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Peter on Reading Neoplatonists (part 1)

Imagine an ice cream factory that fills an entire city block.  You have teaspoon.  You go in the front door and you have to run as fast as you can through the building to the back door and out onto the next street.  Along the way, you get to scrape your spoon across any tubs of ice cream you pass, licking the different flavors as you’re sprinting by, but those tastes are all the ice cream you get.

That’s often what it’s like for me when I start reading in a new subject.  It’s what college was like.  It’s how it was when I first became Wiccan, and when I was doing historical research for a novel, and when I taught physics for the first time.

Now my ice cream is Iamblichus, a neoplatonist philosopher from around the second century C.E.  It’s dense.  It’s technical.  And I’m reading it at breakneck speed to keep up with a sort of neoplatonist book club that we started.

It’s worth it.  As I take in the ideas of Plato and Plotinus and Iamblichus, if find pieces of my spiritual life settling into place.  Ideas about God and the Gods, about the soul and the brain, and about the universe and eternity, that have been piled higgledy-piggledy in my mind for decades are starting to fit together and click into place like puzzle pieces.

I have long thought that strict monotheism can never really work.  You’ve heard the saying, If God is good He is not great, and if God is great He is not good.  And also, if there is no god but God, then how can The Lord Thy God be a jealous God?  Jealous of whom?

But polytheism also has its inconsistencies.  I look up at the night sky, with 100 billion stars in our galaxy and ten trillion galaxies in the known universe, and I am moved to give thanks.  Who do I thank?  What God is out there that is big enough to hold the Universe and yet small enough to notice a few carbon atoms raising a cup in blessing?

The Kabbalistic tree of life gives us one way of looking at God and the Gods, placing more general deities at the top of the tree, more particular ones near the bottom, and the Sea of Limitless Light above the whole thing.  You can use that model to look at a potted plant in Malkuth and see the spirit of the plant in Yesod, the Green Man in Netzach or maybe Chesed or Geburah, and on up to the Creator in Chokmah.  (Or is it Binah?  Or maybe Kether?)

Another metaphor I’ve sometimes used for the Gods is lightning.  God—the One, the Unknowable—is the like electrical potential in the sky above, and the individual bolts that strike the ground are what we experience as the Gods.  The trees and towers and hills that attract lightning are analogous to  holy places and rituals and shrines that help us feel the presence of the divine.

But it’s all a bit fuzzy.

Iamblichus is giving me something new.  Iamblichus and the other neoplatonists are giving me a vocabulary.  Plowing through it, reading the same passages two and three and four times and looking up the occasional Greek word, I’m finding their world view taking root in me, and I can feel my own world view shifting and adjusting to fit.

And it fits quite well.

Iamblichus lays out a hierarchy of levels, with Gods, daimons, and heroes (or purified souls) all acting as intermediate divinities bridging the abyss between the One God and our own embodied souls.  The philosophers debate the details.  Iamblichus and Porphyry and Plotinus each lay out a slightly different system, and they take different approaches to contemplation and ritual.  Each one has his own school of followers.  As I read their disagreements, I’m finding the common ground they share, and that is helping me to clarify my thinking and to express my own guesses and intuitions about the nature of divinity.

I’m not ready to lay out my beliefs with all the ayes dotted and the tees crossed.  Not by a long shot.  But the process of discovery feels pretty cool.


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