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  • Offering to the Gods: A Neoplatonic Perspective
  • Edward P. Butler

At one time it was common for scholars to lament the “irrationalism” or “superstition” they saw in the recourse to ritual activity—known as “theurgy,” “telestic,” or the “hieratic art”—advocated by pagan Platonists of late antiquity such as Iamblichus (c. 250–325 CE) and Proclus (c. 410–85 CE).1 Contemporary scholarship, however, has brought much greater understanding to this aspect of Neoplatonism and has returned it to its systematic context.2 Platonic ritualism is no longer seen as an opportunistic and superficial attempt to salvage a pagan legacy doomed by Christian hegemony by clothing it in philosophical guise, but as a response to profound theoretical motives. The physicality of ritual has been recognized as affirming the essential goodness and divinity of the material cosmos against strains of thought in late antiquity that saw it as irredeemably fallen. Something remains incomplete, however, in our understanding of Platonic ritualism so long as ritual is seen purely as a response to the “problem” of matter and embodiment. In this view, the purpose of ritual is to elevate the particular to the universal. Certain aspects of Neoplatonic metaphysics allow us, however, to see in ritual activity instead an affirmation of the primacy of particularity.

Moreover, the concreteness of ritual is not merely a question of the use of material objects, but also of ritual’s cultural particularity. Neoplatonic philosophers did not invent their own rituals, but sought rather to provide an explanatory superstructure for traditional pagan ceremonies. There has been a [End Page 1] tendency to exaggerate the importance of the Chaldaean Oracles—the apparent source for the term “theurgy” (literally, “God working”)—as the “sacred text” of Neoplatonic ritualism, as if the Neoplatonists turned to ritual as a result of being converted to some new, exotic religion.3 On the contrary, Neoplatonic ritualism is not the expression of any narrow religious viewpoint, but of a philosophy of pagan religion in general—a “philosophical theory of myth,” as Pierre Boyancé terms it, “that overflows the confines of this or that ritual and has a more general scope.”4 Different philosophers brought to this endeavor their own peculiar religious preoccupations. Thus Iamblichus writes On the Mysteries in the pseudonymous guise of an Egyptian priest and privileges Egyptian and Assyrian traditions; Proclus draws equally from the Chaldaean Oracles and from traditional Hellenic sources such as the Orphica and the Eleusinian mysteries, while, according to his biographer Marinus, his personal religious practice involved the worship of Gods from several pantheons; Hermias (fl. late fifth century CE), as Boyancé points out, seems to focus more exclusively on the Hellenic tradition.5 Damascius (c. 462–538 CE), the last scholarch of the Academy at Athens, displays a more than superficial knowledge of, as well as a profound respect for, Hellenic, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Levantine theologies,6 and his account of the Alexandrian Platonists in his Philosophical History portrays a similar religious diversity among the pagan academicians there. Marinus reports a disagreement among the pupils of Syrianus, Proclus’s teacher, over whether they preferred Syrianus to conduct a special seminar on the Oracles or on the Orphica.7 That Syrianus left the choice up to his pupils and that there was such divergence of opinion indicates that these texts were of equal significance, and the question of which to study more closely was a matter of taste as much as anything else.

But what was the precise significance of such religious—and hence ritual—diversity within the broad framework of a pagan Platonic philosophy of religion? If the metaphysical justifications for ritual were thought to lie in the particular’s striving toward the universal, although for its own part ritual remains [End Page 2] fused to a cultural context—or indeed to a multicultural context, a context that the pagan Neoplatonists showed no desire to transcend—then one would be left with the impression of an unresolved tension. Are the ancient and diverse religious traditions of which pagan Platonists saw themselves as the inheritors merely a ladder to be thrown away once one has climbed up to a transcendent enlightenment? Taking better account of the nondualistic trend in...


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