Superphysics Superphysics

Pythagoric Sentences: The Symbols

by Iamblichus
24 minutes  • 5100 words
Table of contents

As we live through soul, it must be said that by the virtue of this we live well; just as because we see through the eyes, we see well through the virtue of these.

It must not be thought that gold can be injured by rust, or virtue by baseness.

We should betake ourselves to virtue as to an inviolable temple, in order that we may not be exposed to any ignoble insolence of soul with respect to our communion with, and continuance in life.

We should confide in Virtue as in a chaste wife; but trust to Fortune as to an inconstant mistress.

It is better that virtue should be received accompanied with poverty, than wealth with violence; and frugality with health, than veracity with disease.

An abundance of nutriment is noxious to the body; but the body is preserved when the soul is disposed in a becoming manner.

It is equally dangerous to give a sword to a madman, and power to a depraved man.

As it is better for a part of the body which contains purulent matter to be burnt, than to continue in the state in which it is, thus also it is better for a depraved man to die than to live.

The theorems of philosophy are to be enjoyed as much as possible, as if they were ambrosia and nectar. For the pleasure arising from them is genuine, incorruptible, and divine. They are also capable of producing magnanimity; and though they cannot make us eternal beings, yet they enable us to obtain a scientific knowledge of eternal natures.

If vigor of sensation is considered by us to be an eligible thing, we should much more strenuously endeavour to obtain prudence; for it is as it were the sensitive vigor of the practical intellect which we contain. And as through the former we are not deceived in sensible perceptions, so through the latter we avoid false reasoning in practical affairs.

We shall venerate Divinity in a proper manner, if we render the intellect that is in us pure from all vice, as from a certain stain.

A temple should be adorned with gifts, but the soul with disciplines.

The lesser mysteries are to be delivered before the greater. Likewise, discipline must precede philosophy.

The fruits of the earth are annually imparted. But the fruits of philosophy are imparted at every part of the year.

Land is especially to be attended to by him who wishes to obtain from it the most excellent fruit, thus also the greatest attention should be paid to the soul, in order that it may produce fruit worthy of its nature.

P. 50. Better worth saving than ten thousand corporeal eyes.

Iamblichus here alludes to Plato’s respect for math in Book 7 of the Republic where Plato says:

that the soul through these disciplines has an organ purified and enlightened, which is blinded and buried by studies of another kind, an organ better worth saving than ten thousand eyes, since truth becomes visible through this alone.”

P. 58. That in which the Sirens subsist.

Proclus says:

“The divine Plato knew that there are three kinds of Sirens

  • the celestial, which is under the government of Jupiter
  • that which produces generation, and is under the government of Neptune
  • that which is cathartic, and is under the government of Pluto It is common to all these to incline all things through an harmonic motion to their ruling Gods. Hence, when the soul is in the heavens, the Sirens are desirous of uniting it to the divine life which florishes there. But it is proper that souls living in generation should sail beyond them, like the Homeric Ulysses, that they may not be allured by generation, of which the sea is an image. And when souls are in Hades, the Sirens are desirous of uniting them through intellectual conceptions to Pluto. So that Plato knew that in the kingdom of Hades there are Gods, dæmons, and souls, who dance as it were round Pluto, allured by the Sirens that dwell there.”

P. 60. That it is requisite to put the shoe on the right foot first.

This audition is taken from what forms the 12th Symbol in the Protreptics of Iamblichus, and is as follows= “When stretching forth your feet to have your sandals put on, first extend your right foot; but when about to use a foot bath, first extend your 285 left foot.” “This Symbol, (says Iamblichus,) exhorts to practical prudence, admonishing us to place worthy actions about us as right-handed; but entirely to lay aside and throw away such as are base, as being left-handed.”

P. 60. That it is not proper to walk in the public ways.

Fifth Symbol

This is the 5th Symbol in the Protreptics of Iamblichus but is there differently expressed= for it is, “Declining from the public ways, walk in unfrequented paths.”

Iamblichus observes= “I think that this Symbol also contributes to the same thing as the preceding, [which is, ‘Disbelieve, nothing wonderful concerning the Gods, nor concerning divine dogmas’]. For this exhorts us to abandon a popular and merely human life; but thinks fit that we should pursue a separate and divine life. It also signifies that it is necessary to look above common opinions; but very much to esteem such as are private and arcane; and that we should despise merely human delight; but ardently pursue that felicitous mode of conduct which adheres to the divine will. It likewise exhorts us to dismiss human manners as popular, and to exchange for these the religious cultivation of the Gods, as transcending a popular life.”

P. 61. Do not assist a man in laying a burden down.

11th Symbol

This in the Protreptics is the 11th Symbol, and is explained by Iamblichus as follows= “This Symbol exhorts to fortitude; for whoever takes up a burden, signifies that he undertakes an action of labor and energy; but he who lays one down, of rest and remission. So that the Symbol has the following meaning; Do not become either to yourself or another the cause of an indolent and effeminate mode of conduct; for every useful thing is acquired by labor. But the Pythagoreans celebrate this Symbol as Herculean, thus denominating it from the labors of Hercules. For during his association with men, he frequently returned from fire and every thing dreadful, indignantly rejecting indolence. For rectitude of conduct is produced from acting and operating, but not from sluggishness.”

P. 61. Do not draw near to a woman for the sake of begetting children, if she has gold.

In the Protreptics of Iamblichus (Symbol 35.) this is expressed as follows= “Draw not near to that which has gold, in order to produce children.” 287 On which Iamblichus observes= “The Symbol does not here speak of a woman, but of that sect and philosophy which has much of the corporeal in it, and a gravitating tendency downwards. For gold is the heaviest of all things in the earth, and pursues a tendency to the middle, which is the peculiarity of corporeal weight. But the term to draw near, not only signifies to be connected with, but always to approach towards, and to be seated near another.”

P. 61. Speak not about Pythagoric concerns without light.

13th Symbol

This is the 13th Symbol in the Protreptics, and is thus explained by Iamblichus= “This Symbol exhorts to the possession of intellectual prudence. For this is similar to the light of the soul, to which being indefinite it gives bound, and leads, as it were, from darkness into light. It is proper, therefore, to place intellect as the leader of every thing beautiful in life, but especially in Pythagoric dogmas; for these cannot be known without light.”

P. 61. Wear not the image of God in a ring.

This in the Protreptics is the 24th Symbol; but instead of wear, it is there inscribe. But Iamblichus’ 288 explanation of it is as follows= “This Symbol conformably to the foregoing conception, employs the following exhortation= Philosophize, and before every thing consider the Gods as having an incorporeal subsistence. For this is the most principal root of the Pythagoric dogmas, from which nearly all of them are suspended, and by which they are strengthened even to the end. Do not therefore think that the Gods use such forms as are corporeal, or that they are received by a material subject, and by body as a material bond, like other animals. But the engravings in rings exhibit the bond which subsists through the ring, its corporeal nature and sensible form, and the view as it were of some partial animal, which becomes apparent through the engraving; from which especially we should separate the genus of the Gods, as being eternal and intelligible, and always subsisting according to the same and in a similar manner, as we have particularly, most fully, and scientifically shown in our treatise concerning the Gods.”[97]

P. 61. Nor is it proper to sacrifice a white cock; for this also is a suppliant, and is sacred to the moon.

18 Symbol

In the Protreptics, the 18th Symbol is partly the same with, and partly different from this. For it is, “Nourish a cock; but sacrifice it not; for it is sacred to the sun and the moon.”

Iamblichus explains

“This Symbol advises us to nourish and strengthen the body and not neglect it, dissolving and destroying the mighty tokens of the union, connexion, sympathy, and consent of the world. So that it exhorts us to engage in the contemplation and philosophy of the universe. For though the truth concerning the universe is naturally occult, and sufficiently difficult of investigation, it must, however, at the same time, be inquired into and investigated by man, and especially through philosophy. For it is truly impossible to be discovered through any other pursuit. But philosophy receiving certain sparks, and as it were viatica, from nature, excites and expands them into magnitude, rendering them more conspicuous through the disciplines which it possesses. Hence, therefore, we should philosophize.”

3rd Symbol

P. 61. It is proper to sacrifice, and to enter temples, unshod.

This in the Protreptics is the 3rd Symbol; but is thus enunciated by Iamblichus, “Sacrifice and adore unshod.” On which Iamblichus observes= “This Symbol signifies that we ought to worship the Gods, and acquire a knowledge of them in an 290 orderly and modest manner, and in a way not surpassing our condition on the earth. It also signifies that, in worshipping them, and acquiring this knowledge, we should be free from bonds, and properly liberated. But the Symbol exhorts that sacrifice and adoration should be performed not only in the body, but also in the energies of the soul; so that these energies may neither be detained by passions, nor by the imbecility of the body, nor by generation, with which we are externally surrounded. But every thing pertaining to us should be properly liberated, and prepared, for the participation of the Gods.”

P. 77. Enter not into a temple negligently, nor, in short, adore carelessly, not even though you should stand at the very doors themselves.

This in the Protreptics is the 2nd Symbol, and is explained by Iamblichus as follows= “If the similar is friendly and allied to the similar, it is evident that since the Gods have a most principal essence among wholes, we ought to make the worship of them a principal object. But he who does this for the sake of any thing else, gives a secondary rank to that which takes the precedency of all things, and subverts the whole order of religious worship and knowledge. Besides, it is not proper to rank illustrious 291 goods in the subordinate condition of human utility, nor to place our concerns in the order of an end, but things more excellent, whether they be works or conceptions, in the condition of an appendage.”

30th Symbol

P. 79. These, therefore, he ordered not to eat the heart.

This is the 30th Symbol in the Protreptics, and is thus explained by Iamblichus= “This Symbol signifies that it is not proper to divulse the union and consent of the universe. And still further, it signifies this, Be not envious, but philanthropic, and communicative= and from this it exhorts us to philosophize. For philosophy alone among the sciences and arts, is neither pained with the goods of others, nor rejoices in the evils of neighbours, these being allied and familiar by nature, subject to the like passions, and exposed to one common fortune. It likewise evinces that the future is equally unlooked for by all men. Hence, it exhorts us to sympathy and mutual love, and to be truly communicative, as it becomes rational animals.” 292

31st Symbol

P. 79. Nor the brain.

This is the 31st Symbol in the Protreptics, and which Iamblichus thus explains=

“This Symbol also resembles the former= for the brain is the ruling instrument of intellectual prudence. The Symbol, therefore, obscurely signifies that we ought not to dilacerate nor mangle things and dogmas, which have been the objects of judicious deliberation. But these will be such as have been the subject of intellectual consideration, becoming thus equal to objects of a scientific nature. For things of this kind are to be surveyed, not through the instruments of the irrational form of the soul, such as the heart and the liver; but through the pure rational nature. Hence, to dilacerate these by opposition, is inconsiderate folly; but the Symbol rather exhorts us to venerate the fountain of intelligence, and the most proximate organ of intellectual perception, through which we shall possess contemplation, science, and wisdom; and by which we shall truly philosophize, and neither confound nor obscure the vestiges which philosophy produces.” 293

38th Symbol

P. 79. To abstain from mallows, &c.

The 38th Symbol in the Protreptics is= “Transplant mallows in your garden, but eat them not.” On which Iamblichus observes as follows= “This Symbol obscurely signifies that plants of this kind turn with the sun, and it thinks fit that this should be noticed by us. It also adds, transplant, that is to say, observe its nature, its tendency towards, and sympathy with, the sun; but rest not satisfied, nor dwelt upon this, but transfer, and as it were transplant your conception to kindred plants and pot-herbs, and also to animals which are not kindred, to stones and rivers, and, in short, to natures of every kind. For you will find them to be prolific and multiform, and admirably abundant; and this to one who begins from the mallows, as from a root and principle, is significant of the union and consent of the world. Not only, therefore, do not destroy or obliterate observations of this kind; but increase and multiply them as if they were transplanted.” 294

6th Symbol

P. 80. Thus too he ordered them to abstain from the fish Melanurus.[98]

The 6th Symbol in the Protreptics is, “Abstain from melanurus; for it belongs to the terrestrial Gods.” And this, according to Iamblichus, admonishes us to embrace the celestial journey, to conjoin ourselves to the intellectual Gods, to become separated from a material nature, and to be led as it were in a circular profession to an immaterial and pure life. It further exhorts us to adopt the most excellent worship of the Gods, and especially that which pertains to the primary[99] Gods.

P. 80. And also not to receive the fish Erythynus.

This in the Protreptics is the 33rd Symbol, and which Iamblichus thus explains= “This Symbol seems to be merely referred to the etymology of the 295 name. Receive not an unblushing and impudent man; nor on the contrary one stupidly astonished, and who in every thing blushes, and is humble in the extreme, through the imbecility of his intellect and reasoning power. Hence this also is understood, Be not yourself such a one.”

P. 80. He likewise exhorted them to abstain from beans.

In the Protreptics this is the 37th Symbol; and Iamblichus has not developed for us the more mystical signification of this symbol. For he only says that “it admonishes us to beware of every thing which is corruptive of our converse with the Gods and divine prophecy.” But Aristotle appears to have assigned the true mystical reason why the Pythagoreans abstained from beans. For he says, (apud Laert.) “that Pythagoras considered beans as a symbol of generation [i. e. of the whole of a visible and corporeal nature,] which subsists according to a right line, and is without inflection; because a bean alone of almost all spermatic plants, is perforated through the whole of it, and is not obstructed by any intervening joints.” Hence he adds, “it resembles the gates of Hades.” For these are perpetually open without any impediment to souls descending into generation. The exhortation, 296 therefore, to abstain from beans, is equivalent to admonishing us to beware of a continued and perpetual descent into the realms of generation. Hence the true meaning of the following celebrated lines in Virgil;

——facilis descensus Averno.

Noctes atque dies patet atri janua Ditis:

Sed revocare gradum, superasque evadere ad auras,

Hoc opus, hic labor est.

i. e.

The gates of Hell are open night and day,

Smooth the descent, and easy is the way;

But to return, and view the cheerful skies,

In this, the mighty task and labor lies.


P. 98. Such as infallible predictions of earthquakes, rapid expulsions of pestilence, &c. &c.

Since Pythagoras, as Iamblichus informs us, p. 9. was initiated in all the mysteries of Byblus and Tyre, in the sacred operations of the Syrians, and in the mysteries of the Phœnicians, and also (p. 12.) that he spent two and twenty years in the adyta of temples in Egypt, associated with the Magi in Babylon, and was instructed by them in their venerable knowledge;—it is not at all wonderful 297 that he was skilled in magic or theurgy, and was therefore able to perform things which surpass merely human power, and which appear to be perfectly incredible to the vulgar. For “magic,” (as we learn from Psellus in his MS. treatise on Dæmons) “formed the last part of the sacerdotal science.” He farther likewise informs us, “that magic investigates the nature, power, and quality of every thing sublunary; viz. of the elements and their parts, of animals, all-various plants, and their fruits, of stones, and herbs= and in short, it explores the essence and power of every thing. From hence, therefore, it produces its effects. And it forms statues which procure health, makes all-various figures, and things which become the instruments of disease. If asserts too, that eagles and dragons contribute to health; but that cats, dogs, and crows, are symbols of vigilance, to which therefore they contribute. But for the fashioning of certain parts, wax and clay are used. Often, too, celestial fire is made to appear through magic; and then statues laugh, and lamps are spontaneously enkindled.” See the original in the Notes to my Pausanias, p. 325. And that theurgy was employed by the ancients in their mysteries, I have fully proved in my treatise On the Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries.[100] 298

Conformably to this, Plato also in the First Alcibiades says, that the magic of Zoroaster consisted in the worship of the Gods, on which passage, I shall present the reader with what I have said, in the first volume of my Plato, p. 63, as it will enable him to see that the theurgy of the ancients is founded in a theory equally scientific and sublime.

“The following account of magic by Proclus, originally formed, as it appears to me, a part of the Commentary written by him on the present passage. For the MS. Commentary of Proclus, which is extant on this dialogue, does not extend to more than a third part of it; and this Dissertation on Magic, which is only extant in Latin, was published by Ficinus the translator, immediately after his Excerpta from this Commentary. So that it seems highly probable, that the manuscript from which Ficinus translated his Excerpta, was much more perfect, than that which has been preserved to us, in consequence of containing this account of the magic of the ancients.

“In the same manner as lovers gradually advance from that beauty which is apparent in sensible forms, to that which is divine; so the ancient priests, when they considered that there is a certain alliance and sympathy in natural things to each other, and of things manifest to occult powers, and discovered that all things subsist in all, they fabricated a sacred science from this mutual sympathy 299 and similarity. Thus they recognized things supreme in such as are subordinate, and the subordinate in the supreme= in the celestial regions, terrene properties subsisting in a causal and celestial manner; and in earth celestial properties, but according to a terrene condition. For how shall we account for those plants called heliotropes, that is, attendants on the sun, moving in correspondence with the revolution of its orb, but selenitropes, or attendants on the moon, turning in exact conformity to her motion? It is because all things pray, and hymn the leaders of their respective orders; but some intellectually, and others rationally; some in a natural, and others after a sensible manner. Hence the sun-flower, as far as it is able, moves in a circular dance towards the sun; so that if any one could hear the pulsation made by its circuit in the air, he would perceive something composed by a sound of this kind, in honor of its king, such as a plant is capable of framing. Hence, too, we may behold the sun and moon in the earth, but according to a terrene quality; but in the celestial regions, all plants, and stones, and animals, possessing an intellectual life according to a celestial nature. Now the ancients, having contemplated this mutual sympathy of things, applied for occult purposes, both celestial and terrene natures, by means of which, through a certain similitude, they deduced divine virtues into this inferior abode. 300 For, indeed, similitude itself is a sufficient cause of binding things together in union and consent. Thus, if a piece of paper is heated, and afterwards placed near a lamp, though it does not touch the fire, the paper will be suddenly inflamed, and the flame will descend from the superior to the inferior parts. This heated paper we may compare, to a certain relation of inferiors to superiors; and its approximation to the lamp, to the opportune use of things according to time, place, and matter. But the procession of fire into the paper, aptly represents the presence of divine light, to that nature which is capable of its reception. Lastly, the inflammation of the paper may be compared to the deification of mortals, and to the illumination of material natures, which are afterwards carried upwards like the enkindled paper, from a certain participation of divine seed.

“Again, the lotus, before the rising of the sun, folds its leaves into itself, but gradually expands them on its rising= unfolding them in proportion to the sun’s ascent to the zenith; but as gradually contracting them, as that luminary descends to the west. Hence this plant, by the expansion and contraction of its leaves, appears no less to honor the sun, than men by the gesture of their eye-lids, and the motion of their lips. But this imitation and certain participation of supernal light, is not only visible in plants, which possess nothing more 301 than a vestige of life, but likewise in particular stones. Thus the sun-stone, by its golden rays, imitates those of the sun; but the stone called the eye of heaven, or of the sun, has a figure similar to the pupil of an eye, and a ray shines from the middle of the pupil. Thus too the lunar stone, which has a figure similar to the moon when horned, by a certain change of itself, follows the lunar motion. Lastly, the stone called helioselenus, i. e. of the sun and moon, imitates, after a manner, the congress of those luminaries, which it images by its color. So that all things are full of divine natures; terrestrial natures receiving the plenitude of such as are celestial, but celestial of supercelestial essences;[101] while every order of things proceeds gradually in a beautiful descent from the highest to the lowest. For whatever particulars are collected into one above the order of things, are afterwards dilated in descending, various souls being distributed under their various ruling divinities.

“In the next place, there are many solar animals, such as lions and cocks, which participate, according to their nature, of a certain solar divinity; whence it is wonderful how much inferiors yield to superiors in the same order, though they do not yield in magnitude and power. Hence it is said, that a cock is very much feared, and as it 302 were reverenced, by a lion; the reason of which we cannot assign from matter or sense, but from the contemplation alone of a supernal order. For thus we shall find that the presence of the solar virtue accords more with a cock than with a lion. This will be evident from considering that the cock, as it were, with certain hymns, applauds and calls to the rising sun, when he bends his course to us from the antipodes; and that solar angels sometimes appear in forms of this kind, who though they are without shape, yet present themselves to us who are connected with shape, in some sensible form. Sometimes too there are dæmons with a leonine front, who, when a cock is placed before them, unless they are of a solar order, suddenly disappear; and this, because those natures which have an inferior rank in the same order, always reverence their superiors; just as many, on beholding the images of divine men, are accustomed, from the very view, to be fearful of perpetrating any thing base.

“In fine, some things turn round correspondent to the revolutions of the sun, as the plants which we have mentioned, and others after a manner imitate the solar rays, as the palm and the date; some the fiery nature of the sun, as the laurel; and others a different property.

We may perceive that the properties which are collected in the sun, are every where distributed to subsequent natures constituted in a solar order; that is, to angels, dæmons, souls, animals, plants, and stones. Hence the authors of the ancient priesthood discovered from things apparent, the worship of superior powers, while they mingled some things and purified others. They mingled many things indeed together, because they saw that some simple substances possessed a divine property (though not taken singly) sufficient to call down that particular power, of which they were participants.

Hence, by the mingling of many things together, they attracted upon us a supernal influx; and by the composition of one thing from many, they produced an assimilation to that one which is above many; and composed statues from the mixture of various substances conspiring in sympathy and consent. Besides this, they collected composite odours, by a divine art, into one, comprehending a multitude of powers, and symbolizing with the unity of a divine essence; considering that division debilitates each of these, but that mingling them together, restores them to the idea of their exemplar.

“But sometimes one herb, or one stone, is sufficient to a divine operation. Thus, a thistle is sufficient to procure the sudden appearance of some superior power; but a laurel, raccinum, (or a thorny kind of sprig) the land and sea onion, the coral, the diamond, and the jasper, operate as a 304 safeguard.

The heart of a mole is subservient to divination, but sulphur and marine water to purification. Hence, the ancient priests, by the mutual relation and sympathy of things to each other, collected their virtues into one, but expelled them by repugnancy and antipathy; purifying when it was requisite with sulphur and bitumen, and sprinkling with marine water. For sulphur purifies, from the sharpness of its odour; but marine water, on account of its fiery portion. Besides this, in the worship of the Gods, they offered animals, and other substances congruous to their nature; and received, in the first place, the powers of dæmons, as proximate to natural substances and operations; and by these natural substances they convoked into their presence those powers to which they approached. Afterwards, they proceeded from dæmons to the powers and energies of the Gods; partly, indeed, from dæmoniacal instruction, but partly by their own industry, interpreting convenient symbols, and ascending to a proper intelligence of the Gods. And lastly, laying aside natural substances and their operations, they received themselves into the communion and fellowship of the Gods.”

The people, who believe in nothing beyond the information of their senses, will object that plants, animals, and stones, no longer possess those wonderful sympathetic powers mentioned by Proclus in the above extract.

Such an objector has a little soul (in the language of the Emperor Julian) which is acute, but sees nothing with a vision healthy and sound, that this is not at all wonderful at a period, when, as the author of the Asclepian dialogue justly observes, “there is a lamentable departure of divinity from man, when nothing worthy of heaven, or celestial concerns, is heard or believed, and when every divine voice is by a necessary silence dumb.”

But to the philosophic reader, that as in the realms of generation, or in other words, the sublunary region, wholes, viz. the spheres of the different elements, remain perpetually according to nature; but their parts are sometimes according, and sometimes contrary to nature;

This must also be true of the parts of the earth. When those circulations therefore take place, during which the parts of the earth subsist according to nature, and which are justly called, by Plato, fertile periods, the powers of plants, animals, and stones, magically sympathize with superior natures, in consequence of a more abundant participation of them, through a greater degree of aptitude to receive, and alliance 306 to the participated powers. But during those circulations, in which the parts of the earth subsist contrary to nature, as at present, and which Plato calls barren periods, the powers of plants, animals, and stones, no longer possess a magic sympathy, and consequently are no longer capable of producing magical operations.

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