an obscure representation of truth; reason cognition, which gives us knowledge of the essences of things; intellectual cognition, which gives us knowledge of ourselves; and ecstasy, which consists in a supernatural intuition of God, in which our natural knowledge ceases in the divine unconsciousness. If by 'reason cognition' and 'intellectual cognition' Plotinus meant the use of the intellectual powers in man he committed a further error, for intellect is but the development of our animal intelligence and instinct and incapable of comprehending the essence of anything. This requires intuition which does not lead to divine 'unconsciousness' as Plotinus thought, but to Cosmic Consciousness.
Here we have a mix-up of mental principles which runs through much of Plotinus' philosophy which was preserved in a number of hastily written, ill-connected tractates. His essay on the Immortality of the Soul explains few things clearly and contains many more errors such as his belief that the soul is incorruptible. This is true of the Divine Soul, but not of its negative counterpart which we call the Higher Self. This may not only be corrupted, but entirely lost, and its principle atoms scattered in Space, as we may read in Symphonie Fantastique by J Michaud PhD. In short, Plotinus makes a great many guesses about the laws and principles of Occult Science, some of which are correct, but does not know. After his death, and in obedience to his directions, Porphyry (234-305 A.D.), the most celebrated of his disciples, arranged and edited Plotinus' tractates in six Enneads.
Porphyry (ca. 234-305 A.D.)
Porphyry was born in Tyre, now in modern Lebanon. In 262 A.D. he travelled to Rome, attracted by the reputation of Plotinus. He is best known for his philosophical polemic Against the Christians, which consisted of fifteen books. Some thirty Christian apologists responded to his challenge. Almost everything we know about Porphyry's arguments is found in these refutations, largely because the emperor Theodosius II ordered every copy burned in 435 A.D. and again in 448 A.D.! His aim was not to disprove or deny the essential truths of Christianity but rather the ways in which they were expressed and communicated. In other words, he applauded the spirit of Christianity that 'giveth life', but railed against the 'letter that killeth', and in this he was right as John Temple discusses in his article on the hidden wisdom in the Bible.
Porphyry also wrote widely on astrology, religion, and musical theory. He produced a History of Philosophy which included a biography of the life of his teacher, Plotinus. Perhaps his most valuable contribution to esoteric philosophy was his Letter to Anebo, in which he sought to learn the Egyptian Mysteries from an Egyptian priest. This formed part of Iamblichus' celebrated work On the Mysteries, which is prefaced by Porphyry's letter and is itself described as the Reply of Abammon, the Teacher, to the Letter of Porphyry to Anebo and Solutions of Questions therein contained. We mention this important book in our review of Hermetic literature, in which we say: "The language used by the correspondents makes it clear that Porphyry is soliciting occult knowledge from one whom he comes to regard as his superior."
This demonstrates that he, like Plotinus, knew little of the inner secrets of the teachings of the Egyptian Mystery Schools, which were already largely lost in his times. Porphyry begins by taking his teacher to task, criticising what he believes to be the religious dogmas and practices of the Egyptians and Chaldeans. In his replies, Anebo displays the patience, goodwill and humility which are the hallmark of the true Teacher, never once losing his temper, nor stooping to ridicule his pupil's often fanciful speculations and theological misconceptions. We will refer to this important book again in our discussion of the next Neoplatonist in this timeline, Iamblichus.
Iamblichus (245-325 A.D.)
Iamblichus was born in Chalsis, in Syria, of Arabian origin. From the fragments of his life which have come down to us, 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 from which we quoted in our article on Initiates and Initiation, he communicated the philosophical, ethical and scientific teachings of the Sage of Samos. He was also a student of the Egyptian Mysteries and expressed his determination to teach what remained of them in his times to his pupils. To accomplish this purpose he founded a School of 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 Magic 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 purpose of Iamblichus' School, we must first learn the real meaning of the word Magic, as it was understood by the ancients and as we discuss it in our occult studies course. Plato said: "Magic consists of, and is acquired by the worship of the gods." This is correct, for it is only the truly god-like man or woman who is capable of comprehending the sublime secrets of Divine Magic. Iamblichus had two objects in view. Firstly, he wished to uncover the hidden side of Nature to warn men of the perils that lurk in the indiscriminate cultivation of psychic, as opposed to spiritual powers, and to show how such dangers might be avoided. This was a most laudable aim, shared and pursued over 1,500 years later by H. P. Blavatsky, when she attempted to expose the impostures and perils of Spiritualism in the 19th century as we may read in The Golden Star.
In Blavatsky's case it did as much harm as good, promoting an unhealthy interest in the psychic at the expense of the spiritual, which has persisted to this day. We don't know what results accrued from Iamblichus' attempts, as almost nothing is known about his school of Magic. What we can say is that the true Arcana of Magic cannot be understood by the average person, or even the average occultist. We see this all too clearly today when 'sigils', 'servitors' and the summoning of so-called 'spirits' have taken the place of the Divine Magic of Hermes with often dire consequences for those who involve themselves in such dangerous practises in the hope of gaining so-called 'magical' powers.
Iamblichus' 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 Higher Self with the Divine Soul—a recapitulation of the doctrine of Henosis taught by Plotinus we referred to earlier. This aim is also fraught with peril. Without the preliminary moral and mental purification which was the first part of the Mysteries in both Greece and Egypt, such a union is utterly impossible. One might as well mix oil and muddy water in the hope of uniting them. Porphyry was well aware of this, and objected that bad effects might accrue to those who attempted to practice Magic 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." All this is true, however unpalatable it may be to those who fondly imagine that a rotten apple will sweeten the barrel.
Consequently, when Iamblichus expressed his determination to make these things known to his pupils, 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. This letter, which we mentioned earlier, is part of the book known as De Mysteriis Aegyptorum, or On the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Assyrians, which we will now consider in more detail.
Before the Egyptian priest Abammon—which name means 'the heart of Amen', or the Sun—replies to Porphyry's questions he tells him the many different sources from which his knowledge has been gained. These include the Chaldean Oracles, the wisdom of the Assyrian and Babylonian Sages, and what remained of the real teachings of Hermes in the 3rd century. Porphyry, being a Neoplatonist, starts with universal principles, asking Abammon to define what the Egyptian Sages 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 Demiurge), or prior to that? Abammon answers that only the ONE truly GOOD, which is beyond all being and non-being, which can be worshipped in silence alone is the Source of all that exists, the Divine Cause from which all that is and is not has arisen. This, as you will remember, is exactly what the pre-Socratic philosophers and Plato taught, and pure Occult Science.
Porphyry next asks about the ancient Egyptian teachings on evolution. Abammon's 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, the Egyptian priest 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, and this too is quite correct, though the 'light' in question is not our material light, but the invisible Light which is concealed in darkness, as the Bible tells us: "And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not" (John 1:5).
The Divine Soul, Abammon explains, 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. Here we have the True, Divine Soul referred to in our occult studies course article and that part of it which descends into a body which we call the Higher Self, though this division may also be a concealed reference to the two minds in man—the Higher and the lower. It is only as the Higher Self is awakened that man can bring about the union of the Higher Self with the Divine Soul. Abammon then 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? If you haven't guessed we will tell you. It is Intuition—the attunement of the Higher Self with the Divine or True Soul. 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. By this faculty we find ourselves liberated from the dominion of the lower self and bodily appetites, and we become, as it were, the arbiters of our own fate or destiny. For when our mind is elevated toward essences higher than itself, it can separate itself from the negative conditions which hold it in bondage in earthly 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 higher order of things which reign in the highest spiritual realms described and discussed in The Golden Star.
Proclus (412-485 A.D.)
Proclus' pupil Marinus of Neapolis tells us that when the philosopher fell seriously ill and was given up for lost, a beautiful child appeared over his bed and, proclaiming himself to be Telesphorus, the messenger of Asclepius and spirit of recovery, he touched Proclus' head and cured him within moments. Except for two occasions, Proclus did not fall ill again in his life, so perhaps this delightful story is true! He began his education in Xanthus in Lycia, a town dedicated to Apollo, now in modern Turkey, and moved from there to Alexandria to pursue the study of rhetoric in order to become a lawyer, as was his father. However, during a journey to Byzantium he discovered philosophy was his true vocation.
At the age of 18 Proclus moved to Athens, attracted by the fame of the Platonic School there. There he also came into contact with the older traditions of wisdom such as the theology of the Orphics and the Chaldean Oracles. When the Neoplatonist philosopher Syrianus became the head of the Academy Proclus became his enthusiastic pupil. On many occasions Proclus praises the philosophical achievements of his teacher and never criticizes him. Because of this, it is almost impossible to distinguish between Proclus' original contribution and what he adopted from Syrianus.
After Syrianus' death in 437 A.D. Proclus succeeded as head of the Athenian school, and he kept this position for almost fifty years until his death in 485. His busy day started with a prayer to the sun at sunrise, followed by lectures, reading seminars, discussions with students, and literary work of his own. Besides his philosophical activities, Marinus also says Proclus was an accomplished Magician. This was not without its difficulties since such practises could only be pursued in the private sphere of the Schools grounds. Though Proclus was held in high esteem as a philosopher and had some Christian pupils, he had to be careful to avoid antagonising the Athenian authorities who frowned on such 'paganism' and so concealed his activities. Despite his caution, Marinus tells us that he had to go into exile for a time to avoid prosecution. How familiar all this sounds! It is the age-old story of the well-intentioned teacher who, either through ignorance or denial of the necessity for secrecy in occultism, makes himself a perfectly visible target for the arrows of the unready and so reaps the reward of his foolishness. This was a grave error on Proclus' part, just as it was in the case of Iamblichus mentioned earlier. By now the decline which began with the death of Plato was well established, and as we shall see in part three, no further advances were made in philosophy, for the truly great teachers of the Eternal Verities were no more.
Yet among Proclus' aphorisms, we find the following: "Beyond all bodies is the soul's essence; beyond all souls, the intellectual principle; and beyond all intellective substances, the One. There is the One; the intellectual principle is the unmoved mover; the soul is self-moving; and the body is moved by another." This is a true and good teaching. He further taught that only that which is self-moving can be self-subsistent, for it alone is incorruptible, being the cause of its own continuity. This is the same as the ever-moving 'Great Breath' described and elucidated in The Secret Doctrine. For Proclus, knowledge cannot be achieved except by recognizing the metaphysical principles upon which it rests, and those metaphysical principles have ethical correlates. If all things strive towards the Good, knowledge goes hand in hand with right conduct or the cultivation of the virtues, which are, in truth, levels of reality and therefore powers. Evil is always incidental to the pursuit of some good, a limitation of the process. No occultist would disagree with these fine and true sentiments, and this reconciles us to a large extent with Proclus' failure to keep his activities secret.
Hypatia teaching in the Museum
Still from the film Agora, 2009, starring Rachel Weisz as the philosopher
The demise of Neoplatonism
Neoplatonism can be said to have ended with the foul murder of Hypatia in 414 A.D., though as we have seen, enlightened philosophers such as Proclus and his disciples kept the dying flame alight into the 5th century. Hypatia (370-414 A.D.) was the daughter of Theon of Alexandria, a celebrated philosopher and mathematician. She showed a deep interest in philosophy and mathematics from a very early age. Her father instructed her in these subjects with care and diligence, and she soon became one of his most brilliant pupils. While Hypatia was living in Athens she came in contact with the teachings of Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus, and identified herself with Neoplatonism. Later, when she moved to Alexandria, she began to hold lectures and classes in the famous Museum, where her eloquence and profound wisdom, her youth and extraordinary beauty soon attracted huge crowds of students and admirers. She was admitted into the intimate circles of the great Alexandrian families, and numbered among her friends two of the most powerful men of the day: Orestes, the Prefect of Alexandria, and Synesius, the Bishop of Cyrene.
Hypatia brought Egypt nearer to an understanding of its ancient Mysteries than it had been for thousands of years. Her knowledge of Theurgy restored the practical value of the Mysteries and completed the work commenced by Iamblichus over a hundred years before. Following in the footsteps of Plotinus and Porphyry, she demonstrated the possibility of the union of the individual Self with the Universal Self, or union of the Higher Self and Divine Soul in our terminology. In this she continued the work of Ammonius Saccas, by demonstrating the fundamental unity of all religions and the identity of their source. Needless to add, this did not go down well with the fanatical Christian theologians of Alexandria who were besieged on all sides by the hated 'pagans' who sought to expose their impostures and undermine the precarious foundations of burgeoning Christian dogma. When Hypatia explored the metaphysical allegories of the Mystery Schools of Greece and Egypt from which Christianity had borrowed its dogmas, and openly analysed them in public meetings, she used a weapon which the Christians could only meet with violence. If her School had been allowed to continue the whole fraud perpetrated by the Church would have been laid bare. The clear light of Neoplatonism was shining much too brightly upon the fragile tapestry of Christianity, stitched together from the remnants of paganism and the Ancient Wisdom, to permit it to continue.
The prime mover in the battle between the dying embers of Neoplatonism and the rising power of the Christian Church was Cyril, the newly appointed Bishop of Alexandria. This most fanatical and ignorant of priests began his rule by punishing all those who had supported Timothy, his defeated rival within the Christian community at Alexandria. In 414, Cyril closed all the synagogues in Alexandria, confiscated all the property belonging to the Jews, and expelled them all from the city. Orestes, the Roman prefect of Alexandria, who was also a close friend of Hypatia and a recent convert to Christianity, was outraged by Cyril's actions and sent a scathing report to the emperor. But before any reply could be received from Constantinople, the conflict escalated and a riot broke out in which a group of monks under Cyril's authority, nearly killed Orestes. As punishment, Orestes had Ammonius, the monk who started the riot, publicly tortured to death. Cyril tried to proclaim Ammonius a martyr, but the Christians in Alexandria were disgusted since Ammonius had been killed for inciting a riot and attempting to murder the governor, not for his faith. Thereupon, prominent Alexandrian Christians intervened and forced Orestes and Cyril to come to an uneasy truce. During the negotiations, Orestes frequently consulted Hypatia for advice because she was well-liked by both pagans and Christians alike and respected as a wise counsellor who had not taken any part in the preceding conflict.
In March of that fateful year a crowd of Cyril's ruffianly monks gathered in front of the Museum, where Hypatia was just finishing one of her classes. Her chariot drew up to the door, and Hypatia appeared. A dark wave of black-robed fanatics, with bloody murder in their hearts and curses spewing from their twisted lips, rushed out from their hiding place, and surging around Hypatia's chariot, forced her to alight. They stripped her naked and dragged her into a nearby Church. Shaking herself free from her tormentors, she rose for one moment to her full height, snow-white against the dark horde of merciless monks surrounding her. Her lips opened to speak, but no word came forth. For in that moment their leader struck her down, and the dark mass closed over her quivering flesh. They dragged her body into the street and tore it to pieces before making a bonfire of what remained. Christians! What a truly hellish crew!
But what of the instigator of her foul murder, the 'holy' Christian Bishop Cyril? Despite universal condemnation and a thorough investigation, Cyril escaped punishment by bribing one of the Emperor's officials, and by the early 420s, completely dominated the Alexandrian council. How familiar all this sounds today, when religious fundamentalism is once more on the rise and the innocent suffer at the hands of fanatics. So perished the wise and lovely Hypatia, and with her death the great Neoplatonic School came to an end. Some of the philosophers removed to Athens, but their School was closed by order of the Emperor Justinian. With their departure the little light that remained of the bright Flambeau of Truth guttered in the gathering darkness of the Christian era, to be replaced by dogma, superstition and bloody conflict. Exactly fifteen hundred years later, in 1914, the First World War deluged the Christian nations in a baptism of blood and horror.
The final part of this investigation will be published next month. If you have not read part one, or wish to refresh your memory about the subjects discussed, please follow the underlined link above.
© Copyright occult-mysteries.org. Article published 15 September 2018.