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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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.”

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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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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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Choosing our Relations: Simplicius on Friendship

One of our most useful texts on Neoplatonist ethics is a commentary on the Handbook of Epictetus, written by Simplicius, one of the last Athenian Platonists, who was exiled together with Damascius and the other philosophers in 529.

Commenting on §30 of the Handbook, in which Epictetus explains how “the appropriate actions for us to do are usually measured out for us by our relations,” Simplicius offers a framework for classifying relations, and an extended discussion of friendship, as situated within that framework. It’s worth noting that Epictetus himself doesn’t mention friendship at all within §30. For Epictetus, this section deals with how to correctly apply our power of choice (prohairesis) to “natural” relations between human beings. §31 of the Handbook deals with our relations to the Gods, and only in §32 (in the context of the appropriate use of divination!) does Epictetus himself get around to mentioning friendship.

Simplicius classifies relations along three axes:

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