Why We Study the Ancients

First, we are seeking the truth concerning both other metaphysical realities and the soul, since of all realities it is immediately most appropriate to us; secondarily, [we seek] the opinions of those who have reached the pinnacle of knowledge. I therefore believe that is is necessary to give a careful examination to Aristotle’s treatise On the Soul. Plato has handed down many blessed doctrines on the soul, but interpreters of Plato have investigated and explained them sufficiently and in harmony with each other. After Aristotle had completed his treatise On the Soul, as Iamblichus who is the best judge of the truth thought, a great deal of controversy arose among those explicating Aristotle’s doctrine not only concerning the interpretation of Aristotle’s text but especially also concerning the metaphysical realities themselves.

I have therefore decided to investigate and record the coherence of the philosopher both with himself and with the truth, avoiding controversies with others, while seeking clear confirmation for his opinions on doubtful points from Aristotle’s clear doctrines and words. And in every way and to the best of my ability I will adhere to the truth about the metaphysical realities under the guidance of Iamblichus in his own writings on the soul.

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Mostly Dionysos

A votive inscription that just utterly delights me. It’s cited by H.S. Versnel in his book, Coping with the Gods (pp. 504-5):

We pray to all the Gods, but mostly to Dionysos.
πρὸς πάντας τοὺς θεοὺς μάλιστα δὲ πρὸς τὸν Διόνυσον.

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.

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Divine Poiēsis (an encouragement to virtue)

Early in book III of his Parmenides Commentary, Proclus distinguishes two kinds of creative activity (poiēsis): that which comes about from the very being of the cause, and that which results from some deliberate choice.

Beings in the middle of the metaphysical hierarchy do both. Our soul, for example, gives life to the body by its very being (provided that the material substratum is serviceable), while it does other things by choice. Lower down the hierarchy, though, we find fire heating by its very being, but not doing anything by deliberate choice. And so, in keeping with one of the basic principles of Platonic metaphysics, if creative activity by being alone extends farther down, it must also extend farther up.

Furthermore, creative activity that results from being alone is effortless, and is more suited to the Gods:

The creative activity of those beings that make what they do by their very being is effortless, and we must conclude that effortlessness belongs primarily to the divine, since we also live most easily and with least effort when our life and Godlike and in the path of virtue.

Proclus, in Parm. 787 Cousin; trans. Morrow & Dillon, p. 159.

And this seems to me an excellent, yet gentle, encouragement to virtue.

“Truly, I am amazed…”

Just a beautful thought for the day. In his commentary on the Alcibiades, Proclus compares Socrates’ attentive care for Alcibiades with the attentive care of the Demiurge for the cosmos:

If what “was in discordant and disorderly movement” [Timaeus 30a] could say something to the Demiurge, it would have uttered these words: “In truth, I wonder at your beneficent will and power, that have reached as far as my level, are everywhere present to me, and from all sides arrange me in an orderly fashion.”

In Alc. 125,15–126,1; trans. O’Neill.

Wisdom for the Day

Then we must suppose that the same is true of a just person who falls into poverty or disease or some other apparent evil, namely, that this will end well for him, either during his lifetime or afterwards, for the Gods never neglect anyone who eagerly wishes to become just, and who makes himself as much like a God as a human can by adopting a virtuous way of life.

Plato, Republic X, 613a.

Here for Hymnody

Just a pair of delightful quotes from the last few days:

While I lived, it was my part to sing hymns in praise of the Gods, whether by myself, or with another person, or with many.

Epictetus, Discourses III.26, 30

If people have any use for a voice, they should be using it for hymns.

Proclus, in Timaeum I 197, 6–7 (trans. Tarrant)

Some Notes on Grief, Magic, and Animism

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to attend two talks given by David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal. His work on animism has inspired and provoked me for more than half a decade, so it was a delight to finally meet him and have the chance to converse.

A Dionysian Connection

At one point, the conversation came around to grief—specifically, grief over the ongoing wave of mass extinctions and destruction of the natural world, and strong temptation to pull back, to refuse to engage, simply because of how painful these things can be to face. In response to this, David suggested that grief is a gate, a threshold, that we can pass through to a deeper way of being in relationship.

In other words, whether it’s ecological or more personal, grief is a doorway, not a destination… which brings a whole new flood of meaning to the invocation, “Hail Dionysos, Opener of the Door!”

Magic and Reciprocity

David also suggested a definition of magic: “Magic is the encounter with a style of intelligence different from your own,” and then added: “and that could be your lover.”

If this touches on some deep truth, as it seems to, then it follows that all communication is a magical act. And furthermore, that all communication, and all magic, is a reciprocal act, affecting both parties, having within that act the power to change and transform them both.

Which brings us squarely back to David’s definition of animism: “the instinctive experience of reciprocity between the perceiver and the perceived.”