Over the last few days, I’ve begun slowly working my way through the second volume of the English translation of Proclus’ commentary on Plato’s Republic. It’s slow going, both because the arguments Proclus offers in the text are challenging in their own right, and also—perhaps moreso—because of the huge barriers and impediments to understanding which the translators add in by their own choices.Continue reading “Perfect Intervals, Made Obscure”
What is Tradition For?
Consider an antique telescope. There are two different ways of “looking,” with respect to this scientific instrument. I could look at the telescope: making the telescope the object of my study, inquiring into how telescopes were made in the 19th century, the materials used, the curvature of the lens, the mechanisms (or lack thereof) for making fine adjustments, etc. This might even become part of a detailed history of telescopes, or of the institution of astronomy over the centuries.
Or I could pick the telescope up, take it outside on a clear night, and look through the telescope, using the telescope as it was intended by its makers, to study the planets and stars. This latter project will, from time to time, require me to attend to the instrument itself: adjusting the focus, cleaning the lens, setting it up correctly in its stand so that it’s stable and ready to work. But none of these things are in the end, the goal, the telos toward which they are directed and from which they acquire their meaning. They are all in the service of allowing me to observe the heavenly bodies as they course through the night sky.Continue reading “What is Tradition For?”
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.Continue reading “Message in a Bottle”
Forms are not Universals
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.Continue reading “Forms are not Universals”
Wonder and Inquiry
“Son of Klinias, I think that you are wondering…”
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.Continue reading “Wonder and Inquiry”
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?Continue reading “Why Geometry?”
The Parts of Philosophy (in Alexandrian Platonism, and beyond)
Partly in preparation for an online workshop I’m leading this Saturday, I’ve been continuing to think about the ways that philosophers have conceived of, and divided, the parts of our discipline. I’ve written about this question from the perspective of the Stoics and other Hellenistic schools, and considered the ways that philosophers in India have conceived of the parts of a philosophical system (darśana).
In this post, I’ll turn to the Platonists of Alexandria, and specifically, to two texts entitled “Introduction to Philosophy.”Continue reading “The Parts of Philosophy (in Alexandrian Platonism, and beyond)”
The Three Questions in Indian Philosophy (with some reflections on ethics)
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.Continue reading “The Three Questions in Indian Philosophy (with some reflections on ethics)”
Buddhism, dependent arising, and the erasure of polytheism
(No, we are not all trying to be atheists.)
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.Continue reading “Buddhism, dependent arising, and the erasure of polytheism”
No, we are not all trying to be monotheists.
(Vedānta, monism, and the erasure of polytheism)
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.
But this is monism, not monotheism.Continue reading “No, we are not all trying to be monotheists.”