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Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus (Hermeneutics, Studies in the History of Religions) [Hardcover]

Gregory Shaw
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

December 1995 0271014377 978-0271014371
Theurgy and the Soul is a study of Iamblichus of Syria (ca. 240-325), whose teachings set the final form of pagan spirituality prior to the Christianization of the Roman Empire. Gregory Shaw focuses on the theory and practice of theurgy, the most controversial and significant aspect of Iamblichus's Platonism. Theurgy literally means 'divine action.' Unlike previous Platonists who stressed the elevated status of the human soul, Iamblichus taught that the soul descended completely into the body and thereby required the performance of theurgic rites--revealed by the gods--to unite the soul with the One. Iamblichus was once considered one of the great philosophers whose views on the soul and the importance of ritual profoundly influenced subsequent Platonists such as Proclus and Damascius. The Emperor Julian followed Iamblichus's teachings to guide the restoration of traditional pagan cults in his campaign against Christianity. Although Julian was unsuccessful, Iamblichus's ideas persisted well into the Middle Ages and beyond. His vision of a hierarchical cosmos united by divine ritual became the dominant world view for the entire medieval world and played an important role in the Renaissance Platonism of Marsilio Ficino. Even Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that he expected a reading of Iamblichus to cause a 'revival in the churches.' But modern scholars have dismissed him, seeing theurgy as ritual magic or 'manipulation of the gods.' Shaw, however, shows that theurgy was a subtle and intellectually sophisticated attempt to apply Platonic and Pythagorean teachings to the full expression of human existence in the material world.
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Editorial Reviews


This book should be required reading for any scholar who uses the word 'theurgy,' or any other late antique term as well. --Journal of Religion

Gregory Shaw's book helps us to understand the considerable importance of Iamblichus in the history of thought. His notion of theurgy may seem to us a mental aberration, but, as Shaw expounds it, it can be seen as a coherent approach to reality, not unlike Christian sacramental theology. Shaw effectively puts theurgy on the map. --John M. Dillon, University of Dublin --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Gregory Shaw is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Product Details

  • Series: Hermeneutics, Studies in the History of Religions
  • Hardcover: 268 pages
  • Publisher: Pennsylvania State University Press (December 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0271014377
  • ISBN-13: 978-0271014371
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,761,799 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A welcome and insightful reevaluation of theurgy May 8, 2004
While Plotinus has been read and written about fairly early, it took a long time before the later Neoplatonists were studied seriously. The main reason was the disrespect expressed by many important scholars - notably E. R. Dodds and A.-J. Festugiere - about theurgy, which was routinely identified with magic and 'puerile superstition'. Fortunately, figures like H.-D. Saffrey (a pupil of Dodds and Festugiere) and J. Trouillard favored a more sympathetic approach to the subject, and they paved the way for a new generation of scholars, among them G. Shaw, the author of this remarkable book. It is a crucial work, because one's understanding of philosophers like Iamblichus and Proclus is unthinkable without a good enough grasp of theurgy; in that regard, the book is at once erudite and reader-friendly. Shaw emphasizes Iamblichus' traditionalism: far from being an eccentric innovation, theurgy is described as an effort to bring the Platonic tradition closer to Plato himself (and Pythagoras) and away from the radical dualism of the Gnostics. The book makes clear that adherence to theurgy implies a worldview whose consideration of the sensible world is deeply imbeted to the overall optimism of Plato's Timaeus; that dialogue's demiurgic cosmogony is also vital for the theurgic rites. In short, this is an essential book for those who are interested in Iamblichus and the later Neoplatonists.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A long overdue recovery of a great philosopher June 19, 2008
Rationalist modern paradigms of philosophy relegated the figure of Iamblichus of Chalcis to a footnote in the history of philosophy, a decadent thinker who tried to justify the old pagan cult with complicated and muddled justifications vaguely based on Platonic doctrine. Gregory Shaw shows persuasively that Iamblichus in his own time was a towering intellectual figure who drew out and developed his doctrine from the writings of the Divine Plato himself, the Pythagorean teachings, and the mysteries of the ancient Egyptians and Chaldeans. Central to his theology was the idea that the soul has fallen completely into the body, and that man must use the symbols in the cosmos, the sunthemata, to climb back up to the One, the source of all goodness. Ritual and magic, then, become highly philosophical, and philosophy itself becomes a ritual, a purification and illumination that will lead the soul back to its divine origins.

As a Christian, I see how these ideas effected the Church as it developed its ideas of the sacraments, the veneration of relics and the saints, among other things. It can be said (and Shaw insinuates) that it is the apostolic Christian churches (Catholic and Orthodox) that carry on Iamblichus' legacy to this day in the form of an incarnate theology where "theurgy" affected and was transformed into "liturgy" in the Christian mind, mainly through the help of Pseudo-Dionysius.

This book then is a necessary read not just for students of paganism and ancient philosophy, but also for traditional Christians who want to know how paganism has helped form what we believe about divinity. This is a book that you will have to read more than once, and you will return to it over and over again to find new openings into understanding.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read! April 8, 2003
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Excellent book. I learned more about the relationship between Plotinus, Proclus and Iamblichus in this book than I did in The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosohy. Chapter 12, "Cult and Cosmos" is worth the price of the book. If you are interested in Iamlichus I might even recomend this before (not instead of) the primary sources.
If you don't have a fair packground in philosophy or theology you may need to get a dedicated dictionary to define the greek terms.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Living Magic in the Greco-Roman World September 7, 2007
This is an amazingly excellent introduction to the life and teaching of the 4th century Syrian mystic Iamblichus. Anyone interested in the spiritual science behind ritual magic and divination will find a treasure trove of insight here.
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