Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Hierocles of Alexandria, a philosopher
Hierocles (2), a philosopher, generally classed among the neo-Platonists, who lived at Alexandria in the first half of 5th cent., and delivered lectures of considerable merit. His character is spoken of by Damascius (quoted by Suidas) in high terms. When sojourning at Constantinople he came into collision with the government (or, as Kuster interprets it, with the Christian authorities) and was severely beaten in the court of justice, possibly (as Zeller conjectures) for his adherence to the old religion. He was then banished, and retired to Alexandria. His teacher in philosophy was Plutarch the neo-Platonist; Theosebius is mentioned as his disciple.
His principal extant work is a commentary on the Golden Verses attributed to Pythagoras. His entire remains have been ed. by bp. Pearson, P. Needham (Camb. 1709), Gaisford (1850), and Mullach (1853). See the last vol. of Zeller's Greek Philosophy, pp. 681–687.
Hierocles appears to have been a reconciler between the old and the new. Doubtless a sincere adherent of the heathen religion, its distinctive features melt away in his hands and his soft and tender tone recalls the accents of Christian piety, e.g. in the following passages from his commentary on the Golden Verses: "No proper cause is assignable for God to have created the world but His essential goodness. He is good by nature; and the good envies none in anything" (p. 20, ed. Needham). "What offering can you make to God, out of material things, that shall be likened unto or suitable to Him? . . . For, as the Pythagoreans say, God has no place in the world more fitted for Him than a pure soul" (p. 24). "'Strength dwells near necessity.' Our author adds this to shew that we must not measure our ability to tolerate our friend by mere choice, but by our real strength, which is discovered only by actual necessity. We have all in time of need more strength than we commonly think" (p. 52). "We must love the unworthy for the sake of their partnership in the same nature with us" (p. 56). "We must be gentle to those who speak falsely, knowing from what evils we ourselves have been cleansed. . . . And gentleness is much aided by the confidence which comes from real knowledge" (p. 110). "Let us unite prayer with work. We must pray for the end for which we work, and work for the end for which we pray; to teach us this our author says, 'Go to your work, having prayed the gods to accomplish it'" (p. 172).
The reasons adduced by Hierocles for belief in a future state are strictly moral, and quite remote from subtlety: "Except some part of us subsists after death, capable of receiving the ornaments of truth and goodness (and the rational soul has beyond doubt this capability), there cannot exist in us the pure desire for honourable actions. The suspicion that we may suffer annihilation destroys our concern for such matters" (p. 76).
Not less noteworthy are his views respecting Providence. God, he says, is the sole eternal author of all things; those Platonists who say that God could only make the universe by the aid of eternal matter are in error (p. 246, from the treatise περὶ προνοίας). Man has free will; but since the thoughts of man vacillate and sometimes forget God, man is liable to sin: what we call fate is the just and necessary retribution made by God, or by those powers who do God's will, for man's actions, whether for merit or demerit (p. 256; cf. p. 92). Hence the inequality in the lots of men. Pain is the result of antecedent sin; those who know this know the remedy, for they will henceforward avoid wrongdoing and will not accuse God as if He were the essential cause of their suffering (pp. 92, 94).
The approximation of heathen philosophy to Christianity is the most interesting point to be noticed in connexion with Hierocles. He never, in his extant works, directly mentions Christianity; what degree of tacit opposition is implied in his philosophy is a difficult question. His philosophy has points more specially characteristic of Platonism and neo-Platonism, e.g. his belief in the pre-existence of man and in the transmigration
of souls. With Porphyry and Jamblichus, however, he denied that the souls of men could migrate into the bodies of animals.
We conclude by quoting a passage on Marriage; shewing the singularly modern and Christian type of his mind. "Marriage is expedient, first, because it produces a truly divine fruit, namely children, our helpers alike when we are young and strong, and when we are old and worn. . . . But even apart from this, wedded life is a happy lot. A wife by her tender offices refreshes those who are wearied with external toil; she makes her husband forget those troubles which are never so active and aggressive as in the midst of a solitary and unfriended life; sometimes questioning him on his business pursuits, or referring some domestic matter to his judgment, and taking counsel with him upon it: giving a savour and pleasure to life by her unstrained cheerfulness and alacrity. Then again in the united exercise of religious sacrifice, in her conduct as mistress of the house in the absence of her husband, when the family has to be held in order not without a certain ruling spirit, in her care for her servants, in her careful tending of the sick, in these and other things too many to be; recounted, her influence is notable. . . . Splendid dwellings, marbles and precious stones and myrtle groves are but poor ornaments to a family. But the heaven-blessed union of a husband and wife, who have all, even their bodies and souls, in common, who rule their house and bring up their children well, is a more noble and excellent ornament; as indeed Homer said. . . . Nothing is so burdensome but that a husband and wife can easily bear it when they are in harmony together, and willing to give their common strength to the task."