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.
Plato’s Alcibiades—the first Platonic dialogue that students in late antiquity, following the Iamblichean curriculum, would read—begins with Socrates speaking these words. From this manifest appearance of wonder comes the invitation to philosophy. Yet for Socrates, and for the Platonist following his example, philosophy never displaces wonder, never undermines the encounter with the cosmos which is philosophy’s own fons et origo, as we see throughout Plato’s portrayal of Socrates, and especially in the Parmenides and the Phaedo.
The entrance to Plato’s Academy was, somewhat famously, marked by a sign reading “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.” What’s so special about the study of geometry, that makes a student ready to approach philosophy?
In a previous post, I explored the three-fold division of philosophy into logic, physics, and ethics which originated among the early Stoics, and which was widespread in Hellenistic philosophy. In this post, I’d like to explore how this same triple division can apply to Indian philosophy.
In my last post, I discussed how a noxious mix of philosophical misunderstanding, hegemonic monotheism, and respectability politics have given rise to the false claim that “Advaita Vedānta is monotheism.” In the present post, I’d like to examine another, quite similar erasure of polytheism; namely, the false claim that “Buddhism is atheistic,” which arises from a noxious mix of philosophical misunderstanding, hegemonic atheism,1 and respectability politics.
All too often, it’s claimed that “Advaita Vedānta is a form of monotheism.” Or even that Advaita Vedānta is a better, more pure, more refined form of monotheism than its Middle Eastern competitors, Christianity and Islam.
No, Advaita is not monotheism. It is monism,* the view that “there is only one thing.” But if there is only one thing, there is no more reason to call that thing “God” that to call it “cosmos” or “human being” or “chair” or “river.” I mean no disrespect or impiety here, but simply an entry into the core Advaita notion of “neti, neti”, “not this, not this.” Any label, any category, always functions by distinguishing X from what is not-X or what is other-than-X; in other words, by splitting things into different groups based on their defining features. No predicates, no labels whatsoever can possibly apply to Brahman, the one reality, since there is nothing other than itself from which it can be distinguished. Even calling it Brahman is ultimately problematic, for the very same reasons: ‘Brahman’ is a predicate/label, too.
Rather, the plethora of Gods and Goddesses, just like the plethora of humans, chairs, rivers, and other things that seem to populate the world, are all of them ultimately unreal to the monist/Advaitin.
According to the traditional Athenian calendar, today is the festival of Demokratia. In honor of that, I’ll share some casual reflections that I wrote for a public symposium, held last year, quite by chance, on this lunar date. I copy those remarks here, unchanged from what I wrote (for a very different audience) in 2019.
It is sometimes claimed that obedience, toward both Gods and humans, is a virtue. That seems wrong to me, and I’d like to explore the reasons why. As usual, I’m trying to develop my own understanding by thinking out in public in this forum, and I eagerly welcome respectful criticisms, objections, questions, and suggestions which might help me further my thinking on the issue.