Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


Repentance is the beginning of Philosophy, the avoiding of all foolish words and actions, and the first step of a life that will no more be subject to repentance. . . . He alone knows how to revere who never confounds the dignity of those he honours, who offers himself first as a pure sacrifice, who renders his soul the image of Deity and who prepares his mind as a temple worthy to receive the divine light.


The Alexandrian Mouseion, founded and favoured by the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, arose from the ancient Greek idea of mouseia, temples of learning dedicated to the Muses and centered upon the study of literature and the arts. Plato's Academy blended this conception with the Pythagorean paradigm of a spiritual order consecrated to learning and the practical application of sacred truths. Aristotle's Lyceum encouraged serious study in a broadly secular context and provided a model for the Alexandrian Mouseion. As the Museum grew along with the Serapeum and other public centres under the patronage of the Ptolemies, it in turn became the model for Roman, Byzantine and, later, Renaissance universities. Science was added to traditional Museum studies, and in time a school of philosophy arose. With Hypatia, the Alexandrian Academy emerged as a centre in its own right, a worthy counterpart to the great Athenian Academy. Inspired by Ammonius Saccas and devoted to the neo-Platonic tradition of Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus, the Academy became a blazing beacon whose afterglow persisted for centuries beyond its own existence, influencing Byzantine, Islamic and Renaissance cultures. But with the assassination of Hypatia in A.D. 415, neo-Platonic creativity was effectively ended in Alexandria. The fluctuations of history, however, call for the channelling of different powers of character at different times, and for fresh forms of virtue as circumstances change. As Christianity expanded into every social, political, intellectual and religious arena, compelling conformity to its exclusive claims, the Athenian Academy withdrew from political life and refused to compromise its metaphysical views, preferring exile on occasion to confrontation. The Alexandrian Academy recognized that the metaphysical battle, waged brilliantly by Ammonius outside the church and by Origen within it, and culminating in the teachings of Hypatia, was lost for a time in Mediterranean history. But the school remained in public life and attempted to ameliorate crude Christian practice with the healing balm of Platonic ethics. To achieve this end, the school needed someone who could judiciously formulate doctrines, remain silent on sacred matters that should not be subjected to ridicule or desecration, and exemplify an ethical sensitivity and moral integrity that would stand witness in a radically changing world. The school found its champion in Hierocles.

While Hypatia taught the universal principles of neo-Platonism in Alexandria, Plutarch held the Athenian chair of the Diadochoi Platonikoi, 'the Platonic successors', as the first distinguished neo-Platonist in the Academy. Bringing the teachings of Iamblichus Into the school, Plutarch transformed it by connecting it with the tradition of Porphyry, Plotinus and Ammonius. In addition to this critical decision, Plutarch found himself blessed with three exceptional disciples. Syrianus cared for him until his death in 431, and he proved a worthy successor loyal to the spirit of his master. Proclus was such an exceptional student that Plutarch renounced his well-earned retirement to prepare him to follow Syrianus to the chair. Hierocles of Alexandria showed none of the profound philosophical understanding of Syrianus or sheer intellectual creativity of Proclus, but he possessed a pristine ethical integrity and quiet inner courage that commended him to Plutarch's careful attention. Even the general features of the life of Hierocles are unknown, though ancient authors agree that he was born at Hillarima in Caria and was raised in Alexandria. As a mature young man he went to Athens to study philosophy, for his personal experience of the competing religious and philosophical systems in Alexandria convinced him that he should adhere to what was then called 'the old religion'.

The murder of Hypatia precipitated a crisis in the Alexandrian school. She had refused to cultivate a permanent following, preferring to train disciples to venture into the world and offer their knowledge and insight to others. Since she was in good health and at the height of her philosophic powers, no natural successor had emerged. Those around her at the time of her death were too young, too inexperienced or too fearful to assume the leadership of the school in this grave period. Synesius, who could have done so with dignity and credibility, was already bishop of the Pentapolis, and he died in the same year. Thus it fell to the parent school to protect the succession at Alexandria. Given these circumstances, it seems that Plutarch weighed his decision solemnly. Syrianus was already advanced in years and Proclus had not yet come to Athens. Hierocles was from Alexandria, had the moral and mental fortitude for a difficult task and was willing to bear the torch of truth in the face of physical danger. Plutarch appointed him successor to Hypatia. History does not record the poignant departure from Athens, the unspoken concerns of the master or the uncertain thoughts of the disciple, but the decision once taken was never obscured for a moment during the life of Hierocles.

Between 415 and 450 Hierocles occupied the Alexandrian chair. Few details have survived the oblivion which unsympathetic historians imposed upon the remnants of the old philosophical traditions, but they testify to his shrewdness and suffering. Olympiodorus wrote that many of the school's assets had been seized on different occasions during this period. Despite his efforts to live at peace with the Christian community, he was once exiled to Constantinople where a magistrate had him scourged for some allegedly disparaging comparisons between Christianity and the 'old' doctrines. As a pupil of Plutarch, he sought to harmonize the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. While Syrianus held that Aristotelian thought is a stepping-stone to Pythagorean-Platonic philosophy, Hierocles taught that Ammonius Saccas had demonstrated the substantial unity of the two schools. Rather than write metaphysical treatises or attempt a systematic integration of neo-Platonic thought like that undertaken by Proclus, Hierocles concentrated on preserving the spirit of the school in Alexandria. He wrote consolatory essays to friends and followers and a work on providence and fate, all of which have been lost, and he produced a carefully composed commentary on the Carmina Aurea, the Golden Verses of Pythagoras. Couched in language appealing to ethical sensitivity and moral aspiration, he touched a responsive chord in human beings regardless of their religious allegiances. The Commentary remained popular throughout the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance, preserving for posterity the summation of Pythagorean teaching on the art of living as well as the neo-Platonic synthesis of philosophy and mysticism.

For Hierocles as for Plato, philosophy is a self-conscious process of life-long growth towards spiritual and ethical maturity.

Philosophy is the purification and perfection of human nature; its purification, because philosophy delivers it from the temerity and from the folly that proceed from matter, and because philosophy disengages its affections from the mortal body; and its perfection, because philosophy makes it recover its original bliss by restoring it to the likeness of Deity.

Hierocles pointed to Plato as "the most exact master of the doctrine of Pythagoras" and to the Golden Verses as the supreme summation of philosophy, "for they contain the universal precepts of all philosophy as well as for the active and the contemplative life". Since the Golden Verses begin with the words "In the first place revere the Immortal Gods as they are established and ordained by the Law", Hierocles chose to remain as silent as the Pythagoreans in respect to the unmanifest Deity, referring only to the Intellectual One as the demiurgic creator of all that unfolds in manifestation. Its activity is the divine Law, which is perfectly reflected in the immortal gods who preside over cosmos. As the unchanging images of the Divine, they deserve the highest reverence, being the first of the intelligent essences of which the human soul is last. The human soul is thus a mortal god, in that it experiences death not by ceasing to be but by losing its well-being.

For the death of a reasonable Essence is ignorance and impiety which drag after them disorders and revolt of the passions. The ignorance of good necessarily plunges us into the slavery of ill – a slavery whence it is impossible to be redeemed save by returning to knowledge and to Deity, which is done by recollection and by the faculty of reminiscence.

Between the extremes of immortal and mortal gods, there are two classes of intelligent beings or reasonable essences, the "Heroes who are full of goodness and light" and the "Terrestrial Daimons", who represent degrees of divine knowledge and are also called angels. The cosmic order constituted by the immortal gods is the Law.

The Law is the Intelligence that has created all things; it is the Divine Intelligence by which all has been produced from all eternity and which likewise preserves it eternally.

Cosmic order as a whole can be viewed as the moving image of Deity, and the human soul mirrors cosmic order insofar as it is ordered. True philosophers teach that "Deity has no better dwelling place on earth than in a pure soul", and the Delphic Oracle said, "I dwell with less pleasure in the resplendent heavens than in the souls of pious men."

The Pythagoreans emphasized reverence for the secret oath they had taken. Without revealing the contents of this mystery-vow, Hierocles suggests its fundamental significance by saying that it is observance of divine Law. The oaths sworn in public life are shadows of this original oath, the continuous action that binds all souls together and to the Divine. It is "the pledge of eternity", and its terrestrial reflections are pledges in time. From this it follows that one must honour one's father and mother, respect humanity and be friends with the virtuous. According to the moral psychology of the Golden Verses, virtue is undermined by passions, especially gluttony, sloth, lust and anger. Hierocles saw in this sequence a profound psychopathology of human nature. Gluttony causes sloth which reinforces a tendency to insatiable desires that can only result in anger. "Above all things, respect thyself", the Pythagoreans advised.

If you acquire the habit of self-respect, you will always have at hand a faithful guardian whom you will respect and who will never abandon you but always keep you in sight. . . . Have we not our souls, that is, ourselves, for witnesses? . . . One who thinks ill actions unworthy of one insensibly familiarizes himself with virtue.

The absence of the power of virtue is vice. When it occurs in the rational faculty of man, it is folly, when in the irascible part, cowardice. Vice in the seat of desire is intemperance and avarice, and injustice is the vice that pervades every aspect of human nature. Practical wisdom alone cures folly just as courage, temperance (sophrosyne) and justice remove the other vices. Virtues are effective powers, not techniques for thought and action or mere strictures on behaviour.

The virtues originally radiate from the Divine Spirit and diffuse themselves in the Reasonable Soul. They constitute its form, its perfection and all its bliss. From the soul these virtues shine with a reflected ray on this senseless being – I mean the mortal body – by a secret and hidden communication to the end that all that is joined to the rational essence may be filled with beauty, decency and order.

Cultivation of virtue is growth in self-knowledge, for virtue depends upon sound judgement. Thus "Respect thyself" implies "Know thyself", and this is achieved through the performance of duty. "The observance of our duties is only the exact and inviolable observance of justice."

Justice is pervasive and equal throughout the world, for cosmos is suffused by intelligence. "If there were no Providence there would be no order in the world; this order may be called destiny." Injustice, lack of proportion and balance appear in the world because of the wills of beings. The soul that sees the necessity of order will freely choose that rational necessity. A soul obscured by the accretions built up through uncontrolled passion will not choose wisely, and so the visible injustice that appears in the world is exactly proportional to the varying merit of each creature. Even the desire to satiate passions draws out the creative powers of the soul and demonstrates, though in an inverted mode, the soul's likeness to the Divine and therefore its immortality. Rationality enslaved by vice is sophistry and rationalization, but it is no ground for the rejection of reason, for the reasoning of a virtuous soul "that has recovered all its brightness and lustre" yields knowledge.

It is not from moral virtues alone that the man of knowledge will draw his tranquillity and constancy, but from the confidence he has in his own strength for this sort of combat.... The body is not you, it is yours; and all external things are neither you nor yours, but they belong to something that is yours – your body.

The consubstantiality of the human soul with the dynamic manifestation of Deity is the foundation of confidence and the root of knowledge is virtue. Blind faith in the inexplicable dictates of some divine source is unnecessary, for "to obey sound reason and to obey God are the same thing". Discerning the difference between soul and body frees one from the excitement of the passions generated by false identification with form and allows the soul to take proper care of its instrument, and the Golden Verses provide guidelines for the proper treatment of the body.

The inner man, however, is harmed by whatever is contrary to right reason, divine Law or the resemblance of Deity. The proper care of the inner man consists in self-study and meditation. Pythagoras enjoined his disciples to review the actions of the day thrice before going to sleep to discover what had been done, what omitted and what done amiss. "By this mean", Hierocles taught, ''the whole tenor of our life will be ordered according to the precepts prescribed us." Self-study makes the human being good, but meditation, which goes beyond reason to the spiritual core of being, "tends to make a man become God". Thus the Golden Verses teach:

Practise thoroughly all these things; meditate on them well; thou oughtest to love them with all thy heart. It is they that will put thee in the way of Divine Virtue.
I swear it by Him who has transmitted into our souls the Sacred Tetraktys, the Source of Nature, whose course is eternal.

For Hierocles the Tetraktys is Deity, the source of the Eternal Order. No more than any disciple of Pythagoras does Hierocles reveal the secret meaning of the Tetraktys, but he offered intriguing hints.

The power of ten is four; for before we come to a complete and perfect decad we discover all the virtue and all the perfection of the ten in the four. In assembling all the numbers from one to four, the whole composition makes ten. Four is an arithmetical middle between one and seven, and this number is three, four being as many more than one as seven is than four.
The powers and properties of the unit and of the septenary are very great and excellent, for the unit as the principle of all numbers contains in itself the powers of them all. The seven being a virgin and without any mother, holds in the second place the virtue and perfection of the unit, because it is not engendered by any number within the interval of ten, nor does it produce any number within that interval. . . . Moreover, there are four faculties that judge of things – understanding, knowledge, opinion and sense.
In a word, the Tetraktys contains and binds together all beginnings whatsoever, the elements, numbers, seasons, ages, societies and communities. . . . The divine Tetraktys has been explained as fully as the bounds which we prescribed to ourselves will allow.

Meditation upon the Tetraktys will give insight into the archetypal structure of cosmic order and clues to their application in noetic psychology.

By using the Golden Verses as a guide to daily life, a philosophical summation for the exercise of the mind and a mystical manual for regular meditation, one can come to experience the seemingly paradoxical truths that the universe is precisely ordered and absolutely just and yet human beings are free to act as they think best, though they will face the consequences of every action. "Thou wilt know", the Verses teach, "that men draw upon themselves their own misfortunes, voluntarily and of their own free choice." This is a doctrine of profound spiritual hope, for the Verses add: "But take courage, the race of men is divine. Sacred Nature reveals to them the most hidden Mysteries." Surrounded by hostile churchmen and even fanatics, forced to speak of the doctrines of Hypatia and Ammonius Saccas in muted tones and veiled language, Hierocles nonetheless preserved the teachings of the school for those in subsequent generations who might seek the theurgy of self-transformation in the tireless service of spiritual truth.

Thus you see the end of the Pythagorean philosophy is that we may gain wings to soar aloft to the divine Good, to the end that at the hour of death, leaving upon earth this mortal body, and divesting us of its corruptible nature, we may be prepared for the celestial voyage, like champions in the sacred combats of philosophy, for then we shall return to our ancient country and be deified as far as possible for men to become gods ... it not being permitted for any to be adopted into the rank of the gods save for him alone who has acquired for his soul virtue and truth, and for his spiritual chariot purity.