Thursday, May 5, 2016


Crystal Addey, Divination and Theurgy in Neoplatonism: Oracles of the Gods. Ashgate studies in philosophy and theology in late antiquity. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. Pp. xv, 335. ISBN 9781409451525. $134.95.

Reviewed by Ilinca Tanaseanu-Doebler, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (

Version at BMCR home site


In the last decades, the religious and ritual side of Neoplatonism has attracted growing scholarly interest. Crystal Addey's study is part of this discourse. It explores divination as a central facet of the rituals that were subsumed in Neoplatonic circles under the label "theurgy". The focus lies on two major figures whose debate shaped the Neoplatonic discourse about rituals: Porphyry and Iamblichus. The book aims to demonstrate the basic harmony between the two philosophers as far as divination and rituals are concerned. In so doing, it inserts itself into a strand of research that emphasises the fundamental unity of the Porphyrian oeuvre, also as far as rituals are concerned (e.g. Smith 2007 and 2011, Busine 2004 or 2005, Johnson 2013).

The book is divided into eight chapters. The first chapter is a lengthy introduction, which lays out the general framework of the book and its working definitions and assumptions. The second chapter presents Porphyry's Philosophy from Oracles (PO): it argues that, for Porphyry, oracles are analogous to mystery cults in their encrypted structure and their soteriological function; consequently, allegorical interpretation of the oracles is taken to be central to Porphyry's endeavour. The third chapter pursues the analysis of the PO by contextualising it within the polemic between pagans and Christians. It inquires into its possible connections with the Diocletian persecution, and into its attitude to rituals (here, the discussion would have profited from consulting Riedweg 2005), and contrasts it with Eusebius' critique of pagan divination in the Praeparatio evangelica.

A fourth chapter takes up the old problem of the relationship of Porphyry's Letter to Anebo (EpAn) and Iamblichus' De mysteriis (DM), reading the two works as steps in a constructive, rather than a polemical, exchange, amounting to a "mystagogic dialogue" (157) which Addey interprets as structurally comparable to the dialogues of the Hermetica. Porphyry's questions about the compatibility of ritual with a Platonic notion of the divine in EpAn are read as a didactic device: he asks "a wide range of questions, many of which he would not have personally endorsed, in order to gain a comprehensive account of pagan religion for educational and protreptic purposes" (141). According to Addey, these questions may have intentionally taken up Christian objections in order to provide an impetus for their discussion and dismissal (166-8). The issue of rationality, divination and ritual in Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus is treated in Chapter 6. Building inter alia on Mazur's interpretation of Plotinian contemplation and ascent, Addey argues that all three philosophers share structurally similar patterns of imagining contemplation and the ascent towards the divine—although she allows for "differences of emphasis" (212). Chapter 7 presents an analysis of the forms of inspiration and possession in DM, while Chapter 8 is devoted to the relationship between divination and theurgy in the same work. A short last chapter summarises the results.

The study offers a good overview of the ongoing discussion about ritual and religion in early Neoplatonism. Its perspective offers a fresh approach to the general question of theurgy and philosophy by focusing on a specific complex of ritual practices. Thus, it enables a more nuanced discussion and a better understanding of the detailed workings of Neoplatonic discourse on rituals. The focus is well chosen: divination is central to Porphyry's PO and EpAn, as well as to Iamblichus' DM, where it is occasionally described in glowing colours as almost the quintessence of theurgic life (e.g. III 31). Moreover, it is also a prominent phenomenon in the wider religious panorama of the third and fourth centuries. It rests on and perpetuates the postulate that humans—or at least the properly trained experts —have at their disposal clear-cut means and techniques of communication with the divine. Hence stem both its importance and its vulnerability: on the one hand, successful divination may be regarded by late antique religious practitioners as a proof that the pagan gods are alive and real; on the other hand, failed divination, e.g. false oracles, may be interpreted as proof of the contrary. This makes divination one of the most prominent loci of debate and conflict between pagans and Christians in the later third and early fourth century (see e.g. the controversies surrounding Apollonian oracles analysed by Busine 2005). Addey takes into account these connections selectively, by highlighting links from Porphyry and Iamblichus to Plotinus or Eusebius; her main focus lies not on divination in general but on divination in the context of theurgy.

Although divination plays a central role in all of the texts explored in the book, the only comprehensive philosophical analysis that the sources yield is the one found in Iamblichus' DM, which takes its cue from Porphyry's EpAn and offers a theoretical discussion of (and apology for) divination in a theological and ritual-theoretical framework. Iamblichus' terminology and interpretative models lay the groundwork for subsequent Neoplatonic understandings of theurgy as a distinctive ritual tradition (e.g. van Liefferinge 1999). The prominence of Iamblichus at the level of the sources is mirrored in Addey's study. Addey discusses the Iamblichean view of divination and rituals with empathy and with a keen sense of the connection between Iamblichus' worldview and his theory of ritual and divination. Her analysis of divination in DM contributes towards a better grasp of Iamblichus as a philosopher who consciously fits the supra-rational relationship with the divine into his system. This can be viewed as a further contribution to the re-evaluation of Iamblichus as a philosopher as advocated by Smith 2002, Shaw 1995 or Taormina 1999. From Iamblichus' DM Addey also draws her notion of theurgy, which she uses synchronically as a systematic term to denote philosophically acceptable ritual means of existential transformation and communication with the gods which are rooted in a philosophical way of life and which operate with symbols to effect assimilation to the divine (24-40). This approach parallels that of van Liefferinge 1999; like her, Addey adopts Iamblichus' normative distinction between (bad) magic and (good) theurgy (37), which she then applies to the assessment of rituals in her various sources. This systematic and synchronic approach may enable her to recognize and assess Porphyrian and Plotinian points of comparison to the DM, yet she does so at the risk of importing Iamblichus' views into earlier material and of not reading the treatments of rituals by Porphyry, Plotinus or Eusebius on their own terms (cf. e.g., for Plotinus, 174-8).

In her treatment of the parallels between Porphyry's PO and Iamblichus' DM, Addey takes up the discussion of Busine 2005, 261-79. However, where Busine points to Iamblichus' critique of Porphyry (2005, 266) and shows how Iamblichus probably also includes the PO into his critical response to Porphyry, Addey seeks to prove the fundamental harmony of the two philosophers (cf. 95-6 or 98-103; 115-16). This leads sometimes to strained interpretations of particular passages (e.g. 104), but also to valuable reflections, e.g. concerning the relationship between astrology and oracles (104-5). However, an excessively strong emphasis on common points tempts the reader to overlook the differences between the PO and DM, e.g. when Addey accuses Eusebius, in his handling of the PO, not only of conflating gods with evil daimones, which he certainly does, but also of conflating magic with theurgy, because both attempt to influence the gods ritually (110-26). This Iamblichean distinction is not found in the PO. Nowhere in the extant fragments does Porphyry speak of theurgy, or attempt any classification of rituals into evil/disreputable and good/respectable. Thus, although some of the elements that allow Iamblichus to solve the problem of ritual efficacy and divine impassibility and freedom, and to articulate a comprehensive theory of ritual influence on the gods, may also be found in the fragments of the PO, as Busine 2005 and Addey note (113-17), they are not yet assembled to form a comprehensive, systematic theory.

Due in part to the fragmentary nature of the sources, some of the interpretations Addey proposes have a speculative ring and are sometimes weakly argued. The reading of the PO starts from the assumption that the extant fragments are not representative (45), which in turn renders further engagement with the work highly speculative, with the constant temptation to read the extant material as it must have been meant (e.g., 97-8; 111-13). Eusebius is regarded as the main culprit, and his selective and polemical handling of quotations is contrasted to "Porphyry's intellectual honesty, openness and philological approach" (93), without due attention being given either to the fact that Eusebius still had the whole of the PO at his disposal (as, we may assume, did a number of his readers: Riedweg 2005), or to the workings and rhetorical quality of late antique practices of quotation and paraphrase. Consideration of the latter would have helped to place both Eusebius and Porphyry in their shared context and show them making conscious use of the same techniques for their divergent ends.

Another rather weakly argued point is the proposed reading of EpAn and DM as a pedagogical and mystagogic exchange. Given the lack of solid evidence, the case is built on incremental reflections on the proximity of the genre of aporiai kai lyseis to philosophical dialogue (131-3), the general importance of the dialogical method in the Platonic tradition as a whole, and in Plotinus' and Porphyry's own practice in particular (133-5), and the assumption that an irenic reading would be more appropriate for Platonists than conflict and polemic (136). A valuable observation that would have deserved further discussion is the comparison of EpAn with Runia's reading of Philo's De aeternitate mundi (145-6). The comparison with the Hermetica would have profited from the reception of the new book on education and ritual in the Hermetica by van den Kerchove 2012. The considerations adduced in order to strengthen the case for the compatibility of the Porphyrian and Iamblichean stances to ritual are sometimes too eager and go against the grain of the texts, e.g. the interpretation of selected passages from De abstinentia and De regressu animae (150-7). The reading of DM as not only a discursive defence of ritual but also at least partly a textual symbolon (165) or a " guided visualisation or meditation in ritual terms, rather than as a straightforward philosophical discourse" (164-5), or an "initiatory tool for philosophical contemplation leading to theurgic visions for the ideal 'philosophic' or 'theurgic' reader" (166), is not convincing. To be sure, DM is indeed a book about rituals and their rationale, and it constantly alludes to ritual settings; but it never addresses any reader beside Porphyry and his objections, and it takes its structure not so much from the Neoplatonic sequence of procession and reversion (165-6), but rather from that of Porphyry's EpAn. The suggestion that Porphyry had a secondary goal of inducing Iamblichus to provide a defence of pagan ritual against Christian polemic (166-8) should have been more carefully argued, e.g. by considering why Porphyry did not choose to do so himself in his fifteen books against the Christians.

A final point that calls for further reflection is Addey's thesis of a fundamental similarity between Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus with regard to the valuation and understanding of rituals. While Addey is right to emphasise that all three share a profoundly religious view of the world and the ascent to the divine, the issue of whether and to what extent Plotinian methods and practices of meditation and visualisation are comparable to the rituals described in the PO or DM, or to the hierarchy of forms of worship in the De abstinentia, requires a more nuanced investigation; cf. the pertinent criticism of Mazur's ritualistic interpretation of the Plotinian ascent by Brisson 2013. Religion and ritual need not be coextensive: here, a closer look into the blossoming field of modern ritual studies, which is taken into account here only very selectively (184-7) may be of help in refining and theorizing the notion of ritual and its specific difference with regard to other aspects of religion and religious practice in general.

Although some of the arguments may not convince the reader, the book offers a good interpretation of Iamblichus' De mysteriis and a wealth of important observations on various details of the material. The new approach it proposes to the study of Neoplatonic rituals promises insights in the field of Neoplatonic religiosity well beyond Porphyry and Iamblichus. This is an important contribution to research on theurgy.1




Luc Brisson, 'Plotinus and the Magical Rites Practiced by the Gnostics', in Kevin Corrigan and Tuomas Rasimus (eds.), Gnosticism, Platonism and the Late Ancient World. Essays in Honour of John D. Turner, Leiden/Boston 2013, 443-63.
Aude Busine, Paroles d'Apollon. Pratiques et traditions oraculaires dans l'Antiquité tardive (IIe-VIe siècles), Leiden/Boston 2005.
Aude Busine, 'Des logia pour philosophie. À propos du titre de la Philosophie tirée des oracles de Porphyre', Philosophie antique 4, 2004, 151-68.
Aaron P. Johnson, Religion and Identity in Porphyry of Tyre. The Limits of Hellenism in Late Antiquity, Cambridge 2013.
Christoph Riedweg, 'Porphyrios über Christus und die Christen: De philosophia ex oraculis haurienda und Adversus Christianos im Vergleich', in L'Apologétique chrétienne gréco-latine à l'époque prénicéenne, Entretiens Hardt LI, Genf-Vandoeuvres 2005, 151-98.
Daniela Patrizia Taormina, Jamblique critique de Plotin et de Porphyre. Quatre études, Paris 1999.
Andrew Smith, 'Further thoughts on Iamblichus as the first philosopher of religion' in Michael Erler/Theo Kobusch (eds.), Metaphysik und Religion: Zur Signatur des spätantiken Denkens, Munich/Leipzig 2002, 297-308.
id., 'Porphyry: Scope for a Reassessment' in Anne Sheppard and George Karamanolis (eds.), Studies on Porphyry, London 2007, 7-16.
id., 'Religion, Magic and Theurgy in Porphyry' in his Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus: Philosophy and Religion in Neoplatonism, Farnham/Burlington, VT 2011, no. XIX.
G. Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul: the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, University Park, PA 1995.
Anna van den Kerchove, La voie d'Hermès. Pratiques rituelles et traités hermétiques, Leiden/Boston 2012.
Carine van Liefferinge. La théurgie des Oracles Chaldaïques à Proclus, Liège 1999.

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