A magical mystagogue

January 30, 1998

After 800 years Plato's philosophy was still at the centre of Greek intellectual life. Plato's Academy, together with other schools of Athens, had been wrecked in 86 bc by the vicious Roman dictator Cornelius Sulla. The academy in which Proclus taught in the 5th century AD claimed to be its successor. Lucas Siorvanes's book is a comprehensive study of this erudite neo-Platonist who came towards the end of a philosophical tradition that included such notable predecessors as Plotinus and Iamblichus.

Proclus was born in Byzantium in ad 411-12. He did not follow his father's profession of law. In Alexandria, and in Athens, he was an outstanding student of philosophy and rhetoric. He was only 25 when he was appointed head of the academy in Athens, following Syrianus. So he remained for 50 years, until his death. Apparently, he filled nearly every waking hour with teaching, writing, and worship of the ancient gods. In ad 529, only a few decades after Proclus's death, Justinian finally closed the philosophy schools of Athens.

The first few centuries of the Roman empire saw a revival of classical Greek culture, in literary style and in Platonism and neo-Pythagoreanism. Plato's texts were available, but Pythagoras had committed nothing important to writing. His latter-day followers incurred Roman dislike of secret societies and mystery cults. We may or may not agree with Bertrand Russell's quip that Pythagoras was a mixture of Einstein and Mrs Eddy. We are certain that Plato was a philosopher. Russell himself, for a portion of his life, confessed to Platonism. So did Kurt Godel, as do some modern physicists. Unease persists about the status of logical and mathematical relations and the nature of what is usually called matter. Like Socrates and Plato centuries earlier, the neo-Platonising Greeks longed to grasp unshakable reality behind fluid phenomena, unity underwriting the world's multiplicity, universals with clearly cognised causal relationship to particulars. Plato's life-long efforts to establish a theory of knowledge by which such philosophical objectives could be achieved have reserved his place as an important philosopher. He failed. At last he said that realities can only be grasped intuitively, with the enthusiastic aid of colleagues. It is a short step from intuition to faith. Proclus elevates intuition as the supreme mode of knowing. He does not believe we can acquire real knowledge by structured, discursive, analytical modes of cognition. Immediate apprehension of the gods in dreams and other non-rational communications does not collide disastrously with such a theory of knowledge. Proclus had such experiences. He practised theurgy, a white magic, to secure divine cooperation. Theology in his Elements of Theology and Platonic Theology means "first philosophy". His reputation as a mystical thinker has followed him down the ages, often belittling his status. Proclus's loyalty to the old Greek pantheon seems to have exposed him to negative discrimination by the Christian establishment. Lucas Siovranes emphasises the philosophical and scientific aspects of Proclus's thought, drawing attention away from his mystagogic repute.

Proclus was a copious writer, but not an original thinker in philosophy. He probably would have placed more value on truth than novelty. No doubt he was a great teacher. Much of his surviving work is commentary on Plato: on the Parmenides, the Cratylus,Timaeus, Alcibiades, and Republic. Like other neo-Platonists, he wrestled heroically with the core metaphysical problem: how can pure being connect causally or cognitively with variously impure objects? Well, the suggestion is that if you have a One/Good of such refined metaphysical status that it lies beyond existence and is antecedent to eternity and cannot come into causal relationship (or any other) with anything whatsoever, you have to invent a more amenable first cause or causes which can do the job. This the neo-Platonists did. Without diluting their essence, causes could advance into existence, casting their creative light upon things caused that themselves were ontologically responsive to their causes. I forgo the technical terms, which are all elegantly laid out by Siovranes. In physical theory Proclus vigorously defended Plato's view against that of Aristotle. The triangulate "atoms" of the Timaeus, unlike the random particles of Democritus, allow rational transition from a sub-particulate immateriality to the world of phenomena. Following Plato's arguments, Proclus is enabled to regard space as invisible light untainted by materiality but yet in some sense material in that it has to contain things: also a fundamental element such as fire has not in its real state the attribute of heat that it acquires at a bodily level. His extensions of Plato have many such interesting insights. His knowledge of Hellenistic astronomy was extensive, and his arguments against nutation and precession, phenomena long understood and accepted by the Greeks, illustrate both his acuteness and his eccentricity.

Students of later Greek philosophy will welcome this book. Its style is clear, but without concessions. It will remain an important work for a considerable time.

David Rankin is emeritus professor of ancient philosophy, University of Southampton.

Proclus: Neo-Platonic Philosophy and Science

Author - Lucas Siovranes
ISBN - 0 7486 70768 4
Publisher - Edinburgh University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 340

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