Crystal Addey- From ‘Divination & Theurgy in Neoplatonism’: Excerpt-03

Left: Auguste Rodin, “Le Penseur”, 1881-1882, Sculpture (bronze), Musée Rodin, Paris, France. Picture by Thibsweb .

Right: Boxer of Quirinal, Greek Hellenistic bronze sculpture of a sitting nude boxer at rest, 100-50 BC, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome. Picture by Carole Raddato.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is the third excerpt of a little series devoted to Dr. Crystal Addey’s milestone study, ‘Divination and Theurgy in Neoplatonism, Oracles of the Gods’, Routledge, 2019.


🌿About the arbitrary nature of the dichotomy between thought and action🌿

…/…Catherine Bell has also found the category of ‘ritual’, as currently formulated by scholars, to be problematic: she argues that it is dependent upon thought-action/mind-body dichotomies, which tend to reinforce and elevate the status of scholar as thinking subjects and devalues the status of the ritual participants as possessing less agency (that is, moulded, controlled, doing-without-reflecting): ‘there is a logic of sort to most theoretical discourse on ritual and this discourse is fundamentally organized  by an underlying opposition between thought and action. Alexander J. Mazur (Zeke Mazur) has examined this dichotomy in relation to Plotinus’ contemplation:

According to this division no purely mental ‘act’ can be ‘ritual’, which also means that the deliberate discipline of subjective consciousness, as in guided meditation, is similarly excluded from the category of ritual even if…it significantly retains the formal structure of the more external rituals from which it was originally derived.’

The arbitrary nature of this dichotomy between thought and action becomes clear from even a brief examination of numerous religious examples from other traditional contexts, such as Kabbalah, Sufism and Tantra, in which ritual actions or utterances are progressively interiorised until they are iterated through thought or imagination alone. Mazur argues that the rigid division between thought and action is particularly misleading when attempting to understand Plotinus’ contemplation, the final phase of which is a prescribed technique of meditation or visualisation which may well be closely modelled on ritual patterns, although it also correspond with his metaphysical system: ‘our categorical division between thought and action has made this mode of ritual praxis very difficult to imagine in philosophical context.’


This division is especially misleading when attempting to understand Iamblichus’ theurgy, the highest stages of which include noetic, immaterial and incorporeal practices conceptualised by Iamblichus as ritual action, utilised for the purpose of connecting the theurgist to the gods and transforming the theurgist’ consciousness. Mazur coins the term ‘inner ritual’ to articulate this liminal category of practice in Late Antiquity and to describe ‘the numerous traditional techniques in which the subjective consciousness is deliberately controlled in a prescribed manner for a discreet period of time, and whose experiential content is patterned upon more outward ritual procedures.’ This category of ritual practice does not seem to have been explicitly theorised by historians of Late Antique religion or philosophy prior to Mazur’s work, but his term ‘inner ritual’ will be utilised below in comparison of Plotinian contemplation and visualisation with Iamblichian theurgy.


Within scholarship on the role of ritual in Neoplatonism, the rigid dichotomy between thought and action is often implicitly accompanied by a division between rationality and irrationality, with Plotinian contemplation commonly categorised as ‘rational’ while Iamblichian theurgy has often been characterised as ‘irrational’. For example, E.R. Dodds’ famous assessment of Iamblichus’ ‘De Mysteriis’ as ‘a manifesto of irrationalism, an assertion that the road to salvation is found not in reason but in ritual‘ clearly opposes rationality and ritual according to a Cartesian dichotomy between thought and action, and consequently equates ritual with irrationalism. Yet, we have seen above that this dichotomy is based on a narrow hypothetico-deductive model of ‘rationality’ which has inherent problems and has consequently  been critiqued from philosophical and anthropological perspectives.


An instrumental model of rationality based on an evaluation of the mean/end calculation of the decision maker allows greater scope for exploring ritual systems such as Neoplatonic theurgy. Berchman says:

This definition of rationality allows Neoplatonic ritual action and belief into the domain of rationality. It may well be that these ritual beliefs are mistaken, but this does not imply irrationality, or sheer non rational expressiveness, For within its Neoplatonic cultural context ritual stands as an element within a wider rational system. Its means are appropriate, and its ends are coherent because for the later Platonists ritual is among the best way of accomplishing a series of intended objectives, such as the ascent of the soul and communion with the divine‘.


Further more, the division between ‘rationality’ and ‘irrationality’ seems somewhat anachronistic, given that Iamblichus characterises theurgic ritual as ‘supra-rational’, in the sense that it transcends rationality, rather than lacks it. Yet, this transcendence  of rationality through theurgy implicitly relies on the inclusion and culmination of rationality. For Iamblichus as for many other ancient philosophers, rationality and the noetic and hyper-noetic supra-rational vision are interdependent and interlinked cognitive states, although supra-rationality is ontologically and hierarchically superior. In this analysis of the philosophical ‘Hermetica‘, which arose within the same cultural and philosophical milieux as Iamblichian philosophy and which also, like Iamblichus, asserts the need of going beyond reason in order to perceive truth. Garth Fowden speaks of:

‘…the ancients’ conviction that human and divine knowledge, reason and intuition, are interdependent-a view which continued to prevail in Islam, particularly in Shiite and Sufi circles, but which the Western intellectual tradition has often rejected, decomposing knowledge into independent categories, separating philosophy from theology, and in doing so setting up serious obstacles to the understanding of more unified world-views.’

According to this view of cognitive states, rationality and supra-rational states are interdependent, mutually inclusive rather than mutually exclusive. Supra-rationality transcends rationality; yet, to experience supra-rationality the individual must have first trained his or her rational faculties through philosophy (which is why philosophy and intellectual preparation are vital for theurgy).


A vital caveat must be mentioned here: I do not mean to suggest that supra-rational states were conceptualised as being attainable in a mechanical or automatic sense by the individual who has trained his or her rational faculties through philosophy. Iamblichus makes it clear, firstly, that supra-rational states are ‘ultimately‘ dependent on the will of the gods and , secondly, that receptivity to these states also involves vital ethical and ritual preparation as well.

Thus, supra-rationality is envisaged as ‘more than just the sum of‘ (or the result of) rationality, which is why it paradoxically marks the simultaneous culmination ‘and‘ transcendence of rationality. Therefore, i would suggest that rigid antitheses between thought and action, and between rationality and ritual, can be applied only anachronistically to Neoplatonism, whether this is the interiorised contemplation and visualisation of Plotinus or the theurgy of Iamblichus.

Christian And Moor Playing Chess. Libros de juegosd’Alphonse X le sage, fol. 64r.


More about Iamblichus: 🌿 More about Dr Chrystal Addey:🌿More about Alexander J. Mazur: 🌿More about Catherine Bell: 🌿 More about Garth Fowden:
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