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The Ascent (Anagôgę) to The One is the central spiritual practice in the Pythagorean Tradition (see also "The Threefold Way" in "Part 4"). It is based on the principle that "like knows like." Therefore, to know The One, you must become The One. To know the Highest God, you must unify with and become the Highest God, a process of Deification (Theôsis). Further, since The One is the principle from which all things have their existence, by returning to The One we rediscover and preserve our eternal Essence, and thus the Ascent is the principal means of Salvation (Sôtęria) in the Pythagorean Tradition. Through Union with the Divine we come to see beyond our individuality and to understand our own roles as organs and instruments (organa) of Divine Providence. In a sense that will become clear, the Ascent achieves Immortalization.
There are three Paths of Ascent in the Pythagorean Tradition, each correlated with one of the three principle Attributes of The One: Its Beauty, Wisdom, and Goodness, and the corresponding connecting properties, Love, Truth, and Trust, which are the Chaldaean Virtues. This table summarizes their similarities and differences:
Pythagoreans differ about which path is better; different approaches seem to be suited to souls with different personalities and talents. I will discuss them in order:
We may begin with the Erotic Ascent (Erôtikę Anagôgę), in which the power of Love and Desire (Erôs), directed toward Beauty, raises the soul toward the Beauty of The One. Naturally, the guides on this path are Aphrodite and Eros (both of whom I have already discussed). Erotic Madness is the Vehicle of Salvation and draws the Lover and Beloved together, with the ultimate goal of union. It's best known description is in Plato's Symposium (209E-212C), where it is put into the mouth of the Priestess Diotima (via Socrates); other versions are given by many later philosophers (e.g. Ficino).
The Ascent proceeds through three stages, corresponding to the Material, Aetherial, and Empyrean Realms (see "Theogony" in Part I). At the material level, desire is aroused by the beauty of the body, which is experienced through the senses. This begins with love of an individual's beauty, but expands into love of physical beauty in general. The second stage ascends to desire for the beauty of the soul, which manifests in the moral excellences (Justice, Fortitude, Moderation) and the intellectual excellences (Prudence, Knowledge, Wisdom). This higher beauty is perceived by the rational mind rather than the senses. In the third stage one comes to know Beauty Absolute in the only way possible: by uniting with It, This union transcends the duality of subject and object - of Lover and Beloved - for the Lover merges into the Beloved.
Images of fire are common at this stage: As the moth is attracted to the candle and is consumed by it, so the soul desires and is consumed in Beauty Itself. The soul gives itself as a burnt offering to The One. As fire refines gold, so the Holy Fire of Divine Beauty refines the soul, burning away its grosser elements and sublimating it. As the smoke ascends to the Gods from the sacrificial fires, so the spiritualized soul ascends to union with the Divine. The Lover and Beloved are united in Bliss.
Unfortunately, this union is imperfect and impermanent, for it cannot be sustained while the soul is still bound to the body. Although the devotee of Love must return to ordinary life, the transformation of the soul is permanent. Much more could be said about the Erotic Ascent, but not in this Summary.
The second path to The One is the Contemplative Ascent (Theôrętikę Anagôgę), in which the power of Truth (Alętheia) leads the soul to the Wisdom of The One. The guides on this path are Athena, patroness of wisdom, and Hermes, the guide of souls, messenger between Gods and mortals, and patron of boundary crossers. (Thus this may be called also the Hermetic Ascent, although "Hermeticism" is more theurgic in its operation.) On this path the Vehicle of Salvation is Divine Philosophia, which must be understood in the traditional way, as already discussed (see "Ancient Philosophia"). This Way is described by Plotinus.
The stages of this Ascent may be understood by reference to the Pythagoean Tetractys.
The Tetractys explains, of course, the phases of Emanation as described in Part I "Theogony." However it also shows the stages of Ascent back to The One. As usual, the Ascent begins in the material realm with the contemplation of the Divine in the objects of sense; this is The Awakening. A further prerequisite for the Ascent, which must be fulfilled before progress can be made, is the practice of the Four Cardinal Excellences (also called Civic or Social Virtues), as taught by Philosophia: Moderation, Fortitude, Prudence, and Justice, corresponding to Earth, Water, Air, Fire.
The second stage is Purification (Katharsis), which brings order to the Soul's Three Faculties (Non-reasoning, Reasoning, Noetic). This is accomplished by cultivating the Kathartic Excellences, by which the soul is turned inward and upward toward The One. The goal is to calm the lower parts of the soul, which are more intimately connected with the body, so that the higher parts may ascend. Also, on the principle of "like knows like," we attempt to achieve the tranquillity of the Gods and the inner unity of The One.
First we must calm the non-reasoning soul, which we share with animals and plants, and which is the seat of our appetites and of the faculties of growth and nutrition. Since excessive pleasure and pains can disturb the desired tranquillity, the philosopher strives to live healthily, with proper diet, sleep, and exercise. (Extreme asceticism may be counterproductive.) The higher (reasoning) soul must learn that disturbances arise largely from mental judgements about sensations rather than from the sensations themselves. Therefore, by controlling how we think about these things we can diminish the disturbing effects of excessive pleasures and pains.
When the non-reasoning soul has been calmed, you next turn your attention to the reasoning soul, achieving tranquillity by quieting the inner discourse. The thought of the Divine Nous is neither discursive nor sequential in time (see Part III, "The Self-contemplating Nous"), so to become more like It we must quiet our own discursive, sequential thinking.
When the reasoning part of your soul has been quieted, all that is left is the noetic part, which is akin to the Divine Nous, in its intuitive, direct grasp of the Ideas, but different, for your nous still acts in time, for it is part of the individual soul. Nevertheless, if by a non-willful surrender you allow your nous to contract inward and be drawn upward, it will be awakened to its true nature and origin, the Divine Nous.
This brings us to the third stage, called Illumination, which ascends above the soul to the Divine Nous. Here the divine part of the soul (the individual nous) takes its place in the divine community, for the Gods are living, conscious Ideas in a state of mutual, intuitive contemplation. They are separate yet one, like interpenetrating beams of light, or the individual colors mixed in white light. So also your individual mind experiences itself as separate yet one with the others, moving in the divine dance of The All.
To reach this experience of being an integral part of The All in the Eternal Now, you must set aside the Non-Being that makes you an individual, for it is Non-Being that separates one thing from another. In this way, your nous forsakes the individual, particular, and finite, and ascends to the Universal and Eternal.
To reach this level, you must not think about the Forms, or even contemplate them as other, but you must become them and experience their organic, fluent mutual contemplation. In this intuitive flow, you are unselfconscious and lose your separate awareness (as in our everyday experience of completely absorbed, competent activity).
To achieve the final unification with The One, the nous must transcend even the Divine Nous, for it still has the characteristic of Multiplicity, for it contains all the Ideas (even if mutually interpenetrating). The Nous contemplates Itself through Its Ideas, and so there is still an element of Duality in It.
The One has proceeded outward into the Nous, but now the Nous must revert back toward The One (recall Part I, "Triadic Structure"). In this movement It is motivated by Its Love for Truth and the Good (and so we see the convergence of the three paths). It must rise above Form and Idea in the Inebriation of Love. Thus you are lost in the direct experience of the Truth. In contemplative union with the eternal, immutable Truth, you achieve immortality and deification, a state which persists even after the inevitable return to ordinary life (for the contemplative, non-dual state cannot be maintained for long).
The third path to The One is the Theurgic Ascent (Theourgikę Anagôgę), in which the Theurgic Power of Pistis (Trust, Faith) is the Vehicle of Ascent, which leads the soul to the Goodness of The One. The guides on this path are Hekate and Helios, both of whom we have seen to be Mediators (see Part III, "Helios and Eros the Mediators"; Part II, "Hekate" et seq.; Part V, "Mediating Spirits" and "Divine Guides"). Hence this path may be called also the Heliacal Ascent. The Theurgic Ascent is presented especially in the Chaldean Oracles and Iamblichus' book On the Mysteries of the Egyptians.
It will be seen that the Theurgic Ascent has much in common with the Erotic and Contemplative Ascents, the major difference being the use of rituals involving symbolically meaningful material objects (statues, stones, herbs, incense, etc.). Because it makes use of these material aids, theurgy is claimed sometimes to be easier or more accessible than the more interior paths through Love and Truth. Certainly, as will be seen, the higher degrees of theurgy are less material in their orientation, and so theurgy might be viewed as a lower degree than the Contemplative and Erotic practices. However, it may be argued also that theurgy reaches higher than those practices. The arguments hinge partly on theological disputes about the soul (i.e., whether it "descends completely" in embodiment). Personally, I don't think that either of these views are quite correct, and I think it is better to choose a path that fits your personality, inclinations, and talents. Ultimately you will make more progress following your own destiny than someone else's.
Like the Paths of Love and Wisdom, theurgy seeks the salvation of the soul through Union with The One. However, by its emphasis on the necessity of material rites, it focuses on our embodiment and its role in the system of the universe. For embodiment is part of the necessary Procession from The One and the Manifestation of Love in the universe. Love is a relation between the Lover and the Beloved, and so there must be an Other for there to be Love. The creation of the Indefinite Dyad and Her separation from the Monad were necessary before Love (Eros), Firstborn of the Paternal Nous, could appear in the universe (see Part II, "The Indefinite Dyad" and Part III, "Helios and Eros the Mediators"). This Love proceeds outward from the One Mind and is directed toward Primordial Matter. As part of this procession, our souls are embodied in human bodies, but the completion of the "Erotic Circuit," which binds the universe into one, requires us to turn back toward our essential source, The One.
Thus theurgy uses material objects, which participate in the Eternal Forms, and reorients our souls, into which the Ideas have descended, to turn material creation back toward The One, which is its origin. In this way theurgists complete the work of creation begun by the Demiurge; they participate in the eternal creative work of the Gods and by this participation become immortal and deified themselves. Finally, theurgists participate in the Providential Evolution of the universe; in so doing they win Salvation.