Reading Proclus on Prayer

In the opening pages of book 2 of his commentary on the Timaeus, Proclus offers a discussion of prayer, that I’ve found helpful for refining my understanding.

As we might expect from Proclus, the discussion revolves around the doctrines of procession and reversion. The key principle is that everything that has being proceeds directly (i.e., in an unmediated way) from the Gods, and everything attains its proper excellence or completion when it reverts back upon its causes, which are the Gods. In prayer, we help to accomplish this reversion, both for ourselves and for the lower things in the cosmos, elevating ourselves (as the ones praying) and those things for which we pray.

The goodness of the Gods extends through the entire cosmic order, down to the very lowest things, and their providence fully encompasses all that there is. There will thus be a correspondingly extensive range of prayer, which Proclus classifies along four different axes: (1) the genera and species of the Gods, (2) the differences of those who are doing the praying, (3) the objects for which we pray, and (4) the times at which we pray. I’ll focus here on (3) and (1).

Regarding the third of these divisions, because the beings at every level both proceed from, and achieve their excellence by reverting upon, the Gods, it is fully appropriate, and salutary, to pray for objects at all three of the levels that I referenced in my previous post: “in the first place, on behalf of the salvation of soul, secondly on behalf of the sound constitution of body, and thirdly … on behalf of external goods” (in Tim. I 214, 6–8). Nonetheless, I call attention to Proclus’ ranking of the relative importance and dignity of these three beneficiaries of prayer: the soul first, the body second, and other external goods last. It’s only with regard to this axis—the objects for which we pray—that Proclus indicates such a ranking; in making divisions of the other three axes, he uses only basic coordinating conjunctions (kai … kai, or men … de).

The first division adds to the discussion in another way. Here, I list the four genera of Gods to whom we appropriately pray, along with Proclus’ own examples of such prayers. The examples are illuminating:

  1. prayers for rain and wind, addressed to the demiurgic Gods
  2. prayers to avert pestilence and all pollution, addressed to the cathartic/purificatory Gods
  3. prayers for the growth of crops, addressed to the life-giving Gods
  4. telesiurgic, or perfective prayers, addressed to the elevating Gods (of which we get no specific examples in this paragraph, the way we did with the other three classes)

I take at least two lessons from the way Proclus presents this division. First, to neglect any of these domains in our prayers would be to neglect that class of Gods who care for the domain in question. To be sure, we will never pray to all the Gods individually, by name (nor is there any expectation that we do so), but there is at least an implied value in acknowledging all of the broad ways in which the Gods create, sustain, purify, and bring to completion the entire cosmos.

Second, it’s quite easy to see that all four of these divine orders will have something to do with all three types of beneficiaries of prayer; in other words, the two distinctions—according to the Gods involved, and according to the beneficiaries—cross-cut. By way of example, consider the cathartic Gods. Proclus mentions their action in warding off pestilence, relating to our bodies and to our external goods (as for instance our livestock and crops). But there is, of course, an even more important purificatory aspect when it comes to our souls. Likewise, for the other classes of Gods: the cases of the demiurgic and life-giving Gods are quite straightforward, while the work of the elevating Gods can be understood in terms of helping everything that there is, across all of these levels, to attain its highest perfection or completion by returning to its causes.

In trying to apply this to the themes I’ve been wrestling with in the prior post, it now seems to me that there are at least two different bits of monotheist baggage to address:

First, there’s the danger of neglecting the goodness of the entire created order. While we do not want to become so fixated on material things that we neglect the higher orders, the body and its possessions are good, coming directly from the goodness of the Gods. Platonism is pro-cosmic. At every level, what exists is fundamentally good for that level. Nonetheless, the soul falls short of its highest excellence when it locates its own good in a level lower than itself, with material or bodily things, and it is this danger that Proclus so often prays to be free of, in his hymns.

Second, there’s the need to figure out the appropriate scope for self-motion on the part of rational souls. On the Platonic picture of Proclus and Simplicius, it is this self-motion, together with providence, that turns us to the Gods in and through prayer. In his commentary on Epictetus, Simplicius makes the important distinction between inviting and compelling: to compel our assent would be to deny the freedom (that is, the power of self-motion) that properly belongs to the rational soul, and thus to deprive the cosmos of this important good. Were I to ask the Gods to violate the self-motion of another rational soul, I would be asking them to unmake one of the greatest goods. This would, obviously, not be an appropriate prayer, and so by making it, I would actually be distancing myself from them. But on the other hand, by praying for their providence (upon any and all parts of the created order), I am aligning myself with them.

At every level, the Gods produce their goods superabundantly, like an overflowing fountain. This is so regardless of whether/how/to what degree we attend to and embrace these gifts. Providence is always and eternally present. It is our acts of self-motion that differ across time.

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