A Common Source

In my last post, I alluded to the critical distinction between simply interpreting the writings of Plato as an endpoint in themselves, and using the writings of Plato as tools to access, understand, and explain the same transcendent realities that Plato himself was also trying to access, understand, and explain. It is only in the latter case that we are thinking like the ancient commentators, that we are approaching Plato with a mindset akin to theirs. Here is one small illustration of the difference, from Morrow and Dillon’s English translation of Proclus’ commentary on Plato’s Parmenides.

In books VI and VII of his Parmenides Commentary, Proclus examines the First Hypothesis: specifically, all the various descriptions which are denied of the One that is beyond Being. In Plato’s dialogue, Parmenides proceeds by assuming such a transcendent One, and then showing how on that assumption, each of a long list of attributes must be denied of it.

Proclus’ interpretive strategy, which he seems to have received from his teacher Syrianus, is that each of these negations (or each set of negations) denies of the One the features proper to one of the divine orders, proceeding in a structured way down the divine hierarchy from the intelligible Gods through to the mundane (or encosmic) Gods. The negations covered in Book VI of Proclus’ commentary deal with the intelligible orders. With the start of Book VII, we move into the intellectual orders, where the first three negations discussed here (the One is neither in anything else nor in itself; the One is neither at rest nor in motion; the One is neither the same as itself nor different) pertain to the three divisions within the intellectual order (the summit of the intellectual, the life-giving, and the demiurgic).

But midway through Book VII, Proclus notes a bit of a gap in Plato’s exposition, as seen from this perspective:

After the assimilative order of Gods which is solely hypercosmic, the theologians see fit to rank that order which is particularly called the “detached,” the characteristic of which is, as they maintain, to be both transcendent over things in the cosmos and to be in communion with them and to be placed immediately superior to the encosmic Gods; for which reason they declare that they have been alloted the median position between those Gods which are solely hypercosmic and those in the cosmos. This absolute order, then, he will present in the Second Hypothesis, and he will say there what the characteristic of it is and that this order can “touch and not touch” because it is in a way both encosmic and hypercosmic, being a cause of coalesence for the encosmic Gods properly so-called and also leading forth into multiplicity the unity of the whole assimilative and solely hypercosmic chain.

There, as I said, he will present this order also. Here, however, he has passed it over, and has gone on to those Gods which are only in the cosmos, the reason for which we shall learn more accurately in that place…

Proclus, in Parm. 1201–1202 Cousin (trans. Dillon, pp. 547–548, slightly modified)

In other words, Proclus suggests that Plato is aware of the hypercosmic-encosmic (or “detached”) Gods, as evidenced by the fact that he deals with them in the Second Hypothesis, but they are nonetheless omitted from the present discussion.

In a footnote to this passage (547n70), Dillon writes, concerning the inclusion of these Gods in Syrianus’ and Proclus’ account despite their not having a corresponding negation in Plato’s text, that “It is a slight embarassment for Syrianus’ scheme that they are omitted [by Plato] here.”

But this, I think, is to mistake what Proclus and Syrianus are up to. They are not simply exploring a conceptual construct which originated from Plato. If that were the case, then Plato’s presentation would be the final word, and any mismatch could only be, as Dillon suggests, a mark against the later commentators. But this would be to misunderstand the commentators’ project. They are explaining Plato’s words, but they’re doing so insofar as Plato himself is an exponent of the truth about reality.

In other words, both Plato and Syrianus and Proclus are all drawing from, and attempting to return to, that truth about the entire structure of being which is before and beyond all three of them. If that truth in fact includes an intermediate order, the hypercosmic-encosmic Gods, between the purely hypercosmic and the purely encosmic, then Proclus is quite right to mention it here. To the extent that any of our philosophers should be “slightly embarassed,” the embarassment would belong to Plato for the omission, and not to Syrianus or Proclus for supplying the missing detail which Plato’s text had glossed over in silence.

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