James Lowry Proclus

This chapter is an examination of certain parts of the philosophy of Proclus. Its aim is to clarify in what manner Proclus is a systematic thinker. The notion of philosophical system which comes to mind from a contemporary standpoint is not the notion which Proclus had, and any interpretation of Proclus from a later standpoint is bound to fail. Proclus' notion of philosophical system, moreover, is important for the interpretation of all medieval philosophy, because the Greek Neoplatonic tradition of which he is a part contributed to the self-understanding of Medieval Jewish, Islamic, and Christian thinkers.1 His notion of philosophical system helps to clarify such medieval principles as the distinction between kataphatic and apophatic theology, the difference between human and divine knowing, and the analogy of Being. If we investigate Medieval philosophy with a conception of philosophical system drawn from a later period, these aspects of Medieval thought will remain closed to us.

The philosophy of Proclus is philosophy as system.2 The whole of Being, as well as what lies above and below Being, is articulated in determinate rational categories in his various works. The Cosmos which springs from the One, and unfolds into Nous (Intellect), Soul, and Material World is discussed in human terms in his commentaries on Plato's Cratylus, Alcibiades, Republic, Timaeus and Parmenides. Mathematical and physical being is discussed in his commentary on Euclid and his Elements of Physics. Providence, fate and evil are treated in three short works. And finally, we have two explicitly systematic works, the Elements of Theology and the Platonic Theology, the former of which lays out the structure of the cosmos from the One to the Soul, and the latter of which lays out the structure of the divine orders. The breadth of this corpus suggests that according to Proclus there is nothing which is not open to human thought.

We should find this systematic character of Proclus' thought puzzling. He thinks that a philosophical text is logos. It is the written expression of a human thinking which itself is also logos. And according to Proclus human thinking belongs in a middle register. It is dianoia, and dwells in the in-between. Although it is neither the infinite multiplicity of sensation, nor the pregnant unity of intellect, it is somehow still able to think both.3 And it does this without leaving aside the sort of thought which is specifically human. The soul comprehends the unity of intellect through its own dividing activity, and comprehends sensibles without entering into their sort of division (Proclus, In Euclidem 16). Consequently, if we are to understand Proclus' philosophy as a system which comprehends the entire cosmos, we must understand this comprehension in a manner which does not do away with the real otherness of the being and knowing which lies above and below the soul. This is the puzzle which we will investigate in this chapter.

James Lowry, in The Logical Principles of Proclus' Stoicheiosis Theologike as Systematic Ground of the Cosmos, leads us to believe that all is contained in principle in this one work of Proclus. The Elements of Theology, he tells us, seeks "to give a complete account of the ground and nature of phenomena and of the cause of those phenomena or of the nature of that ground" (Lowry 1980, 37). As a logic of remaining, proceeding, and returning, "its formal structure seeks to be a totality, to be self complete, to be fully comprehensive of all phenomenal possibility as effect and of all ground of phenomena as cause" (Lowry 1980, 38). Unfortunately, according to Lowry, the Procline system in the Elements of Theology succumbs to an inner tension. Proclus' quantitative logic of unity and multiplicity is not adequate to its content as that which grounds the qualitative determinations of Being. Consequently, what is needed is a logic more adequate to its content; a first principle which is not beyond thought; indeed a first principle which is thought itself.4 Lowry's reading of Proclus is Hegelian. The Hegelian reading of Proclus seizes on the Elements of Theology and declares Proclus to be a systematic thinker in this sense, that he would consider his philosophy successful if it were able to give in a work like the Elements of Theology a complete account of the principles of the cosmos. But this focus on completion, even formal completion, is a misreading of Proclus. It ignores the fact that for Proclus philosophical system is expressed in dianoetic terms. Thus while Proclus is a systematic thinker, the terms in which his system is written themselves fall short of the reality which they seek to express. Moreover, because dianoia is a thinking which never has a complete grasp on its object, the Procline system must be considered to be in principle incomplete. I will argue for this account of philosophical system in Proclus in the rest of this chapter, through an examination of Eternity and Time in his philosophy.

However, as a preliminary taste of my conclusion, I ask the reader to reflect on the Procline corpus as I listed it above. If Proclus' philosophy were system as complete, why are there two systematic works? When in possession of the Elements of Theology, what need have we for the Platonic Theology, or vice versa? Lowry admits that the Platonic Theology complements the Elements of Theology, but says that "the Elements of Theology works out most fully the principles of the cosmos, while the Platonic Theology works out their elaboration in the fullest way. Together they give a complete exposition of the Procline philosophy. In fact, it should be said, in my opinion, that together they are the Procline philosophy" (Lowry 1980, 105). But there are discrepancies between the two works, and Lowry's account rests on his characterisation of the henads as the genera of Being.5 This is not only contrary to Proclus' explicit doctrine, it does not work as a reinterpretation of Proclus (Lowry 1980, 77). Further, why comment on Plato? With the embarrassing superabundance of riches embodied in not one, but two, 'complete' systems, the other works would have to be written off as merely opportunities for extended digression. Moreover, what is to be made of the tension between the accounts of human reason given in the Euclid commentary and the Parmenides commentary? If not in open conflict, there is certainly a marked difference in emphasis between the mathematical reason of the one, and the ultimate apophasis of the other. Proclus is not an exploratory thinker like Plotinus, who seems to have been torn between various accounts of the same phenomenon. Proclus' various works do not represent conflicting and competing attempts to articulate a system which would complete in the manner in which Lowry wants it to be. Rather, they are an embodiment of his conception of dianoia itself. Dianoia does know the truth of what exists, and it knows it through its own divided categories. But as dianoia is a dividing activity, its knowledge is itself divided. It is also partial, and this partiality arises because its circling activity around its unified object, which is Nous itself, is never complete. Consequently, we can think of the various works of Proclus as articulations of Nous from the various different but complementary perspectives which the soul assumes as it circles around the centre which is Nous. As the regions of Being can be infinitely plumbed by such a dividing thinking, we should expect works which have as their aim to plumb a particular region, such as the Alcibiades or Cratylus commentaries. As this circling, dividing, thinking activity is never complete on the psychic level, we should not attribute the sort of completion to it which Lowry seems to desire.

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