Emperor Julian and Neoplatonism
by Madeline Clark
AFTER SIXTEEN CENTURIES, the life and work of the Emperor Julian seem as close to us as yesterday, as real to us as today, and with good reason. Julian has appeared in history chiefly as “the Apostate” (one abandoning Christianity) — an epithet that has colored the minds of succeeding generations against him and obscured his real genius, his remarkable career and, most important of all, the mission he tried to accomplish and did commence to fulfill brilliantly during his brief and tragic reign.
(ILLUSTRATION: So-called Julian the Apostate; Marble bust in Rome, Capitoline Museums, Palazzo Nuovo, Hall of the Philosophers.)
He came at a time (331-363 AD) when the ancient temple worship of the Hellenic peoples, which had spread over the Roman world, was in a state of decay, and in fact had been given its death blow by the action of Constantine the Great who had personally embraced Christianity, thus making it virtually the state religion. But the infant Christian Church, in its turn, was at that time a hotbed of bitter internal strife over obscure points of doctrine in the effort to establish its dogmas. Instead of reflecting the devotional spirit of many primitive Christians, the church had become largely a political power, for Constantine had invested its priesthood with numerous exemptions and special privileges. It was, in short, the end of an epoch, and the future of the Western world hung in the balance. For two principles were involved: on the one hand, there was the recognition of each individual’s right to full liberty in religious beliefs — this was what Julian decreed. On the other hand, there was a religious priesthood which decided upon a doctrine and then sought to impose it upon independent minds.
The only hope, if the West was to be saved from a long period of spiritual obscuration, seemed to lie in Neoplatonism and the related Mithraic teachings which preserved the philosophies of Pythagoras and Plato and to some degree the wisdom of the Mystery schools. It is easier now, perhaps, in our present era of boldness and freedom of mind, to view the work of Julian as the last effort “to check the ever-increasing ignorant superstition and blind faith of the times,” before the Dark Ages should engulf Europe (Gaetano Negri, Julian, the Apostate, pp. 176-7). This was the condition of affairs when Julian succeeded to the sovereignty of the Empire.
He had had a somewhat remarkable preparation for this destiny. It would almost seem, as he himself believed, that the watchful gods had given him their protection. As a boy of six, he with an older half-brother had been saved from the general massacre of his family which occurred upon the death of his uncle, Constantine the Great, and the succession of his cousin Constantius to the imperial throne (337 AD). The two princes, frightened and bewildered (it has been said by some historians that Julian never quite recovered from that early shock), were hustled away to remote parts of the royal domain and brought up there without the princely associations that were their right. The tutors in charge of their upbringing gave a Christian slant to their religious training. But the same providence that had saved their lives seems to have had a hand in their education also, for Julian had as his preceptor the learned family slave Mardonius, who had been the teacher of his mother, the highborn Basilina. She had died soon after Julian’s birth.
Mardonius led the prince through the heroic epics of Homer and the ancient cosmogonies of Hesiod; he also gave instruction in the deportment and discipline of the seekers after truth. This fostered in Julian an abiding love of philosophy. When, nearing manhood, he was given more liberty to travel and study at Constantinople, Nicomedia, Pergamum, Athens, and other centers of learning, he pursued his work with the enthusiasm of one who has no greater ambition than to follow the way of the philosopher.
Nevertheless, Constantius had him under surveillance always, especially during a seven-month period at Milan in 354 when Julian’s life was actually in danger from the intrigues of enemies at court. It was here that the Empress Eusebia, wife of Constantius, became his protectress and friend so that, instead of being sentenced to death, Julian was banished to Athens where he was only too glad to resume his academic studies. In fact, these months at Athens were the happiest of his life. Friends of those days have left on record the general affection in which he was held by his fellow-students, charming them and his teachers alike with “the gentleness and affability of his manners” (Gibbon), as well as with his obvious talents in the pursuit of knowledge. It was probably during this period that Julian was initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries and into the Mithraic also, though he always maintained a strict reserve in regard to these matters.
But the Athenian respite was short-lived. It ended in about six months when, due to pressures of the Persian campaign, Constantius summoned Julian again to Milan, this time to appoint him Caesar over the West, where he was to take part in the war against the barbarians in Gaul. He undertook these new duties with trepidation, having no training or experience in military affairs; yet with characteristic determination he engaged in the study of strategy and the arts of war. The upshot was that eventually he came to take total command of the Roman legions in Gaul; and in a series of swift-moving campaigns cleared the borders. He then turned his attention to administrative concerns, doing away with official corruption that robbed the people by excessive taxation and wasted their money on unnecessary expenditures. Thus he brought Gaul to a settled and prosperous condition.
Authorities agree that Julian was much loved as a just and humane ruler, adored by his troops for his fairness and consideration for their welfare, never asking them to do anything that he would not do himself. It was this enthusiasm for Julian as their commander, added to a dissatisfaction with Constantius’ unwelcome demand that they leave their homes in Gaul to assist him in the Persian campaign, that gave rise to the rebellion among the soldiery which resulted in Julian’s election, by force and by acclamation, to the rank of Augustus — supreme ruler of the far-flung Roman Empire.
Before the opposing forces of the two emperors could meet, however, Constantius died, and thus began Julian’s reign of under twenty months. He had more than once intimated that his time was short; and as soon as the rites for Constantius were duly observed, he set about his reforms. The rebuilding of the [pagan] temples was perhaps the first, together with the recommencement of the temple rites. He issued his famous edict of religious freedom. He invited back to their homes all who had been exiled for religious reasons, and rescinded the special privileges and prerogatives of the Christian bishops and priests, forbidding them the free use of the public transport. Perhaps his most unpopular decree was that barring Christian preceptors from giving instruction in the classics of Greek literature, for he held that pupils could not receive the true heroic spirit from those who secretly repudiated what they were teaching.
The oriental splendor and luxury of the imperial palace at Constantinople, which swarmed with idle hangers-on who subsisted on the public money, filled him with distaste, and this he put an end to, instituting instead a much simpler household, he himself continuing his ascetic habits and wearing the plain robes of the philosopher. Then followed the reform of the tax system to lift the burdens of the poor. He also set in motion new efforts towards the revival of literature and the arts, and the strengthening of the centers of learning. “If there is anything that deserves our fostering care it is the sacred art of music,” he wrote to Ecdicius, Prefect of Egypt, and directed him to select boys with talent to be specially maintained and trained in this science.
At the very outset Julian appointed a commission of high-minded men to deal with the corrupt advisers who had surrounded Constantius, and in their place invited to his side a group of philosophers, most if not all of whom were students of the Mysteries like himself and would afford him a certain protective and understanding assistance in his work. Maximus the Ephesian, who had initiated Julian in the Mysteries, was one of these; Libanius the rhetorician, who had been his teacher at Nicomedia and Athens; Oribasius the physician, second only to Galen in skill and knowledge, and who wrote at Julian’s bidding an encyclopedia of medicine; Priscus, deeply learned in philosophy; Himerius, a sophist of Athens under whom Julian may have studied; Sallustius of Gaul, one of the wisest of his councilors; and Anatolius, Julian’s close friend, who was given the highest place as Master of the Offices. These men were in some respects on an equal footing with Julian himself, and he accepted not only their advice but their protests and reminders as well.
The Christian priesthood of the 4th century were for the most part immature, and thus incapable of understanding the purport and scope of Julian’s mission. They deeply resented his changes in their status and set up a hatred that has lasted to this day. Anyone wishing to present a fair picture of the Julian reforms, and the teachings contained in his writings, has to wade through a morass of prejudice and misrepresentation in search of a few pearls of truth. He is obliged to go for his information largely to the writings of Christian scholars and meets there all grades of bias, from the venom of Gregory Nazianzen to the occasional polite incredulity of later and otherwise honest translators and commentators, who still, however, suffer from the inability to see that there are many paths to truth.
Gore Vidal, in his 1962 best-seller, Julian: A Novel, points out that the life of Julian has intrigued the imagination of romantics and has given rise to stories and plays. Even Lorenzo de’ Medici, according to Vidal, wrote a play on this theme (at the height of the Renaissance, Lorenzo the Magnificent (1448-1492), following up the work of his grandfather Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464), maintained at his court in Florence his celebrated school for the revival of the arts but also for the study of the Platonic philosophy.); and Ibsen’s heavy drama was well known in his own time. A number of novels based on the character of Julian have appeared in this century, but these later fictions are of no real value to the student seeking to get at the serious import of Julian’s effort. Naturally each author, including Gore Vidal who perhaps comes nearest of them all to a just picture, can portray his subject only in terms of his own viewpoint and capacity. Some, like Louis DeWohl, are guilty of fabricating a narrative which, from beginning to end, is constructed along the lines the author wishes it might have been, and is quite false to the hero’s real character.
Regarding the question of apostasy: several historians doubt that Julian ever was a professed Christian, since his sole connection with Christianity was under tutelage during his minority; and even in those years it is evident that his real love was the ancient gods and the virtue and strength of the Homeric heroes. It is only in limited quarters that Julian is still labeled Apostate. For the most part the appellation has been dropped as having no relevance or force in this day of intellectual freedom. The Encyclopedia Americana (1944 ed.) dismisses it tersely: “Julian the Apostate, who had never been a Christian except nominally and by compulsion.”
It has been said by his traducers that had he lived longer Julian would have formed simply a new Church, with himself at the head, and that his motives were purely personal. But could we not equally well believe that he was taking steps to establish a school offering the Neoplatonic philosophy? Certainly the foundation of his system had already been laid: it was absolute freedom of belief for every person.
Julian commenced his reign at Constantinople in December, 361. During 362 he prepared for a renewal of the war with the Persians, and in March of the following year took the field, at first with success; but it was on June 26, 363, in the heat of battle, that he received a mortal wound from a spear thought to be that of a Christian regicide. His final hours, as he lay in his tent surrounded by the philosophers who had been his constant companions, have been likened to the last hours of Socrates, for they were largely spent in philosophic and lofty discourse. As morning dawned, so it has been related, he asked to be lifted to greet the first rays of the rising sun, and so passed into the care of great Helios. [Other accounts (Ammianus, etc.) give the hour of Julian’s death as midnight, but there are good reasons to accept the above version.]
Julian’s brief but active reign was at an end; yet the impetus he had given his reforms carried their influence in some degree into the after years. History claims, however, that by the 6th century “Neoplatonism was triumphantly crushed and its flame stamped out.” But was it really crushed as completely as appearances might suggest? The fact is that believers in the doctrines of Pythagoras and Plato and Iamblichus have survived in the West, individually and in groups, throughout the centuries. Often they have been branded as heretics and attempts made to exterminate them, but the ideas they cherished live on.
The only sure way to arrive at a true estimate of a man’s worth is to go to the writings of the individual himself; and in Julian’s case these are fairly voluminous, for he was a copious author and correspondent, and a fair amount of his work has survived. Here is internal evidence that he was a genuine representative of the guardians of human welfare. Looked at in this light, Julian’s reforms and the teachings that he offered could have opened an avenue of opportunity for the development of the higher human faculties.
Among works that have come down to us, his “Argument against the Galileans” is most obviously a part of Julian’s efforts at reform. In it he tries to interpret the Christian teachings in a more universal spirit, supporting his contentions when necessary with Biblical quotations remembered from his studies as a boy. However, as Wilmer Cave Wright says in his Introduction to his translation: “We are compelled to see it through the eyes of a hostile apologist.” The “Argument” has come down to us in a mutilated form, because clerics and copyists who handled it freely deleted parts that particularly offended them. Both Gregory Nazianzen and Bishop Cyril of Alexandria, for example, wrote furious diatribes against it; yet a quiet reading of what is left gives no impression of animosity, merely a desire to analyze and get at the root of things — a habit Julian had acquired at Athens, for the Athenians were fond of discussing points of philosophy in minutiae, or “in depth” as we would say today. They were not afraid to do this; it actually clarified their understanding without in the least disturbing their faith in the basic tenets that were to them self-evident truths. This, of course, was the very opposite of the custom of the Christian Church which, almost from the beginning, punished as heretics individuals who dared to ask questions or think for themselves.
Let us touch upon just one instance to illustrate Julian’s approach. It concerns Adam and Eve and the eating of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge at the instigation of the Serpent. Julian asks:
Is it not excessively strange that God should deny to the human beings whom he had fashioned the power to distinguish between good and evil? … which knowledge alone seems to give coherence to the mind of man … God refused to let man taste of wisdom, than which there could be nothing of more value for man … so that the serpent was a benefactor rather than a destroyer of the human race.
Julian uses this and other Bible texts to point out that many of these passages should be interpreted as allegories with a hidden meaning — an important key to the understanding of other scriptures also. It is the typical Neoplatonic concept, derived from Plato, Pythagoras, and also Orpheus, whom Julian calls “the most ancient of all the inspired philosophers,” “founder of the most sacred of all the Mysteries.”
In the introduction to his Life of Julian (1905), Gaetano Negri speaks of the Emperor as “one of the most cultured men of his century, and the last, most brilliant, and most profound writer of the Greek decadence.” The fascination of his writings is in this: that there runs through them all, whether they be letters, orations, satires, or imperial decrees, the insignia majestatis of one who was not only a ruler of men but of himself. Ammianus Marcellinus, the friendly contemporary historian who was with Julian in many of his campaigns, has recorded the Emperor’s incredible industry. His nights were parceled out into three periods: the first for rest; the second for affairs of state; with the remaining hours devoted “to the Muses,” to writing and study. He employed secretaries in day and night shifts, dictating most of his works so that they have the directness of the spoken word, new-minted from his mind. His ideas did not have to penetrate a fog of dry intellection but seem etched by the diamond sword of something more than thought. Thus they carry not only comprehension but a measure of realization to the reader. Perhaps this is why they reflect a fresh immediacy which prevails even through translation.
In the Loeb Classical Library edition of Julian’s works (3 vols, with Greek text and English translation, Harvard University Press, Cambridge; William Heinemann Ltd., London, 1913-1962), Wilmer Cave Wright offers a spirited rendition in harmony with the spontaneity of the original, although the translator himself considers some of his subject’s concepts to be “superstitions.” But on the whole we can be assured that a trustworthy job has been done through honest and painstaking editorship. However, this would have been closer to the author’s intent had the translator been sympathetic to the Neoplatonic philosophy, as were Thomas Taylor and C. W. King.
In his orations and other writings Julian quoted from or alluded to no fewer than thirty-seven of the great philosophers, poets, and playwrights, as well as historians, known to his era: from the almost legendary Homer, Hesiod, and Aesop, to Plato and the Pythagoreans, Socrates and Empedocles; Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides among the dramatists who taught sacred truths by means of their art; and the well-known Neoplatonists Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus. All of these names represent men who lived by the traditional doctrines which in Julian’s time were embodied in Neoplatonism.
Starting with the broad premise, quoted from Plato, that the universe itself “came into being as a living creature possessing soul and intelligence,” Julian enunciates the doctrine (Oration IV: “Hymn to King Helios”) of the hierarchical nature of the universe and all its parts, wherein the One Supreme Cause sends forth from itself gods or powers that rule over lesser and lesser degrees of living beings, until everything is included in the cosmic embrace. But the sun and moon and the heavenly bodies that we see “are only the likenesses of the invisible gods” whose vehicles they are.
This oration contains Julian’s allegorical description of the constitution of the universe, its substance, origin, powers, and energies which are the sun’s gift to its domain, including the mysterious “Fifth Substance, Aether” (after Aristotle) which binds the whole together. Following Plato, he describes a chain of being, emanating from the “uncompounded Cause”: the Supra Intelligible, the One, or the Good, as Plato names this central cause of existence. Next comes the Intelligible world, one step closer to generation. Then there is Helios, the god behind the visible Sun, lord of the Intellectual worlds, not only “the common father of all mankind,” who “continually revivifies [the substance of things generated] by giving it movement and flooding it with life,” but also “the mind of the universe” bestowing through Athene “the blessings of wisdom and intelligence and the creative arts.” Helios gives to the “divided souls” (men) the faculty of judgment, and bestows on all nature the generative power.
Julian emphasizes continually that Helios brings about the various activities of his solar realm, not directly to the beings, but through the means of countless other gods (angels, daemons, heroes, and others in the nature of archetypes who do not come into incarnation) — what we might call the forces of nature. This would seem to have little reality for us, were it not for the very advanced scientific studies of the sun presently being made in which actual closeups are given of the sun’s disc, the sunspots and solar flares. In addition, there are moving-pictures of sunspot activity with its pulsating streams of energy embodied in cosmic rays and electronic particles that circulate not only to the earth and back, but throughout the solar dominion. To witness these films is to watch — at least in their physical aspect — the very processes described by Julian.
In fact, there is much in his treatise that is purely scientific in the most modern sense, having to do with the action of light, the sun’s effect upon the seasons as well as the circulations of the planets around the sun, which “dance about him as their king, in certain intervals, fixed in relation to him.” Most intriguing of all is the idea of the function of the sun in stimulating thought and the higher faculties. Referring to the Phoenicians, Julian cites their teaching that “the rays of light everywhere diffused are the undefiled incarnation [imbodiment] of pure mind.” Modern scientists are within an ace of confirming some of these more recondite facts for themselves.
The following quotations illustrate these points very clearly:
The god sows this earth with souls which proceed not from himself alone but from the other gods also; and for what purpose the souls reveal by the kind of lives that they select. Are you alone ignorant that summer and winter are from [Helios]? Or that all kinds of animal and plant life proceed from him?
While the foregoing assuredly has a basis in scientific thinking, it also has the warmth of religious devotion and philosophic breadth. It is a strong hint as to the self-same origin of science, religion, and philosophy.
We have to consider in what light Julian looked upon his fellow human beings and their possibilities. He saw humanity from a planetary point of view — in its relation to the universe as a whole and especially to the solar system. He saw “the region of the earth” as containing “being in the state of becoming,” and our whole world as “one complete living organism … full of soul and intelligence … which revolves forever in a continuing cycle of birth and death.” To him the soul of the human race was “no other than reason and knowledge [nous] imprisoned so to speak in the body — the philosophers call it a potentiality”; hence each human life is, in the last analysis, “a probation.” He saw the duality: “Man’s is a twofold contending nature of soul and body compounded into one, the former divine, the latter dark and clouded.” (Notice his term for men, “divided souls,” cited earlier.) He recognized the “universal yearning for the divine that is in all men”; “Celestial by our nature, but . . . carried down to earth to reap virtue joined with piety, from our conduct upon earth.” Consequently, the human objective is to “imitate the gods so far as we can, and they teach us that this imitation consists in the contemplation of realities.”
We have to remember that Julian as Emperor was also Pontifex Maximus, and this gave weight to his admonitions and elucidations of religious matters. In offering these teachings, however, he took the traditional position of philosophy, that the hearer must accept no precept unless it satisfies his own sense of right and truth. In Orations VI and VII, Julian pursues in depth the theme of self-conquest, and sets forth in simple form teachings from the heart of the Cynic and Stoic philosophies. (Cynicism was, to Julian, a branch of philosophy “rivalling the noblest.” It was founded by Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, who sought to perpetuate his master’s teachings.) He says engagingly, “Let us begin with ‘know thyself'” — for this cryptic saying of the Pythian Oracle points to the very reason why we are on earth at all. In the discourse that follows, the idea recurs that “man is a soul employing a body,” and that in studying his essential nature, he finds that self-knowledge includes a “study of universals” — implying that the human being, in his many-faceted nature, is an epitome of the cosmos. “For to know things divine through the divine part in us, and mortal things too through the part of us that is mortal — this the oracle declared to be the duty of the living organism that is midway between these, namely, man.” As for the component parts of this “living organism,” Julian says:
One part of our souls is more divine, which we call mind and intelligence and silent reason [nous], … yoked therewith another part of the soul which is changeful and multiform, something composite of anger and appetite, a many-headed monster … We ought not to look steadily and unswervingly at the opinions of the multitude until we have tamed this wild beast and persuaded it to obey the god within us.
Equally with “Know thyself,” Julian treats of a quaint and at first mystifying injunction of the Oracle given to Diogenes the Cynic: “Falsify the common currency”; or as variously used: “Give a new stamp to the common currency,” which simply means that a man “must not let himself drift with the current of the mob,” but should be independent of the opinions of others in the conduct of his inner life. For
I think he who knows himself will know accurately, not the opinion of others about him, but what he is in reality … he ought to discover within himself what is right for him to do and not learn it from without … So long as you are a slave to the opinions of the many you have not yet approached freedom or tasted its nectar … But I do not mean by this that we ought to be shameless before all men and to do what we ought not; but all that we refrain from and all that we do, let us not do or refrain from merely because it seems to the multitude somehow honorable or base, but because it is forbidden by reason and the god within us.
From this follows happiness:
The end and aim of the Cynic philosophy, as indeed of every philosophy, is happiness, but happiness that consists in living according to nature, and not according to the opinions of the multitude. Then is it not absurd when a human being tries to find happiness somewhere outside himself, and thinks that wealth and birth and the influence of friends … is of the utmost importance? … Therefore in our minds, in the best and noblest part of us, we must say that happiness resides.
Quoting Julian’s own words, in admirable translation, shows us the clarity and precision of his thinking. Reading his discourses and letters at length deepens this impression. In his oration “To the Cynic Heracleios,” he develops the subject of myth, and shows that myth is most properly used in presenting recondite teaching (the Mysteries).
For nature loves to hide her secrets, and she does not suffer the hidden truth about the essential nature of the gods to be flung in naked words to the ears of the profane.
Through riddles and the dramatic setting of myths, that knowledge is insinuated into the ears of the multitude who cannot receive divine truths in their purest form … The more paradoxical and prodigious the riddle is the more it seems to warn us … to study diligently the hidden truth.
By way of illustration, in his Letter of Credentials to the Athenians at his accession, Julian gave the events of his outer life. In Oration VII, he gives his life story in mythical or allegorical form, impressing us with the thought that every man’s inner life follows a trend best told in allegorical form and constituting its real import.
In this connection, there is Julian’s satire or symposium, “The Caesars,” wherein the long line of the emperors of Rome are entertained by the gods in the regions of the moon near Olympus. Each must give an account of his worthy achievements during life, and confess the secret aims that motivated him: a reminder of that moment of truth referred to in most religions, that awaits every disembodied soul. It also throws a searching light upon Roman history as seen through the eyes of its makers — namely, the emperors themselves.
Julian shared the basic belief of the Neoplatonists that there are many paths to truth; hence they searched for doctrines essential to all beliefs. In his easy and nondogmatic way, he observes that a man may consider
those who in every one of the philosophic sects did attain the highest rank, and he will find that all their doctrines agree … All philosophers have a single aim, though they arrive at that aim by different roads … I still believe that even before Heracles, not only among the Greeks but among the barbarians also, there were men who practised this philosophy. For it seems to be in some ways a universal philosophy, and the most natural.
The foregoing suggests the type of teaching that Julian would have given to the world had he lived. Call it Neoplatonism, Mithraism, Cynicism, or Stoicism: all of them embodied the same essential truths. Neoplatonism is usually defined by Christian interpreters as a vague and incomprehensible mysticism. T. R. Glover dismisses it as “that strange medley of thought and mystery, piety, magic and absurdity, which is called New Platonism and has nothing to do with Plato” (The Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire). But G. H. Rendall, in The Emperor Julian (1879), affords Neoplatonism more respect, as giving “a splendid primacy to the spiritual element in man”; and devotes space to a just resume of its principles. “Iamblichus,” he says, “followed the numerical formulae of the Pythagoreans and … proclaimed that there lay deep secrets of religion and philosophy.” “He attracted a school of believers, popularized their philosophy. They exalted Pythagoras and deposed Aristotle.” This was the school embraced by Julian.
The Christian Church would undoubtedly have benefited by accepting rather than spurning the Neoplatonic tradition. Particularly the doctrine of hierarchies — so little understood today — in regard to the origin and structure of the cosmos and the mutual relationship of the various classes or “kingdoms” on the ladder of life, with man himself reflecting this same pattern in the various facets of his total being. Unquestionably through the centuries the Christian Church became a focus of devotion for those who yearned toward the Divine; but the Neoplatonic interpretation of the universe would have enriched the unuttered thoughts and insights which form the fabric of every person’s inner life.
The writings of the Emperor Julian present a philosophy in the princely style of a highly cultured mind, and in the manner of one who is completely at home in it. In this astonishing age of profound change, when we are fast awakening to the realization that we are free to entertain broader concepts that appeal to us as truth, there is hope that his works, among many other ancient and wonderful texts, will be read without prejudice and with understanding.
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Source: Racial Nationalist Library