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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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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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.

Happy birthday, Proclus!

Today marks the 1,609th anniversary of the birth of that pious and brilliant philosopher, successor of Plato, Proclus.

A few fun things to honor the occasion:

“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.

Reading Proclus on Prayer

In the opening pages of book 2 of his commentary on the Timaeus, Proclus offers a discussion of prayer, that I’ve found helpful for refining my understanding.

As we might expect from Proclus, the discussion revolves around the doctrines of procession and reversion. The key principle is that everything that has being proceeds directly (i.e., in an unmediated way) from the Gods, and everything attains its proper excellence or completion when it reverts back upon its causes, which are the Gods. In prayer, we help to accomplish this reversion, both for ourselves and for the lower things in the cosmos, elevating ourselves (as the ones praying) and those things for which we pray.

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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)

On the Nativity of Proclus

Hail honored successor, divine Plato’s heir,
Philosopher Proclus, in virtue most fair.

When you first came to Athens in search of the truth,
You showed reverence and piety far beyond other youth.

You welcomed Athene into your own home
When the impious mob cast Her out of Her own.

Ever pious, you kept all the nations’ great rites,
A priest for all peoples, inspired and wise.

You expounded the doctrine of unity found
Beyond being itself, being’s own source and ground.

You carried the torch, tending Wisdom’s bright flame,
While outside, gathering darkness told the end of an age.

So we honor you, Proclus, this day of your birth:
Theologian, philosopher, man of great worth.

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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