Scholia Reviews 2 (1993): 9

John Dillon and Jackson Hershbell (edd. and trr.), Iamblichus: On the Pythagorean Way of Life. Text, Translation, and Notes. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991. Pp. ix + 285. ISBN 1-55540-523-1. US$29.95.

Johan C. Thom
University of Stellenbosch

Iamblichus’ De vita Pythagorica (On the Pythagorean Way of Life) is the first of a multi-volume work On Pythagoreanism in which Iamblichus attempted to offer a new programme for philosophy on Pythagorean principles.[[1]] The De vita Pythagorica probably functioned as a moral propaedeutic within this programme — it gives an exposition of the Pythagorean (and by implication, the true philosophical) way of life as exemplified by the life and teachings of Pythagoras and other Pythagoreans. For modern scholars, the De vita Pythagorica is a significant text for mainly two reasons: (a) it is an important source for ancient Pythagoreanism, since it incorporated many earlier testimonies, sometimes verbatim; and (b) it provides invaluable evidence for the religiosity and philosophy of late Antiquity. According to Dillon and Hershbell, On the Pythagorean Way of Life can be seen as a kind of protreptic summation of the whole ethical tradition of Greek philosophy, a tradition in which all the schools agreed, that philosophy was not simply a set of doctrines, but a whole way of life’ (p. 29). Since the only existing English translation of this text was a most unsatisfactory work by Thomas Taylor (1818), Dillon and Hershbell have done the broader scholarly community a great service with the present publication.[[2]]

Following the requirements of the SBL Texts and Translations series, the present work contains a brief (29 page) introduction, the Teubner text of the De vita Pythagorica (ed. L. Deubner; rev. U. Klein [Stuttgart 1975]), a translation and a few brief notes.

The introduction has sections on `The Importance of Iamblichus’ Treatise for Graeco-Roman Philosophy and Religion’, `The Legend of Pythagoras’, `The Biographical Tradition’, `Pythagorean Communities’, `Iamblichus: Life and Works’ and `Form and Structure of On the Pythagorean Way of Life‘. As may be expected from scholars like Dillon andHershbell, the introduction gives an excellent survey of the history of research on this text. The various sections are regrettably brief, although `The Biographical Tradition’ and `Iamblichus: Life and Works’ are exemplary introductions on these topics. The final section sparkles with stimulating suggestions: the work should be viewed as a gospel — perhaps it even reflects knowledge of the Christian gospels — it is `a kind of protreptic summation of the whole ethical tradition of Greek philosophy’ (p. 29); the repetitions within the work are probably due to its paedagogical function in `the initial training of pupils in Iamblichus’ own school’ (p. 28). One wishes the authors could have expanded on these suggestions, especially on the rationale of the composition, and on the function and social setting of the De vita Pythagorica, but at least they have provided us with pointers for future research.

The Teubner text is reproduced unchanged without apparatus, with only a few sparse notes relating to possible alternative readings. The translation is, on the whole, a faithful rendering of the Greek text; special effort has been made to give an approximation of Iamblichus’ somewhat ponderous style in English. The notes are useful and to the point, but this text deserves more extensive commentary: it is to be hoped that either the authors themselves or somebody else inspired by this translation will provide us with a full treatment of this fascinating text.

Dillon and Hershbell’s translation is heartily recommended for students and scholars interested in the philosophy and ethics of late Antiquity, as well as for those interested in the Pythagorean tradition in general.


[[1]] See Dominic J. O’Meara, Pythagoras Revived: Mathematics and Philosophy in Late Antiquity (Oxford 1989).

[[2]] Another translation of the De vita Pythagorica by G. Clark, On the Pythagorean Life (Liverpool 1989), has appeared only a couple of years earlier than Dillon and Hershbell’s, but it is meant for a more popular audience.