Frontispiece to Erasmus Darwin’s poem ‘The Temple of Nature‘, an engraving based on a drawing by Johann Heinrich Füssli.
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Pierre Hadot trail-blazing study, ‘The veil of Isis, an essay on the history of the idea of Nature‘, in its English translation by Michael Chase for the Belknap Press, 2006. Pages 71 to 75.
Professor Hadot reviews Emperor Julian’s use, in his ‘Seventh Oration’, of Heraclitus’ aphorism: “Nature loves to hide’ and develops Julian’s conception of initiation and revelation in the great scope of his revival efforts to re-establish the mystery religion of his ancestors in a Neoplatonist world-view at the tipping-point time of Christian merciless ever-growing hegemony.
“TELESTICS”: THE EMPEROR IULIAN
Two years previously, in 362, the emperor Julian had also cited Heraclitus’ aphorism, but in a wholly different spirit: “For Nature loves to hide, and does not tolerate that the secret of the essence of the gods should be flung in naked terms into impure ears.” We see clearly that Heraclitus’ aphorism is placed here in the service of pagan apologetics. The end of the phrase I have just cited sheds useful light on the meaning assumed for the emperor by the formula “Nature loves to hide.” For Julian, it means that the gods must be spoken of in a mysterious, enigmatic, and symbolic way, so that what the gods really are, their essence, may not be expressed “in naked terms.”
These naked terms cannot be thrown into impure ears; only the person who has been purified has the right to discover, through allegorical exegesis, the profound meaning of the myths and rites. Here we find once again the lesson of Numenius’ dream as told by Porphyry-Like Porphyry, Julian wonders to which branch of philosophy the narration of myths is appropriate. Unlike Porphyry, however, he clearly affirms that neither physics nor logic nor mathematics, which are as it were the “scientific” parts of philosophy, allows the use of myths. Only ethics and the telestic and mysterial part of theology admit of fabulous narrations, each in its own way.
What does Julian mean when he speaks of the telestic and mysterial part of philosophy? The two adjectives are quite probably synonyms, for, a bit further on in his discourse, while invoking the patronage of Iamblichus, Julian links “telestics” to Orpheus, “who instituted the most sacred initiations,” that is, the mysteries of Eleusis. In these mysteries, there were legomena, or revelations, and dromena, or rites, ceremonies, and dramatic productions. In fact, the word “telestics” has an imprecise meaning, since in his discourse ‘On King Helios‘, Julian uses this word with regard to a theory on the sun’s place in the cosmos, a theory he attributes to the Chaldaean Oracles, while adding, “Those who affirm these theories say that they have received them from gods or demons,” and therefore by divine revelation. The word can also designate rites or ceremonies, which are either those of-traditional religion—this appears clearly in Hierocles of Alexandria, who has undergone the influence of Iamblichus and considers that telestics includes the totality of rites related to local divinities or else those of Orphic mysteries and poems, or, again, of the ‘Chaldean Oracles‘. But if we read the continuation of Julian’ text, we see that he is speaking of “the ineffable and unknown nature of ‘characters’,” that is, of magical signs and symbols, which, because of the affinity they have with the gods, “care for souls and bodies and cause the gods to come“; in other words, he is speaking of the appearance of the gods. This means that telestics, as Pierre Boyancé has shown, is closely connected with the utilization of signs and symbols: drawings, letters, and formulas, which were placed outside or inside statues of the gods and which ensured the presence of the gods in these statues. This is why, in Proclus, telestics are closely connected with the art of animating statues.
These concepts were traditional in Platonism. It was considered that the mysteries of Eleusis and, more generally, the ceremonies of the cult and the form of the statues, as well as the decorations and symbols on these statues, had been chosen by sages, in the most distant antiquity, with regard to the cosmos. This Platonic idea first appears in Varro, who affirms that the ancient sages chose the form of the statues of the gods and their attributes so that, when they are contemplated with the eyes of the body, we can see the World Soul and its parts, which are the genuine gods. Then at a later stage, for instance in Plotinus, we find the idea that the sages of yesteryear, wishing to enjoy the presence of the gods, saw, when they contemplated the nature of the All, that the Soul could be present everywhere, and that it was easy for all things to receive it, as long as they fashioned some object which, by means of sympathy, was capable of receiving a part thereof. Here again, the particular gods appear as emanations of the Soul of the All, and statues of the gods ensure the gods’ presence, insofar as something in these statues is in sympathy with the Soul of the All. In the text by Porphyry, where mention is made of the occultation of nature according to Heraclitus, the gods and the World Soul are just as closely linked, and traditional religion is physics in images.
These practices and ancestral rites were intended, in the Neoplatonists’ view, to purify the vehicle of the soul, that is, its various envelopes or bodies, in order to enable the soul’s rise toward the gods and toward God. Julian is careful not to give a clear definition of this “telestic and mystical theology,” but we may suppose that he understands by this expression a procedure that pertains both to the soul and to the body: the former would consist in an edifying exegesis of myths and the latter in the practice of traditional as well as theurgic rites. Thus, on the one hand, the purification of the soul’s astral body and, on the other, the soul’s ascent toward the supreme principle would be ensured. We might think that Julian alludes to this last point when he writes that what is paradoxical and monstrous in myths “does not leave us in peace until, under the guidance of the gods, light appears to initiate, or rather to perfect, our intellect and also that within us which is superior to the intellect: that little share of the One-Good which possesses the all undividedly, that pleroma of the soul which, thanks to the presence of the One-Good—superior, separate from all matter and transcendent—is gathered together in Him.” It certainly seems as though Julian is here thinking of a divine illumination that would lead to a mystical union with the supreme principle.
Telestic theology, according to the late Neoplatonists, therefore includes, first of all, a mythical discourse and religious rites, which are accessible to the profane and place them in relation, in an inexplicable way, with the divine presence, at least of the lower divinities. For the philosopher, however, the practice of these formulas and actions, illuminated by exegesis, enables him to reach the higher divinities. Porphyry, for his part, thought that only philosophy, that is, spiritual effort, allows us to attain union with the transcendent divine, without myths or rituals. Julian, following Iamblichus, whose doctrine he explicitly accepts, considers that the human soul is sunk too deeply in matter to be able to achieve this supreme goal by its own strength. It needs divine assistance, that is, the revelation of myths, together with the rites and sacrifices prescribed by the gods.
In Iamblichus and his disciples, therefore, as in Julian and later in Proclus, we witness a promotion of myth. It is no longer relegated, as in Porphyry, to the lower part of theology, but it can also be found in its higher part, in order to reach the summits of initiation.
The Neoplatonists wanted to protect traditional religion against the invasion of the Christian religion, for they sincerely believed that the cult of the gods was linked to the action of the World Soul, which preserved the universe. Thus, they came to make Heraclitus’ aphorism. the slogan for a pagan reaction. Nietzsche said that ‘Christianity was a Platonism for the people‘. For the Neoplatonists, pagan myths and rituals were also a Platonism for the people, or, even more precisely, a hidden physics.