THE ROLE OF AMMNIUS

By the start of the third century, charismatic Pythagoreanism was poised to become a central part of a Platonist outlook on the world. It is highly likely that the man who lodged Pythagoreanism within Platonism once and for all was Ammonius Saccas of Alexandria. The problem with Ammonius is that we know little about him. The matter is not helped by a confusion that arose in antiquity and persists among moderns over the identity of Ammonius with Ammonius the teacher of Origen and a further confusion between Origen and a (pagan) Platonist homonym.

Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus talks of Ammonius Saccas only in relation to Plotinus, but regards him as of tremendous importance to Plotinus’ philosophical development. An anecdote which explains his by-name is recounted by Theodoret, and this has him embracing philosophy during the reign of Commodus (180— 92 ce). From Porphyry’s information we can be sure that he died in 242/3. It is reasonable to assume—if we rely on the anecdote—that Ammonius was born 160—70, in which case he is more or less an exact contemporary of Philostratus. It is clear that Ammonius was heavily influenced by Pythagorean ideas, and passed these on to Plotinus. The compact of his three pupils not to disclose any part of his system is designed to recall the traditional secret transmission of lore amongst the Pythagoreans. According to the Neoplatonist Hierocles of Alexandria (as reported by Photius), Ammonius, ho theodidaktos (‘taught by God’), was ‘the first to be inspired to search for philosophic truth’. We cannot press ‘inspired’ to mean that Ammonius achieved ‘oneness’ (henesis) with God, as Porphyry records of himself and Plotinus (Life of Plotinus, 23). But since it is a fair bet that Hierocles is reproducing comments made by Porphyry, the primacy accorded to his teacher’s teacher should not be ignored. It seems that Ammonius set Platonic philosophy on a new course. The power of revealed wisdom had been discovered in Pythagoras and, through him, accorded with the doctrines of Plato. After Ammonius, revelation was no longer to be a thing of the distant past: by dint of prolonged physical and mental preparation (the askesis of a Pythagorean life), it could be granted to the wise man at any time.

Pythagoreanism in Platonism entailed a formidable combination of religion, philosophy, and politics. This established a more exclusive system at the heart of Greek intellectual life. Only a very few had sufficient control over leisure and wealth to acquire an understanding of the philosophical difficulties involved and to share through careful study and training in the possibility of a religious revelation. It also made Platonism less exclusively Greek. Already in the second century there were some for whom the pretence of being Greek involved too much effort. Iamblichus, the author of the Babylonian Story, wrote in Greek, but in comments preserved by the scholiast to Photius’ summary of his work (which is virtually all that survives), he makes it plain that he was ‘not one of the Greeks who have settled in Syria, but one of the natives [ton autochthonon]’. The consequences of such an attitude were devastating: Greek language and Greek identity could be sundered with impunity. Christianity capitalized on this. The question most often asked about Christianization is why people converted. It is as important to ask why they defected—and to realize that defection in this context is not just a religious concern. Spiritual satisfaction, theological cohesiveness, and social organization are major reasons why Christianity overtook paganism at the socio-religious level. It is surely also important that Greek identity was a construct from which many even among the (male) elite drew insufficient benefit. The farther one lived from the Athenian epicentre of Greek culture, the more this was true, for (as has been noted) the assumption of Greek identity in the period of the Roman Empire entailed a disparagement of barbaroi that might just be asking too much. In the later third, fourth, and even into the fifth century, many a Porphyry, an Iamblichus, or a Libanius continued to find the investment more or less worthwhile at a time when others were embracing an alternative religious and social system that had more to offer (or something to offer). The response of those who remained ‘Greek’ was to dig in. The ‘theologization’ of philosophy through Pythagorean revelation assisted this process by deluding them into supposing that the wreckage they clung to was a means of salvation. It also devolved higher Greek learning from the centre to regions where no one doubted the antiquity of non-Greek wisdom, a development which was not comforting to everyone.

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