This post completes a series on beliefs about demons that were widespread in philosophical thought at the time of the rise and early growth of Christianity. The previous two posts:
- Ancient beliefs about heavenly realms, demons and the end of the world
- Demons 101 – Early Christianity’s Middle Platonic background
It seems strange to think of “demons” being a topic of “philosophy”, but one of the defining characteristics of “Middle Platonism” was its interest in religion. (See my earlier post, Middle Platonism: a few basics.) Other beliefs (e.g. Jewish sectarian) were extant, too, but here I am only addressing those of Middle Platonist philosophers.
John M. Dillon (The Middle Platonists) discusses the demonology of Apuleius in his De Deo Socratis (=The God of Socrates) at length because
There we find all the basic Middle Platonic doctrine on daemons set out . . . We have here, then, in the De Deo Socratis, the most complete connected version of Middle Platonic demonology extant . . . . (pp. 317, 320)
So though Apuleius was not born till about 123 CE, his writings are consistent with the thought that spanned the Middle Platonic era from the first century BCE to the second century CE, the same period relevant for the development of Christianity.
Daemons inhabit the air (only)
The first thing Dillon says about Apuleius’s view of the daemons is that it was a more accurate understanding of Plato than the view of another Middle Platonist, Albinus, a generation earlier. Albinus had misread Plato’s Timaeus by interpreting it through a pseudo-Platonic work, Epinomis. Albinus thus taught that demons inhabited not only the heavens, but the air and water as well. Plato in fact talks of the heavenly beings as gods, not daemons, and in his references to air and water he meant birds and fish, not daemons.
Apuleius understood Plato more accurately:
Apuleius sees the demons as being the proper inhabitants of air only. (p. 317)
Intermediaries are needed between humanity and divinity
Typical of Middle Platonic doctrine is the idea that nature abhors a vacuum, or more in keeping with ancient imagery, there can be no empty spaces in the universe. That is, there has to be something, some form of intermediate existences, between Man and God. These intermediaries are the daemons.
Each element has its proper inhabitant
It was believed that each element had its own proper inhabitants. Birds strictly belonged to earth rather than air, leaving daemons as the natural occupants of the air.
I quote here from the online translation (leaving Dillon aside for a moment) because the passage throws further light on the concept of the sublunar realm, so controversial among some critics of Doherty, too. Apuleius distinctly places the realm of daemons between the heights of Mount Olympus and the Moon, that is, above the earth. (Excuse the style. That’s Apuleius!)
For since there are four most known elements, nature being as it were quadrifariously separated into large parts, and there are animals appropriate to earth and fire; since Aristotle asserts, that certain peculiar animals, furnished with wings, fly in burning furnaces, and pass the whole of their life in fire [see Aristotle, in book v, ch. xix of his History of Animals], rise into existence with it, and together with it are extinguished; and, besides this, since, as we have before said, so many various stars are beheld supernally in ether, i.e. in the most clear flagrancy of fire, – since this is the case, why should nature alone suffer this fourth element, the air, which is so widely extended, to be void of every thing, and destitute of [proper] inhabitants? Are not animals, however, generated in the air; in the same manner as flame-coloured animals are generated in fire, such as are unstable in water, and such as are glebous in earth? For you may most justly say, that his opinion is false, who attributes birds to the air; since no one of them is elevated above the summit of mount Olympus, which, though it is said to be the highest of all mountains, yet the perpendicular altitude of its summit is not equal, according to geometricians, to ten stadia; but there is an immense mass of air, which extends as far as to the nearest spiral gyrations of the moon, from which ether supernally commences. What, therefore, shall we say of such a great abundance of air, which is expanded from the lowest revolutions of the moon, as far as to the highest summit of mount Olympus? Will it be destitute of its appropriate animals, and will this part of nature be without life, and debile? But, if you diligently observe, birds themselves may, with greater rectitude, be said to be terrestrial than aerial animals; for the whole of their life is always on the earth; there they procure food, and there they rest; and they only pass through that portion of the air in flying which is proximate to the earth. But, when they are weary with the rowing of their wings, the earth is to them as a port. If, therefore, reason evidently requires that proper animals must also be admitted to exist in the air, it remains that we should consider what they are, and what the species is to which they belong. They are then by no means terrene animals; for these verge downwards by their gravity. But neither are they of a fiery nature, lest they should be hastily raised on high by their heat. A certain middle nature, therefore must be fashioned for us, of a temperature adapted to the middle condition of the place, so that the disposition of the inhabitants may be conformable to the quality of the region. Let us then form in our mind and generate bodies, so constituted as neither to be so heavy as terrene, nor so light as ethereal bodies, but after a manner separated from both, or mingled from both, whether they are removed from, or are modified by, the participation of each. They will, however, be more easily conceived, if they are admitted to be mingled from both, than if they are said to be mingled with neither. These bodies of daemons, therefore, will have a little weight, in order that they may not proceed to supernal natures; and they will also have something of levity, in order that they may not be precipitated to the realms beneath.
I wish I had read this at the time of my first post on Philo and Plutarch. I’m learning bit by bit. Apuleius clearly sets the abode of the demons above the earth. The sublunar realm proper extends to, and even below, the earth, but in Middle Platonic thought demons inhabited the air between the earth and the moon. They influenced activities on the earth below, as will be seen.
The nature of daemons
Apuleius “proves” daemons are made of air of the purest quality by noting that if it were otherwise, they would rise above the air to the aether.
Apuleius writes that daemons are immortal, rational beings who are subject to hostile or compassionate feelings. They can be won over by gifts and prayers. To quote from the online translation (not from Dillon’s book):
Hence, they are influenced by pity, are indignant, solicitous, and delighted, and suffer all the mutations of the human soul; and are agitated by all the ebullitions of human thought, with a similar motion of the heart, and tempest of the mind.
Apuleius does not explicitly say that any of them are evil, but they do have their different temperaments:
Hence we may be confident, from the diverse forms of religious observance and the various types of sacrifice, that there are some among this number of divinities who like to be honoured by night or by day, openly or in secret, and with joyful or gloomy victims, ceremonies or rites, as for instance Egyptian divinities generally enjoy lamentations, while Greek ones usually prefer choral dances, and barbarian ones the noise of cymbals, drums or flutes. (See also the online translation at http://www.prometheustrust.co.uk/html/14_-_apuleius.html)
Apuleius indebted to Xenocrates via Plutarch(?)
Dillon explains that the views of Apuleius here are not ex nihilo, but inspired by the fourth century head of Plato’s Academy, Xenocrates. Apuleius apparently knew of Xenocrates’ teachings through the writings of Plutarch or another.
Plutarch writes of Xenocrates’ teachings:
. . . . in the confines, as it were, between gods and men there exist certain natures susceptible to human emotions and involuntary changes, whom it is right that we, like our fathers before us, should regard as demigods, and, calling them by that name, should reverence them.
“As an illustration of this subject, Xenocrates, the companion of Plato, employed the order of the triangles; the equilateral he compared to the nature of the gods, the scalene to that of man, and the isosceles to that of the demigods; for the first is equal in all its lines, the second unequal in all, and the third is partly equal and partly unequal, like the nature of the demigods, which has human emotions and godlike power. (From the online text of Obsolescence of Oracles)
For Xenocrates and Plutarch, the existence of “bad-luck days”, flagellation in religious festivals, human sacrifice can only be explained by the existence of evil spirits who delight in such things and must be placated:
“Regarding the rites of the Mysteries, in which it is possible to gain the clearest reflections and adumbrations of the truth about the demigods, ‘let my lips be piously sealed,’ as Herodotus says; but as for festivals and sacrifices, which may be compared with ill-omened and gloomy days, in which occur the eating of raw flesh, rending of victims, fasting, and beating of breasts, and again in many places scurrilous language at the shrines, and
Frenzy and shouting of throngs in excitement
With tumultuous tossing of heads in the air,
I should say that these acts are not performed for any god, but are soothing and appeasing rites for the averting of evil spirits. Nor is it credible that the gods demanded or welcomed the human sacrifices of ancient days, nor would kings and generals have endured giving over their children and submitting them to the preparatory rites and cutting their throats to no purpose save that they felt they were propitiating and offering satisfaction to the wrath and sullen temper of some harsh and implacable avenging deities, . . . (From the online text of Obsolescence of Oracles)
(One begins to be reminded here of Paul’s teachings against the powers of “elemental spirits.”)
Xenocrates and Apuleius argued “that all the weird variety of religious observances was directed not at the Gods, but at satisfying the variously passionate natures of innumerable daemonic forces . . .” (p. 319)
Three types of daemon
Like Plutarch, Apuleius distinguished three types of daemon. The following is from page 319 of Dillon’s Middle Platonists.
1. The human soul itself is a daemon. (This is not to be confused with the guardian daemons.)
2. Souls that have left their bodies.
These fall into two categories: good and bad
The good (=lares) are entrusted with care of parts of the earth and even individual households (e.g. heroes such as Amphiaraus, Mopsus and Osiris)
The bad (=larvae, or malicious ghosts) who have died in sin wander over the world causing havoc where they can. The good have no need to fear them.
3. Daemons who never enter bodies. These are the most exalted type of daemon. Examples cited by Apuleius are Eros and Hypnos (Sleep) who presides over dreams. Dreams were a chief means by which Gods communicate with humanity. Included here are the guardian daemons, like the guardian demon of Socrates. These
accompany a man through life, know his inmost thoughts and most secret actions, and after death act as his advocate (or accuser) before the throne of judgment. (p. 320)
This emphasis on the spirit having intimate knowledge of the individual and a tender care for one is not found in Plato, but emerges only from this time of the Middle Platonists. The idea is also found among later Stoics from the same period, such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.
Dillon does not make the point (it is not part of his theme) but this illustration of a demand for a protective personally involved and caring spirit to comfort one through the misfortunes of life is surely one of several significant factors that went into the making of Christianity.