Philo
Sophos
·org

philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy



PhiloSophos knowledge base

Philosophical Connections

Pathways to Philosophy programs

University of London BA

Pathways web sites

Philosophy lovers gallery

GVKlempner: complete videos

PhiloSophos home

Pathways to Philosophy

Philosophical Connections

Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


PROCLUS

(c. 410 — 485)

 

NEOPLATONISM

The last major Neoplatonist of antiquity, Proclus was born in Constantinople and studied philosophy in Athens. He subsequently lived a disciplined and meditative life as a teacher, writer, and head of the Athenian School of Neoplatonism.

 

METAPHYSICS/ RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY

[1] The central principle of Proclus's system is that of the One — the First Cause (arche), the primary principle and Absolute Good and Beauty which for religious purposes could be equated with God [a]. However, he denies that we can have any positive knowledge of the One; we can predicate qualities of it only negatively [b]. Although the One is regarded as the source of all individual beings, Proclus thinks of the primary being as unchanging. To reconcile change and permanence, identity and difference, unity and multiplicity he introduces the concept of a triadic development (the hypostases) of individual beings [see, for example, Platonic Theology, II, 4] [c]. (1) Effects are said to remain in the primary principle (nome) and thus far are partially identical with it and it with them. (2) By virtue of the eternal procession (proodos) or emanation [d] lower orders of beings are different from the real One. (3) Individual beings, however, 'turn back' (the epistrophe) towards the One as ultimate source in so far as they possess a natural tendency to seek the Good [e][e]. These two processes, the one fragmenting the other unifying, are thus complementary. And throughout this emanation the One suffers no diminution [Elements 27]. The cosmos as a whole is thus essentially immaterial and mental [f] for Proclus.

[2] The procession of being from the One to the many is also described by Proclus in terms of a continuous hierarchy of ever more inferior stages [a]. From the superior One emanates the 'units' (henades), which can be understood metaphysically as superessences, theologically as 'gods', and ethically as exemplifications of goodness. The units produce the realm of Nous [b] — divisible into the spheres of Being, Life, and Thought, each of which admits of further subdivision [III, 14]. From Nous proceeds the Soul. This contains the three spheres of divine, 'demonic', and human souls (psuche). Proclus thinks of the Soul as both mirroring the supersensible realm and (as World-Soul) acting as a model for the sensory realm [c] — the world itself, which he regards as a living creature guided by the divine soul. He identifies the One with Reality and as the universal consciousness or Mind [d]. It follows that all things emanating or processing from it are decreasingly real and increasingly appearance according to the degree they have fallen away from the One [e], terminating in the ephemeral and discrete thoughts and sensations constituting individual human minds. Humans as appearances exist in the One and know it, though only in a limited way. Each consciousness is reflected in and partially known in every other [f]. As he says, "All things are in all things in their appropriate manner" [Elements, 103]. To explain the continuous emanation from the One down through the multiple levels, Proclus introduces the concepts or ontological principles of power (or capacity) and activity. Each partial reality possesses (implicitly) power to 'cause' ('below' it) and (as effect) to be caused by and to 'return' to the reality 'above' it [g]. But between each of two such realities there is also a third which is the activity (process or possibility) of the first and which possesses its own power. As for the one Reality itself, since it is beyond description it cannot be said to 'have' a power. Its reality and power are therefore only successive, that is, distinct from it as respectively (a) definiteness, and (b) infinity.

[3] The plurality of things emanating from the One are relatively imperfect or 'evil' to the degree they have 'fallen away'. In his account of this Proclus postulates (1) 'unpossessed' perfect characteristics or qualities; (2) imperfect characteristics caused by (1); and (3) individual instances caused by (2). The One itself, considered from the first aspect, is the perfect form of unity, and yet is also the totality of 'possessed' imperfect things in the universe considered as its final effect [Platonic Theology I, 17] [a].

 

ETHICS/ KNOWLEDGE

[4] [See, for example, Platonic Theology IV.] The One being the Good, Proclus argues that humans should attempt to return to it [a][a]. This can be achieved by living ascetically, removing oneself as far as possible from the ephemeral — appearances, social distinctions, and so on, and by cultivating one's reason. By virtue of its possession of a semi-spiritual 'body' Proclus calls 'light [b] the soul can apprehend the various hierarchical manifestations ('theophanies') of the One [c] as it passes through three stages in its ascent: (1) love of Beauty (eros); (2) Truth, which provides the soul with knowledge of reality — the eternal verities Mind, Power, and Being; and (3) Faith, a 'faculty' possessed innately by some people which enables them to intuit their own unity and thence to 'jump' to a mystical 'intuition' of perfect Unity [d].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

The significance of Proclus's philosophy lies in his skilful synthesis of a wide range of features drawn from the thought of Plato and Aristotle, Neoplatonism, and Greek superstition and religious belief to produce a detailed and subtle system which was to provide a bridge between post-Aristotelian philosophy and early mediaeval thought. Some of the key features are: the triadic development of a hierarchy of beings from the One; an emphasis on their objective reality, albeit in varying degrees, down to individual thoughts and sensations; and the concepts of 'power' and 'activity', with the aid of which he, arguably, reconciles Plotinian monism with pluralism. But despite his dialectical skill there are clearly difficulties in many areas of his philosophy. In particular one might note the following.

(1) There is an unresolved tension in his account of the relationships between the created world and the One. More analysis is needed of (a) how it can be conceived to be both identical with and yet different from the One, and (b) how the primary cause is supposed to suffer no diminution, dilution, or alteration when the created world emanates from it.

(2) Proclus's concept of hierarchy would seem to require an infinity of gradations or levels of being. Why, it may be asked, should there not be yet further intermediaries between, say, nous and Soul, Soul and world, or between 'activities' understood as realities existing between yet belonging to the 'higher' of two other realities?

(3) He argues that knowledge and predication can be understood only negatively of the One, but he allows a mystical apprehension or 'knowledge' via Truth and Faith. It is questionable whether this is completely consistent. Arguably it was only with the emergence of scholastic philosophy that the distinctions between these concepts came to be explored adequately. This should not of course detract from the importance of Proclus's speculations.

 

READING

Proclus: especially Elements of Theology, trans. and edited with introduction by E. R. Dodds, and The Platonic Theology, trans. T. Taylor.

General

J. Dillon, The Middle Platonists, or

R. Wallis, The Neoplatonists.

Study

L. J. Rosan, The Philosophy of Proclus.

 

CONNECTIONS

Proclus

 

[1a e 4a]

The One — First Cause, Absolute Good and Beauty: God

   Plato

   Plotinus

Ps-Dionysius

[3a 4a]

[1a b]

[1a]

 

[1b] The One and predication/ description

   Plotinus

Ps-Dionysius

Nicholas of Cusa

[1b]

[1b]

[1b]

 

[1c-e] Unity & multiplicity; change and permanence; the triadic development: primary principle, emanation/ procession; turning back to One

   Plato

   Plotinus

Ps-Dionysius

Nicholas of Cusa

[1c 2c 3a]

[1c 1d]

[1c 1d 1f]

[2c e]

 

[2a b] Hierarchy: One→ units→ Nous→ Soul

   Plato

   Plotinus

Ps-Dionysius

Nicholas of Cusa

   Leibniz

[2c 3a 5f]

[1c-l]

[1e]

[2f]

[2a]

 

[1f 2d] The cosmos as immaterial reality/ One, universal mind (idealism)

   Plato

   Plotinus

[5c]

[1l]

 

[2c] Soul→ sensory realm (model and mirror); World-Soul & individual souls

   Plato

Plotinus

Nicholas of Cusa

[5f]

[1f i 1j]

[2h 2i]

 

[2e] Degrees of reality and appearance

   Plato

   Plotinus

[2a]

[1d]

 

[2f] 'All in all'; mutual reflection of individual consciousnesses in God

   Anaxagoras

Ps-Dionysius

Nicholas of Cusa

[1e]

[1d]

[2h]

 

[2g] Cause: principles of 'power' and 'activity'    Leibniz [2d]

 

[3a] Imperfection/ evil

   Plato

   Plotinus

Ps-Dionysius

[9e 13a]

[1m 1n]

[1g]

 

[4a] 'Turning back' to the One

   Plato

Ps-Dionysius

[8b]

[1f]

 

[4b] Soul possesses 'light', apprehends the 'theophanies'    Plotinus [1d]

 

[4c] Ascent to the One; Beauty, Truth

   Plato

   Plotinus

[4b 15b]

[3a b]

 

[4d] Faith (and 'intuition')→ mystical 'intuition' of the One

   Plato

   Plotinus

[8b]

[3b]