September 9, 2015
Approach ye genuine philosophic few, The Pythagoric Life belongs to you: But far, far off ye vulgar herd profane; For Wisdom’s voice is heard by you in vain: And you, Mind’s lowest link, and darksome end, Good Rulers, Customs, Laws, alone can mend.


Pythagoras was the father of philosophy.

Plato is the most genuine and the best of all his disciples.

Pythagoras’ biographer, Iamblichus, is well known to every Platonist that he was seen by them as divine. After the encomium passed on him by the acute Emperor Julian, “that he was posterior indeed in time, but not in genius, to Plato,”[1] all further praise of him would be as vii unnecessary, as the defamation of him by certain modern critics is contemptible and idle.

For these homonculi looking solely to his deficiency in point of style, and not to the magnitude of his intellect, perceive only his little blemishes, but have not even a glimpse of his surpassing excellence. They minutely notice the motes that are scattered in the sunbeams of his genius, but they feel not its invigorating warmth, they see not its dazzling radiance.

Of this very extraordinary man there is a life extant by Eunapius, the substance of which I have given in my History of the Restoration of the Platonic Theology, and to which I refer the English reader.

At present I shall only select from that work the following biographical particulars respecting our Iamblichus= He was descended of a viii family equally illustrious, fortunate, and rich. His country was Chalcis, a city of Syria, which was called Cœle. He associated with Anatolius who was the second to Porphyry, but he far excelled him in his attainments, and ascended to the very summit of philosophy.

But after he had been for some time connected with Anatolius, and most probably found him insufficient to satisfy the vast desires of his soul, he applied himself to Porphyry, to whom (says Eunapius) he was in nothing inferior, except in the structure and power of composition. For his writings were not so elegant and graceful as those of Porphyry=

they were neither agreeable, nor perspicuous; nor free from impurity of diction. And though they were not entirely involved in obscurity, and perfectly faulty; yet as Plato formerly said of Xenocrates, he did not sacrifice to the Mercurial Graces. Hence he ix is far from detaining the reader with delight, who merely regards his diction; but will rather avert and dull his attention, and frustrate his expectation.

However, though the surface of his conceptions is not covered with the flowers of elocution, yet the depth of them is admirable, and his genius is truly sublime. And admitting his style to abound in general with those defects, which have been noticed by the critics, yet it appears to me that the decision of the anonymous Greek writer respecting his Answer to the Epistle of Porphyry,[2] is more or less applicable to all his other works. For he says, ‘that his diction in that Answer is concise and definite, and that his conceptions are full of efficacy, are elegant, and divine.

Iamblichus shared in an eminent degree the favor of divinity, on account of his cultivation of justice; and obtained a numerous multitude of associates and disciples, who came from all parts of the world, for the purpose of participating the streams of wisdom, which so plentifully flowed from the sacred fountain of his wonderful mind. Among these was Sopater the Syrian,[4] who was most skilful both in speaking and writing; Eustathius the Cappadocian; and of the Greeks, Theodorus and Euphrasius. All these were excellent for their virtues and attainments, as well as many other of his disciples, who were not much inferior xi to the former in eloquence; so that it seems wonderful how Iamblichus could attend to all of them, with such gentleness of manners and benignity of disposition as he continually displayed.

He performed some few particulars relative to the veneration of divinity by himself, without his associates and disciples; but was inseparable from his familiars in most of his operations. He imitated in his diet the frugal simplicity of the most ancient times; and during his repast, exhilarated those who were present by his behaviour, and filled them as with nectar by the sweetness of his discourse.

A celebrated philosopher named Alypius, who was deeply skilled in dialectic, was contemporary with Iamblichus, but was of such a diminutive stature, xii that he exhibited the appearance of a pigmy. However, his great abilities amply compensated for this trifling defect. For his body might be said to be consumed into soul; just as the great Plato says, that divine bodies, unlike those that are mortal, are situated in souls. Thus also it might be asserted of Alypius, that he had migrated into soul, and that he was contained and governed by a nature superior to man. This Alypius had many followers, but his mode of philosophizing was confined to private conference and disputation, without committing any of his dogmas to writing. Hence his disciples gladly applied themselves to Iamblichus, desirous to draw abundantly from the exuberant streams of his inexhaustible mind.

The fame therefore of each continually increasing, they once accidentally met like two refulgent stars, and were surrounded by so great a crowd of auditors, that it xiii resembled some mighty musæum. While Iamblichus on this occasion waited rather to be interrogated, than to propose a question himself, Alypius, contrary to the expectation of every one, relinquishing philosophical discussions, and seeing himself surrounded with a theatre of men, turned to Iamblichus, and said to him= “Tell me, O philosopher, is either the rich man unjust, or the heir of the unjust man? For in this case there is no medium.”

But Iamblichus hating the acuteness of the question, replied= “O most wonderful of all men, this manner of considering, whether some one excels in externals, is foreign from our method of philosophizing; since we inquire whether a man abounds in the virtue which it is proper for him to possess, and which is adapted to a philosopher.” After he had said this he departed, and at the same time all the surrounding multitude was immediately xiv dispersed. But Iamblichus, when he was alone, admired the acuteness of the question, and often privately resorted to Alypius, whom he very much applauded for his acumen and sagacity; so that after his decease, he wrote his life. This Alypius was an Alexandrian by birth, and died in his own country, worn out with age= and after him Iamblichus,[5] leaving behind him many roots and fountains of philosophy; which through the cultivation of succeeding Platonists, produced a fair variety of vigorous branches, and copious streams.

For an account of the theological writings of Iamblichus, I refer the reader to my above-mentioned xv History of the Restoration of the Platonic Theology; and for accurate critical information concerning all his works, to the Bibliotheca Græca of Fabricius.

Of the following work, the life of Pythagoras, it is necessary to observe that the original has been transmitted to us in a very imperfect state, partly from the numerous verbal errors of the text, partly from the want of connexion in the things that are narrated, and partly from many particulars being related in different places, in the very same words; so that the conjecture of Kuster, one of the German editors of this work is highly probable, that it had not received the last hand of Iamblichus, but that others formed this treatise from the confused materials which they found among his Manuscripts, after his death. Notwithstanding all its defects, xvi however, it is, as I have before observed, a most interesting work; and the benefits are inestimable, which the dissemination of it is calculated to produce. And as two of the most celebrated critics among the Germans, Kuster and Kiessling, have given two splendid editions of this work, it is evident they must have been deeply impressed with a conviction of its value and importance.

As to the Pythagoric Ethical Fragments, all eulogy of them is superfluous, when it is considered that, independently of their being written by very early Pythagoreans, they were some of the sources from which Aristotle himself derived his consummate knowledge of morality, as will be at once evident by comparing his Nicomachean Ethics with these fragments.

With respect to the collection of Pythagoric Sentences in this volume, it is almost needless to observe that they are incomparably excellent; and it is deeply to be regretted that the Greek original of the Sentences of Sextus[6] being lost, the fraudulent Latin version of them by the Presbyter Ruffinus alone remains. I call it a fraudulent version, because Ruffinus, wishing to persuade the reader that these Sentences were written by a bishop of the name of Sixtus, has in many places perverted and contaminated the meaning of the original.

In the selection, however, which I have made from these Sentences, I have endeavoured, and I trust not in vain, to give the genuine xviii sense of Sextus, unmingled with the barbarous and polluted interpolations of Ruffinus. If the English reader has my translation of the Sentences of Demophilus, and Mr. Bridgman’s translation of the Golden Sentences of Democrates, and the Similitudes of Demophilus,[7] he will then be possessed of all the Pythagoric Sentences that are extant, those alone of Sextus excepted, which I have not translated, in consequence of the very impure and spurious state, in which they at present exist.

I deem it also requisite to observe, that the Pythagoric life which is here delineated, is a specimen of the greatest perfection in virtue and wisdom, xix which can be obtained by man in the present state. Hence, it exhibits piety unadulterated with folly, moral virtue uncontaminated with vice, science unmingled with sophistry, dignity of mind and manners unaccompanied with pride, a sublime magnificence in theory, without any degradation in practice, and a vigor of intellect, which elevates its possessor to the vision of divinity, and thus deifies while it exalts.

The original of the engraving of the head of Iamblichus in the title-page, is to be found at the end of a little volume consisting of Latin translations of Iamblichus De Mysteriis, Proclus On the First Alcibiades of Plato, &c. &c. &c. 18mo. Genev. 1607. This engraving was added because it appeared to me to be probable that the original xx was copied from an ancient gem. And as it is not impossible that it was, if it is not genuine, it is at least ornamental.


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