John Opsopaus’ Commentary Upon Georgios Gemistos Plethon’s Conception Of Prayer
Medieval miniature of the philosopher and mystagogue George Gemistos Plethon.
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA, is another excerpt from professor Opsopaus’ latest and much awaited work, ‘The Secret Texts of Hellenic Polytheism: A Practical Guide to the Restored Pagan Religion of George Gemistos Plethon‘, Llewellyn, May 2022. Here, his commentary upon Plethon’s conception of Prayer. Pages 191, 192, 193, 194 and 195.
Plethon criticizes the notion that through our prayers we might change the god’s minds and influence them to do something different than what they intended. In fact, he asserts that this opinion denies the providence of the gods. For if the gods have determined what is best for the cosmos as a whole (even if not for me as an individual), then I am praying that the gods do what is worse for the cosmos. Conversely, if I imagine that I am praying for what is better for the cosmos, then I must suppose that what the gods had previously intended was worse. Therefore, the belief that prayer can influence the gods contradicts both the predetermination of fate and the goodness and providence of the gods.
For these reasons, we might suppose that Plethon thinks that prayer is pointless, but he does not. In fact, we’ve seen that he offers rather lengthy prayers to the gods (chapter 6), and we need to understand why. Unfortunately, Plethon’s chapter ‘prayer; (Laws III,33-Peri proseuches, Περι προσευχης) was lost to Scholarios’s wanton destruction, but we can get a good idea of what he taught from his chapter on fate (II, 6) and from the writings of his platonic predecessors, especially Iamblichus, the final link in the Golden Chain.
Platonists generally agreed that the gods are impassible-not subject to emotions- and therefore not subject to such human emotions as anger, jealousy, revenge, fear, desire, pity, and love; nor are they swayed by flattery, adulation, threats, or gifts. The gods are sufficient unto themselves. Nevertheless, Platonists considered prayer to be essential, and Iamblichus asserts, “no sacred act can take place without the supplications contained in prayers.”
Since prayer cannot change the gods, its purpose must be to change us. Iamblichus, tells us that dedicated prayer will improve our intellect and intuition and will increase our soul’s receptivity to the gods, enlarging its ‘receptacles’ for divine Ideas. Prayer accustoms the soul’s eyes to the divine light, so we can perceive the life of the gods, thus perfecting our ability to contact the gods ‘until it leads us up to the highest level of consciousness of which we are capable. This is the meaning of the seventh Magical Oracle, which reads, “You must make haste to light, and to the Father’s beams, /from whence was sent to thee a soul full-clothed with mind.”
Plato teaches us that love and desire for the gods grow the wings of the soul so it can ascend to them and enjoy their community. Iamblichus writes that prayer kindles in the soul love (ερως, eros) for the gods, perfect hope (ελπις, elpis) and establish trust (πιστις, pistis, also faith) in the divine light. Love, hope and trust (also faith) are the three ‘Chaldean virtues’ of Neo-Platonism, by which we may be drawn upward to the One. Through prayer, we welcome ‘familiar consorts’ of the gods. Moreover, prayer kindles the divine spark in our soul and purifies it of contrary influences, bringing it into greater conformity with the life of the gods. Finally, it purifies our soul’s aethereal and luminous vehicle of mortal influences (see ‘Human Beings’ on page 78 and ‘Philosophical Purification’ on page 99).
Prayer is necessary, according to Iamblichus, because we cannot reach the divine by intellect alone. We are mortal, bound in time and space, but the gods are eternal, transcending time and space. We are inferior to them in power, purity, and all else. Prayer opens us up to their benefactions and makes us more like them.
Iamblichus defines three degrees of prayer. The first, introductory degree establishes contact and acquaintance with the gods, which leads to spiritual illumination. The second, conjunctive degree establishes a sympathetic link between the gods’ mind and ours, which invites divine providence into our lives. Through this sympathetic attunement, our habits of thought conform to the gods’, and we work together with them. Third, ineffable union roots the soul directly in the authority of the gods, which leads to the soul’s prefect fulfilment in the divine fire. We are elevated towards the One, and our imperfection is embraced by divine perfection. Union with the One is rare, according to Iamblichus, typically coming late in life after many years of spiritual practice.
Ultimately, the prayers are sent down to us from the gods, awakening in our souls the symbols and Ideas by which we are drawn up to the divine. A Magical Oracle asserts of our soul:
“But the Paternal Mind accepteth not her will,
until she flee oblivion, and pronounce a word,
inserting memory of pure paternal sign.” (Magical Oracles 6)
Plethon’s explanation is that the Second God (Posseidon) will accept our soul’s desire for the good if it detaches itself from material concerns (‘flees oblivion’) and utters either out loud or mentally some speech that recalls to mind a divine symbol.
Proclus writes, “all things pray“, and by this he means that all things (inanimate as well as animate) look back to their divine cause, the source of their being, in order to exist authentically. Moreover, all things in the cosmos exist in lineage or chains of causation from the gods. These are the channels by which we may be drawn back up and return to our divine origins. These provide the sympathetic linkages used in prayer. They are implanted in our souls by the gods, if we open ourselves to them and look within. This is the meaning, according to Plethon, of Magical Oracle 22, which reads, “Let lead the soul’s immortal depth; / and all thine eyes extend quite upward.” We turn our knowing faculties upward, allowing ourselves to be led by the immortal depths of our souls, where the divine symbols reside.
How then should we pray? We can get a good idea by looking at Plethon’s prayers (which he calls ‘addresses’, προσρησεις, prosreseis) in chapter 6 and 7. They have been called ‘didactic’ because a significant part of them is devoted to describing the gods, their functions, and their interrelationships. This is more than a theology lesson, however, for implanting these ideas in our minds fulfills the introductory degree of prayer, acquainting us with the gods, but also opening the receptacles in our souls for the divine energies. Because the gods are Platonic Ideas, by establishing in our minds individual ideas that are images of those universal Ideas, we strengthen the bond between us and the gods. Thus, a Magical Oracle states, ” Learn the noetic, which exists beyond thy mind.” Plethon explains that although the Demiurge has implanted images of the noetic Ideas in our minds, they exist there only potentially, but they actually exist beyond the mind-in the realm of the Platonic Ideas-and that is where we can encounter them in reality.
Plethon’s prayers also ask the gods for various benefits, generally improvements in our minds and souls: “Grant us to have an understanding of you.“; “Strengthen our thinking and most divine part to be powerful and the master of our other faculties.“; “Following you as much as possible in all our conduct, we will be associated with you by the identity of our actions.” In this way prayers help fulfill the conjunctive function: by aligning our thinking with the gods. (our ideas with the Ideas) we cooperate in their providential care for the cosmos, and thereby open our souls to their beneficence.
Ancient Greek payers, and Plethon’s too, typically have three parts, but they can overlap in various ways. You can use this as an outline for your own prayers. The first part is the invocation, which identifies the god by name and focuses our attention on him or her. For example, “O Zeus, greatest and most eminent king!” The second part is the narration, in which the god’s function and offices are recalled; this corresponds to the introductory function of prayer wherein we are re-acquainted with the god, establishing a sympathetic link. While it is common to recall the god’s cosmological roles in the great chain of being, it is also appropriate to recall times when the god aided you personally. The last part is the prayer proper, which is usually either a petition (“grant me wisdom“) or an expression of gratitude (“thank you for the recovery of my health“); they may be combined (thanks for past benefits, request for the future). This part serves the conjunctive function, since it reinforces cooperation between gods and mortals.