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Hierocles-On Divine Likeliness

‘Prudencia’ from the Mantegna engravings, here in the Arnaud Seydoux edition_1985, in which we find the fascinating and seminal ‘Alchemical commentary’ by François Trojani.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is a quote from Hermann Schibli’s in depth study of Hierocles’ philosophy that precedes his translation of two emblematic works of the philosopher, the ‘ Commentary upon the Golden Verses of the Pythagoreans’ and the treatise, ‘On Providence’. Oxford University Press_2002. Pages 125 to 128.


Hierocles, however, stands out from the tradition for his endeavour to work out the limitations set upon man’s becoming like god. When the Pythagorean ‘Golden Verses’ revert to the bold Empedoclean announcement of literal divination, Hierocles feels compelled first of all to add the standard qualifier: ‘to the extent (εφ’οσον, provided that) that man can become god. The extent to which man can become a god is to become like god, but even likeliness is limited, since a man could become wholly like god, any difference between him and god would be obliterated. Absolute god-likeliness would lead to a trespassing of the boundaries established forever for each class of beings, boundaries determined by the nature or substance of each class. Indeed, it is in the recognition of the fixed causes, according to which the creator ordained all things, that man obtains the highest form of knowledge, the knowledge of god, and therewith likeliness to god.

 It is quite natural that Hierocles, insofar as he associates divine likeliness with intellectual contemplation, would make it dependent upon knowledge, whereby he sets up an intricate and fascinating interplay between knowledge of god, knowledge of the created order, and knowledge of oneself. Self-knowledge is particularly important as a two-pronged proposition in the divine likeliness theme. On the one hand, it serves as an incentive for man to fulfil his divine potential:

“knowing your own substance, what it is and whom it resembles by nature, you would always make the likeliness to him (god) your concern.”

On the other hand, self-knowledge means that man should ever be aware of his limitations as human, and in this connection, it is telling that when Hierocles cites Plato’s ‘Theaetetus’, he amends the phrase ‘as far as possible’ with the addition ‘for man’ (ανθρωπω, anthropo). A realistic self-knowledge should therefore prevent man from aiming too high:

“When someone, being a man (ανθρωπος ων, human being), hopes to become one of the immortal gods or glorious heroes, this person does not understand the limits set by nature.” (XXIII 8 (96, 17-20)).

The limiting factor in Hierocles’ treatment of divinization is that man is not an immortal god ‘by nature’ (φύσει, fýsei). Although the virtuous soul can be said to become a god through a ‘relation of similarity’ (σχεσει ομοιωσεως, schesei omoioseos), it always remains essentially human. Man can be brought to a ‘better state’ (το βελτιον, to veltion) through likeliness with the divine (since likeliness to god, as Plato had said, entails the flight from the evils of the worlds); by nature, however, his rank is ever fixed below the immortal gods and glorious heroes. (XXIII 4 (95, 13-16)). Not even the great Pythagoras is exempt from strict subordination within the universal hierarchy:

“he did not belong to the immortal gods, nor to the heroes by nature, but was a man (ανθρωπος, Anthropos) adorned by the likeliness to god and one who preserved the divine image before his followers” (XX 20 (89, 21-4)).

Because most men fail to preserve the divine image in themselves, the goal of contemplation is to regain the divine form that was lost in the descent into the world and the body.

One should ultimately aim for the stars, but not higher, for it is precisely in the order of the stars that the soul enjoyed its pristine condition of felicity and there it returns. In Hierocles’ system ‘apostheosis’ is not a transformation into godhood but merely the restoration of a pre-existing god-like status. At death those who have lived the philosophic life, ‘athletes in the contest of philosophy’, reap their due reward:

“For then they shall be restored to their original state and, to the extent that it is possible for men to become gods, they shall be made gods”.

For men, ‘being made a god’(θεοποιια, theopia), as Hierocles explains in commenting on the final verse of the poem, occurs as a result of ‘the removal of the element that is mortal and subject to death, seeing that it (sc. Being made a god) does not exist in us by nature, nor in our substance but comes to us as a result of our progress and according to our advancement. So, this is another class of gods who become immortal in their ascent but mortal in their descent’ (XXVII 5-6 (15-19)).

Here in the last chapter of the ‘Commentary’, whose topic is none other than the ‘honour of deification’, Hierocles does not get carried away by the splendor of his theme but is still concerned to delineate exactly man’s restored place below the gods and glorious heroes, themselves intermediate models between god and man. His concluding words on the subject are an exhortation to his readers to accept the modest rank accorded to man in the constitution of the universe:

“But if we fall short and obtain only such degree (of likeliness) as we are able, then we have this just as it accords with our nature and we reap the perfection of virtue in this, that we do not fail to recognize ‘the measure set for our substance (το μετρον της ονσιας ημων, to metron tis onsias imon) and are not angry thereat. The pinnacle of virtue is to remain within the bounds of creation, by which all things have been separated according to kind, and to follow the laws of providence, through which all things in accordance with their own capacity are adapted to their proper good.”


🌿More about Hierocles of Alexandria:
Hierocles-On Divine Likeliness

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