The Value of Neo-Platonic Discourses: An Interview with Dr. Edward Butler

The Doric Temple of Athena Lindia, dating from about 300 BC in Lindos, Island of Rhodes, Greece. Photo by SaffronBlaze.

Any novice to the study of magic will eventually come upon Neo-Platonism, largely through the writing of Iamblichus in De mysteriis, translated in English as On the Mysteries. Ceremonial magicians, practitioners of magic schools, and astrological mages are all known to read or discuss De mysteriis at some point in their studies. In De mysteriis, Iamblichus mentions the cosmic mechanisms behind magic, in a work that largely argues that the only true good is union with the gods.¹ A contemporary and student of Porphyry, Iamblichus was one of the main philosophers in the Neo-Platonic tradition. Neo-Platonism was a major philosophical ideology from the third to eighth century AD. Not merely followers of Plato’s writings, Neo-Platonists immersed, borrowed, and unified nearly the entire Hellenic tradition of philosophy, religion, and literature, save the Stoic and Epicurean schools of thought.² They created an immense and intelligent system that analyzed a thousand years of intellectual culture and connected the science and ethics of Plato and Aristotle with myth, literature, and religious practice.³   

For any newcomer, understanding Neo-Platonic thinkers can be confusing. There are many concepts, the corpus is sizable, and one has to navigate a plethora of academic articles. So we thought it would be worthwhile to ask an expert about some of the questions that readers of Neo-Platonic literature might have. Dr. Edward Butler has been kind enough to discuss and shed light on Neo-Platonism and how modern people might make use of the ancient ideology. Butler has largely focused his academic career around Platonism. He received a doctorate from the New School for Social Research in 2004 for his dissertation The Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus. Since that time, he has written a number of online articles, published regularly in academic journals, and worked as an editor on academic volumes. His writing primarily focuses on Platonism, Neo-Platonism, and the polytheistic philosophy of religion. Most of this work is available on the Philosophy and Theology pages of his website. He also has a strong interest in Egyptian theology, and his site hosts the Theological Encyclopedia of the Goddesses and Gods of the Ancient Egyptians, with entries on over 150 Egyptian deities. 

 

Mad Sage Astrology (MSA): Why do spiritual seekers of all stripes—magicians, occultists, astrologers, Christians—read the works of Neo-Platonic thinkers?

 

Edward Butler (EB): I think that there is a recognition that Platonism [Editor’s note: Neo-Platonism henceforth referred to as Platonism] provides a comprehensive approach more useful to the seeker than other forms of thought which might present themselves, so to speak, as candidates. There is a great deal of misinterpretation, of course, but I believe that there is also a glimmer of genuine recognition motivating them. I am sharply critical of the way in which Platonism was appropriated into the Western occult tradition, which followed in the footsteps of the earlier Christian appropriation of it, but I think that one could say this, at least, that there was some sense that Platonism had a value beyond what Christianity had made of it. We should remember that Platonism was also a major influence on other intellectual movements, such as American Transcendentalism, which were also questioning the boundaries of how “spirituality” had been defined and experienced.

 

MSA: What do you think the influence of Neo-Platonic thought was on grimoires and spiritual practices like the Golden Dawn?

 

EB: On the grimoire tradition, not very much. The heart of that tradition seems to have sprung virtually, if not literally, from the ethos of the Greek Magical Papyri, which has little Platonism in it. I’m basically in agreement here with the conclusions of my friend Jake Stratton-Kent, though he and I have some differences on broader issues of interpretation. As for the Golden Dawn, their system derives largely from Renaissance ceremonial magic, which incorporated a large dose of Christianized, and hence badly adulterated, Platonism. Jake is correct, I believe, to separate this heavily systematized tradition from the grimoires.

 

MSA: Do you think that Iamblichus gives a good theoretical background for understanding how magic works? Though his model is almost two thousand years old, do you think it has held up well with the development of various magical traditions?

 

EB: I think that too many people in the magical community read Iamblichus in isolation from the wider Platonic tradition in antiquity, both before and after. It’s not enough to just read the De mysteriis. For that matter, I think that many people in so-called “magical” traditions don’t understand that the heart of theurgy is worship. The more instrumentalizing approaches to the Gods which are common in the magical papyri are recontextualized in theurgy, given a rationale consistent with Platonic paideia and with the overriding concern for theophany, for experience of the Gods as an end in itself.

 

MSA: If we were to ask Iamblichus, which beings in the divine hierarchy deal with most mundane magic?

 

EB: The programmatic answer would be classes of Gods specifically active on the encosmic plane, on the one hand, and the beings depending from other Gods who transmit Their activities to encosmic beings, on the other. Every God has a series of beings depending from Them, including angels, daimones, and heroes; the latter two kinds of beings are specifically active in the mundane sphere, the plane of souls and bodies, which is the kosmos as such.

 

Every God is active on every plane of being, from “top” to “bottom.” We shouldn’t get too hung up on this metaphor of “up” and “down.” It’s really a question of more densely woven connections with mortal souls at what we think of as the “lower” reaches of the procession, while the so-called “upper” reaches of the Gods’ activities are constituted by relations with a different kind of being, intellective structures, and total ontological frameworks.

 

MSA: In your opinion, what can knowledge of Neo-Platonic discourses do for a spiritual person? What kind of value does the system have?

 

EB: I think that a successfully “spiritual” person will basically have arrived already at the insights Platonism can offer through pursuing their own, sufficiently integral tradition. Platonism can, however, be helpful particularly in cases where there are lacunae in traditions, or a fortiori in the case of sundered traditions, as we see in the case of many polytheisms which are being revived. The wisdom traditions associated with them having been lost, practitioners may find themselves without sound guidance on matters such as the basic nature of polytheism, or the role of myths and how to interpret their symbolism. Properly understood—and that is a very important qualification—Platonism also offers a useful framework for non-reductive engagement and comparison between different traditions.

 

MSA: Is there any advice you can give to someone struggling to understand Neo-Platonic concepts?

 

EB: Spend your time reading primary texts, not secondary literature, which contains a lot of bad readings and “conventional wisdom” which is all convention and very little wisdom. You’re far better off stumbling about in the actual texts of the ancients than in participating in the game of academic telephone.

 

MSA: Why are the nous and logos such difficult concepts to understand? Can you do your best to define them?

 

EB: Nous means intellect, mind. It’s being, as grasped by someone, hence it’s mediated being, which gives form, in turn, to other things. Hence, it’s not mind in the passive sense, as a responsive faculty in the soul, but as form-giving agency, whether acting in the soul or beyond it.

 

Logos is a very common Greek word, which has a range of meanings from a speech, to the formula or structure of something, like a recipe. The philosophical usage tends to fall more on this latter end of the spectrum. I think that Christianity’s use of the term has introduced a great deal of unnecessary confusion, due in large part to poorly digested Stoicism. It’s really not a particularly mysterious term. We have all of these sciences with -logy at the end, which simply mean the discourse about that topic, or, more perceptively, the manner in which that topic is appropriately organized, the way of putting its contents together so as to exhibit the activity of principles.

 

MSA: Theurgy as a living tradition is dead, as far as we know. How can modern people apply the teachings of Plotinus, Iamblichus, Proclus, or Damascius to their daily lives or spiritual routines?  Neo-Platonism provides so many answers, but very few specific answers and not only are “theurgic” traditions dead but even the religious traditions of the late Roman era are largely gone. On the other hand, there are bits and pieces of both theurgy and Egyptian, Greek, and Roman religious culture that are extant in the archaeological and written record. Do you think reconstruction of either ancient religion or Neo-Platonic rites can be done correctly or incorrectly? How can modern Neo-Platonic enthusiasts approach this problem, since they have neither a complete picture of public nor private traditions?

 

EB: I think that there is a misunderstanding about what the “tradition” of theurgy even was. Theurgy is a way of doing your religious tradition, rather than a tradition in itself. Hence there are no rituals that belong to theurgy, just rituals belonging to whatever traditions that a theurgist does with a characteristic understanding of what the ritual means and what it does. To do theurgy, worship the Gods as ends in Themselves, rather than as means to any other end. That’s it. As for reconstructing sundered polytheistic traditions, it’s essentially the same answer: worship the Gods of that tradition. You don’t need all the information, nor do you need permission. The Gods Themselves are capable of teaching you what you need to know, if you cultivate the skill of listening to Them. Orient yourself toward the Gods, and you are guaranteed to be going in the right direction.

 

MSA: What are some factors that anyone attempting to reconstruct rituals in the Roman provinces during the late third century needs to consider?

 

EB: The goal of reconstructing rituals is contact with the Gods. Just focus on that. We’re not living in the third century, but the Gods are still right here with us, right now.

 

MSA: Are there any reconstructions of theurgy that personally resonate with you?

 

EB: Whenever I see people guided by devotion to their Gods and striving to understand everything as illuminated by Them, that’s theurgy.

 

MSA: I personally don’t understand how necessity or ananke is such an important force in the cosmos according to so many ancients in the Greek tradition. Can you explain necessity and why it is so crucial to understanding the cosmos?

 

EB: Ananke is best understood as the constraint applied upon a thing insofar as that thing is not understood through itself, but through another. Things other than the Gods and intelligible principles have some degree of exposure to necessity in this sense. Being subject to “necessity” in this sense is having one’s being, to some extent, in and through something else, being a dependent part of some whole. “Necessity” governs the part qua part. For this reason, it can provide predictability and control over things to the extent that they fall under its rubric, as we see the natural sciences wield over things insofar as they are products of nature, or the social sciences, insofar as they are products of society, or psychology, to the degree that they are psychically generated.

 

Sometimes the ancients speak of ananke or a similar principle, such as heimarmene or nemesis, as applying to the Gods as well. From a  Platonic perspective, we understand this in the sense that the Gods must choose as well what follows from the choices They make, and that the other Gods make. But this isn’t really a constraint upon Them, it’s Their eternal choosing of Themselves and recognition of one another. The Gods are present to one another, not out of lack, but out of superabundance; They choose one another freely, in the truest sense of freedom.

 

MSA: You focus a lot on the henads in your work. Can you give a brief summary of the importance of henads? How can one apply the concept of henads to a ritual practice?

 

EB: A henad is simply a God understood as absolutely unique, as “who” rather than “what”. From recognizing the absolute uniqueness of the God, everything about ritual practice ultimately follows: the ardor of devotion, the intellectual discernment, the methods of preparation and the order of works. The unique, the positive, the immediate, acts through mediation: this is “the One” proceeding to “Being”.

 

MSA: How would you propose any person interested in learning about Neo-Platonism get started? Are there any books that give a good overview? What are some good online, video, and audio resources? What would you suggest for a reader with limited time? For a person who wants to take a deep dive, would you suggest to start by reading the primary sources in chronological order?

 

EB: This is always a very difficult question. A book which every modern student should, at any rate, have under their belt is Gregory Shaw’s Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus. But there are many books from which students can benefit if, and only if, they can read them critically. If a person has limited time, they might be better off studying a particular tradition and its Gods, because without skin in the game, so to speak, I’m not sure how much any of it would make sense anyway. For the deep dive, yes, one must read all these texts and understand how they fit together, but one can also attain this by going back and forth between later texts and the foundational texts to which they refer, because hermeneutical time is not linear.

 

Dr. Edward Butler’s extensive academic writing on Platonism can be found on his website. This interview was conducted by email. 

 

Bibliography

  1. Iamblichus. “De mysteriis”. ed. and trans. by Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon, and Jackson P. Hershbell. Society of Biblical Literature Writings from the Greco- Roman World V. 4. 2003. 345- 347.
  2. Widberg, Christian. “Neoplatonism”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Summer 2019 edition, Edward N. Zalta(ed.), URL =<https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/neoplatonism/>.
  3. Widberg. “Neoplatonism”.