Message in a Bottle

Today, we remember Proclus, who died in Athens on this date, in 485 CE.

It’s quite possible, by mistranslating a few words here, a few key phrases there, for modern readers to ignore the Gods in the works of Plato, Aristotle, and so many of the other philosophers of antiquity. It’s quite possible, with only a little bit of squinting, to look past the deep and genuine piety that informed these great thinkers.

Not so, when it comes to Proclus. The Gods—who are at once the source and summit of all being, and the immortal divine persons we approach in prayer and devotion—cannot be ignored in Proclus’ work, no matter how hard you squint. Proclus thus provides us a vital key, which can open for us the brilliant and inspired words of Plato, and indeed of all the thousand years to Hellenic philosophy and theology, of which Proclus was the inheritor. And this is a vital key, in the most literal sense of “bringing to life” the tradition which has been handed on to us.

When we take seriously the thought of Proclus within this continuous tradition, we see at once how misguided is the desire for the “pure” Plato, that so many shallow modern interpreters search for. Such a “pure” Plato—disconnected from the wider currents both before, around, and after him in the Hellenic world; cut off from the Gods who are the source of everything; made safe and neat and sanitized for both secular and Christian atheists—such a “pure” Plato only begins to make sense if we were to deny the originating, eternal, ever-present agency of the Gods, and of the more-than-mundane powers generally. Plato himself did not make up or invent this teaching; rather, he encountered, accessed, and expressed these living and eternal realities as best he could—just as so many others, before and after him, would do: Pythagoras, Parmenides, Aristotle, Euclid, Julian the Theurgist, Plotinus, Iamblichus, Proclus—and just as we ourselves, here in the 21st century, can still do. And insofar as these living and eternal realities are, and ever will be, available to all of us, to ancients and moderns alike, then for ourselves just as for Proclus, when we read and contemplate the Timaeus or the Parmenides,we are not simply interpreting Plato; rather, we are contemplating, and expressing as best we can, the very same realities that Plato, too, was contemplating.

In this way, then, Proclus has left us a kind of “message in a bottle.” He has given us, not a finished product, but hints and invitations, the keys to do the work, to make the mystical ascent. So let’s honor his memory, by using his gifts as best we can, and also by building on them, extending and further completing this mystical toolkit, always in the service of beauty and truth, ever striving for that mystical henōsis in which we too become God, insofar as possible.

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