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The Three Divisions Of Philosophy According To Hierocles Of Alexandria

Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is about ‘The three divisions of Philosophy according to Hierocles’, from Hermann Schibli’s translation, study and publication of Hierocles the philosopher’s extant works (the Commentaries on the Golden Verses and the ‘On Providence’, Oxford University Press_2002. Part I-Page 42-43-44.


‘In the Proem of the ‘Commentary’ Hierocles defines philosophy as ‘a purification and perfection of human life: a purification from our irrational, material nature and the mortal form of the body, a perfection by the recovery of our proper happiness, leading to a likeliness with the divine’. For our purification and perfection, we require both virtue (areti) and truth (alitheia). The basic ideas are then incorporated in Hierocles’ division of philosophy, along Aristotelian lines, into the practical (praktikós) and the contemplative (theoritiki). Later in the ‘Commentary’ he subdivides practical philosophy into more specific categories of the civic (politikon) and the telestic (telestikon).

Let us briefly describe the three types of philosophy. Contemplative philosophy, as the name implies, is man’s turning wholly to contemplation. This activity is not mystical but highly rational. As a creation of god and endowed by his maker with intelligence, man fulfils is rational nature through knowledge. The object of contemplative truth is the knowledge of god’s creation, both the incorporeal, transcendent and the corporeal, visible order. Contemplative philosophy in effect comprises theology/metaphysics and physics. To reflect upon the causes of existing things (note the Aristotelian tenor), seeing that those causes have their source in the creator-god, leads the philosopher to the highest form of knowledge, the knowledge of god (theognosia), by which he becomes, as far as possible for a human being, like unto god; likeliness unto god Hierocles calls a divine virtue. But before attaining divine excellence through contemplation, man must prefect himself on the human level, putting in order his worldly affairs and fulfilling his religious, familial, and social duties as a member of a community, a ‘polis’. This is the civic branch of a practical philosophy, which calls upon the exercise of the moral virtues.

The other branch of practical philosophy, the telestic, is required as ‘a third kind of philosophy’, because man’s rational soul is housed in a special kind of body that requires special treatment; telestic philosophy has to do with the ritual of purification (theurgy) applied to the luminous body of the soul.

Each branch of philosophy contributes to purifying an element in man’s nature: The rational soul whose proper activity is intellection, the irrational soul which is involved with the earthly life in a material body, and the luminous which serves as the vehicle of the rational soul. The correlation can be shown in the following schema:

  1. Contemplative philosophy: Truth purifies the rational soul.
  2. Practical philosophy
  3. Civic: Virtue purifies the irrational soul.
  4. Telestic: Theurgy purifies the vehicle of the soul.

Although Hierocles explicitly ranks the three division of philosophy as above (contemplative philosophy at the top, civic philosophy in the middle, and telestic philosophy last), in the course of his ‘Commentary’ he follows a different sequence since he adapts himself to the structure, as he sees it, of his subject matter, the Pythagorean ‘Golden Verses’. Therefore, he treats civic philosophy first, followed by contemplative philosophy, and telestic philosophy last.

In our discussion of Hierocles’ philosophy we will adhere to his threefold division, but for the sake of a scholarly analysis a slightly different order is preferable. We will begin with the ‘knowledge of more divine things’, in other words, the objects of truth and contemplative, or theoretical philosophy: The One, the demiurge, the created order, and man. Our discussion of man will bring us back to Hierocles’ order, since man has a dual nature that requires the two branches of practical philosophy, the civic for man’s mortal, corporeal life in the world, and the telestic for the purification of the rational soul’s vehicle. All three division of philosophy prepares man for his final perfection: divine likeliness.’

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The Three Divisions Of Philosophy According To Hierocles Of Alexandria

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