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.

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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.

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Paying for Philosophy: Protagoras and the Gift Economy

The standard line in modern presentations of the history of Greek philosophy is that the Sophists were really horrible because they charged a fee for their teaching, but Socrates was really wonderful because he gave his teaching away for free. There might be a grain of truth to this, and it’s something that Xenophon in particular really plays up. But the picture may be a little more complicated.

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Is Obedience a Virtue?

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.

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From Anger to Pity

How should the philosopher, the person making progress toward wisdom, respond to wrongdoing? What is the appropriate response when someone behaves badly toward me?

In Discourses 1.18, Epictetus answers that if we must have any response at all, it would be far more appropriate to respond to wrongdoing with pity, rather than anger. But why? There are two lines of argument (which I will address in the opposite order of how he presents them).

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Appropriations of Stoicism; or, the Place(s) of Ethics in Philosophy

Recent discussions in real life, and in several corners of the internet, have got me thinking about the seemingly quite widespread appeal of Stoic philosophy as a “plug and play” system: the way in which the ethical or practical bits of the ancient Stoics are so often taken as if they can stand alone, apart from wider systematic concerns. As one blogger recently relates, this sort of modular Stoicism is something you can learn in a weekend.

On the one hand, this is certainly true, nor is it an entirely new phenomenon. Roughly 1,500 years ago, the Platonist philosopher Simplicius was using Epictetus’ Handbook as an introductory text for his students. The subsequent centuries have seen elements of Stoic ethics taken up enthusiastically by Christians and other atheists who by would no means be willing to adopt traditional Stoic views in physics and theology.

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Stoic Piety

In book XII of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes:

People ask, ‘Have you ever seen the Gods you worship? How can you be sure they exist?’

i. Just look around you.
ii. I’ve never seen my soul either. And yet I revere it.

That’s how I know the Gods exist and why I revere them — from having felt their power, over and over.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.28 (trans. Hays)

There are at least two noteworthy things here. First, and most apparently, we see the deep and genuine piety of this Stoic thinker and ruler of the known world, expressed eloquently and movingly. Put this passage alongside others from the Meditations, including the beautiful words of thanks in book I, and we see beyond a shadow of a doubt that for Marcus, the Gods are real, powerful, active presences in his life.

Second, and more subtly, in the analogy to the human soul, we see the Stoic doctrine of the subtle fire which animates all of the more gross matter in the cosmos. On this view, the human soul is supposed to be sure a fire, permeating the body, giving it vitality and motion. When that fire goes out, the body is dead, meaning that it is no longer self-maintaining, no longer an organic unity. Likewise, at the level of the cosmos as a whole, it is the creative fire of divine intellect—so frequently identified by the Stoic philosophers with Zeus himself—which animates and brings to perfection the entire order of the universe, which is likewise a perfect unity. Marcus’ answers, then, are not mere arbitrary comparisons, for which others might just as well be substituted, but are rooted in a core doctrine of Stoic metaphysics.

It’s not my preferred mode of doing metaphysics. I tend toward a bit more transcendence, and I’m less eager to shoehorn all of what’s real into what’s material. Nonetheless, I can appreciate both the general Stoic approach, and the way in which that approach can ground a deep and genuine piety.

Proclus: The Goodness of the Daimones

In §17 of the De Malorum Subsistentia (“On the Existence of Evils”), Proclus explains why there is no evil in the daimones. Here, Proclus is working his way down the metaphysical hierarchy, from the Gods, through angeloi, daimones, heroes, various classes of souls, and finally to matter, looking to see at what point evil could possibly enter into things.

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