Plenitude and the World of Becoming Proclus Simplicius

The question arises why this suspended, constant and eternal outflow from God—or, in truth, from the One, for the God of Avicenna is the God of the Neoplatonists. The answer, in short, is "Providence". The One is good by nature, and so its self-realization necessarily lies in the overflowing of being to its greatest possible extent. In Plotinus and in Neoplatonist thought ever onwards we find the idea of maximal creation revitalized: the principle of Plenitude in the sense Lovejoy deemed most central.38 Here we find the "great chain of being" which does not allow for a breach in its ever-established continuity: here also we find a view of necessitation established independently from any temporal considerations. This we can see from a brief look at Proclus' take on the infinite power problem.

In Proclus' view, a maximal creation must include the perishable but ever-persisting heavens. Paradoxical creatures, to say the least, on any statistical interpretation of perishability; but for Proclus this paradox is nothing reprehensible, but instead invites wonderment and reverence in the observer. What the heavens are is forever created, Proclus says: this makes them the most elevated of temporal existents, even as their existence never quite qualifies as true (immutable) Being. In consequence, the heavens can act as intermediaries between the ontologically fundamental Platonic domains of Being and Becoming. The heavens' perpetually receiving existence and motion is a show of supreme Divine liberality, as it is the perpetual rotations of the heavens that give rise to the infinite variegation of temporal existents, the penultimate manifestation of the infinite nature and power of the One.39

Why does the Demiurgical Cause create these lowly "beings" (to put the expression in the scare quotes it obviously deserves); why does it not content itself with the creation of true immutable Being and leave well enough alone? The answer again is "Providence", that is, divine Plenitude. The Demiurge would not and could not grudge even the lowliest creature that grade of realization which it is possible for it to attain: and so it reaches from true eternal Being into perpetual becoming, and from here on over into the shadowy realm of sometime existence and finally even to matter, which is nearest to pure non-existence. At every stage both the finitude and infinity of the ultimate reality are made manifest (as definite nature and indefinite potentiality, respectively):40 and if the resulting picture is still riddled with paradoxes, then these seem more a source of delight than bemusement for Proclus. After all, this is a mixed world, in which every conceivable mixture must be realized. Strict statistical Plenitude regarding the capabilities of natural existents is here undercut by a belief in a Plenitude of created creatures.

This is also apparent from how the notion of power is reworked in the Neoplatonic system.41 The constant outpouring of being into what is not as well as the contrasting of active powers with passive receptables are both cast in the Aristotelian language of interacting dynameis and energeiai even in the Plotinian original. In contradistinction to Aristotle, however, (divine infinite) potency now holds primacy over (limited created) actuality.42 All that exists relies constantly on the creative overflow of the Demiurge for its having existence as a unified whole. For Simplicius, Philoponus' 6th century opponent and defendant of Proclus' overall "Athenian" position this approach makes it possible to neatly sidestep Philoponus' whole problem. Contrary to the heavens' powers sometime running out, they can hardly be said to ever possess them in the first place. The heavens', and thereby the world's powers are indeed by definition finite, but this means only that they are made receptible to forever receive further existential force. The means as well as the justification for the gradation of the everywhere-reaching procession lies in the "adaptability" and "suitability" of each existent to receive its due measure of existence and all its goods.43 A broadening of the definition of "nature" provides Simplicius' defense of the Proclean interpretation against those (here, Alexander of Aphrodisias) who would claim that any natural perishability in the heavens must inevitably be realized:

Just as [the world] is created and finite in itself, so it is at the same time suited to receive eternity and perpetual motion. So it is not true without qualification even to say that it is perishable by its own nature. For its nature in its entirety is conceived together with its suitability (epitedeiotes) in its relation to the Creator, through whom it shares in eternal benefits.44

Although the quotation is from a commentary on the De Caelo we are a long way from Aristotle: witness the subtle shift from "imperishable without qualification" to "not perishable without qualification". The heavenly spheres' being perishable in potentia no longer equals their being sometime perishable in actu; instead, the modal status of an existent is determined by its place in the emanative chain. An eternal existent (in fact, every existent) has a twofold nature: taken in itself, it is non-existent, but seen as caused and created it is necessarily existent, when it is existent. There are enough similarities with Avicenna to suggest a deeper connection; I will not go into the matter here.

At any rate, the way Simplicius puts the alternatives comes astonishingly close to the way Averroes saw the problem much later. The formal judging of a thing's nature (lysis) envisioned and repudiated here corresponds to the Arabs' judging of things in their essence (dhat); and the way Simplicius protests against Alexander's simple naturalism mirrors the concerns of Averroes when the latter is confronted with Philoponus' argumentation from inevitable natures. Averroes could not bring himself to wholeheartedly endorse the emanative view of necessitation; for that, he was too deeply steeped in the statistical interpretative tradition. Thus in the Metaphysics commentary he reproduces faithfully Philoponus' denial of the eternal's being in any way possibly perishable. But Avicenna did endorse this possibility, and the way he did it introduced an until then unheard-of contingency into the eternal, a contingency which was to have far-reaching consequences in the interpretation of the modalities in later medieval philosophy.

The close affinities between Simplicius' and Averroes' reports lead us, finally, to a reassessment of Averroes' take on the infinite power argument. Averroes has generally received very poor marks for his treatment of Avicenna' modal philosophy, and with good reason. But even if Averroes did not do Avicenna's modal metaphysics adequate justice, he in his confusion took even better heed of the lessons to be gained from the infinite power argument's interpretation. No thinker was more obsessed with the interconnectedness of infinite power, necessity and eternity than Averroes was: and even if this lasting obsession did get the Commentator ever more tangled in a web largely of his own making,45 it also provided later medieval theory with ample materials for reflecting on the natures of natural and divine power, on createdness and contingency.

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