If we go back in time to when the Hermetic teachings formed there were certain practices that seem to be consistent amongst the groups practising – a ritual kiss as a greeting, a sacred meal together, methods of contemplation on higher forces, and ritual initiations all seem to feature. These elements are found no matter which group you look at, be it Gnostic Christianity, Neoplatonic or even Sethian.
Hermeticism contains all these elements and this could suggest other shared practices.
One other practice that seems to have become rather common is the adoption of the use of Greco-Roman philosophical lecture halls for teaching.
Pictured here is a very good example of this kind of room. Shaped like a horseshoe, it has three tiers of seats (enough to accommodate twenty to thirty students).
Notice the professor’s throne (thronos) elevated a few steps at the back of the horseshoe, and stone standing the middle. At Kom el-Dikka in Alexandria, Egypt over twenty rooms have been found of this nature.
It’s thought that most philosophical classes would start with the teacher standing at the lectern and end in contemplation or questioning with them sitting on their throne.
But who used these rooms?
We have a direct reference to Hypatia running between the throne and the lectern to adjust equipment to display to her students and one rather nasty quote using the throne as a symbol in describing her fall. “Hypatia, the woman mathematician murdered in 415, had been forced off a high seat or chair before being dragged away to her death." (Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu, ch. 84)
This yogic neo-platonic was said to use magical power to form a throne to teach from the sands blowing in the desert. From this perhaps we can conclude he was used to teaching in this manner when he had access to a hall?
In my opinion, there is little possibility that passionate Plotinus
would have been lecturing in a formal setting like this, at least
until his student Porphyry arrived and brought some structure to the school. Indeed we do read in Porphyry’s essay (Porphyry, Plot. 18.19) that after his arrival Plotinus often started classes by asking a student to read to him from the stand. A practice we see evidence of taking place at Plato’s Academy in earlier Greek texts.
Divine Iamblichus, to whom we owe so much, is commemorated in Syria in a mosaic showing him teaching in a room like this. It is said he liked the layout as he could see the faces of those he was talking to to see if they understood.
Plutarch comments that Socrates did not use a thronos nor set out benches, considering himself not a teacher but rather one that helps others see better.
These are but a few examples of those great masters of old who “held a chair" in philosophy when they shared their teachings with others.