What happened to the later neoplatonists – a quotation from Damascius

A passage in Damascius’ commentary on the Phaedo sheds an interesting light on the later neoplatonist philosophers and their involvement in theurgy – the art of invoking the gods by magic:

Some honour philosophy more highly, as do Porphyry and Plotinus and many other philosophers; others honour more highly the hieratic art [=theurgy] as do Iamblichus and Syrianus and Proclus and all the theurgists [=hieratists].[1]

The rise in superstition in late antiquity, and still more in the post-Roman world, is a deplorable feature of the Roman decline and fall.  Sometimes this rise is attributed to the rise of Christianity, which occurs in the same period.  Nor is this allegation always without merit.

We are all familiar with the story of Justinian closing the philosophy schools.  There are not lacking writers who rage against Christianity for this event, supposing that the successors of Proclus and Marinus and the like were pure intellectuals.  But as we see from this excerpt from Damascius, they were in fact seriously involved in something not notably different from witchcraft.

Why did the neoplatonists lose contact with philosophy?

  1. [1]L.G. Westerink, The Greek commentaries on Plato’s Phaedo, 1977, ii.I.172.1-3, via Anne Shepherd, “Proclus’Attitude to Theurgy”, Classical Quarterly N.S. 32, 212-224. JSTOR.

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