Beneath the plodding of my weary feet My path seems to forevermore extend Unceasingly, no respite or retreat, Without beginning nor with hope of end. The possibility I might complete This journey seems far too much to pretend For one who can’t imagine what he’ll meet Around the very next upcoming bend. Yet even if I stop, or turn aside There’s no foretelling what might come my way: All that’s my own, within a world so wide, Is whether I will choose to go or stay. I place one foot before the other, free To shape the course of my own destiny.
Today we mark the nativity of one of my heroes: Thomas Taylor, born 15 May 1758. Taylor was known as “the English Platonist” for his voluminous and preternaturally astute writings and translations, and as “the English pagan” for his habit of pouring libations to Greek and Roman Gods in the back garden.
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.
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.
The theory of Forms is perhaps both the most often vilified, and the most commonly misunderstood, portion of Platonic philosophy. So let’s make a few preliminary gestures toward setting the record straight, and thereby getting a better understanding of why the Forms matter.