Wednesday, July 31, 2013

New Book Announcement - The Song of Proclus

Prometheus Trust has released a new compendium of writings from Proclus, titled "The Song of Proclus".  Here is the description from the publisher:

The Song of Proclus - Adapted by Guy Wyndham-Jones - Like A Casting of Light.  This little book presents a number of passages from Proclus arranged in verse form: the effect is both striking and inspiring. The voice is our native instrument of music, whether the vocal or the written word; both, when genuine, are the song of soul, and together they voice the soul’s music.  The numerous offerings in this little book will present you with a flavour of both the nature and scope of the beautiful vision of Proclus, the extraordinary lover of wisdom; and they will illustrate the music of philosophy, to be found within the prose of the philosophers of the Platonic tradition. Together they represent the Song of Proclus; and each piece is a meditation in itself.

This volume is available from the Prometheus Trust (in the U.K.) or from Openingmind Associates (in the U.S.A.).  It is also available on Amazon.  I do not have a copy of the book yet, but will post a review once I explore its contents.  From the description, it sure looks like it will be an inspiring piece!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Syrianus on Theorems, Proofs, and Imagination in Geometry

The Neoplatonist Syrianus was well-known as the teacher of Proclus, and while the latter is perhaps more famous for having produced a greater literary output, he is consistent in his writings for awarding due credit to his great teacher.  We have very little of Syrianus' original writings that have come down to us-- basically all that remains is two commentaries on Aristotle's Metaphysics, one is on books 3-4 and the other is on books 13-14.  It is in books 13-14 that Aristotle takes a strong position against the Pythagorean and Platonic theories of mathematical Forms, and Syrianus finds opportunity to set the record straight about these doctrines.

I shall not try to summarize these commentaries in this post, merely to mention that they are valuable and worth studying in the context of mathesis, and to post insightful quotations to generate interest in these texts.  The two extant commentaries have recently been translated by Dillon and O'Meara and are available through Cornell University Press.

There is a very insightful passage from the commentary on books 13-14, discussing the significance of the use of diagrams in geometrical proofs.  It is a good example of the Platonist doctrine that mathematical theorems reside in the soul, but that the soul develops these reason-principles (logoi) through discursive thinking (dianoia) and projects them onto the screen of imagination.  If drawn diagrams are used, it is only to assist the soul in grasping the primary Forms.

Geometry aims to contemplate the actual partless reason-principles of the soul, but, being too feeble to employ intellections free of images (aphantastoi), it extends its powers to imagined and extended shapes and magnitudes, and thus contemplates in them these former entities.  Just as, when even the imagination does not suffice for it, it resorts to the reckoning-board (abakion), and there makes a drawing of a theorem, and in that situation its primary object is certainly not to grasp the sensible and external diagram, but rather the internal, imagined one, of which the external one is a soulless imitation; so also when it directs itself to the object of imagination, it is not concerned with it in a primary way, but it is only because through weakness of intellection it is unable to grasp the Form which transcends imagination that it studies at this imaginative level.  And the most powerful indication of this is that, whereas the proof is of the universal, every object of imagination is particular (merikon); therefore the primary concern was never with the object of imagination, but rather with the universal and absolutely immaterial.

There is much that is worthy of contemplation in this thought, especially regarding the meaning of mathesis.  The goal of mathesis is to be able to perceive and work with the reason-principles of the soul, and thereby gain a measure of self-knowledge that could not be attained otherwise.  When study geometry in the Platonic fashion, we are not primarily concerned with producing a body of theorems in the way modern mathematical research proceeds, but we care much more about being able to look into the depths of our own souls and find out more of who we are on the inside.  Syrianus' student Proclus wrote that the imagination was like a mirror into which we can perceive the contents of the soul, and this is done through geometrical study in the fashion described here by Syrianus and elsewhere by Proclus, especially in his Commentary on the First Book of Euclid's Elements, where he writes:

In the same way, when the soul is looking outside herself at the imagination, seeing the figures depicted there and being struck by their beauty and orderedness, she is admiring her own ideas from which they are derived; and though she adores their beauty, she dismisses it as something reflected and seeks her own beauty.  She wants to penetrate within herself to see the circle and the triangle there, all things without parts and all in one another, to become one with what she sees and enfold their plurality, to behold the secret and ineffable figures in the inaccessible places and shrines of the gods, to uncover the unadorned divine beauty and see the circle more partless than any center, the triangle without extension, and every other object of knowledge that has regained unity.

Books mentioned in this article:

Thursday, August 2, 2012

New Book Announcement - Fragments of Numenius

The Prometheus Trust has just announced the new release of volume 08 in their Platonic Texts and Translations series.  The book is titled Fragments of Numenius of Apamea and is translated by Robert Petty which includes his own commentary on the fragments as well.  Here is the description of the book from the Prometheus Trust page:

Numenius of Apamea was, according to John Dillon, the “most fascinating figure in second-century philosophy” and an important forerunner of what is commonly known as neoplatonism - so much so that at one point Plotinus was accused of merely appropriating Numenius’ ideas. Unfortunately none of his works survive intact, so his full influence upon the development of Platonism must remain largely a matter of conjecture.

Here, for the first time in English are the extant fragements of Numenius presented with a detailed commentary. The text followed here is that established by Des Places in his Budé edition. The translation includes all fragments, but the commentary deals only with those fragments which are directly related to Numenius’ own philosophy.
The Prometheus Trust is well known as the publisher of the complete works of Thomas Taylor and is based in the U.K.   Their books are available in the U.S. through Opening Mind Associates.

Fragments of Numenius of Apamea can also be purchased on through the following link:

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Lost Works of Proclus

The most comprehensive list of Proclus' known original works is contained in the third chapter of Laurence Jay Rosán's text The Philosophy of Proclus - The Final Phase of Ancient Thought.  Out of the 45 items listed, only 28 are extant, the fact that the lost ones did exist at one point is inferred either from Proclus' own other writings, the vita by Marinus, later commentators such as Simplicius, or the Suda.  To say that Proclus was a prolific writer is a vast understatement, as the Proclean Corpus, the term Rosán uses, constituted a veritable encyclopedia of Hellenistic learning.  The following passage from Proclus' biographer Marinus has been cited many times as a testament to Proclus' enthusiasm for the written word:

He had an unbounded love of work; sometimes he would teach five or more classes a day, write on the average about seven hundred lines of prose, visit with other philosophers and then in the evening give lectures that were not based on any text; in addition to all this he would sleeplessly worship the gods every night, and bow in prayer to the sun when it arose, at midday and when it set.
This of course begs the question: what happened to the lost works of Proclus?  How were they lost?  Let's take into consideration that he was the head of the Academy in Athens for almost fifty years and carried an enormous influence on leading thinkers of later generations.  Here is what Hegel says about Proclus in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy:

[...] in Proclus we have the culminating point of the Neo-Platonic philosophy; this method in philosophy is carried into later times, continuing even through the whole of the Middle Ages. […] Although the Neo-Platonic school ceased to exist outwardly, ideas of the Neo-Platonists, and specially the philosophy of Proclus, were long maintained and preserved in the Church.

One would think that with such enormous influence, his complete oeuvre would have a great desire to be preserved.  What happened to these lost works?  Here is the list of Proclus' writings that Rosán cites specifically as "lost":
  • On How to Live
  • Commentary on the Philebus
  • Commentary on the Theaetetus
  • Commentary on the Sophist
  • Commentary on the Phaedrus
  • Commentary on the Phaedo
  • Clarifying Investigation of Plato's Doctrines
  • On the Mother of the Gods
  • On the Theology of Orpheus
  • On the Agreement between Orpheus, Pythagoras, and Plato
  • On the Gods in Homer
  • Letter to Aristocles
  • Commentary on Homer
The discrepancy between the 13 listed here and the total of 45 accounted by Rosán is not clear.  It is probably due to other writings listed as "fragmentary".

It had been hard for me to believe that these texts were literally "lost" or simply forgotten due to neglect.  The problem of what happened to these lost writings has never been dealt with by scholars.  It would be a great treasure especially to have the lost commentaries on Plato.  This had been a great mystery to me for quite some time, until I started into Opsomer and Steel's translation of Proclus' On the Existence of Evils.  In the introduction there is a discussion of Proclus' other essay On Providence, where Proclus is refuting his friend Theodorus' position that "the good is what is pleasant for each individual" by stating that "I would be ashamed if, to a man who is my friend, I did not write clearly what I think, namely that such a view is unworthy of my choice of life and of my age."

Opsomer and Steel, commenting that not only is this a clear indication that the Tria Opuscula (three minor works) were written towards the end of his career, but also that Proclus obviously put more value in the immaterial goods of knowledge and virtue over material possessions.  Reading through the following passage on p. 3, which at first glance is not in any way related to the topic of this article, my eyes immediately lit up on the bodface section:

If a young man had indeed formulated such a hedonistic view, Proclus would not have been surpassed, for the young usually adhere to the opinions of the many.  But an old man who gives authority to the intellect should think differently.  The fact that Proclus considers this view as unworthy of his old age is adequate proof that this work-- and probably the two other treatises as well-- was written towards the end of his career.  In ch. 22 [of On Providence], the reader comes across a highly personal comment: Proclus alludes to a dramatic event in his life, whereby his house and its furniture were destroyed by fire.  But, as he confesses, this disaster damaged external goods only and could not take away the wisdom and calmness of his soul.  As L. Westerink has argues, Proclus is probably alluding to some religious persecution.  Maybe the destruction of the temple of Asclepius, which was adjacent to the school, caused serious damage to his private residence.  Or the event could have been related to the persecution that drove Proclus into exile in Asia.  This may be another indication for putting the composition of the treatises [the Tria Opuscula] on providence and evil in the later period of Proclus' life.

Now we can state what I conjecture with this article: that Proclus' "lost" works were not lost, but were destroyed in the fire.  Whether it was accidental or had something to do with the events Westerink refers to, can only be speculation.  Considering that everything had to be hand written in the manuscript form, it could be a miracle that we have any of Proclus' writings at all.  It all very well could have been destroyed in his house fire.  It seems unlikely that it was an act of vandalism related to Proclus' period of exile.  For why then do we still have so much that is extant?  Perhaps it was vandalism, and what remains was students' copies of his manuscripts.  This is all wholly speculative but also very interesting.

Library of Alexandira being burned

But what exactly does Proclus say in this passage from On Providence?  Here is the relevant text:

Let us, therefore, say farewell to those things to which we are attached and consider the strength of virtue and the fact that fate cannot do anything to us, but only to the things around us.  For also the accidents that, as you mentioned, recently came over us from outside, have only deprived us of walls and stones, my friend, and have reduced wooden beams to ashes, all of which are mortal and inflammable things, and have ruined our wealth: these are external things and for this reason may fall sometimes under the power of others.  But no one is so powerful as to be able to take away something of what depends on us, even if he had all human power.  For if we are self-controlled, we shall remain so when all these possessions have departed, and if we love contemplation of beings, we shall not be deprived of this disposition either.  And when those most terrible losses that you mention have occurred, we for our part will go on praising the rulers of all things and investigating the causes of events.

It may sound as if the reference to "walls and stones" and "wooden beams" would have to exclude the possibility that some of Proclus' manuscripts were destroyed in the fire.  But this is actually a reference to Plotinus' Ennead I 4: "If he thought that the ruin of his city were a great evil [...] there would be no virtue left in him if he thought that woods and stones, and the death of mortals, were unimportant."  If the fire had destroyed any manuscripts, it would have caused Proclus to feel that the true knowledge had not been lost.  The true knowledge subsists permanently in the world of real Being, and not in the form of a manuscript here in the world of Becoming, where everything is always changing and nothing lasts, according to his Platonic thinking.

Did the events of the house fire have something to do with the writing of the Tria Opuscula?  These three works, On Providence, Ten Problems on Providence, and On the Existence of Evils, have a very different style than that of the commentaries on Plato's dialogues or the geometrical style of the Elements of Theology.  Not only that, but their relatively short length us quite uncharacteristic of Proclus' usual fashion of writing treatises that run hundred and hundreds of pages.  The commentaries were meant to serve as instructional texts in Proclus' school, and had to conform to the metaphysics and theology of Plato.  In the Opuscula we find a very free form of discourse that can address a much larger philosophical audience than the elite members of the Academy.  Why did Proclus deviate from his usual style to write on these particular topics?

I think that Proclus commenced the writing of the Opuscula as a kind of retribution over the (conjectured) loss of his writings.  He is trying to resolve the conflict that he felt about what he clearly stated was an accident.  How could the fire, an act of fate, have taken place if there is providence?  The event did not get him down but only got him fired up (literally) with his passion for philosophy.  Were the questions dealt with in the Opuscula his way of coping with the sadness in his soul as a result of this loss?  The problems about providence, fate, and evil had already been thoroughly discussed in the Neoplatonic tradition.  Why the sudden shift away from metaphysics and theology to look at these again?

I will end with Proclus' words from the Opuscula as tantalizing clues in support of this thesis:

Although these problems have been discussed and examined a thousand times, my soul still wants to talk and hear about them, and return to herself, and wishes as it were to discuss with herself and not only receive arguments about them from the outside.

The Tria Opuscula have been recently translated into English and are available through Cornell University Press.  An older translation by Thomas Taylor, included in the volume Essays and Fragments of Proclus, is still valuable but more difficult to follow.

Books mentioned in this article:

Sunday, July 8, 2012

New Book Announcement - Iamblichus and the Foundations of Late Platonism

A new monograph has been released by Brill in their series Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism and the Platonic Tradition.  This is volume 13 in the series, titled Iamblichus and the Foundations of Late Platonism edited by Eugene Afonasin, John Dillon, and John F. Finamore copyright 2012.  It is a collection of 10 papers.

Here is the description of the book from the Brill website:

Iamblichus of Chalcis (c. 240-c. 325 C.E.), successor to Plotinus and Porphyry, gave new life to Neoplatonism with his many philosophical and religious refinements. Once regarded as a religio-magical quack, Iamblichus is now seen as a philosophical innovator who harmonized not only Platonic philosophy with religious ritual but also Platonism with the ancient philosophical and religious tradition. Building on recent scholarship on Iamblichean philosophy, the ten papers in this volume explore various aspects of Iamblichus' oeuvre. These papers help show that Iamblichus re-invented Neoplatonism and made it the major school of philosophy for centuries after his death.
I do not have a book review at this time.  I ordered my copy and am awaiting its arrival.  The book is available on Amazon and you may purchase it with the following link:

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Book Review - Proclus: An Introduction by Radek Chlup

Cambridge University Press recently released a new volume titled "Proclus: An Introduction" by Radek Chlup.  The book is an extremely valuable addition to the literature on Proclus and is a brilliant introduction to Proclus' philosophy.  I have written an extensive review of this text here:

The philosophy of Proclus has been a rather esoteric pursuit for quite some time.  Not so much because of the sheer magnitude of his body of written work, but more so due to the complexity of his thinking.  Add to this the relative intractability of previous general studies of Proclus, such as by Siorvanes and Rosán, and we see why such a great thinker has been neglected by all but the most dedicated.  Radek Chlup's text fills the void between specialists in late Platonic scholarship versus general philosophical readership.  We now have an accessible introduction to Proclus, which does a great service to help establish him as a colossal statue among the Greek masters.

To say that Proclus was a prolific writer is an understatement to the highest degree.  It boggles the mind how one man could have written as much as he did-- Rosán cites a total of 47 works, the lost titles gleaned from other writers or from Proclus himself.  His writings abound with profound depth and clarity, a corpus that touched every area of ancient learning to the point of constituting a veritable encyclopedia of Greek thought.  Although most of Proclus' original writings have been lost, the amount that survives could still keep one busy for a lifetime. 

While we do have the most important commentaries, on the Timaeus and the Parmenides, each of which run hundreds and hundreds of pages, divided into multiple books, what survives of these is still incomplete.  Luckily, enough remains to have a relatively complete perspective on Proclus' systematic philosophy.  We are very fortunate to have these available in English translation today.  The essays on the Republic are some of the last remaining works that have not been translated into English.  The Platonic Theology is available in English, but Thomas Taylor's 1816 translation is the only one available.  While it is charming to read, it is outdated and in need of a new translation.  Hopefully we will see the situation improve, as the appearance of Chlup's introduction should draw more scholarly attention to this situation. 

"Proclus: An Introduction" is divided into ten chapters, which serve as demarcations not only in Proclus' philosophical system but also map out the contents of Proclus' various written works.  Overall, the text functions marvelously as a study guide to Proclus.  While the whole of it can only scratch the surface of Proclus' system, it does manage to cover a lot of ground.  And while the reader will begin to see the overall contours and 'global topology' of his system, this can only be a coarse filtration; those who want the full details will have to consult the source works. 

One might begin to wonder: why worry about making such fine distinctions between levels of reality, and go through so much trouble mapping out the intricate dynamics between these levels?  We never get an answer from Proclus, but I feel he would have explained how more elaborate concepts lead to clearer perceptions.  This way of thinking makes us see more detail, and understand more of the whole at a deeper level.  In that sense, Proclus differs from Plotinus in that Plotinus just wanted to experience The One as a singularity, but Proclus also wanted to integrate the full spectrum of total reality into his core being.  And his writing is a legacy to show us how it can be accomplished.  But is it worth all this difficulty?  Consider these words from Proclus' Commentary on the Parmenides:

"The man who genuinely loves knowledge does not shrink from the labor involved; the more difficult a matter is to learn, so much the more eagerly does he pursue it, not trying to evade hardships. But an inferior and unqualified student, when he hears that a task is difficult, takes his leave of an inquiry that is not for him."

Following a first chapter on the historical context, the second chapter on metaphysics draws mainly from the Elements of Theology, and also some of the Parmenides commentary.  Beginning with The One and The Good, followed by a brilliant treatment of procession and reversion, we see how these doctrines apply to separate levels of reality, taking the shape of a four-fold breakdown into The One, Intellect, Soul and Body.  This vertical hierarchy is then developed with the ideas of participation, leading to  a seven-fold breakdown into The One, Being, Life, Intellect, Soul, Nature, and Body.  Chapter three looks at Proclus' concept of the henads and what this implies for a theological system for ranking the Gods, following the contents of the Platonic Theology

Then we come to how humans can come to know these levels of reality through a breakdown of how the soul can know.  Proclus was fond of using mathematics as a doorway into the divine realm, and Chlup does a good job explaining how the study of geometry integrates into Proclus' curriculum, drawing from material in the Euclid commentary and the Alcibiades commentary.  There is a whole chapter on Proclus' theurgy, emphasizing the role of vertical chains and the concept of sunthemata.  Never has this aspect of Proclus' system been so well treated, it could be worth the price of the book alone, especially along with the follow-up chapter on Proclus' views on inspired poetry and symbolic exegesis.

Chapter seven is an extensive treatment of the doctrine of evil, which comes from Proclus' essay On the Existence of Evils.  Chlup demonstrates its practical implications for ethics in the following chapter.  Finally there is a chapter on the holistic worldview of philosophy and religion in late antiquity, as well as the epilogue charting out Proclus' legacy.

The author does a good job of placing Proclus in historical context, and shows in many places where Proclus builds on the Neoplatonic tradition, namely Plotinus and Iamblichus.  Recent studies have shown where Proclus gives credit to his teacher Syrianus, but this topic is not dealt with in great detail by Chlup.  Some have thought that Proclus owes everything to Syrianus.  Even if one subscribes to this, Proclus has to be given great credit for unfolding Syrianus' doctrines with great precision, clarity and depth.

There are still many areas of Proclus' philosophy that do not get treated in the book, but that is in order to keep the text at an introductory level.  Students and scholars who want to dig deeper will find many specialist studies of particular facets of Proclus' thought, such as Proclus' hymns and their use in theurgy, or Proclus' views on nature and physics from the Timaeus commentary and the many studies in this area that have recently appeared.

An extremely valuable feature of this text are the visual aids and diagrams the author has constructed to chart out the metaphysics and levels of reality.  There are 15 of these that greatly assist in understanding.  These mostly appear in the chapter on metaphysics and come with headings such as "Multiple layers of procession and reversion", "Grades of causality", "The One and matter as causally interconnected", "General intellect in its self-reversion", "The hierarchy of participation", and "The hierarchy of henads".

This volume is an extremely valuable addition to the literature and will greatly assist those studying Proclus.  Hopefully we will see a more affordable paperback edition, but for serious students the cost is immaterial.  While Plotinus' Enneads have been thoroughly penetrated, few have had the patience and dedication to dive deep into Proclus' voluminous writings.  This book is a landmark in the study of Proclus and Neoplatonism in general.  It will go a long way in providing students of Platonic metaphysics with the keys to unlocking the mysteries of Proclus.
You can purchase the book with the following link:

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Video - Proclus - Hymn to The One

Here was a video I shot a few weeks ago where I recited Proclus' Hymn to The One.  I also gave a brief introduction to Proclus, so this is a great video to get started with.