Friday, March 16, 2018


David D. Butorac, Danielle A. Layne (ed.), Proclus and his Legacy. Millenium-Studien / Millennium studies, 65. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2017. Pp. x, 456. ISBN 9783110466997. $168.00.

Reviewed by Lloyd P. Gerson, University of Toronto (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Recent work on Proclus (412-485 C.E.) makes increasingly evident the centrality of his role in the history of philosophy. In this regard, mention should be made especially of recent work, including Radek Chlup's monograph Proclus. An Introduction (Cambridge, 2012), Interpreting Proclus. From Antiquity to the Renaissance, edited by Stephen Gersh (Cambridge, 2014), and All From One. A Guide to Proclus, edited by Pieter d'Hoine and Marije Martijn (Oxford, 2017). There are also new editions of Proclus' Commentary on Plato's Parmenides and a new translation (for the first time in English) of his massive and extremely important Commentary on Plato's Timaeus, and in the offing of his sadly neglected Commentary on Plato's Republic. Revealed in all these works, along with a steady stream of articles, is Proclus as the last great consolidator of ancient Platonism and its "face" as philosophy shifted into a Christian, and later Islamic, context. If, as Proclus himself thought, Plotinus was the greatest expositor of the Platonic revelation, Proclus was the supreme systematizer of that revelation. It was through Proclus and definitely not through Plotinus that the principal philosophical school of antiquity was "received." It was Proclus, above all others, whose systematic expression of Platonism was found to be most apt for theological re-purposing.

The present collection of essays, immense in scope, and the fruit of a conference in Istanbul in 2012 celebrating the 1600th anniversary of the birth of Proclus, gives us a taste of exactly how broad the influence of Proclus was. I cannot here in my allotted space even begin to articulate all the issues and arguments in the essays covering more than a thousand years of philosophy in multiple countries and languages. And I am certainly not competent to render a judgment on most of the sometimes bold interpretations offered, especially regarding authors who are barely more than names to me. I shall rather pick out a few central themes, adumbrated in several articles, and mention what seem to me to be some exciting new lines of investigation.

When Proclus was teaching and writing in Athens in the middle of the 5th century C.E., it was already evident that pagan Platonism was waning and soon would be swallowed up by Christianity. The first division of this book sets the context for the major encounters of thinkers within the Abrahamic tradition and the Platonism of Proclus. Since the collection is primarily focused on the reception of Proclus, only various elements of that system are directly treated, including bodies, time, and the nature of knowledge. I found particularly stimulating the essays by Tarrant, Ramelli, and Luz, and for similar reasons. Tarrant traces the gradual displacement of Plato's Parmenides by his Timaeus among the students of Proclus (both pagan and Christian) as the central Platonic theological work. Proclus himself, guided by his teacher Syrianus, thought it was the former dialogue which contained the theological secrets of Plato. The crucial underlying motive for the shift in emphasis was, of course, that an impersonal "One" as found in Parmenides did not resonate for those steeped in the tradition of a personal deity as did the Demiurge of Timaeus. In Ramelli's essay, she compares the Christian idea of apokatastasis ("restoration") as found in Origen and others with the Procline idea of epistrophē ("reversion"). The idea of reversion along with the ideas of monē ("remaining") and proodos ("procession"), make an interlocking triad, constituting the central dynamic principle of the Platonic architectonic. What sets the Christian idea of restoration as a final reconciliation with God apart is the essential linearity of the Christian vision. By contrast, the Platonic dynamic is eternal or at least everlasting. Ramelli gives us a rich array of texts enabling us to see how the transformation is made. And the essay by Luz recounts what is apparently the lone conversion from an Abrahamic religion to paganism, that of Proclus' biographer and student, Marinus, who was a Samaritan, but found his native religion too lax for his taste. Luz reminds us that in the encounter of Hellenism and Christianity, the appropriation was not entirely one-sided.

The second division of the collection is devoted to Ps.-Dionysius (c. 500 C.E.) and later Eastern Christian encounters with Proclus. In all likelihood, Ps.-Dionysius was a Christian pupil of Proclus. He is today, despite the undeniable falsity of the claim that he was the first convert of the Apostle Paul, still a saint in the Orthodox Church. The Corpus Areopagiticum is a remarkably rich collection of treatises that appear to take Procline metaphysics as providing the philosophical architecture for a Christian edifice. Lankila constructs a tantalizing, though not persuasive, argument to the effect that in fact the treatises may be a pagan attempt to conceal Proclus inside a Christian cloak in order that his metaphysics would not be lost. Mainoldi's paper focuses on the central problem: how to assimilate the Neoplatonic first principle of all, the absolutely simple One, to a scripturally based conception of God. He argues that one of the main moves made by Ps.-Dionysius is to assimilate Proclus' henads to properties of the divinity of scripture. The implicit response to the postulating of an impersonal first principle of all is a kind of tu quoque addressed to Proclus, who locates multiple divinities above the level of composite being. Mainoldi adds that it is probably Damascius, the last scholarch of the Platonic Academy, who is the specific target of Ps.-Dionysius' Christianized metaphysics because it is Damascius' radical apophaticism in regard to the first principle of all that Ps.-Dionysius is most keen to counter. A paper by Robinson on a philosopher hitherto unknown to me, Nicholas of Methone (mid-12th century), recounts his Christian objections to Ps.-Dionysius. The principal objection is that Ps.-Dionysius' effort to retain the radical simplicity of the first principle of all is in direct contradiction to the doctrine of the Trinity. A second related objection is that Ps.-Dionysius retains a Procline account of emanation from the first principle rather than an authentic Christian account of creation. The paper shows in fine-grained detail the struggle of Nicholas to amalgamate philosophy and theology.

The last division of the book includes material covering Arabic, Jewish, Renaissance, and Elizabethan "receptors" of Proclus. The paper by Riggs explores the Arabic book known by its Latin translation, Liber de Causis, a sort of epitome of Proclus' Elements of Theology. The aim of the epitome was evidently to Islamicize Proclus analogously to the way that Ps.-Dionysius aimed to Christianize him. In the case of the Liber de Causis this is done not so much by providing scripturally sanctioned analogues for Procline principles—angels for henads, say—but rather by reconsidering the philosophical basis for the non-sanctioned Procline conclusions. For example, henads are eliminated altogether. Riggs helpfully engages with this dispute at a philosophical level, arguing that the purpose of henads was to account for individuation, whereas the Liber has lost the ability to do this. What might otherwise be taken as a defect in the plan of the Liber is turned into a strength by Al-Fārābī who argues for the unity of all intellects in separation from the body. One of the most consequential of Proclus' doctrines for those trying to graft him onto a scriptural body was that of the eternity of the world. More exactly, the arguments Proclus provided were for the everlastingness of the sensible world as a product of the divine eternal or atemporal universe. John Philoponus (c. 490-570) wrote a lengthy treatise, De aeternitate mundi contra Proclum, arguing for temporal creation by God. This debate was taken up by Islamic, Jewish, and Christian philosophers. The debate has a scope much broader than that of the question of whether the cosmos had a temporal beginning or not. It concerns the nature of divinity, being, modality, and the relative autonomy of the sciences. There are two interesting papers here on Al-Šharistānī (c. 1120-1188), who wrote a book, The Sophisms of Proclus on the Eternity of the World. The paper by Chase clearly sets forth the argumentative strategy of Šharistānī, which is to show that, without creation in time, the unique dominance of God is lost. Chase provides a clear and concise history of Timaeus interpretation about divine production of the cosmos, leading to the conclusion that a pivotal role was played by Porphyry in its transmission, which he then traces on through Proclus, Philoponus, and the rather obscure path to Šharistānī, whose arguments were evidently of great influence in later Islamic thought. The companion paper minutely examines relevant passages in the works of Šharistānī and shows that they are derived from the work of Philoponus whose influence both on Muslim theologians and philosophers was immense. Finally, I mention the paper by Steiris which considers the writings of the learned prodigy Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), the preeminent "harmonizer" of the Renaissance. Not only did he aim to show that Aristotle's philosophy was in harmony with that of Plato, but that Platonism —especially the Platonism of Proclus—was compatible with Christianity and, indeed, that all the major philosophical and theological traditions were in harmony. This included the doctrine of the eternity of the world and the omnipotence of God. As Steiris shows, this was a task that Pico, despite his praeternatural learning, was not quite up to.

On balance, there is something in this volume for anyone with more than a passing interest in Proclus and the connection between the ancient philosophical period and its successors. I would add that contemporary Platonism, whether theological or non-theological, as is found, say, in the philosophy of mathematics, can only be enriched by realizing that Platonism is more than what we find in Plato's dialogues and that Proclus' contribution cannot be safely ignored.

Authors and titles

John Dillon, David Butorac, Danielle A. Layne, Introduction

I. Proclus in Context: Background, Relevance and System
Stephen Gersh, Proclus in the History of Philosophy: Construction and Deconstruction
Harold Tarrant, Forgetting Procline Theology: the Alexandrian Story
Dimitrios A. Vasilakis, Platonic Eros, Moral Egoism, and Proclus
Danielle A. Layne, The Platonic Hero
Helen S. Lang, The Status of Body in Proclus
Antonio Vargas, Proclus on Time and the Units of Time
Ilaria Ramelli, Proclus and Apokatastasis
David D. Butorac, Proclus' Aporetic Epistemology
Edward Watts, The Lycians are Coming: The Career of Patricius, the Father of Proclus
Menahem Luz, Marinus' Abrahamic Notions of the Soul and the One

II. Ps.-Dionysius, Byzantium and the Christian Inheritance of Proclus
Rebecca Coughlin, Spiritual Motion and the Incarnation in the Divine Names of Dionysius the Areopagite
Tuomo Lankika, A Crypto-Pagan Reading of the Figure of Hierotheus and the "Dormition" Passage in the Corpus Areopagiticum
Ben Schomakers, An Unknown Elements of Theology? On Proclus as the Model for the Hierotheos in the Dionysian Corpus
Ernesto Sergio Mainoldi, The Transfiguration of Proclus' Legacy: Pseudo-Dionysius and the Late Neoplatonic School of Athens
Sarah Klitenic Wear, Pseudo-Dionysius and Proclus on Parmenides 137d: On Parts and Wholes
Frederick Lauritzen, The Renaissance of Proclus in the Eleventh Century
Levan Gigineishvili, Proclus as a Biblical Exegete: Bible and its Platonic Interpretation in Ioane Petritsi's Commentaries
Joshua M. Robinson, Dionysius Against Proclus: The Apophatic Critique in Nicholas of Methone's Refutation of the Elements of Theology
Elias Tempelis and Christos Terezis, The Presence of Proclus in George Pachymeres' Paraphrase of Ps.-Dionysius' De Divinis Nominibus

III. Proclus in Arabic Philosophy and Early Modernity
Tim Riggs, On the absence of the Henads in the Liber de Causis: Some Consequences for Procline Subjectivity
Theodora Zampaki, Ibn al-Tayyib's Istithmār on Proclus' Commentary on the Pythagorean Golden Verses
Michael Chase, Al-Šahrastānī on Proclus
Elias Giannakis, Proclus' Argument on the Eternity of the World in al-Šhahrastānī's Works
Georgios Steiris, Proclus as a Source for Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's Arguments Emanatio and Creatio Ex Nihilo
Torrance Kirby, Aeternall Lawe: Richard Hooker's Neoplatonic Account of Law and Causality
Y.Tzvi Langermann, Proclus Revenant: The (Re-)Integration of Proclus into the Creationism-Eternalism Debate in Joseph Solomon Demedigo's (1591-1655) Novelet Hokhma
Marie-Élise Zovko, Understanding the Geometric Method: Prolegomena to a Study of Procline Influences in Spinoza as Mediated Through Abraham Cohen Herrera

1 comment:

  1. The new translation of Proclus' commentary on the Timaeus, though very welcome, is not the first into English. Thomas Taylor translated it as part of his programme of translating the Platonic legacy into English. His version was reissued in 1998.