Proclus: Providence & Participation

After two years of reading Neoplatonic commentaries, and some of the more helpful scholarly literature, I decided last month that it was finally time to tackle Proclus’ Elements of Theology. I figure that if I study and meditate on one proposition every morning, I can work my way through the entire text by about the Summer Solstice. This is the first of an occasional series of posts, reflecting on that intellectual journey.

But let’s start elsewhere, with Proclus’ short essay On Providence. In the first section of the essay, Proclus begins by distinguishing between providence and fate. Following our common notions, providence is “the cause of goods, for those governed by it,” while fate is the cause of connection between, and sequence of, things that occur (§7). Yet both providence and fate are, in their own way, agencies. Providence, he explains, is the providing cause, as distinct both from the gifts that it provides and from the recipient of those gifts, while fate is the connecting principle, as distinct both from the things that are connected and from the connection itself that comes to exist between those things.

Here’s where things get interesting (with a connection back to the Elements). The distinctions just make give us a triad of efficient cause, efficient activity, and effect—where the efficient cause and its effect have different properties. Specifically, “If the effect is complex, its efficient cause must be simple; if the effect shares in some good, the efficient cause must be this good unparticipated” (§8, emphasis added). Though the translator, Carlos Steel, does not remark on it, this links back directly to proposition 23 in the Elements of Theology, where Proclus distinguishes the unparticipated, the participated, and that which participates (or equivalently, the participating). If I’m understanding all this correctly, putting the two passages alongside each other gets us the following chart:

unparticipatedefficient causethe providing cause (i.e., providence itself)the connecting principle (i.e., fate itself)
participatedefficient activitythe activity that goes from cause to subjectthe activity proceeding from the principle to what is connected
participatingeffectthat which is subject to providencethat which is connected

And for the first and last of these, cf. §19 of On Providence, where Proclus appeals to the need for an unparticipated hypostasis above every kind of participating beings.

If in fact this passage in On Providence is appropriately to be understood as an application of the principles in propositions 23, then the cases given in the former should help to illustrate what’s going on in proposition 24. There, Proclus asserts the inferiority of the participating to the participated, and of the participated to the unparticipated, exactly as we would expect (based on prop. 23). But in the proof of proposition 24, he concludes by noting that:

  • the unparticipated is “unity prior to the many” (τὸ ἕν πρὸ τῶν ἓν)
  • the participated is in the many (ἐω τοῖς πολλοῖς), and is “one yet not one” (ἓν ἃμα καὶ οὐχ ἓν)
  • the participating is “not one and yet one” (οὐχ ἓν ἃμα καὶ ἓν).

In his commentary, Dodds expresses surprise at this list. But I think he misunderstands what is happening here. The present discussion seems to be about a triadic relationship that occurs within each level of the metaphysical hierarchy, and is not at all (contra Dodds’ remarks) about the hierarchy of intellect/soul/body, or the like. Why? Let’s return to the chart. The activity of providence takes place at every level of being, so providence itself must be located at the highest level (since a thing’s substance cannot coherently be located lower than its activity). The activity of fate, however, takes place only at the level of bodies, since only bodies can be unconnected in space and time (and therefore subject to connection by an outside agency; cf. §10), and so fate itself will be located on a lower level than providence.


A note on sources: Quotations from On Providence are from the translation by Carlos Steel (2007), published in the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series; I have not (at least as yet) had the opportunity to consult either the Latin or the reconstructed Greek. For the Elements of Theology, I’m working from the classic edition and translation of E.R. Dodds, though occasionally modifying his translations based on my understanding of the Greek.

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